United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
LINCOLN NATIONAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Interpleader-Plaintiff,
CLAUDIA RIDGWAY, et al., Defendants.
ORDER ON PENDING MOTIONS
RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter involves a dispute over the payment of life insurance
proceeds. It comes before the Court on: 1) Defendant Claudia
Ridgway's Motion for Summary Judgment Dismissal Against
Defendants Joseph M. Gonzales, Amanda Gonzales, Bethany
Kristiansen and Estate of Joseph Gonzales and Requiring
Payment of Life Insurance Proceeds (Dkt. #14); 2) Defendant
Claudia Ridgway's Motion to Extend Time For Filing Answer
and for Default Against Joseph M. Gonzales (Dkt. #20); and 3)
Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment In Interpleader (Dkt.
#22). The Court has reviewed each motion, along with the
attendant briefing in support thereof and in opposition
thereto, and addresses each motion in turn below.
interpleader action was filed by Plaintiff on October 3,
2017. Dkt. #1. Plaintiff asserts federal question
jurisdiction as the insurance policies at issue are governed
by ERISA. Dkt. #1 at ¶ ¶ 2.1, fn. 3 and 4.4. The
following background facts are not in dispute unless
otherwise noted by the Court.
Lincoln National Life Insurance Company (“Lincoln
National”) is an insurance company that provides
employee welfare benefit plans, including group life
insurance policies, and administers claims brought under
these plans. Dkts. #1 at ¶ 1.1, #14 at 3, ¶ ¶
8-10, and #22 at 2. Lincoln National issued Group Policy No.
000010213421(the “Basic” Policy) and Group Policy
No. GL 000400001000-20816 (the “Voluntary”
Policy) (together, the “Policies”) to Healthcare
Partners, LLC, which employed the decedent, Joseph B.
Gonzales. Dkt. #1 at ¶ 1.1 and Exs. A and B thereto.
Gonzales resided in Skagit County, Washington.
Dkts. #1 at ¶ 3.1 and #14 at 2, ¶ 2. He began
working as a materials management supervisor for Healthcare
Partners, LLC (specifically the Everett Clinic, which was
subsequently acquired by Davita), on February 20, 2017. Dkts.
#1 at ¶ 1.1 and #14 at 2 ¶ ¶ 4-5. As noted
above, Lincoln National issued the insurance policies at
issue to Healthcare Partners. Dkt. #1 at ¶ 1.1 and Exs.
A and B thereto. The policies provided group life insurance
benefits for Healthcare Partners employees, such as Mr.
Gonzales. Id. at ¶ 3.2 and Dkt. #14 at 3 ¶
¶ 7-10. The policies became effective for Mr. Gonzales
on April 1, 2017. Dkt. #1 at ¶ 3.3.
about Monday, March 13, 2017, Mr. Gonzales designated Ms.
Ridgway as “the sole” beneficiary of all of the
life insurance policies. Dkts. #14-1 at ¶ 6 and Ex. A
thereto, #1 at ¶3.3 and #22 at 2, fn. 4. Mr. Gonzales
informed Ms. Ridgway of this decision in an email at 9:37
a.m. on that date. Dkt. #14-1 at ¶ 6, Ex.
Gonzales passed away on July 16, 2017, due to recurrent
ventricular fibrillation and ischemic cardio myopathy. Dkt.
#1 at ¶ 3.4 and #14 at 1, ¶ 1. Plaintiff then
became obligated to pay $61, 000 in benefits under the Basic
Policy, and $181, 000 in benefits under the Voluntary Policy.
Dkt. #1 at ¶ 3.5.
August 1, 2017, the Skagit County Superior Court appointed
Mr. Gonzales's daughters, Amanda Gonzales and Bethany
Kristiansen, as co-personal representatives of his Estate.
Id. at ¶ 3.6.
August 16, 2017, Ms. Ridgway submitted a claim to Lincoln
National for the life insurance benefits. Id.at
¶ 3.7 and Dkt. #14 at 8, ¶ 23 and Ex. D thereto. On
August 24, 2017, Claim Examiner Nadine Beck contacted Mr.
Gonzales's employer's Benefits Specialist, Nykeia
Tolliver. Dkt. #37 at ¶ 7. During that phone
call, Ms. Tolliver informed Ms. Beck that Mr. Gonzales's
daughters, Amanda Gonzales and Bethany Kristiansen, disputed
Ms. Ridgway's designation as the beneficiary under the
policies, and said she had received a letter from Ms.
Gonzales on August 1, 2017, to that effect. Dkt. #37 at
¶ 7. Ms. Beck asked for a copy of that letter, which she
received that afternoon. Id. at ¶ 8 and Ex. A
result, Ms. Beck contacted a Senior Claims Examiner, Kaline
Carter, seeking guidance about how to proceed. Id.
at ¶ 9. Ms. Carter questioned why Ms. Beck had failed to
pay the claim to Ms. Ridgway as planned, particularly because
there had been no dispute on record at the time the claim was
made. Dkt. #23-1, Ex. G. Ms. Carter then noted that when Ms.
Beck had initially contacted the employer about beneficiary
information, no dispute had been mentioned. Id. Ms.
Carter then directed that, as a result of Ms. Beck's
actions, Ms. Beck would need to contact Ms. Ridgway's
attorney and Ms. Gonzales and Ms. Kristiansen to determine if
there was an actual dispute, the basis of the dispute and
whether the dispute could be resolved informally, otherwise,
legal action would be necessary. Id.
Beck sent a letter to Ms. Gonzales on August 28, 2017, in
which she requested a formal explanation of any contest to
Ms. Ridgway's claim, as well as the name of Ms.
Gonzales's attorney. Dkt. #37 at ¶ 10. She also
contacted Ms. Ridgway's counsel and informed him that Ms.
Gonzales and Ms. Kristiansen disputed Ms. Ridgway's
claim. Id. at ¶ 11. On September 7, 2017, a
lawyer representing Ms. Gonzales and Ms. Kristiansen
responded, stating that they contested “payment of the
death benefit to anyone other than [Mr. Gonzales's]
children or estate as they have reason to believe the
beneficiary was recently changed as a result of undue
influence.” Dkt. #23, Ex. K. On September 18, 2017, Ms.
Ridgway's counsel sent a letter to Ms. Beck disputing the
merits of the daughters' claim of undue influence. Dkt.
#23-1, Ex. L.
October 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint for
Interpleader. Ms. Ridgway followed by filing a Motion for
Summary Judgment on December 5, 2017, prior to any Answers to
the Complaint being filed by any party, and prior to
Plaintiff seeking an Interpleader Judgment. Dkt. #14. On
December 13, 2017, co-Defendants Amanda Gonzales, Bethany
Kristiansen and the Estate of Joseph Gonzales filed an Answer
to the Complaint and Cross-Claims for Undue Influence and
Unjust Enrichment against Ms. Ridgway. Dkt. #18. Two days
later, Ms. Ridgway filed a motion for extension of time to
file her Answer to the Complaint and to the Cross-Claims,
along with a motion for default against Co-Defendant Joseph
M. Gonzales. Dkt. #20. This was followed by a Motion for
Judgment in Interpleader filed by Plaintiff. Dkt. #22.
January 5, 2018, while these motions were pending, Ms.
Ridgway filed her Answer to the Complaint and to
Co-Defendants' Cross-Claims, and asserted a Counterclaim
against Plaintiff for violations of 29 U.S.C. § 1132.
Dkt. #33. Plaintiff filed its Answer to the Counterclaim on
January 12, 2018. Dkt. #35. The pending motions are now ripe
Procedural Posture of this Matter
initial matter, the Court addresses the procedural posture of
this matter. As noted above, at the time Ms. Ridgway filed
her Motion for Summary Judgment, no Answers to the
interpleader Complaint had been filed (including her own),
and Plaintiff had not yet moved to interplead the disputed
funds to the Court. As a result, Plaintiff responded that
summary judgment should be denied as premature, and asked the
Court to address its Motion for Interpleader Judgment first.
then, Answers to the interpleader Complaint have been filed
by all Defendants except for Mr. Joseph M. Gonzales, and
Plaintiff has moved for Judgment in Interpleader. Dkts. #18,
#22, #33 and #35. In addition, the Court acknowledges that
the proper determination as to how policy proceeds should be
disbursed is through the interpleader action itself. Thus,
the Court agrees with Plaintiff that Ms. Ridgway's
summary judgment motion was premature at the time it was
filed, but finds that it should now be determined after the
Court addresses whether interpleader is appropriate. That
conclusion comports with the way interpleaders are typically
addressed in other Districts. For example, in State Farm
Life Ins. Co. v. Jonas, the U.S. District Court for the
Southern District of Indiana found that summary judgment was
inappropriate when the Court had not yet determined whether
the prerequisites to statutory interpleader had been met, and
whether interpleader was available. 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
86703, *3-4 (S.D. Ind. June 20, 2013).
addition, the U.S. District Courts for the Eastern District
of Louisiana and the Southern District of Mississippi have
also found summary judgment to be premature when filed prior
to an interpleader determination. In Bunkers Int'l
Corp., the Louisiana District Court explained:
By filing the instant motion for partial summary judgment,
BIC has essentially asked the Court to bypass the first stage
of the interpleader action and decide the merits of its claim
under stage two. Although admittedly, on its face, this
action appears to present a classic textbook example of
interpleader, see Hapag-Lloyd, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS
3232, 2016 WL 731776, at *3, a decision has not been rendered
on the stage-one issue. For this reason, BIC's motion for
summary judgment is premature at this time. See
Progressive Am. Ins. Co. v. Thorn, No. 06-717, 2007 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 33600, 2007 WL 1381576, at *3 (M.D. Ala. May 8,
2007) (denying motion for summary judgment as premature
because stage one of the interpleader claim had not yet come
before the court by motion or otherwise).
Bunkers Int'l Corp. v. M/V Wuchow, 2016 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 37889, *10 (E.D. La. March 23, 2016). Likewise,
the Mississippi District Court noted:
“There can be no determination of rights between the
claimants to the insurance benefits until there has first
been a determination that interpleader is appropriate.”
Markes v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., No.
98-cv-0391, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1161, 1999 WL 55220, at *2
(N.D.N.Y. Jan. 26, 1999) (denying plaintiff's motion for
default judgment on the merits as premature where
“stage one of the traditional interpleader claim has
yet to come before the Court by motion or otherwise”);
see also Progressive Am. Ins. Co. v. Thorn, No.
2:06cv717, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33600, 2007 WL 1381576, at *
2-3 (M.D. Ala. May 8, 2007).
Landrum v. Conseco Life Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 81861, *5 (S.D.Miss. June 13, 2012).
Court finds that reasoning persuasive in this case. Because
Ms. Ridgway's motion for summary judgment was filed
before any Answers to the interpleader Complaint had been
filed, and before the Court has made a determination as to
whether interpleader is appropriate, the Court finds that the
merits of the summary judgment motion should be addressed
after the Court's determination of whether interpleading
is appropriate. Because both motions are now before the
Court, both motions will be resolved through this Order.
See N.Y. Life Ins. Co. v. Connecticut Development
Authority, 700 F.2d 91, 95 (2nd Cir. 1983)
(“Normally an interpleader action is concluded in two
stages, the first determining that the requirements of
[federal jurisdiction] are met and relieving the plaintiff