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The Prudential Insurance Company of America v. Sommerfield

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 4, 2017

THE PRUDENTIAL INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL SOMMERFIELD, ANGELINA LUCERO, ALYSSA LUCERO, PENNY MCANALLY, as guardian and next friend of A.W., a minor, and MARK DRUMMOND, as guardian and next friend of A.L., a minor, Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          KRISTEN L. MIX, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment or in the Alternative for Default Judgment [#29][1] (the “Motion”). The Motion [#29] has been referred to the undersigned for recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.1(c). The Court has reviewed the Motion [#29], the entire case file, and the applicable law, and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the Court respectfully RECOMMENDS that the Motion [#29] be GRANTED with respect to the request for default judgment, and DENIED as moot with respect to the request for summary judgment.

         I. Summary of the Case

         A. Factual Background[2]

         This case arises out of the death of Michele E. Lucero (the “Insured”). See Compl. [#1] at 3-5. The Insured was an employee at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (“Wal-Mart”) at the time of her death. Id. at 3. The Prudential Insurance Company of America (“Plaintiff”), issued a group life insurance policy to Wal-Mart. Id. The beneficiary rules of the group life insurance policy govern the payment of insurance benefits under the policy. Id. The beneficiary rules state that benefits due are payable to the designated beneficiary of the policy. Id.; see also Exhibit to Motion [#29-2] at 53 (beneficiary rules of the Insured's policy with Prudential). If the policy-holder has not designated a beneficiary, “the benefits are payable to the first of the following: ‘(a) [the] surviving spouse or domestic partner; (b) [the] surviving child(ren) in equal shares; (c) [the] surviving parents in equal shares; (d) [the] surviving siblings in equal shares; [or] (e) [the] estate.'” Compl. [#1] at 3.

         At the time of her death, [3] the Insured retained term life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment insurance through Wal-Mart, her employer. Id. Plaintiff determined that, as a consequence of the Insured's death, it was obligated to pay out a term life benefit (“Life Benefit”) and an accidental death benefit (“Accidental Death Benefit”) in the amount of $200, 000 per Benefit pursuant to the policy. Id. at 4. The Insured did not designate a beneficiary with regard to either Benefit. Id. The circumstances surrounding the Insured's death left it unclear to whom Plaintiff should pay these Benefits.

         On November 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment [#1] against Michael Sommerfield; Angelina Lucero; Alyssa Lucero; Penny McNally, as guardian and next friend of A.W., a minor; and Mark Drummond, as guardian and next friend of A.L., a minor. Compl. [#1] at 1, 8. With the exception of Defendant Sommerfield, Defendants are the Insured's children (the “Insured's Children”).[4] Id. at 4. Defendant Sommerfield was in an intimate relationship with the Insured, but their marital status at the time of the Insured's death is unclear. Id. Although the Insured's death certificate stated that she was “divorced, ” the media portrayed Defendant Sommerfield to be the Insured's common-law spouse at the time of her death. Id.; see Exhibit to Motion [#29-2] at 70 (copy of the Insured's death certificate); see Exhibit to Motion [#29-2] at 72 (Fox 31 Denver news article referring to Defendant Sommerfield as the Insured's common-law husband).

         Defendant Sommerfield was charged with and convicted by a jury of first-degree murder of the Insured. Compl. [#1] at 5. His criminal appeal, which was filed in August 2016, remains pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals. Id. Because the Insured's death certificate stated that she was “divorced, ” Plaintiff determined that the policy required it to pay the Insured's Life Benefits to the Insured's Children. Id. at 4; Exhibit to Motion [#29-1] at 3 (declaration of Plaintiff's employee noting Plaintiff's determination regarding Benefit payout). Plaintiff divided and paid the proceeds of the Life Benefit, plus applicable interest, equally among the Insured's children. Id.; Compl. [#1] at 4. As Plaintiff continued to investigate whether and to whom the policy required Plaintiff to pay the Accidental Death Benefit, Plaintiff discovered the media reports which referred to Defendant Sommerfield as the Insured's common-law spouse. See Exhibit to Motion [#29-1] at 3; see also Exhibit to Motion [#29-2] at 76 (Denver news report stating that “[a] Jefferson County man accused of strangling his common-law wife . . . has been convicted of first-degree murder.”). On those grounds, before paying out the Accidental Death Benefit, Plaintiff filed this case in order to ask the Court to declare that Defendant Sommerfield is not a surviving spouse pursuant to the policy, and to further declare that Plaintiff properly paid the Optional Life Benefit to the Insured's children. Compl. [#1] at 7-8. Plaintiff further seeks a declaration that the children are the proper recipients of the Accidental Death Benefit. Id. at 8.

         B. Procedural Background

         Generally, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 requires a defendant to file an answer no later than 21 days after a plaintiff serves the complaint and summons. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(a)(1)(A). Plaintiff filed the Complaint [#1] in this action on November 18, 2016. Compl. [#1]. Plaintiff's agent served Defendant Sommerfield on December 9, 2016. See Executed Summons [#12]; Motion [#29] at 10. Thus, Defendant Sommerfield was required to file an answer by December 30, 2016. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(a)(1)(A). Defendant Sommerfield did not enter an appearance or file an answer by that date. On February 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Entry of Default [#15] as to Defendant Sommerfield. See Motion for Entry of Default [#15] at 1. The Clerk of the Court entered default against Defendant Sommerfield on March 2, 2017. See Entry of Default [#18]. Plaintiff filed the present Motion [#29] on April 7, 2017.

         Plaintiff seeks entry of summary judgment in its favor against Defendant Sommerfield. Specifically, Plaintiff seeks a declaration that Defendant Sommerfield

was not the Insured's spouse or domestic partner at the time of her death or that [Defendant] Sommerfield is disqualified by operation of the slayer laws from receiving any benefit under the Group Contract, including but not limited to the Optional Life Benefit and the Accidental Death Benefit payable under the Group Contract as a consequence of the Insured's death. [Plaintiff] further seeks entry of an Order declaring that [it] properly paid the Optional Life Benefit to the Insured's children; that the Insured's children are the proper recipients of the Accidental Death Benefit, in equal shares; and discharging [Plaintiff] from all liability to all defendants in connection with [Plaintiff's] administration of the subject coverages under the Group Contract, including but not limited to the Optional Life Benefit and/or Accidental Death Benefit, upon [Plaintiff's] payment of the Accidental Death Benefit to the Insured's children in equal shares.

Motion [#29] at 3; see also Compl. [#1] at 7-8. In support of these contentions, Plaintiff argues that Defendant Sommerfield has failed to produce any evidence that he was either the Insured's common-law spouse or domestic partner. Id. at 7-8. Plaintiff further argues that even if Defendant Sommerfield is the Insured's common-law husband, Colorado's slayer statute, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-803, disqualifies Defendant Sommerfield from receiving any Benefits. Id. at 8-9. In the alternative, Plaintiff requests that the Court enter default judgment against Defendant Sommerfield due to his failure to defend. Id. at 9-12.

         II. ...


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