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O'Neal v. Life Insurance Co. of North America

United States District Court, D. Montana, Helena Division

March 29, 2014

JULIA E. O'NEAL, a Montana resident, Plaintiff,
v.
LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF NORTH AMERICA, a Pennsylvania corporation, Defendant

Decided: March 26, 2014.

Page 1133

For Julia E. O'Neal, a Montana resident, Plaintiff: Ann E. Davey, LEAD ATTORNEY, VINCENT LAW FIRM, Columbus, MT.

For Life Insurance Company of North America, a Pennsylvania corporation, Defendant: Robert L. Sterup, LEAD ATTORNEY, HOLLAND & HART, Billings, MT.

Page 1134

ORDER

CHARLES C. LOVELL, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This action is brought pursuant to § 502(a) of the Employers Retirement and Income Security Act of 1974 (" ERISA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), which is a " comprehensive statute designed to promote the interests of employees and their beneficiaries in employee benefit plans." See Shaw v. Delta Airlines, 463 U.S. 85, 90-91, 103 S.Ct. 2890, 77 L.Ed.2d 490 (1983). Plaintiff's Amended Complaint seeks review of Defendant's denial of an $83,000.00 accidental death insurance benefit. Before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. The parties having stipulated

Page 1135

that the case shall be decided by " de novo review by the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment based on the administrative record" ( see Doc. 12, ¶ 2), the Court finds that the matter is suitable for determination without a hearing.

Background.

Plaintiff Julia E. O'Neal (" O'Neal" ) is the beneficiary of an accident insurance policy made available to her son through the Helmerich & Payne, Inc. (" H& P" ) employee benefit plan. Defendant Life Insurance Company of North America (" LINA" ) issued the group accident insurance policy to H& P. Plaintiff O'Neal is the mother of Reece E. Cape (" Cape" ), who was employed by H& P at the time of his death in an automobile crash. After her claim was denied by the LINA, O'Neal appealed administratively and has therefore exhausted her administrative remedies. The group policy issued by LINA does not grant LINA discretion to construe plan provisions or interpret plan terms. The parties therefore have agreed that a de novo standard of review applies in this action.

Legal Standards.

Summary Judgment.

The moving party must inform the court of the basis for the motion for summary judgment. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Summary judgment should be granted if the moving party demonstrates that " there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. Once this initial burden is met, the opposing party must " go beyond the pleadings" and " set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. at 2552 (internal quotes omitted). " If a party fails to properly support an assertion of facts or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may . . . consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion. . . ." Rule 56(e)(2). " [A] party cannot manufacture a genuine issue of material fact merely by making assertions in its legal memoranda." S. A. Empresa de Viacao Aerea Rio Grandense (Varig Airlines) v. Walter Kidde & Co., 690 F.2d 1235, 1238 (9th Cir. 1982).

" On summary judgment, the proper task is not to weigh conflicting evidence, but rather to ask whether the non-moving party has produced sufficient evidence to permit the fact finder to hold in his favor." Ingram v. Martin Marietta Long Term Disability Income Plan for Salaried Employees of Transferred GE Operations, 244 F.3d 1109, 1114 (9th Cir. 2011). Because there is no right to jury trial in ERISA cases, a bench trial, confined to the administrative record, before a district judge who has already ruled on summary judgment would be " little more than a formality." Id. at 1114. At a bench trial, the district court can admit additional evidence if " circumstances clearly establish that [it] is necessary to conduct an adequate de novo review of the benefit decision." Id. (quoting Mongeluzo, 46 F.3d at 944)). In this case, however, neither party gives any indication of having any additional evidence to offer. Indeed, both parties seek summary judgment on the existing administrative record and assert there are no genuine issues of material fact.

Review of denial of ERISA benefits.

It is undisputed that the de novo standard of review applies because H& P's ERISA-government employee benefit plan does not give the administrator " discretionary authority to determine eligibility for ...


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