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Prudential Insurance Co. of America v. House

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

May 2, 2019

JASON HOUSE, et al., Defendants.



         Death benefits became due upon the death of Bobbie House who was covered by a group life insurance policy through her employer. The insurer, The Prudential Insurance Company of America (“Prudential”), filed an interpleader suit to determine the rights of the competing claimants to the life insurance death benefits: Bobbie House's husband, Defendant Jason House (“House”); and her daughter, Defendant Bailey Nelson (“Nelson”).[1] Before the Court are Prudential's motion for default judgment against House and for interpleader relief (Doc. 45) and Nelson's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 32). The motions are ripe for ruling.[2] After careful consideration, the motions are GRANTED.

         I. Background

         A. Facts[3]

         On October 7, 2016, House shot his wife Bobbi House (the “Insured”) in the head. Investigating officers who arrived at the scene observed the Insured bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to the head. The Insured was transported to the hospital where she succumbed to her injuries. At the scene, the Insured's boyfriend informed investigating officers that House had shot the Insured in the head and had shot at him multiple times. House then fled the scene, leading Missouri State Highway Patrol on a high-speed chase, and was ultimately taken into custody. While in custody, House described to an investigating officer “how he had met with [the Insured] at McDonald's and her boyfriend . . . wasn't supposed to be there. [House] said that he got his gun and went for [the boyfriend].” (Doc. 33-2 at 2.) House also described “how he shot [the Insured] and attempted to shoot [the boyfriend]. [House] said he fired all but two of the rounds in the gun one of which struck [the Insured] in the head.” (Id.) House was charged with and ultimately convicted, on April 10, 2019, of first-degree murder of the Insured.[4]

         At all relevant times, the Insured was covered under a life insurance policy issued by Prudential to Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. bearing Group Policy No. G-43939 (the “Policy”). Under the Policy, which is attached to the Amended Complaint, the Insured was covered for basic life insurance in the amount of $29, 000, optional life insurance in the amount of $25, 000, and optional accidental death and dismemberment insurance in the amount of $25, 000 for a total death benefit of $79, 000 (“Death Benefit”). The Insured designated Defendant House as the sole primary beneficiary and Defendant Nelson as the sole contingent beneficiary for the Death Benefit.

         B. Procedural History

         On August 8, 2017, Prudential sued House and Nelson seeking interpleader relief regarding life insurance death benefits in the amount of $54, 000, which are due because of the death of the Insured. (Doc. 1.) House and Nelson were both personally served with the Complaint on August 24, 2017, and August 25, 2017, respectively. (Docs. 5, 6.) Upon request by Prudential, the Court appointed a guardian ad litem for Nelson, then a minor, and directed Prudential to deposit the $54, 000 death benefit with the Court. (Doc. 14.) After discovering an additional $25, 000 optional life insurance benefit, Prudential amended its Complaint and filed a motion to deposit the additional death benefit and for interpleader relief. (Docs. 21, 22.)

         Nelson answered the Amended Complaint and filed the pending motion for summary judgment. (Docs. 27, 31, 32.) House was personally served with the Amended Complaint and motion to deposit additional funds and for interpleader relief but has failed to plead or otherwise appear. (Doc. 26.) An entry of default against House was entered on January 24, 2019. (Doc. 42.)

         On January 25, 2019, the Court granted Prudential's request to deposit the additional funds and denied, without prejudice, its request for interpleader relief pending resolution of House's default. (Doc. 43.) Prudential deposited the additional $25, 000 with the Court on February 6, 2019. Prudential seeks default judgment against House and judgment against Nelson, granting it interpleader relief. (Doc. 45.) Nelson does not oppose. (Doc. 47.) Nelson also seeks summary judgment in her favor because House is disqualified from receiving any benefits under the policy issued by Prudential. (Doc. 32.)

         II. Jurisdiction

         The Court has federal question jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because the case arises under Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. See Metro Life Ins. Co. v. Price, 501 F.3d 271, 276 (3rd Cir. 2007) (courts have recognized that an interpleader action “arises under” federal law when brought by an ERISA fiduciary against competing claimants to plan benefits). The Court has personal jurisdiction over House and Nelson because they are citizens of Missouri and were served with process. (Doc. 21 at ¶ 3; Doc. 48 at 2-3.); Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 137 (2014) (federal courts have general personal jurisdiction over individuals in the states in which the individuals are domiciled); Vlandis v. Kline, 412 U.S. 441, 454 (1973) (for purposes of federal jurisdiction, domicile and citizenship are synonymous terms); New York Life Ins. Co. v. Dunlevy, 241 U.S. 518, 521 (1916) (interpleader action is an in personam proceeding).

         III. Motion for Default Judgment

         Rule 55 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets out a two-step procedure for obtaining a default judgment. First, when a party “has failed to plead or otherwise defend” “the clerk must enter the party's default.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a); Johnson v. Dayton Elec. Mfg. Co., 140 F.3d 781, 783 (8th Cir. 1998) (entry of default by the clerk must precede grant of default judgment under Rule 55(b)). Second, Rule 55(b) authorizes the clerk or court to enter a default judgment. If the judgment sought is not for a sum certain, a “party must apply to the court for default judgment.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(b)(2). Rule 55 provides that the court may conduct hearings if necessary to conduct an accounting; determine the amount of damages; establish the truth of any allegation by evidence; or investigate any other matter. Id. “A default judgment entered by the court binds the party facing the default as having admitted all of the well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint.” Angelo Iafrate Constr., LLC v. Potashnick Constr., Inc., 370 F.3d 715, 722 (8th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Factual allegations in the Complaint are taken as true, except those relating to damages. See Everyday ...

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