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Federal act preempts state law claims

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The Indiana Court of Appeals held that the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act preempts state law claims brought by a man’s first ex-wife seeking to keep her and her grandchildren as beneficiaries of the man’s life insurance policy.

In Phyllis Hardy, et al. v. Mary Jo Hardy,  No. 51A01-1005-PL-248, Phyllis Hardy filed a complaint, on her behalf and the behalf of her two grandchildren, for declaratory judgment/constructive trust over insurance proceeds. Phyllis was married to Carlos Hardy for 30 years and when they divorced, the decree stated that Phyllis and their two grandchildren shall be designated as equal beneficiaries of his FEGLI policy. Carlos later remarried to Mary Jo and he designated her as the beneficiary on his policy by submitting a designation of beneficiary form. Carlos and Mary Jo divorced seven years later, and when he died a year after their divorce, Mary Jo was named the beneficiary of the $98,000 policy.

The trial court granted summary judgment for Mary Jo and denied Phyllis’ motion for summary judgment. The court ruled that federal law preempted state law and that FEGLIA barred the creation of a constructive trust and seizure of the life insurance proceeds or any portion thereof from Mary Jo.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that FEGLIA preempts the plaintiffs’ state law claims. Phyllis cited a majority of state courts addressing this issue that have concluded that an equitable claim for constructive trust and some other claims under state law aren’t preempted by FEGLIA.

The FEGLIA contains a preemption clause that says the provisions under any contract of this chapter which related to the coverage or benefits shall supersede and preempt state law or regulation issued thereunder that relates to group life insurance to the extent that the law or regulation is inconsistent with the contractual provisions. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Christ, 979 F.2d 575, 578 (7th Cir. 1992), held that this clause broadly preempts any state law that is inconsistent with the FEGLIA master policy.

FEGLIA also states that the beneficiary of the policy would be paid first, but a domestic decree could alter that order. To do so, a certified copy must be sent to the Office of Personnel Management before the policy holder’s death. Carlos didn’t send the divorce decree to the office.

The judges also relied on the Indiana Supreme Court ruling in Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. 46, 102 S. Ct. 49 (1981), to affirm the trial court’s ruling. Ridgway dealt with the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance Act and held that the beneficiary’s designation prevailed over a constructive trust which a state court imposed on the policy proceeds.

“While the Plaintiffs cite opinions from some of our sister states, we find the approach taken by the Seventh Circuit and numerous federal and state courts to be the more compelling approach. Accordingly, we conclude that FEGLIA preempts the Plaintiffs’ state law claims,” wrote Judge Elaine Brown.

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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  5. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

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