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MONY Life Ins. Co. v. Ericson: US District Court : CONTRACT CLAUSE | FAMILY LAW | INSURANCE - district court bound by cause of action, not peers; revocation on divorce question

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
MONY Life Insurance Company, f/k/a
The Mutual Life Insurance Company of
New York,
Plaintiff,
Civ. No. 07-1547 (RHK/JSM)
MEMORANDUM OPINION
AND ORDER
v.
Robert G. Ericson, Aimee L. O’Connor
(a/k/a Aimee O’Conchuir), Kathleen L.
Ericson, and Susan E. Mutschler,
Defendants.
John Harper III, Terrance J. Wagener, Krass Monroe, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for
Plaintiff.
Robert J. Lange, Lange Law Firm, P.A., Bloomington, Minnesota, for Defendant Robert
G. Ericson.
Amy M. Coniaris, David M. Dahlmeier, Foley & Mansfield, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis,
Minnesota, for Defendants Aimee L. O’Connor (a/k/a Aimee O’Conchuir), Kathleen L.
Ericson, and Susan E. Mutschler.
In this interpleader action, Defendant Robert Ericson and his daughters,
Defendants Aimee L. O’Connor, Kathleen L. Ericson, and Susan E. Mutschler (the
“Daughters”), have asserted competing claims to the proceeds of a life-insurance policy
issued by Plaintiff MONY Life Insurance Company (“MONY”) to Patricia Copeland,
Ericson’s ex-wife and the Daughters’ mother. Currently pending before the Court are
1 Section 524.2-804, which was signed into law by then-Governor Jesse Ventura on April
19, 2002 (22 years after Copeland designated Ericson as the beneficiary), provides in pertinent
part that “the dissolution or annulment of a marriage revokes any revocable . . . beneficiary
designation . . . made by an individual to the individual’s former spouse in a governing
instrument.” Minn. Stat. § 524.2-804, subd. 1(1).
2
Ericson’s and the Daughters’ cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set
forth below, the Court will grant Ericson’s Motion and deny the Daughters’ Motion.
BACKGROUND
The following facts are not in dispute. MONY issued a ,000 life-insurance
policy (the “Policy”) to Copeland in 1980. At that time, she was married to Ericson; they
had three children (the Daughters). Ericson was named the primary beneficiary of the
Policy and the Daughters contingent beneficiaries.
Copeland and Ericson divorced in 1986. Ericson remained the primary beneficiary
of the Policy, however, and continued making the premium payments until Copeland died
in 2006. Upon Copeland’s death, Ericson wrote to MONY and requested payment of the
,000 Policy proceeds. MONY refused to pay, informing Ericson that by operation of
Minnesota Statutes Section 524.2-804, he had been disqualified as a beneficiary under the
Policy.1 The Daughters subsequently learned of Ericson’s claim to the ,000 and
asserted that they, and not Ericson, are entitled to the money.
As a result of these competing claims, MONY commenced this interpleader action,
naming Ericson and the Daughters as Defendants. Ericson cross-claimed against the
Daughters, seeking a declaration that he is entitled to the Policy proceeds because the
2 Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2403 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.1(b), the Court
certified Ericson’s constitutional challenge to the Minnesota Attorney General. (See Doc. No.
59.) The Attorney General declined to intervene in this action to defend the statute against
Ericson’s claim. (See Doc. No. 62.)
3 As a result, MONY’s Motion for Summary Judgment is moot.
3
retroactive application of Section 524.2-804 to him is unconstitutional.2 The Daughters,
in turn, filed a cross-claim against Ericson, seeking a declaration that they are entitled to
the Policy proceeds. MONY has deposited the funds at issue with the Clerk of the Court
and the parties have stipulated to MONY’s dismissal from this lawsuit;3 all that remains
are the competing declaratory-judgment claims. Ericson and the Daughters have crossmoved
for summary judgment on those claims.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment is proper if, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the
nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,
477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of showing that the
material facts in the case are undisputed. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Mems v. City of St.
Paul, Dep’t of Fire & Safety Servs., 224 F.3d 735, 738 (8th Cir. 2000). The Court must
view the evidence, and the inferences that may be reasonably drawn from it, in the light
most favorable to the nonmoving party. Graves v. Ark. Dep’t of Fin. & Admin., 229 F.3d
721, 723 (8th Cir. 2000); Calvit v. Minneapolis Pub. Schs., 122 F.3d 1112, 1116 (8th Cir.
1997). The nonmoving party may not rest on mere allegations or denials, but must show
through the presentation of admissible evidence that specific facts exist creating a genuine
4 Ericson also argues that application of Section 524.2-804 violates the Contract Clause
of the Minnesota Constitution (Minn. Const. art. I, § 11). The Court need not separately address
that argument, however, because “Minnesota Contract Clause challenges are analyzed using the
same . . . test” as challenges under the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution. State
ex rel. Hatch v. Employers Ins. of Wausau, 644 N.W.2d 820, 833 (Minn. Ct. App. 2002) (citing
Jacobsen v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 392 N.W.2d 868, 872 (Minn. 1986)).
4
issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986); Krenik v.
County of Le Sueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995).
ANALYSIS
In support of his Motion, Ericson argues that (1) Section 524.2-804 is
unconstitutional as applied to him under Article I, Section 10, clause 1 of the United
States Constitution (the “Contracts Clause”), and (2) even if the statute could be
constitutionally applied to him, several of its exceptions protect his designation as the
Policy beneficiary.4 The Daughters respond that the statute is constitutional and that none
of the exceptions cited by Ericson applies. Because the Court concludes that the statute
cannot be constitutionally applied to Ericson, it need not reach the parties’ alternative
arguments concerning the statute’s exceptions.
The Contracts Clause provides that “[n]o State shall . . . pass any . . . Law
impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” U.S. Const., art. I, § 10, cl. 1. This prohibition
“bans any interference with contracts” by state laws. Honeywell, Inc. v. Minn. Life &
Health Ins. Guar. Ass’n, 110 F.3d 547, 551 (8th Cir. 1997). As a result, the “laws which
subsist at the time and place of the making of a contract . . . enter into and form a part of
it” and generally cannot be changed by ex post facto legislation. Gen. Motors Corp. v.
Romein, 503 U.S. 181, 188 (1992).
5
In determining whether a state statute has changed the law in violation of the
Contracts Clause, a court must first determine whether the statute “has operated as a
substantial impairment of a contractual relationship.” Id. at 186. “This inquiry has three
components: whether there is a contractual relationship, whether . . . the law impairs that
contractual relationship, and whether the impairment is substantial.” Id. If there has been
a substantial impairment, the court must next decide whether there exists a “significant
and legitimate public purpose” behind the statute. Equip. Mfrs. Inst. v. Janklow, 300 F.3d
842, 850 (8th Cir. 2002). Finally, if a significant and legitimate public purpose is
identified, the court must determine whether the contractual impairment caused by the
statute is “based upon reasonable conditions and is of a character appropriate to the public
purpose justifying the legislation’s adoption.” Id. (internal quotation marks and
alterations omitted).
In a factual setting nearly identical to that presented here, the Eighth Circuit
addressed a Contracts-Clause challenge to an Oklahoma revocation-upon-divorce statute
similar to Section 524.2-804. The facts of that case, Whirlpool Corp. v. Ritter, 929 F.2d
1318 (8th Cir. 1991), were as follows: James and Darlene Ritter were married in 1972.
James obtained a life-insurance policy in 1985 through Whirlpool, his employer, naming
Darlene as the beneficiary. Two years later, the Oklahoma legislature passed a statute
providing that if a “party to [a] contract with the power to designate the beneficiary of any
death benefit dies after being divorced from the beneficiary named to receive such death
benefit in the contract, all provisions in such contract in favor of the decedent’s former
6
spouse are thereby revoked.” Id. at 1319. The statute expressly applied to life-insurance
policies. Id. at 1320.
James and Darlene divorced on April 7, 1989, and three weeks later, James
married Diana Shaw. Then, on July 9, 1989, James died of a gunshot wound to the head,
purportedly fired by Darlene. Darlene and Diana subsequently asserted competing claims
to the life-insurance proceeds, and Whirlpool filed an interpleader complaint naming
Darlene and Diana as defendants. The district court, applying Oklahoma’s revocationupon-
divorce statute, disqualified Darlene as the beneficiary and held that Diana was
entitled to the life-insurance proceeds. Darlene appealed, arguing inter alia that
application of the statute violated the Contracts Clause. Id. at 1322-23.
The Eighth Circuit, agreeing with Darlene, reversed, holding that James had a right
to expect that his wishes regarding his insurance proceeds would be respected, and that
“[b]y reaching back in time and disrupting this expectation, the Oklahoma legislature
impaired James’ contract.” Id. at 1322. The court further held that:
This impairment is not insignificant; one of the primary purposes of a life
insurance contract is to provide for the financial needs of a person (or persons)
designated by the insured. When the Oklahoma legislature changed the rules
for interpreting insurance contracts and applied the new rules to completed
transactions, it effected a fundamental and pejorative change in the very
essence of those contracts.
Id. Finally, the court held that the statute could not be justified by its intended purpose
and underlying rationale. The court noted that revocation-upon-divorce statutes
“anticipate that, upon undergoing a . . . divorce . . ., [insureds] would most likely intend to
. . . revoke prior provisions made for their ex-spouses. The statutes also anticipate that
5 Unlike the Oklahoma statute at issue in Whirlpool, it is not entirely clear to the Court
that Section 524.8-204 applies to life-insurance policies. The statute – which is “nearly identical
to § 2-804 of the Uniform Probate Code,” Lincoln Benefit Life Co. v. Heitz, 468 F. Supp. 2d
1062, 1066 (D. Minn. 2007) – by its terms applies only to a beneficiary designation in a
“governing instrument.” Minn. Stat. § 524.2-804, subd. 1(1). While the Uniform Probate Code
expressly includes insurance policies within the definition of “governing instruments,” see Unif.
Probate Code § 1-201(18) (amended 1998), the term “governing instrument” is noticeably absent
from the “definitions” section of the Uniform Probate Code as adopted by the Minnesota
legislature, see Minn. Stat. § 524.1-201. One could argue that this omission was intentional and
was designed to except insurance policies from the reach of the statute, but the legislative history
appears to suggest otherwise, see Video of April 15, 2002 Minnesota House Floor Session,
available at http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/archiveshfs.asp?ls_year=82 (last visited
January 17, 2008) (indicating that Section 524.2-804 was intended to include life-insurance
7
[insureds] will often fail to so . . . revoke, not out of conscious intent, but simply from a
lack of attentiveness.” Id. While the court recognized that it was reasonable for the
Oklahoma legislature to be concerned with these issues, it concluded that they were not
universally true and that many individuals might legitimately worry about the financial
well-being of an ex-spouse (particularly where the ex-spouse had custody of the couple’s
children) and hence purposely opt not to change the policy. In other words, there existed
“a real possibility” that in many instances “the named insured consciously decided not to
change the named beneficiary.” Id. at 1323. As a result, the Eighth Circuit held that the
Oklahoma statute violated the Contracts Clause and was unconstitutional as applied to
Darlene. Id.
This case is on all fours with Whirlpool. First, Section 524.2-804 clearly creates a
substantial impairment in a contractual relationship, namely, the relationship between
MONY and Copeland. By disqualifying Ericson as Copeland’s designated beneficiary,
Section 524.2-804 has “effected a fundamental and pejorative change in the very essence”
of her life-insurance policy. Id. at 1322.5 Further, under Whirlpool, the purpose behind
policies). Ultimately, however, the Court need not opine on this issue because Ericson has not
argued in his Motion papers that life-insurance policies are beyond the reach of Section 524.2-
804. Accordingly, the Court will assume (as the parties have) that the statute applies to
beneficiary designations in such policies.
8
the statute – “the legislative judgment that ex-spouses often intend to change their
beneficiaries,” Lincoln Benefit Life Co. v. Heitz, 468 F. Supp. 2d 1062, 1069 (D. Minn.
2007) – is insufficient to justify such a “radical[] alterat[ion]” of pre-existing lifeinsurance
policies like Copeland’s. 929 F.2d at 1323. Pursuant to Whirlpool, therefore,
Section 524.2-804 cannot, consistent with the Contracts Clause, be applied retroactively
to remove Ericson as the beneficiary of Copeland’s life-insurance policy.
Recognizing that Whirlpool presents a substantial hurdle to their case, the
Daughters attempt to explain away that decision. They argue that Whirlpool has been
roundly criticized and that the Court should give “little, if any, weight” to that decision.
(Daughters Mem. at 18; Daughters Reply Mem. at 7-8.) The Daughters are correct that
several courts and commentators have rejected Whirlpool’s reasoning, including the Joint
Editorial Board of the Uniform Probate Code (upon which Section 524.2-804 is based).
See, e.g., Stillman v. Teachers Ins. & Annuity Ass’n Coll. Ret. Equities Fund, 343 F.3d
1311, 1322 (10th Cir. 2003) (“The Whirlpool line of cases has been persuasively
criticized by other distinguished authorities.”); Joint Editorial Board Statement Regarding
the Constitutionality of Changes in Default Rules as Applied to Pre-existing Documents
(1991) (attached to Coniaris Aff. as Ex. A) (calling Whirlpool “manifestly wrong”).
These authorities note several so-called flaws in Whirlpool’s analysis, the most critical
being its failure to distinguish between contracts and donative transfers:
9
A life insurance policy is a third-party beneficiary contract. As such, it is a
mixture of contract and donative transfer. The Contracts Clause of the federal
Constitution appropriately applies to protect against legislative interference
with the contractual component of the policy. In [Whirlpool], and in
comparable cases, there is never a suggestion that the insurance company can
escape paying the policy proceeds that are due under the contract. The
insurance company interpleads or pays the proceeds into court for distribution
to the successful claimant. The divorce statute affects only the donative
transfer, the component of the policy that raises no Contracts Clause issue.
Id. Because revocation-upon-divorce statutes affect only the donative portion of a lifeinsurance
policy (the beneficiary designation), and not the contractual obligation created
thereunder (the insurer’s obligation to pay), some courts have held that the Contracts
Clause is not violated by such statutes. See, e.g., Stillman, 343 F.3d at 1322 (“The
Contracts Clause addresses contracts, not donative transfers. Because no contractual
obligation is impaired by [Utah’s revocation-upon-divorce statute], there is no violation
of the federal Contracts Clause in applying the statute here.”); Heitz, 468 F. Supp. 2d at
1068 (same).
While commentators (like the Joint Editorial Board) and courts outside of the
Eighth Circuit (such as the Tenth Circuit) are free to disregard Whirlpool, this Court is
not. See Xiong v. Minnesota, 195 F.3d 424, 426 (8th Cir. 1999) (noting that a district
court “ha[s] no power to replace governing circuit law with its own view”); BPS Guard
Servs., Inc. v. NLRB, 942 F.2d 519, 524 (8th Cir. 1991) (stating that holdings of the
Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals are “binding on all inferior courts and litigants” within
the Circuit). Given that Whirlpool addressed the very same issue confronting the Court
6 At oral argument, the Daughters asserted for the first time that Whirlpool is
distinguishable because no contingent beneficiaries were named in the life-insurance policy at
issue in that case, whereas here Copeland designated the Daughters as contingent beneficiaries.
This difference in no way alters the Court’s Contracts-Clause analysis. Under the facts of
Whirlpool and the facts of this case, the named beneficiary was disqualified by operation of law,
which “effected a fundamental and pejorative change in the very essence” of the life-insurance
policies at issue. 929 F.2d at 1322. That the policy in Whirlpool did not designate a contingent
beneficiary in no way changes that result.
7 Not surprisingly, the Daughters rely heavily upon Heitz in support of their arguments
here. They first cite that decision for the proposition that there has been no substantial
impairment of a contractual relationship in this case because “Copeland could have simply
renamed Mr. Ericson as the beneficiary after the divorce.” (Daughters Mem. at 6.) The Eighth
10
here, on nearly identical facts, the Court is obligated to adhere to the Eighth Circuit’s
holding in that case.6
The Daughters also argue that, under the doctrine of stare decisis, this Court
should follow Heitz, which concluded that the retroactive application of Section 524.2-
804 was constitutional. (See Daughters Mem. at 17.) Yet, the undersigned is not
obligated, by stare decisis or otherwise, to reach the same conclusion as Heitz. See, e.g.,
Colby v. J.C. Penney Co., 811 F.2d 1119, 1124 (7th Cir. 1987) (“district judges . . . must
not treat decisions by other district judges, in this and a fortiori in other circuits, as
controlling”) (emphasis in original); Starbuck v. City & County of San Francisco, 556
F.2d 450, 457 n.13 (9th Cir. 1977) (“The doctrine of stare decisis does not compel one
district court judge to follow the decision of another.”). Indeed, Heitz relied heavily on
Allstate Life Insurance Co. v. Hanson, 200 F. Supp. 2d 1012 (E.D. Wis. 2002), a decision
from outside the Eighth Circuit that declined to adopt Whirlpool. In light of the Court’s
conclusion that Whirlpool controls this case’s outcome, it must respectfully depart from
the conclusion reached in Heitz.7
Circuit, however, expressly rejected that argument in Whirlpool. See 929 F.2d at 1323. The
Daughters also cite Heitz to argue that because Copeland’s donative transaction created only an
expectancy interest in Ericson, he “has no standing to claim an unconstitutional impairment of
his unvested contractual right.” (Daughters Mem. at 16.) Yet, Heitz nowhere held that the exspouse
lacked standing to pursue her claims; indeed, had that been the case, the court likely
would have dismissed the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, rather than on the merits.
See, e.g. Faibisch v. Univ. of Minn., 304 F.3d 797, 801 (8th Cir. 2002) (“if a plaintiff lacks
standing, the district court has no subject matter jurisdiction”). In any event, even if Ericson
lacked standing to directly challenge the constitutionality of the statute, he has third-party
standing to challenge the statute on behalf of Copeland. See In re Estate of DeWitt, 54 P.3d 849,
855 n.4 (Colo. 2002) (holding that former spouses had third-party standing to challenge
constitutionality of Colorado’s revocation-upon-divorce statute); Mearns v. Scharbach, 12 P.3d
1048, 1054-55 (Wash. Ct. App. 2000) (reaching same conclusion for Contracts-Clause challenge
to Washington’s revocation-upon-divorce statute).
11
The Daughters next attempt to distinguish Whirlpool by arguing that the statute at
issue there was not based on the Uniform Probate Code. (Daughters Mem. at 18;
Daughters Reply Mem. at 6-8.) In the Court’s view, this is a distinction without a
difference. The Oklahoma legislature enacted the statute later struck down by Whirlpool
in an effort to protect the (supposed) intent of decedents to revoke designations of their
ex-spouses as beneficiaries. See 929 F.2d at 1322. This is also one of the main purposes
behind the Uniform Probate Code and, more specifically, Section 524.2-804. See, e.g.,
Minn. Stat. § 524.1-102(b)(2) (one purpose behind probate code is “to discover and make
effective the intent of a decedent in distribution of property”); Heitz, 468 F. Supp. 2d at
1069 (one purpose of Section 524.2-804 is to “implement[] a rule of construction that
reflects legislative judgment that ex-spouses often intend to change their beneficiaries”).
Yet, Whirlpool held that, under the Contracts Clause, revocation-upon-divorce statutes
cannot be justified by this purpose. 929 F.2d at 1323. The distinction drawn by the
8 Without citation to any authority, Heitz held that “promoting uniformity among state
law treatment of probate and non-probate transfers” is an “important public purpose” sufficient
to justify a state statute impairing contractual obligations. 468 F. Supp. 2d at 1069. The Court
does not agree.
12
Daughters, therefore, is of little import when evaluating the constitutionality of Section
524.2-804 here.
The Daughters also note that there are other purposes behind the probate code,
including the simplification and clarification of the law of decedents and ensuring
uniformity in probate law among various jurisdictions. (Daughters Mem. at 6 (citing
Minn. Stat. § 524.1-102(b)).) While these are certainly valid pursuits, the Court questions
whether these are the types of “important public purposes” sufficient to justify a
“significant” statutory impairment of contractual relations. See Janklow, 300 F.3d at 859-
60 (noting that in order for statute to be constitutional, importance of public purpose
behind statute must increase with substantiality of contractual impairment caused by
statute).8 Moreover, Section 524.2-804 is not reasonably necessary in order to simplify or
clarify who should receive the proceeds of a life-insurance policy. A policy is perfectly
clear on its face when an ex-spouse is designated as the beneficiary; it becomes no
simpler or clearer merely because the Minnesota legislature has opted to replace the
individual designated as the beneficiary with someone else, by operation of law.
CONCLUSION
Given the significant criticisms of Whirlpool, the Eighth Circuit might well decide
that case differently today. And perhaps the parties here will afford the appellate court an
opportunity to do so. Whether that occurs, however, is not up to this Court. Because
9 In reaching this conclusion, the Court does not hold that the entire statute is
unconstitutional; rather, only that portion of the statute that retroactively revokes beneficiary
designations in “governing instruments” fails to pass constitutional muster. Nor does the Court
hold that said portion of Section 524.2-804 is unconstitutional in all circumstances. There are
two types of constitutional challenges to a statute: facial challenges, in which a statute is alleged
to be unconstitutional on its face, i.e., in all circumstances, and “as applied” challenges, in which
a statute is alleged to be unconstitutional under the particular facts of the plaintiff’s case. See
Ada v. Guam Soc’y of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, 506 U.S. 1011 (Mem.) (Scalia, J.,
dissenting from denial of petition for writ of certiorari). Here, Ericson has mounted only an “as
applied” challenge to Section 524.2-804. The Court expresses no opinion whether the statute is
unconstitutional on its face, that is, whether there exists “no set of circumstances in which the
statute can be constitutionally applied.” Id.; see also Whirlpool, 929 F.2d at 1323 n.6
(distinguishing between prospective and retroactive application of revocation-upon-divorce
statute for purposes of Contracts-Clause analysis). Rather, the Court holds only that Section
524.2-804 cannot be constitutionally applied to Ericson under the facts of this case, i.e., cannot
retroactively remove him as the beneficiary of Copeland’s life-insurance policy.
13
Whirlpool is factually indistinguishable from this case, the Court is obligated to follow it;
doing so renders Section 524.2-804, as applied to Ericson, unconstitutional under the
Contracts Clause to the United States and Minnesota Constitutions.9
Based on the foregoing, and all the files, records, and proceedings herein, IT IS
ORDERED that:
1. The Daughters’ Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 28) is
DENIED, and the Daughters’ Cross-Claim against Ericson (Doc. No. 13) is
DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE;
2. Ericson’s Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 32) is
GRANTED;
3. It is DECLARED that Defendant Robert G. Ericson is entitled to the
proceeds of Patricia Copeland’s ,000 life-insurance policy, plus interest, which
MONY Life Insurance Company deposited with the Clerk of the Court pursuant to the
14
Court’s March 20, 2007 Order (Doc. No. 3). If neither an appeal nor a motion for postjudgment
relief is filed within 30 days of the entry of Judgment in this matter, the Clerk
of the Court is directed to release said funds to Robert G. Ericson; and
4. Plaintiff MONY Life Insurance Company’s Motion for Summary Judgment
(Doc. No. 24) is DENIED as moot.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
Dated: January 22 , 2008 s/Richard H. Kyle
RICHARD H. KYLE
United States District Judge
January 23, 2008
 

 
 
 

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