CENTRAL STATES, SE & SW AREAS PENSION v. HOWELL Nos. 98-4025, 98-4026.
227 F.3d 672 (2000)
CENTRAL STATES, SOUTHEAST & SOUTHWEST AREAS PENSION FUND, an employee welfare benefit plan, et al., Plaintiffs, v. JoAnn M. HOWELL, Defendant-Appellee-Cross-Appellant, Sheryl L. Turcow; Kenneth N. Howell; David B. Howell, Defendants-Appellants/Cross-Appellees.
United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.
Decided and Filed: September 25, 2000.
John B. Fisher (argued and briefed), Mollenkamp & Fisher, Toledo, Ohio, for Defendant-Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
Before: JONES, BATCHELDER, and CLAY, Circuit Judges.
BATCHELDER, Circuit Judge.
JoAnn and Kenneth Howell were married on April 28, 1978. Kenneth had three children by a prior marriage—Sheryl, Neil
On December 21, 1994, JoAnn filed for divorce in Monroe, Michigan. The domestic relations court in Michigan entered an order on January 17, 1995, prohibiting both JoAnn and Kenneth from "acting to dispose of, to destroy, sell, transfer, or conceal any of the marital assets of the parties" during the pendency of the divorce proceedings. Notwithstanding this order, Kenneth changed the beneficiary designation on all three life insurance policies from JoAnn to his children. Kenneth died on February 20, 1996, while the divorce was still pending in Michigan. His death mooted the pending divorce proceeding, leaving Kenneth's marital status unchanged.
After Kenneth's death, it was discovered that the death certificate erroneously indicated his marital status as "divorced."
In its Complaint for Interpleader, Central States alleged that jurisdiction was proper in federal court because the insurance benefits at issue were governed by ERISA.
After the case was transferred to Ohio, JoAnn filed a cross-claim against the children asserting that the proceeds from the two non-ERISA life insurance policies had been improperly paid to the children. On August 19, 1997, JoAnn moved for summary judgment on all the claims. The district court, exercising both original jurisdiction over the ERISA claim and supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, held that the proceeds of the two non-ERISA policies had been improperly paid to the children but that the children were entitled to the proceeds from the ERISA policy. Because the children had already received the proceeds from the non-ERISA policies and because that amount exceeded the $30,000 the children were entitled to receive from the ERISA policy, the district court ordered that: (1) the clerk of courts pay JoAnn Howell the $30,000 that had been previously deposited by Central States, and (2) the children pay JoAnn the difference, each child being responsible for his or her 1/3 share.
Both JoAnn and the children sought reconsideration of the district court's decision as to their respective rights to the insurance proceeds. In addition, the children sought to have the district court credit them with having paid for the decedent's burial expenses and to reduce the sum payable to JoAnn by that amount. The district court agreed with the children and adjusted its order on July 27, 1998.
We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. See Allen v. Michigan Dep't of Corrections,
I. The Non-ERISA Policies
At the time Kenneth Howell designated his children as his beneficiaries to the non-ERISA life insurance policies, he was subject to an order from the state domestic relations court that precluded him from disposing of any marital asset while his divorce was pending. We must therefore consider whether Kenneth's change in beneficiary on those non-ERISA policies violated state law and what effect such violation would have under applicable state law. The Howell's divorce was being adjudicated in the Michigan state courts. Thus, the effect of Kenneth's failure to comply with the state court injunction must be analyzed under Michigan law.
We have previously considered this precise issue under Michigan law. See Candler v. Donaldson,
The district court held that the change in beneficiary was valid and awarded the benefits to the decedent's mother because the wife had only a contingent interest in the proceeds. See id. at 376. We reversed and remanded the case, finding that "[u]nder the Michigan statutes[,] the policy herein involved was part of the property of the husband that was to be considered by the Court in making such final order." Id. at 377. Because the apparent purpose of the state court order was to maintain the status quo between the parties until a final adjudication of the property division could be completed, we concluded, "If the change in beneficiaries had not been made, the wife would have been entitled to the proceeds of the policy upon the death of the insured. Equity considers that as done which ought to be done." Id. Candler is undistinguishable on its facts from the case at bar. Thus, unless Michigan law has changed since 1959, Candler would indicate that Kenneth's wife, not children, should have received the proceeds from the two non-ERISA life insurance policies.
At least two Michigan cases have been published dealing with this issue since 1959, but neither of them requires reversal of the district court's decision. In 1965, the Supreme Court of Michigan considered the issue. See Webb v. Webb,
In 1979, a Michigan appellate court considered the issue again. See Irvin v. Irvin,
The children in this appeal argue strenuously that because JoAnn agrees that she received 90% of the marital property as a result of Kenneth's death, the district court was foreclosed by Irvin from imposing a constructive trust in JoAnn's favor. This argument is without merit. There is nothing in Irvin that mandates the trial court to rule either way when faced with a situation such as this. Imposition of a constructive trust is an equitable remedy. In determining whether to impose a constructive trust, the trial court must necessarily weigh the equities to prevent injustice in a particular case. See Irvin, 286 N.W.2d at 921 ("A constructive trust is a remedial equitable device employed to prevent injustice in a particular case. A court of equity will impose a constructive trust only if conscience demands it." (citations omitted)). Thus, the children's reliance upon one factor—that JoAnn received 90% of the marital estate—is not dispositive of the matter. Here, the district court considered the entire equities of the case and concluded it was appropriate to award JoAnn the proceeds of the two non-ERISA policies.
II. The ERISA Policy
Central States initiated this action to determine the rightful beneficiary of the proceeds of the ERISA life insurance policy it administered for the insured's employer. To answer this question, we must consider the preemptive reach of ERISA.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 is the principal federal statute that governs employee benefit plans. ERISA plans fall generally into two categories—"employee pension benefit plans" and "employee welfare benefit plans." See 29 U.S.C. § 1002. The Central States insurance policy is an employee benefit welfare plan that is governed by ERISA.
The law of ERISA expressly preempts all state laws which "relate to" an ERISA plan. See 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a). This preemption applies to all state law, whether legislative or judge-made. We must therefore determine whether the Michigan state court order restraining Kenneth from changing his beneficiary designation is preempted by ERISA.
We have explicitly and repeatedly held that state court divorce decrees purporting to affect the benefits payable from an ERISA plan are preempted. See McMillan v. Parrott,
The facts in this case are somewhat different. Here, Kenneth's ability to change the beneficiary was dictated not by a final divorce decree, but rather by a preliminary injunction entered to maintain the financial status quo until the divorce proceedings could be finalized. Moreover, the injunction in this case sought to insure that JoAnn would not be removed as beneficiary of the policy, as opposed to the cases above in which the divorce decree attempted to insure that the ex-spouse would be removed as beneficiary of the policy. In our view, these are distinctions without a difference. The power of the domestic relations court's order is not affected by whether the court has affirmatively ordered the insured to change his beneficiary or precluded the insured from making such a change. Similarly, whether the order is in the form of a final decree or a preliminary injunction, it is still a domestic relations order, issued under the authority of the state court. See 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3)(B)(ii) (defining "domestic relations order" to include any judgment, decree or order relating to, inter alia, the division of marital property). The question then becomes whether there is some basis upon which to exempt the order from ERISA's preemptive reach.
In 1997, we recognized an exception to ERISA's preemption of state divorce decrees when we held that "29 U.S.C. § 1144(b)(7) excepts QDROs [qualified domestic relations orders] from ERISA preemption with respect to welfare plans as well as pension plans." Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Marsh,
The requirements for a state court order to be treated as a QDRO are set forth in 29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3):
29 U.S.C. § 1056(d)(3).
As the district court properly concluded, the injunction entered by the domestic relations court did not comply with the requirements of Section 1056(d)(3)(C). Other
Therefore, the district court correctly concluded that the domestic relations court's order was preempted by ERISA. Because Kenneth's beneficiary designation complied with the requirements in the Central States' plan documents, Central States' administrator was obligated to pay the insurance proceeds to the named beneficiaries—Kenneth's children.
Resolving Central States' claim does not end our inquiry, however. JoAnn Howell argues that because Kenneth violated the Michigan domestic relations court order, his wrongdoing entitles her to the equitable remedy of a constructive trust imposed upon the $30,000 ERISA plan proceeds.
It is clear that the law of this Circuit requires the ERISA plan administrator to pay out plan proceeds in accordance with the ERISA plan documents. However, there is no precedent binding on this Court on the issue of whether, once the beneficiary is determined, ERISA preempts all causes of action and possible remedies based upon state law that might be traced to the ERISA plan proceeds. See Hendon, No. 96-6233, 1998 WL 199824 (6th Cir. Apr.13, 1998) (unpublished decision holding that state law breach of contract and conversion claims were preempted); see also Pressley v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co.,
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the benefits in an ERISA employee welfare benefit plan can be subject to state garnishment proceedings. See Mackey v. Lanier Collection Agency and Serv., Inc.,
On remand from the Supreme Court, the Tenth Circuit considered whether a constructive trust could be imposed upon ERISA pension plan benefits after they had been distributed to the beneficiary. See Guidry v. Sheet Metal Workers Nat'l Pension Fund,
In this case, the JoAnn Howell seeks to impose a constructive trust on Kenneth Howell's ERISA welfare benefit plan benefits. Kenneth Howell changed the beneficiary designation in accordance with the plan documents. On this issue, our precedents are clear—the beneficiary card controls the person to whom the plan administrator must pay the benefits.
III. The Burial Costs
JoAnn Howell contends that she was wrongly assessed the burial and funeral costs that the children paid on their father's behalf. JoAnn argues that she should be assessed the funeral costs only if she is awarded the proceeds from all three policies. This argument is wholly without merit. JoAnn vigorously asserts her status as Kenneth's wife to claim the marital property as a result of his death. As Kenneth's wife, JoAnn is responsible for his burial costs regardless of whether or not she receives the proceeds from his life insurance policy. See Sears v. Gidday, 41 Mich. 590, 2 N.W. 917 (Mich.1879).
For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court awarding the proceeds of the non-ERISA policies to JoAnn Howell and assessing the burial costs to JoAnn Howell. However, we REMAND the case for further consideration of whether the equities are such that the district court should impose a constructive trust on the ERISA plan proceeds for the benefit of JoAnn Howell.
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