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Kruse v. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

August 14, 2017




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court upon Defendant Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company's (“Defendant” or “MassMutual”) Motion to Dismiss the Complaint, ECF No. [7] (the “Motion”); see also ECF No. [8] (Memorandum of Law in Support of the Motion). The Court has reviewed the Motion, all opposing and supporting submissions, the record and the applicable law, and is otherwise fully advised. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action centers around a life insurance contract (Policy No. 8652098, or the “Policy”) entered into by Defendant, an insurance company based in Massachusetts, and Eliot J. Lupkin (“Mr. Lupkin”) in March of 1991, whereby Defendant agreed to provide $400, 000.00 in death benefits to Mr. Lupkin's elected beneficiary or beneficiaries in exchange for payment of a yearly premium by Mr. Lupkin. See ECF No. [6-2] at ¶ 7. Many years later, when Mr. Lupkin passed away on November 13, 2016, the Policy remained in effect. See Id. at ¶ 8.

         Several years prior, on August 8, 2008, Mr. Lupkin's financial advisor sent a form to Defendant on behalf of Mr. Lupkin requesting that Defendant provide certain information regarding the Policy, including the identity of the beneficiary of the Policy. Id. at ¶ 11. In a letter dated August 20, 2008 (the “August 2008 Letter”), an employee of Defendant provided Mr. Lupkin's financial advisor with the requested information, and in doing so, identified Plaintiff Coranne Pamela Kruse (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Kruse”) as the primary and sole beneficiary of the Policy. See Id. at ¶¶ 12, 17. Thereafter, Mr. Lupkin met with his financial advisor on multiple occasions to discuss his finances. On each of those occasions he expressed to his financial advisor his intention and belief that Plaintiff would be the primary and sole beneficiary of the Policy. Id. at ¶ 14. According to the Complaint, Mr. Lupkin believed that Plaintiff was the primary and sole beneficiary of the Policy on the date of his death. Id. at ¶ 15.

         Following Mr. Lupkin's death, a wealth counselor working for the estate of Mr. Lupkin (the “Estate”) contacted Defendant regarding Mr. Lupkin's death and the Policy. Id. at ¶ 16. Defendant responded to the wealth counselor with an email advising him that the Policy named Lea Lupkin (“Ms. Lupkin”)-Mr. Lupkin's niece-and Colette Bolduc (“Ms. Bolduc”) as the only two beneficiaries. Id. at ¶ 17. Thereafter, on December 22, 2016, Plaintiff, as personal representative of the Estate, employed counsel to send Defendant a demand letter demanding payment of the death benefits under the Policy to Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 19. On January 28, 2017, Plaintiff submitted to Defendant a formal claim to the death benefits under the Policy. Id. at ¶ 20.

         On April 5, 2017, Plaintiff, in both her individual capacity and in her role as personal representative of the Estate, initiated the instant action against Defendant. See ECF No. [1] at ¶¶ 2, 4. Based on the above mentioned factual allegations, Plaintiff asserts the following eight claims for relief in her Complaint: equitable estoppel (Count I); negligence against Plaintiff (Count II); negligence against Mr. Lupkin (Count III); breach of third party beneficiary contract (Count IV); breach of implied-in-fact contract (Count V); fraudulent misrepresentation (Count VI); negligent misrepresentation (Count VII); and specific performance (Count VIII). See ECF No. [6-2]. Defendant moves to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety, arguing that each of Plaintiff's claims fail to state a claim under which relief can be granted. See ECF Nos. [7], [8].


         A pleading in a civil action must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). To satisfy the Rule 8 pleading requirements, a complaint must provide the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 512, (2002). While a complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, ” it must provide “more than labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The Supreme Court has emphasized that “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); see also Am. Dental Assoc. v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1288-90 (11th Cir. 2010). With respect to Rule 12(b)(6), “[d]ismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is not appropriate ‘unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'” Magluta v. Samples, 375 F.3d 1269, 1273 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). A court considering a Rule 12(b) motion is generally limited to the facts contained in the complaint and attached exhibits, including documents referred to in the complaint that are central to the claim. See Wilchombe v. TeeVee Toons, Inc., 555 F.3d 949, 959 (11th Cir. 2009); see also Maxcess, Inc. v. Lucent Technologies, Inc., 433 F.3d 1337, 1340 (11th Cir. 2005) (“[A] document outside the four corners of the complaint may still be considered if it is central to the plaintiff's claims and is undisputed in terms of authenticity.”) (citing Horsley v. Feldt, 304 F.3d 1125, 1135 (11th Cir. 2002)).


         A. Equitable Estoppel (Count I)

         Defendant seeks dismissal of Count I on the basis that the Complaint fails to allege facts satisfying all of the elements required for an equitable estoppel claim-in particular, that Mr. Lupkin actually relied on the August 2008 Letter to his detriment. See ECF No. [8] at 7-8. The Court disagrees.

         The elements of an equitable estoppel claim, which a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence, are: (1) a representation about a material fact that is contrary to a later-asserted position; (2) reliance on that representation; and (3) a change in position detrimental to the party claiming estoppel based on the representation and reliance thereon. Lewis v. Dep't of Health & Rehab. Servs., 659 So.2d 1255, 1256-57 (Fla. 4th DCA 1995) (quoting State Dep't of Revenue v. Anderson, 403 So.2d 397 (Fla. 1981)).

         The first element is clearly satisfied here. Defendant's current position that Plaintiff is not listed as a beneficiary under the Policy is contrary to the August 2008 Letter in which Defendant represented that Plaintiff was not only a beneficiary, but the sole beneficiary. With respect to the latter two elements, the Court begins by noting that the particular reliance alleged in the Complaint is not necessarily a change in position; rather, it is in essence the opposite. Plaintiff alleges that had Mr. Lupkin known that Plaintiff was not the beneficiary under the Policy, he would have taken the appropriate measures to make her the beneficiary. ECF No. [6-2] at ¶¶ 14-15. According to the Complaint, because he did not know this, he decided to not do anything-i.e., he did not change his position. Id. at ¶ 18. Nonetheless, the Court finds that the alleged decision by Mr. Lupkin not to change the Policy based on the August 2008 Letter constitutes reliance for purposes of equitable estoppel. Taking the allegations in the Complaint as true, Mr. Lupkin's inaction led to an identifiable detriment - that is, an undesired disbursement of the Policy's death benefits.

         Defendant cites to United States Life Ins. Co. in the City of N.Y. v. Logus Mfg. Corp., 845 F.Supp.2d 1303 (S.D. Fla. 2012), in support of its argument that the above mentioned reliance was not reasonable. See ECF No. [8] at 8. Defendant points out, and correctly so, that a claim of reliance must fail where the parties have equal knowledge of the truth or where the plaintiff had access to the truth. Id. at 7-8 (citing Lennar Homes, Inc. v. Gabb Constr. Serv., Inc., 654 So.2d 649, 652 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995), and Logus, 845 F.Supp.2d at 1314). Defendant is incorrect to argue here, however, that “[b]ecause Mr. Lupkin could have, at any point in the eight years after the August 2008 Letter, called MassMutual and confirmed the beneficiary (or questioned the contents of the August 2008 Letter), he cannot claim to have relied on it.” Id. at 8. On this point, Logus is distinguishable from this case, and the distinction illustrates why Mr. Lupkin's alleged reliance on the August 2008 Letter was not unreasonable. At issue in Logus were deficient “Change Forms” that had been submitted by the deceased insured to the insurer in order to change the named beneficiary of his life insurance policy to his personal trust. See 845 F.Supp.2d at 1318-19. The attempt proved unsuccessful due to the deficiencies in the Change Forms. See Id. at 1309-10. The trust, which was one of two defendants in the action, [1] claimed that if the insurer would have notified the insured of the deficiencies in the Change Forms, the insured would have remedied those deficiencies and thus secured the policy's proceeds for his personal trust. Id. at 1319. The court rejected that argument, reasoning in relevant part as follows:

[T]he Trust's purported reliance was not reasonable because it could have simply contacted American General to confirm that the change of beneficiary had been made. . . . The Trust's abject failure over a period of nine years to call or write to American General and request confirmation that it had been substituted as the beneficiary in the instant Policy renders its alleged reliance unreasonable.

Id. In this case, there are no Change Forms at issue (at least not as reflected in the Complaint). More importantly, whatever might have precipitated Mr. Lupkin's inquiry in 2008 as to who the named beneficiary or beneficiaries under the Policy were, the inquiry was made directly to Defendant, and Defendant itself responded to the inquiry. In other words, Mr. Lupkin did exactly what the Logus court explained that the insured in that case should have done, but did not do. In the Court's view, under these circumstances, that Mr. Lupkin apparently relied on Defendant's response in the August 2008 Letter in the years to follow is not in and of itself unreasonable. Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff's equitable estoppel claim under Count I has been sufficiently pled.

         B. Negligence Against Plaintiff (Count II)

         Defendant seeks dismissal of Count II on the bases that Defendant owed no duty to Plaintiff, and that even if it did, there was no causal connection between any conduct by Defendant and the harm to Plaintiff alleged under Count II. See ECF No. [8] at 8-9. The Court agrees with the latter.

         The elements of a negligence claim are: (1) a duty, or obligation, recognized by the law, requiring the defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) the defendant's failure to conform to that standard (i.e., a breach of the duty owed); (3) a reasonably close causal connection between the conduct at issue and the resulting injury (i.e., proximate cause); and (4) actual loss or damage. Clay Elec. Coop., Inc. v. Johnson, 873 So.2d 1182, 1185 (Fla. 2003). “The principle of ‘duty' . . . may arise from four general sources: (1) legislative enactments or administration regulations; (2) judicial interpretations of such enactments or regulations; (3) other judicial precedent; and (4) a duty arising from the general facts of the case.” Id. (quoting McCain v. Fla. Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500, ...

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