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McCombs v. United States

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

November 21, 2019

CONCETTA McCOMBS, as persona representative of the Estate of Barry Wesley Williams, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Presently pending is the defendant's motion seeking dismissal or, alternatively, summary judgment. (Doc. 16). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. (Docs. 19, 20). As explained below, the motion is due to be granted, and all of the plaintiff's claims are due to be dismissed under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         I. FACTS

         This controversy concerns a dispute over proceeds from a life insurance policy. (Doc. 14). Teresa Williams was a ten-year veteran of the United States Postal Service (“USPS”). Shortly following Ms. Williams's December 21, 2015 death, her husband, Barry Wesley Williams, filed a claim for benefits under a policy (“the Policy”) issued by Federal Employee's Group Life Insurance (“FEGLI”). (See Doc. 14 at 2; Doc. 19 at 1-2). The claim was denied on April 12, 2016. (Doc. 16 at 24, 46). However, Mr. Williams continued to pursue the claim with the assistance of counsel. (See Id. at 36).

         On October 24, 2016, counsel for Mr. Williams emailed the USPS to inquire about the status of the claim. (Doc. 14 at 2; Doc. 1 at 5).[2] A USPS employee responded with an email stating the claim had been sent for processing and Mr. Williams should receive the Policy proceeds within thirty days. (Doc. 1 at 5; see Doc. 14 at 2). Soon thereafter, Mr. Williams received a letter reiterating the same information-the claim had been sent for processing and he would receive the Policy proceeds within 30 days. (Doc. 1 at 6; see Doc. 14 at 2). A year later, Mr. Williams received additional correspondence stating the benefit due under the Policy was $376, 500.00. (Doc. 1 at 7; see Doc. 14 at 2).

         On April 11, 2018, Mr. Williams filed an administrative claim with the USPS, claiming: (1) it had misrepresented that benefits would be paid; and (2) he was entitled to the Policy proceeds. (Doc. 16 at 22-24). The USPS denied the administrative claim via a June 14, 2018 letter. (Id. at 42-43). The letter summarized the following background: (1) October 20, 2012, was Ms. Williams's last day working for the USPS; (2) on November 2, 2013-and again on November 16, 2013-the USPS informed Ms. Williams her coverage under the Policy had lapsed and advised her she could convert the Policy to an individual policy; and (3) on December 13, 2013, the USPS sent Ms. Williams a letter stating coverage under the Policy had been terminated because she had not worked for over a year. (Id.). Accordingly, the letter concluded the denial of the administrative claim was proper because the Policy was not in effect when Ms. Williams died. (Id. at 43).

         On October 8, 2018, Mr. Williams sought reconsideration of the administrative claim. (Doc. 16 at 34). The USPS denied reconsideration on October 24, 2018. (Doc. 16 at 32; see Doc. 14 at 2). Sadly, Mr. Williams passed away on January 7, 2019; Concetta McCombs was named personal representative of his estate shortly thereafter. (Doc. 14 at 1). In her capacity as representative of the estate, McCombs initiated the instant lawsuit on April 22, 2019, asserting claims for negligence, “breach of duty, ” and misrepresentation. (Doc. 1). On June 21, 2019, the government filed a motion seeking dismissal or, alternatively, summary judgment. (Doc. 4). The plaintiff responded with an amended complaint on July 25, 2019, asserting claims for negligence, “breach of duty, ” misrepresentation, and equitable estoppel. (Doc. 14). In response, the government filed the instant motion. (Doc. 16).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The government moves to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Doc. 16 at 1). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate if a complaint does not “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. “Labels and conclusions, ” “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, ” and “naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557) (internal quotations omitted) (alteration incorporated).

         On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court may consider documents outside the pleadings without converting it to a motion for summary judgment, so long as the documents are: “(1) central to the plaintiff's claim and (2) undisputed.” Day v. Taylor, 400 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2005). Here, the exhibits attached to the motion to dismiss are central to the complaint because they are documents at least obliquely referenced in the complaint. The plaintiff has not questioned their authenticity. (Doc. 19). Moreover, the documents attached to the motion to dismiss are considered here only to the extent they provide the factual landscape surrounding the claims presented in the amended complaint. In light of the circumstances discussed below, dismissal of the promissory estoppel claim would be warranted under Rule 12(b)(6) even if these documents were not considered.

         Dismissal is appropriate under Rule 12(b)(1) where subject matter jurisdiction is lacking. For example, “a dismissal on sovereign immunity grounds should be pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) because no subject-matter jurisdiction exists.” Thomas v. U.S. Postal Serv., 364 Fed.Appx. 600, 601 n.3 (11th Cir. 2010). Additionally, dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is appropriate to the extent a plaintiff asserts a claim under a statute affording no private right of action. See Abner v. Mobile Infirmary Hosp., 149 Fed.Appx. 857, 858-59 (11th Cir. 2005) (affirming dismissal because subject matter jurisdiction was lacking where statute provided no private right of action).

         “[A] motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) can be based upon either a facial or factual challenge to the complaint.” McElmurray v. Consol. Gov't of Augusta-Richmond Cty., 501 F.3d 1244, 1251 (11th Cir. 2007).

A “facial attack” on the complaint requires the court merely to look and see if the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction, and the allegations in his complaint are taken as true for the purposes of the motion. Factual attacks, on the other hand, challenge the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings, such as testimony and affidavits are considered.

Id. (alteration incorporated) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Here, the defendant has submitted evidence outside the pleadings to support its arguments with respect to subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, the instant motion makes a factual attack on the amended complaint; ...


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