United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Barbara D. Holmes United States Magistrate Judge.
Honorable Eli J. Richardson, United States District Judge
are various dispositive motions, all of which seek a
determination by declaratory judgment as to the proper
beneficiary of the pre-retirement death benefits of Donald
Lawhorne, Jr. The cross motions were referred to the
undersigned Magistrate Judge for report and recommendation.
See Order at Docket No. 32. For the reasons stated
below, the undersigned respectfully recommends that the
motion for judgment on the pleadings of Christiana Gruel
(Docket No. 15) be DENIED; the motion of Southern Electrical
Retirement Fund (the “Fund”) for judgment on the
record (Docket No. 18) be GRANTED; and, the motion of Camryn
Elizabeth Lawhorne for judgment on the administrative record
and/or on the pleadings (Docket No. 24) be GRANTED. Further
recommendation is made that judgment be entered declaring the
preretirement death benefits of decedent Donald Lawhorne, Jr.
payable to Camryn Elizabeth Lawhorne and directing payment.
Proposed Findings of Fact
an interpleader action brought by the plaintiff, Southern
Electrical Retirement Fund (the “Fund”), under
Section 1332(a)(3) of the Employee Retirement Income Security
Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq.
(“ERISA”), for a determination of which
defendant, Christiana Gruel or Camyrn Elizabeth Lawhorne, is
entitled to pre-retirement death benefits owing because of
the death of plan participant, Donald Lawhorne, Jr. The Fund
also seeks a declaratory judgment under Rule 57.
facts are largely undisputed. Donald Lawhorne, Jr. was a
participant in the Southern Electrical Retirement Fund.
(Docket No. 1 ¶ 6.) The governing documents are an
Amended and Restated Agreement and Declaration of Trust
Creating Southern Electrical Retirement Fund (AR at 1-47) and
an amended and restated Plan of Benefits (effective January
1, 2015) (AR at 48-96).
4.6 of the Plan directs:
In the event of the death of an Employee who has not yet
commenced receipt of a Normal, Early or Disability Retirement
benefit, his surviving spouse, if any, shall be eligible to
receive a "Pre-Retirement Death" benefit. In the
event the Employee is not survived by a spouse, his
beneficiary, as designated in accordance with Section 6.2
hereof, shall be eligible to receive such benefit. Such
benefit shall become payable immediately upon the death of
the Employee, but contingent upon receipt of written
application therefor as prescribed by the Trustees.
AR at 65. Section 6.2 of the Plan, which governs designation
of beneficiaries, provides (in pertinent part) as follows:
Each Employee or former Employee may designate a primary
beneficiary or beneficiaries and a contingent beneficiary or
beneficiaries to receive any benefit that may become payable
under this Plan by reason of the Employee's death, but
only when such payment is not otherwise payable to the
Participant's surviving spouse in accordance with the
provisions of Sections 5.1 and 5.2 hereof. Such designation
shall be made upon forms furnished by the Trustees, and may
at any time and from time to time be changed or revoked
without notice to the beneficiary or beneficiaries and shall
not be effective unless and until filed with the Trustees. If
any Employee or former Employee shall fail to designate a
beneficiary or beneficiaries, or if all those so designated
predecease him, then the Employee shall be deemed to have
designated the following as his beneficiaries and contingent
beneficiaries with priority in the order named: (i) his or
her widow or widower, as the case may be; (ii) his children
and children of deceased children, per stirpes; (iii) his
parents; (iv) his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews
who are children of deceased brothers and sisters, per
stirpes; and (v) his estate.
AR at 82.
February of 2015, Lawhorne executed a Designation of
Beneficiary Form, which listed as the primary beneficiary
“Christy Bender-Christina [sic]” with a
relationship description of “Girlfriend” and a
designated contingent beneficiary of “Camryn
Lawhorne” with a relationship description of
“Daughter”. (AR at 97.) No. change in beneficiary
designation was made by Lawhorne prior to his death on
January 10, 2018.
to the Indiana death certificate, Lawhorne died on that date
from a sudden traumatic brain injury caused by a
self-inflicted gunshot. (AR 98.) At the time of his death,
Lawhorne was at his then “girlfriend's
residence.” (Id.) There is no dispute that:
(i) the residence where Lawhorne died was not the residence
of Christiana Gruel; (ii) at the time of his death, Lawhorne
and Ms. Gruel were no longer in a romantic relationship; and,
(iii) at the time of Lawhorne's death, Ms. Gruel was
married to someone else.
Lawhorne's death, Ms. Gruel made a claim for death
benefits under his pension plan. (AR 99.) On the claim form,
Ms. Gruel refers to herself as “Christina M.
Gruel” and describes her relationship to Lawhorne as
“Ex-Girlfriend.” (Id.) Lawhorne's
family contested payment of the benefits to Ms. Gruel. (AR
100.) By correspondence dated April 4, 2018, the plan
administrator notified Ms. Gruel on behalf of the Fund that
her application for benefits was denied on the following
A beneficiary designation signed in February 2015 by
participant Lawhorn[e] identified the beneficiary as
“Christy Bender-Christina Girlfriend”.
Participant Lawhorn[e] died from a self-infl[i]cted gunshot
wound on 1/10/18 at his “Girlfriend's
Residence”. This is from the death certificate.
It is evidence, “Christina Girlfriend” is not the
same girlfriend at whose residence participant Lawhorn[e]
died, as “Christy Bender-Christina Girlfriend”
and participant Lawhorn[e] parted ways several years ago. You
married someone else in June 2017 and are now known by your
married name, Christina Gruel. It is in this name that you
applied for the benefit as “Ex-Girlfriend[“].
The beneficiary designation card signed by Lawhorn[e] did not
suggest the beneficiary was to be an ex-girlfriend. We have
determined administratively that Lawhorn[e's] intended
beneficiary was “Christina Girlfriend, ” a status
which changed when you and participant Lawhorn[e] parted ways
and, more particularly, when you married someone else. A
review of circumstances existing at the time the designation
of beneficiary was signed in February 2015, and the words
used are given their ordinary meaning. Simply stated, this
means the intention of participant Lawhorn[e] was to
designate you-his girlfriend at the time in February 2015-as
beneficiary, but with an awareness that if you[r] status as
girlfriend changed, you would not be the beneficiary.
The words “Christina Girlfriend” are not
descriptive of a person, but the status of a person. The
status is a contingency which [c]an change with
circumstances. For example, here the status did change when
you married someone else. The term girlfriend is not an
unusual word to use in describing the status of a person, and
it is not an inept word. The meaning is clear and refers to a
condition or circumstance that can be altered. The term
suggests participa[nt] Lawhorn[e] intended you to be the
beneficiary so long as you were his girlfriend, but not after
that status changed.
Here, you-as Christina Gruel-lost your status as
“girlfriend” at the latest, when you married. The
application for the death benefit describing your
relationship to participant Lawhorn[e] as
“Ex-Girlfriend” is consistent with this changed
status. As a result, your application is denied.
AR 101-102. Ms. Gruel timely elected to appeal the plan
administrator's determination. (AR 103-104.) The
Fund's Investment Review Committee of the Board of
Trustees (the “IRC”) considered the appeal in a
June 1, 2018 meeting and took the following action:
After careful consideration of the letters, emails, and a
thorough discussion of the situation, the committee
discussion of the situation, the committee determined to
affirm the construction and interpretation of the plan, and
any facts relevant to construction and interpretation of the
plan as had been made by the administrative staff as when the
administrative staff initially denied the person's claim.
However, the committee determined not to grant or deny the
person's appeal, but rather, instructed that a
declaratory action be filed to obtain a ...