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Hendrix v. UnitedHealth Group Inc.

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

April 6, 2018

KATHLEEN HENDRIX, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITEDHEALTH GROUP INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Kathleen Hendrix's “Motion To Remand” (doc. 11) and “Motion for Oral Argument” (doc. 23). The court DENIES Ms. Hendrix's motion for oral argument (doc. 23). The court GRANTS UnitedHealth Group's motion for leave to file a sur-reply (doc. 22; doc. 22-1). The court has considered UnitedHealth's sur-reply, attached to its motion for leave to file a sur-reply, in deciding to remand this case.

         The court GRANTS Ms. Hendrix's motion for remand (doc. 11). The court does not address UnitedHealth's motion to dismiss (doc. 17) because it lacks jurisdiction to do so.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Kathleen Hendrix is the administrator of Kenneth Hendrix's estate. Mr. Hendrix died from complications from blunt force trauma suffered in a car accident.

         Defendants are Oakwood Ridge Independent Living; State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company; Teresa Huff Russell; Elizabeth Haney as administrator of Nicholas Huff's estate; and UnitedHealth.[1] Ms. Hendrix's allegations relate to the car accident that began the chain of events resulting in Mr. Hendrix's death. For example, Ms. Hendrix brings suit against the estate of Nicholas Huff, who Ms. Hendrix alleges caused the accident. Ms. Hendrix alleges that Mr. Huff was intoxicated at the time he crossed the center-lane on an undivided highway, hitting Mr. Hendrix's car head-on.

         The claim against UnitedHealth, which administered Mr. Hendrix's ERISA-regulated healthcare plan, arises out of UnitedHealth's conduct in restricting the treatment that Mr. Hendrix could receive after the car accident. Specifically, in Count 5 of her complaint, Ms. Hendrix asserts a claim under the Alabama Wrongful Death Act and seeks to impose punitive damages on UnitedHealth as punishment for allegedly wrongful conduct causing Mr. Hendrix's death.

         Mr. Hendrix was hospitalized the day of the accident, October 3, 2015. A week later, on October 10, Mr. Hendrix's treating physicians approved his release to an in-patient facility where he could continue treatment and rehabilitation. However, UnitedHealth denied that transfer or declined to pay for it. The hospital then discharged Mr. Hendrix to home care. Approximately 10 days later, Mr. Hendrix died at home after suffering a pulmonary thromboembolism brought on by complications from the car accident.

         DISCUSSION

         For the reasons stated below, the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to hear this lawsuit.

         A district court has “original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. And a defendant may remove to federal court any civil action filed in state court in which the federal court would have original jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). However, the court must remand to the state court any improvidently removed case or one without the necessary jurisdiction. This case is one of those cases.

         In this case, the parties are non-diverse and Ms. Hendrix's claims-on their face- present no federal question. UnitedHealth argues that the court must convert Ms. Hendrix's state-law wrongful-death claim into a federal ERISA claim, therefore invoking federal-question jurisdiction.

         Usually, the plaintiff is the master of her claim, and by pleading state law claims exclusively she may avoid federal-question jurisdiction. Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). This case, however, is unusual. Ms. Hendrix brings a state-law claim against her husband's ERISA-regulated plan administrator, and state-law claims that “relate to” ERISA-covered benefit plans are “completely” preempted. Connecticut State Dental Ass'n v. Anthem Health Plans, Inc., 591 F.3d 1337, 1344 (11th Cir. 2009). “Complete” preemption is an exception to the usual rule that the plaintiff is master of her claim. Id. When a state-law claim is “completely preempted, ” the court can convert the state-law claim into a federal claim, and the court has federal-question jurisdiction to hear the case. Blab T.V. of Mobile, Inc. v. Comcast Cable Communications, Inc., 182 F.3d 851, 854 (11th Cir. 1999). Because this court lacks diversity jurisdiction and Ms. Hendrix's claims as pleaded implicate only state law, this court has jurisdiction to hear this case only if Ms. Hendrix's Alabama wrongful-death claim is completely preempted by ERISA.

         The defendant must satisfy a two-part test to establish that a claim is completely preempted by ERISA: (1) the plaintiff had standing and could have brought her claim under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a), which sets out the circumstances in which a plaintiff can recover plan benefits, and (2) no other independent legal duty supports the plaintiff's claim. See Anthem Health, 591 F.3d at 1345 (citing Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200 (2004)). That test is conjunctive; ERISA does not completely preempt a claim unless the defendant satisfies both conditions. Borrero v. United Healthcare of New York, Inc., 610 F.3d 1296, 1304 (11th Cir. 2010). So, if UnitedHealth fails to establish either part of the Anthem Health/Davila test, then the court must remand the case because it will lack subject-matter jurisdiction. But if UnitedHealth can establish both parts of the test, then the court must convert-or give Ms. Hendrix the ...


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