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Ball Corporation v. Durham

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

January 31, 2014



ROBERT E. WIER, Magistrate Judge.

The Court considers the pending Interpleader Complaint, which requests a determination of which Claimant, Sandra Durham or Mary Durham, is entitled to benefits, related to the deceased Curtis Durham, in a pension plan (Plan) established under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et. seq. DE #1 (Interpleader Complaint). The Court conducted a bench trial on April 18, 2013. DE #32 (Minute Entry). The Interpleader Plaintiffs, Ball Corporation and Ball Corporation Consolidated Hourly Pension Plan, attended by counsel and observed but did not actively participate. Both Claimants testified and actively cross-examined, and the Court heard both opening statements and closing arguments.

Having considered the full record, the Court FINDS that Claimant Mary Durham is the proper beneficiary and qualifies as the "Eligible Spouse" or "Surviving Spouse" under the Plan.[1]. Mary Durham, having entered into a valid common law marriage with Curtis Durham in Ohio that was not terminated by death, divorce, or dissolution, is the Claimant that was legally married under federal law to Curtis Durham, the Plan member, on the date of his death and throughout the year preceding his death. The Court enters a separate Judgment consistent with the reasoning and findings herein.

I. Introduction

A. The Court has jurisdiction over the dispute and venue is proper in this federal District.

The Court has jurisdiction over the instant dispute pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Section 1331(a) generally establishes federal question jurisdiction. Further, ERISA itself specifically grants jurisdiction: "[Except for suits brought by individuals to recover, enforce, or determine rights], the district courts of the United States shall have exclusive jurisdiction of civil actions under this subchapter brought by... a fiduciary...." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1); see also IBEW Pacific Coast Pension Fund v. Lee, 462 Fed.App'x 546, 548 (6th Cir. 2012) ("We have subject matter jurisdiction over an interpleader action initiated to determine the proper beneficiary of an employee pension benefit plan." (citing 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3)(B)(ii)) and Cent. States, Se. & Sw. Areas Pension Fund v. Howell, 227 F.3d 672, 674 n.2 (6th 2000))); Fed.R.Civ.P. 22(a)(1); Mattingly v. Hoge, No. 3:05-CV-301, 2007 WL 204008, *2 n.4 (W.D. Ky. Jan. 23, 2007) ("Federal district court has exclusive jurisdiction over ERISA actions brought by fiduciaries. As the plan fiduciary, MetLife was permitted to bring an interpleader action in federal court." (citations omitted)). ERISA's jurisdictional grant is without regard to the amount in controversy or the citizenship of the parties. 29 U.S.C. § 1132(f).

Here, Ball Corporation is the Plan Administrator. Thus, pursuant to the statutory authority cited above, the Court has original jurisdiction over the matter. Further, venue is proper in this District pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(2), which provides that an action may be brought "where a defendant resides or may be found." Id. Both Defendants/Claimants live in the Eastern District of Kentucky. DE #1 (Interpleader Complaint) at 2, ¶¶ 4, 5 (identifying Sandra Durham as living in Orlando, Kentucky and Mary Durham as living in Stanford, Kentucky); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1).

B. The parties.

In this somewhat unusual but intriguing case, the parties' interests are distinct and well-defined. First, the Interpleader Plaintiffs seek a determination of which of two competing Claimants is the proper beneficiary, as Surviving Spouse or Eligible Spouse under the Plan.

The competing Claimants, Mary Durham (Mary) and Sandra Durham (Sandra), both claim beneficiary status per the Plan, as Surviving Spouse of Plan participant, the late Curtis Durham (Curtis).[2] Mary alleges a common law marriage to Curtis in Ohio from 1984, and Sandra alleges a ceremonial marriage in Kentucky from April 2002 to the date of Curtis's death, September 20, 2006. On June 22, 2002, Mary married Robert Earl Northern in Kentucky. The Court discusses the various details of these unions below.

C. Question presented.

The Interpleader Complaint presents one overriding question: Which Claimant is lawfully entitled to Plan benefits as Eligible Spouse?

The Court first addresses choice of law, next assessing the alleged common law marriage, whether that marriage remained intact, and whether subsequent events or developments, including the later solemnized Kentucky marriages, displace any rights dependent on the Ohio common law relationship between Curtis and Mary. Ultimately, the Court finds that Mary and Curtis Durham had a valid common law marriage in Ohio that never legally ended. As a consequence, Mary is the Surviving Spouse despite later events. This result may seem somewhat unfair and unfortunate, given the parties' subsequent conduct, but the facts and law compel a result in Mary's favor.

II. Analysis

By agreement of the parties, Mary presented her proof first at trial, although this did not affect any presumption or evidentiary burden. Generally, the parties do not dispute the factual events, and the Court notes any discrepancy below. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1), the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Mary met Curtis in April 1983, in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky while Mary was waiting tables. DE #34 (Trial Tr.) at 15. At that time, Curtis was laid off from his job with Heekin Can in Cincinnati, Ohio, and living with his mother in the Mt. Vernon area. Id. The two began a romantic relationship, although Curtis was called back to Heekin Can and relocated to Cincinnati in late 1983/early 1984. Id. at 16. Curtis gave Mary a ring, and the couple got engaged in July 1983. Id. at 47. In October 1983, Mary entered into a 1-year lease on a restaurant in Mt. Vernon, and she did not move to Cincinnati until November 1, 1984. Id. at 17.

Mary moved to Cincinnati to be married to Curtis, and the couple exchanged marriage vows, in the presence of his mother, on November 1, 1984, at Curtis's Cincinnati home. Id. at 47. Mary's was the only testimony on this point, but she backed up the timing with her October 1984 divorce papers (Mary's. Ex. 15), which freed her to marry Curtis. The specific and particular testimony about the timing, the interplay with lease expiration, and the event details all combine to support the finding that the private and intimate ceremony, involving present intent to wed, did in fact occur. The Court so finds. The stated motivation for avoiding a formal ceremony-the couple's past negative experiences with formalized marriage-made sense in context. Mary and Curtis held each other out as husband and wife from November 1, 1984 until they separated sometime around 2000. Id. During that full 16-year period, the couple purchased property together, [3] filed joint tax returns, [4] and considered themselves a married couple. Id. at 18. (Q: "Did you think that you were any more or less of a married couple because you didn't get a marriage certificate? A: No. We were married."); id. at 18-19 (Q: "Did you think you were anymore or any less of a married couple because you didn't have a ceremony in a church? A: No. Q: Or before a judge? A: No."). Mary obtained a social security card in the name of Mary Durham, and Curtis's 1986 Last Will and Testament leaves his entire estate to his "beloved wife, Mary Durham."[5] Id. at 23-25; see also Mary's Ex. No. 11.

At some point in 2000, Mary and Curtis separated, although the couple experienced relationship difficulties as early as 1998. DE #34 (Trial Tr.) at 18 (describing relationship as a "backwards and forth thing from '98 to 2000"); id. at 27 (noting final separation in 2000). Mary and Curtis did seek advice of counsel, and the couple understood that they would need to either obtain a divorce or formally dissolve their common law marriage. Id. at 27. Their corporate attorney even drafted papers, but Curtis and Mary did not sign the documents or otherwise seek further formal termination of the marriage. Per Mary: "[Curtis] wouldn't pay for the divorce. I wouldn't pay for the divorce. So we didn't get no divorce." Id. at 27-28; see also Mary's Ex. No. 14 (including correspondence from a Cincinnati lawyer concerning dissolution between Mary and Curtis); id. (November 22, 2000 letter from the lawyer noting that no payment had been received). Mary confirmed at trial that she and Curtis never formally terminated the marriage in any jurisdiction.

Mary does receive social security benefits as Curtis's widow. The record reflects a March 2009 letter indicating Mary's entitlement to monthly widow's benefits. Mary's Ex. No. 13. At some point, Mary went to the social security office and learned, initially, that she would be unable to collect benefits because of Curtis's marriage to Sandra. Mary informed the office that she had a prior common law marriage to Curtis in Ohio. After an independent investigation, which required Mary to submit final divorce paperwork from her earlier divorces and from Curtis's prior divorces and included interviews by the office with two of Curtis's sisters, the office awarded Mary widow's benefits. DE #34 (Trial Tr.) at 31-35; see also Mary's Ex. No. 13.

After Curtis and Mary separated, Curtis married Sandra (Bowles) Durham on April 10, 2002, in Orlando, Kentucky. On the marriage license, Curtis listed his marital status as divorced and cited just 2 prior marriages. See Sandra's Ex. No. 2. On June 22, 2002, Mary married Robert Earl Northern in Renfro Valley, Kentucky. On the marriage license, Mary listed her marital status as divorced and also cited 2 prior marriages. See Sandra's Ex. No. 3. At trial, Mary testified that, prior to entering into a common law marriage with Curtis, she was ceremonially married to and divorced from both Denvin Miller and Floyd Hayes. DE #34 (Trial Tr.) at 19, 33. She also testified that, prior to her common law marriage with Curtis, he was formally married to and divorced from Judy Durham and Wanda Hasty.

Unlike Sandra's marriage, which ended with the unfortunate passing of Curtis, a Rockcastle Circuit Court ultimately invalidated Mary's marriage to Northern. Mary's Ex. No. 12. Per the 2008 judgment, in the case Northern initiated, the court found that Mary was, at the time of her marriage to Northern, married to Curtis under a valid common law marriage from Ohio. Id. The court thus invalidated the marriage (on Northern's petition) and restored Mary's name to Mary Durham. At trial here, Mary explained that her marriage to Northern was not traditional. DE #34 (Trial Tr.) at 49 ("Actually, we were childhood sweethearts, and it was just a big deal. We never did consummate our marriage. He - [Robert Northern] stayed in Mt. Vernon probably maybe two weeks, and then he went to work in Owensboro, Kentucky, and we just lived separate lives. We never did live together."). As to Northern's motive for filing the petition for a declaration of invalidity, Mary indicated that Northern possibly believed that Mary might have or receive wealth that he might someday inherit. Id. at 50. Mary, who did not have counsel per the document, did not actively participate in the invalidity proceedings, stating that she "didn't care" and "wasn't going to bother with it." Id.

Mary testified she always believed that her marriage to Curtis was valid, although she struggled with her marital status after she and Curtis remarried. Mary testified to a conversation that she had with Curtis and Sandra in which Curtis supposedly told Mary that he had spoken to William Gregory, a Kentucky lawyer, [6] who allegedly advised at an unknown point that Curtis and Mary did not have to get divorced because Kentucky did not honor common law marriages. Id. at 29. Based on Curtis's representations, and the fact that Curtis remarried first, Mary felt free to and ultimately did marry Robert Northern.

Sandra knew some about Curtis's history with Mary, although she did not know that the two potentially had entered into a common law marriage in Ohio prior to Sandra's marriage to Curtis. Id. at 63. Sandra met Curtis the day after her first husband died in 1999, when Curtis and his then-girlfriend Linda brought a bucket of chicken to visitation at her house. Id. at 59. Sandra first met Mary when Mary was selling property that she and Curtis owned jointly and needed Curtis and Sandra to sign the deed as husband and wife. Id. The women had little contact after that, though Sandra testified to seeing Mary at bingo, and Mary attended Curtis's funeral (signing the guest book as Mary Northern). When Sandra probated Curtis's will and the court appointed her as Executrix, Mary did not protest or otherwise seek to contest the validity of the will. Id. at 64. Sandra alone paid for Curtis's funeral. Id.

Sandra did not know or evidently suspect that, at the time of her marriage to Curtis, he had earlier entered into a common law marriage with Mary that would need to be formally terminated under Ohio law. She understandably took at face value Curtis's statement that he was divorced. Id. at 65. She did testify that, had she known that Curtis was still legally married to Mary, she would have demanded that Curtis get a divorce prior to their own nuptials. Id. at 70. When Sandra saw Mary's name on the deed that she signed at the bank, it was the first time Sandra saw Mary referred to as "Mary Durham." Id. at 73. But, no one had ever disclosed the true extent of Curtis's relationship with ...

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