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Turner v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

July 18, 2017

KAREN TURNER, Plaintiff,
v.
VOLKSWAGEN GROUP OF AMERICA, INC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH R. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the court is the defendants', Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. and Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, Rule 12(c) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF No. 23]. The plaintiff, Karen Turner, filed an Opposition [ECF No. 29], and the defendants filed a Reply [ECF No. 31]. The matter is now ripe for decision. For the reasons stated herein, the defendants' Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. (“Volkswagen”) employed Keith Turner (“Mr. Turner”), the plaintiff's deceased husband, from 1984 to 1985. Compl. ¶¶ 7-9. At that time, Volkswagen sponsored a group disability insurance plan for its employees. Id. at ¶ 8. Mr. Turner began receiving long-term disability (“LTD”) benefits through Volkswagen's group disability insurance plan in 1985 after an accident in the course of his employment rendered him quadriplegic. Id. at ¶¶ 9, 11. Mr. Turner continued receiving LTD benefits until he died in February 2016. Id. at ¶¶ 11, 16. In addition to disability benefits, Volkswagen also offered a group life insurance plan through which Mr. Turner purchased a life insurance policy before his death. Id. at ¶ 10.

         From 2011 to 2016, he received confirmation statements from Volkswagen indicating that he was covered under the company's group life insurance plan for $52, 000. Id. at ¶ 13. Early in 2016, Mr. Turner received a notification that Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston (“Liberty”) would serve as the provider of the life insurance coverage previously provided by Volkswagen and that his coverage would remain the same. Id. at ¶ 15. Indeed, prior to Mr. Turner's death, neither Volkswagen nor Liberty indicated any alteration to Mr. Turner's insurance plans. Id.

         After Mr. Turner died, the plaintiff provided Volkswagen with a copy of Mr. Turner's death certificate in an attempt to receive benefits. Id. at ¶¶ 16-18. In response to the plaintiff's submission, Volkswagen sent the plaintiff a condolence letter on February 29, 2016, stating that she was eligible only for the continuance of her husband's health and welfare benefits through COBRA. Id. at ¶ 19; Admin. R. Ex. A, at ¶ 0001 [ECF No. 21-2]. In response to this letter, prior counsel for the plaintiff sent Volkswagen a letter on March 14, 2016, asking it to advise whether Mr. Turner was covered by life insurance at the time of his death. Compl. ¶ 20; Obj. Admin. R. 3 [ECF No. 26]. After receiving the letter from plaintiff's counsel, Volkswagen responded with its own letter on March 31, 2016, (“March 31 Letter”) stating that the plaintiff was not entitled to benefits under its life insurance policy. Answer Ex. A, at 1 [ECF No. 13-1]. Notably, although the March 31 Letter included a copy of Volkswagen's benefits plan and urged the plaintiff to contact the plan administrator if she had questions, the letter itself omitted any mention of the benefit plan's internal appellate procedure. Id.

         The plaintiff's current counsel sent a letter on June 14, 2016, (“June 14 Letter”) that indicated the plaintiff intended to appeal the life insurance determination. Answer Ex. A, at 38-39. In response to the plaintiff's June 14 Letter, the defendants' counsel wrote a letter on July 14, 2016, (“July 14 Letter”) indicating that the plaintiff was procedurally barred from appealing the March 31, 2016, benefits denial because the benefit plan's sixty-day appeal period had lapsed. Id. at 42-43. The plaintiff never attempted to file an appeal for the denial of her life insurance benefits through the benefits plan's internal appellate procedure.

         Additionally, Liberty called the plaintiff several times and left voicemails indicating that a survivor benefit existed under Mr. Turner's LTD benefit plan. Compl. ¶ 30. However, after the plaintiff left a voicemail inquiring about the survivor benefit, Liberty called the plaintiff and left a voicemail informing her that no survivor benefit existed. Id. at ¶¶ 31-32. In reply to that voicemail, the plaintiff's counsel sent a letter notifying the defendants of her intent to appeal the denial of her survivor benefit. Answer Ex. B, at 1-2. The defendants' counsel responded by sending a formal letter indicating that the plaintiff's survivor benefit had been denied and restarting the time-period during the which the plaintiff could appeal the benefits plan's determination. Id. at 5-6. Unlike the letter denying her life insurance claim, the letter denying the plaintiff's survivor benefit specifically referenced the benefit plan's internal appellate procedure. Id. Despite the letter's reference, the plaintiff never attempted to use the benefit plan's internal appellate procedure from the denial of her survivor benefit claim.

         Following the denial of her benefits, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit asserting three causes of action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). Specifically, the plaintiff asserted claims for (1) wrongful denial of her life insurance claim, (2) wrongful denial of her survivor benefit claim, and (3) breach of fiduciary duty.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “[T]he Rule 12(c) judgment on the pleadings procedure primarily is addressed to . . . dispos[e] of cases on the basis of the underlying substantive merits of the parties' claims and defenses as they are revealed in the formal pleadings.” 5C Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1367 (3d ed. 2004). A motion under 12(c) is useful when only questions of law remain. Id.

[A] Rule 12(c) motion is designed to provide a means of disposing of cases when the material facts are not in dispute . . . and a judgment on the merits can be achieved by focusing on the content of the competing pleadings, exhibits thereto, matters incorporated by reference in the pleadings, [and] whatever is central or integral to the claim for relief or defense . . . .

Id.

         When ruling on a 12(c) motion, courts must consider the pleadings, documents attached to the pleadings, and any documents that are “integral to the complaint and authentic.” Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 116 (4th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). Additionally, district courts apply the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) standard when ruling on 12(c) motions. Wright & Miller, supra, § 1367; see Exec. Risk Indem., Inc. v. Charleston Area Med. Ctr., Inc., 681 F.Supp.2d 694, 706 n.17 (S.D. W.Va. 2009) (“[T]he standards under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) for a motion for judgment on the pleadings are identical to those applicable to a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.”).

         A motion to dismiss filed under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint or pleading. Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). A pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This standard “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). To achieve facial plausibility, the plaintiffs must plead facts allowing the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable, moving the claim beyond the realm of mere possibility. Id. Mere “labels and conclusions” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action” are insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.[1]

         III. ...


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