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Meriwether v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

December 18, 2017

CRYSTAL MERIWETHER, Plaintiff,
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant. METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
ANGELINE HUGHES and CIERA HOLMAN, Third-Party Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ALISTAIR E. NEWBERN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Crystal Meriwether initiated this action on August 12, 2016, by filing a civil warrant summoning Defendant Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife) to appear in the Metropolitan General Sessions Court of Davidson County, Tennessee. (Doc. No. 1-1, PageID# 4.) The warrant states the cause of action as:

Breach of Life Insurance contract to pay death benefit to Plaintiff Beneficiary under Claim #20151001325 policy owned by Peter Meriwether, Jr. Defendant wrongfully paid two claimants falsely fil[ing] fraudulent claims, two-thirds of the policy benefits. The insurance company through negligence and bad faith paid claimants who were not children of the deceased.

(Id.) The warrant seeks recovery on these claims and a reasonable attorney's fee in an amount “under $50, 000.00 Dollars.” (Id.) Although the complaint provides no further detail, later filings show that Meriwether challenges MetLife's equal division of Peter Meriwether's death benefits among herself, Ciera Holman, and Angeline Hughes-each of whom claims to be Peter Meriwether's daughter. (Doc. No. 16.) Meriwether asserts that she is Peter Meriwether's only heir, that the full amount of his policy should have been paid to her, and that MetLife was negligent in failing to require birth certificates or other documentation from Holman and Hughes before paying their claims. (Id.)

         MetLife removed the action to this Court on September 8, 2016, asserting federal question jurisdiction over Meriwether's claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (Doc. No. 1, PageID# 2.) In its notice of removal, MetLife argues that federal jurisdiction exists because “[t]he subject life insurance policy was provided pursuant to the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance Act” (FEGLIA); “[f]ederal law governs the payment of life insurance benefits and the order of precedence under FEGLIA [(citing 5 U.S.C. § 8705)]”; “FEGLIA life insurance benefits are administered and adjudicated by MetLife's Office of Federal Employees Group Life Insurance pursuant to a contract between the United States Office of Personnel Management and MetLife”; and “[d]istrict courts of the United States have original jurisdiction over civil actions or claims arising under FEGLIA [(citing 5 U.S.C. § 8715)].” (Id.)

         MetLife answered Meriwether's complaint on September 15, 2016, and asserted a counterclaim against Meriwether and a third-party complaint against Holman and Hughes. (Doc. No. 6.) MetLife claims that, in the absence of a designated beneficiary and without knowledge of any competing claims, it paid Peter Meriwether's benefits in good faith and in accordance with the order of precedence determined by FEGLIA. (Id.) To the extent Meriwether may be determined to be the only proper beneficiary of Peter Meriwether's policy, MetLife seeks a setoff in the amounts it paid to Holman and Hughes. (Id.)

         The parties litigated this case through discovery and completed briefing on MetLife's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. Nos. 21-24, 28-32, 34.) On February 21, 2017, the case was transferred to the undersigned magistrate judge for all further proceedings by the consent of all parties. (Doc. Nos. 36, 37.) The Court subsequently raised, sua sponte, its concern over the propriety of the removal in light of the lack of any apparent grounds for federal jurisdiction in Meriwether's complaint. (Doc. No. 40.) The Court directed MetLife, as the removing party, to show cause why the Court has jurisdiction over the action and invited any other party to respond to MetLife's position. (Id.) On November 6, 2017, MetLife responded to the Court's show cause order. (Doc. No. 41.) No other party addressed the jurisdiction issue.

         The Court finds that it does not have jurisdiction to consider this case further and will order its remand to state court.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441, “any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). District courts have federal question jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A matter “arises under” federal law if “a well-pleaded complaint establishes either that federal law creates the cause of action or that the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law.” Empire Healthchoice Assurance v. McVeigh, 547 U.S. 677, 690 (2006) (quoting Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Tr. for S. Cal., 463 U.S. 1, 27-28 (1983)). Just as is required of cases initially filed in federal court, the federal right “must be an element, and an essential one, of the plaintiff's cause of action.” Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 415 U.S. 125, 128 (1974). It must be found “upon the face of the complaint, unaided by the answer” and cannot be anticipated in a probable defense. Id.

         Allowing removal of state law claims that implicate federal issues “captures the commonsense notion that a federal court ought to be able to hear claims recognized under state law that nonetheless turn on substantial questions of federal law, and thus justify resort to the experience, solicitude, and hope of uniformity that a federal forum offers on federal issues.” Grable & Sons Metal Prod., Inc. v. Darue Eng'g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 310 (2005). However, “[t]he removal jurisdiction of the federal courts is to be ‘scrupulously confined.'” Nixon v. James, 174 F.Supp.2d 739, 742 (M.D. Tenn. 2001) (quoting Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 109 (1941)). Cases removed from state court must be scrutinized for “any disruptive portent” of the exercise of federal jurisdiction to the balance between state and federal authority. Grable, 545 U.S. at 313-14. This creates a “strict policy” against retaining federal jurisdiction when to do so would threaten “the sovereignty of state governments and state judicial power.” Nixon, 174 F.Supp.2d at 742.

         III. Analysis

         The first steps of determining whether Meriwether's claims “arise under” federal law are easily resolved. The warrant filed in state court does not invoke a federal cause of action; it alleges only that MetLife breached an insurance contract by negligently and in bad faith paying policy proceeds to two claimants who fraudulently claimed to be children of the insured. (Doc. No. 1-1, PageID# 4.) MetLife argues that 5 U.S.C. § 8715 confers on federal district courts “original jurisdiction . . . of a civil action . . . founded on [FEGLIA].” (Doc. No. 41, PageID# 506.) But MetLife omits critical words from the statute, which reads in full: “The district courts of the United States shall have original jurisdiction, concurrent with the United States Court of Federal Claims, of a civil action or ...


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