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Maiden v. Starr Indemnity & Liability Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 26, 2017




         Plaintiff Teresa Maiden's apartment was destroyed in a fire. She obtained a default judgment against her landlord, BOG, Inc., in state court. Because she believes that BOG's insurance provider is Starr Indemnity & Liability Company, she seeks to enforce the state court judgment against Starr Indemnity. Starr Indemnity, however, contends that it did not issue an insurance policy to BOG, and cannot be held liable on the state court judgment.

         Ms. Maiden seeks a declaratory judgment that Starr Indemnity was her landlord's insurance carrier at the time of the fire. Starr Indemnity moved to dismiss the complaint, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim, and alternatively moved for summary judgment. (Doc. 9). In support of its motion, it attached a copy of “the relevant insurance policy.” (Id. at 1 n.1). However, the attached policy was issued to an entity called Ruffner Mountain Management, LLC, (doc. 9-1), and not to BOG. Starr Indemnity contends that, because BOG is not the named insured in the Ruffner policy, the court must dismiss the complaint.

         This court issued an order denying without prejudice Starr Indemnity's motion for summary judgment and construing it as a motion to dismiss. (Doc. 10). In doing so, the court noted that the Ruffner policy was a document extrinsic to the pleadings, but found that it could consider the policy because it presumed that the Ruffner policy was the one to which the complaint referred (and thus, the policy was central to Ms. Maiden's claim) and Ms. Maiden did not dispute the contents of the policy. The court ordered briefing on Starr Indemnity's motion to dismiss. The parties have completed briefing and the court now has before it the motion to dismiss.

         For the following reasons, the court WILL VACATE its earlier order, WILL DENY Starr Indemnity's motion to dismiss, and WILL DENY WITHOUT PREJUDICE Starr Indemnity's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         At this stage, the court must accept as true the allegations in the complaint and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach Cty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012). Taken in that light, in 2013, Ms. Maiden was renting one of the apartments in the Westbury Apartments, located in Birmingham, Alabama. (Doc. 1-1 at 1-2). BOG was the Westbury Apartment's landlord, and BOG's principal officer was Melvin Cheatum. (Id. at 2). On May 4, 2013, a fire destroyed Ms. Maiden's apartment, and destroyed or damaged several others as well. (Id. at 2). Ms. Maiden and some other tenants filed an insurance claim with BOG's insurer, Cook Claim Services, Inc. (Id.).

         At some point-it is not clear when-Cook Claim Services notified Ms. Maiden's attorney that Starr Indemnity had “acquired” the claim and become the insurer. (Id.). Starr Indemnity, although it held itself out as BOG's insurer, did not accept liability, so Ms. Maiden and the other affected tenants sued BOG and Mr. Cheatum in state court. (Id.). They obtained a default judgment of $269, 737 against BOG. (Id.).

         Several months after the entry of the default judgment, Starr Indemnity sent Ms. Maiden's attorney a letter stating that BOG and Mr. Cheatum were not insureds under its policy, and that it was not required to pay the default judgment. (Id.). Ms. Maiden filed suit, seeking a declaratory judgment that Starr Indemnity and/or several fictitious defendants were her landlord's insurer “either directly or through another party.” (Id. at 3). Starr Indemnity moves to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. (Doc. 1 at 3; Doc. 9).


         a. Motion to Dismiss

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. “To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead ‘a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Butler, 685 F.3d at 1265 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). “Although analysis of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is limited primarily to the face of the complaint and attachments thereto, a court may consider documents attached to the motion to dismiss if they are referred to in the complaint and are central to the plaintiff's claim.” Starship Enterprises of Atlanta, Inc. v. Coweta Cty., Ga., 708 F.3d 1243, 1253 n.13 (11th Cir. 2013).

         Ms. Maiden's complaint requested a judgment declaring that Starr Indemnity was BOG's insurer. (Doc. 1 at 3). To state a claim for a declaratory judgment under Alabama law, the complaint must allege a “bona fide justiciable controversy.” Carey v. Howard, 950 So.2d 1131 (Ala. 2006) (quoting Gulf Beach Hotel, Inc. v. State ex rel. Whetstone, 935 So.2d 1177, 1182 (Ala. 2006)). “A controversy is justiciable where present ‘legal rights are thwarted or affected [so as] to warrant proceedings under the [Alabama] Declaratory Judgment statutes.'” Creola Land Dev., Inc. v. Bentbrooke Housing, LLC, 828 So.2d 285 (Ala. 2002) (quoting Town of Warrior v. Blaylock, 152 So.2d 661, 662 (Ala. 1963)) (first alteration in original).

         The complaint states a claim for declaratory judgment because it alleges that Starr Indemnity was her landlord's insurer, but has failed to ...

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