Submitted: April 16, 2019
from United States District Court for the Western District of
Missouri - Joplin
SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.
Arnold, Circuit Judge.
an action under the Employment Retirement Income Security
Act, see 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq., for
a declaratory judgment that the administrator of group
insurance plans paid benefits to the wrong person.
Administrators of ERISA plans are frequently given the
discretion to interpret those plans and to make benefits
determinations. This case involves just how much deference
courts must afford a plan administrator who exercises that
Engle was an employee of Land O'Lakes, Inc., when he
tragically died in a car crash. As an employee of Land
O'Lakes, Engle had both life insurance and insurance for
accidental death provided by Unum Life Insurance Company of
America. Under the terms of those plans, Land O'Lakes was
designated the fiduciary and plan administrator, but it
delegated to Unum the discretion to interpret the plans and
to make benefit determinations. Unum's authority included
"determining eligibility for benefits and the amount of
any benefits, resolving factual disputes, and interpreting
and enforcing the provisions of the Plan."
plans specify that, when, as here, there is no designated
beneficiary, payments will be made, in Unum's discretion,
either to the decedent's estate or to surviving family
members in a designated order, starting with a spouse, then
to children, and then to parents. After Engle died, Unum
wrote a letter to his mother, Sharon Engle (whom we will call
"Sharon" to avoid confusion), and sought her help
in identifying a beneficiary. Unum told Sharon that the
information she provided would form the basis of its decision
regarding whom to pay. With that understanding, Sharon
explained that Engle did not have an estate and that none
would be opened for him. She also noted that, though Engle
was unmarried at the time of his death, he was survived by
two minor children and one Jaclyn Jones, a woman whom Sharon
identified as Engle's domestic partner.
of the view that a domestic partner could count as a spouse
under the plans, Unum asked Jones to complete an affidavit
verifying that she was Engle's domestic partner. That
same day, Sharon spoke with a Unum representative by phone.
Notes from the call show that Sharon inquired about the
status of the insurance claims, and Unum advised her that it
needed Jones to complete an affidavit, which Sharon said she
understood. She then asked if "domestic partner"
meant something similar to common-law marriage, and the Unum
representative opined that it did. The call notes say Sharon
then "stated good" because "Terry & Jaclyn
lived together & were to be married." Sharon asked
how much longer claims processing would take, and when the
Unum representative explained it would not take long and that
no additional information (besides Jones's affidavit) was
needed, Sharon "understood & call ended
cordially." Jones soon returned a completed affidavit to
Unum, and shortly thereafter Unum paid her $266, 000 under
the life and accidental-death plans.
appeared well until Sharon contacted Unum about three months
later to complain that it had paid Jones rather than
Engle's children. She then opened an estate for Engle and
became its personal representative. When Sharon sued Land
O'Lakes and Unum on behalf of Engle's estate in
Missouri state court, seeking a declaratory judgment that
Unum should have paid Engle's estate rather than Jones,
the defendants removed the case to federal court. That court
remanded the case to Unum to develop the record further: Unum
did so and upheld its earlier decision to give the benefits
federal court, the parties moved for summary judgment. The
district court sided with Sharon and held that Unum had
adopted an unreasonable interpretation of the plans to
support its decision to pay Jones rather than Engle's
estate. We review the district court's decision de novo.
See Manning v. Am. Republic Ins. Co., 604 F.3d 1030,
1038 (8th Cir. 2010).
crux of the parties' dispute is whether Unum reasonably
interpreted the plans as allowing it to pay a decedent's
domestic partner in the absence of a designated beneficiary.
As we noted before, the plans provide that Unum may pay
benefits to a decedent's estate or "spouse," if
he had one. When Unum made the payments it was operating
under Sharon's assurance that Engle did not and would not
have an estate, so it was reasonable for Unum to determine
whether Engle had a "spouse." The parties dispute
whether the word "spouse," as used in this portion
of the plans, encompasses domestic partners.
thought so even though the plans' glossary contained no
definition for the word "spouse." Unum relied
instead on a reference to "spouse" found elsewhere
in the plans. Under a heading delimiting what dependents are
eligible for life-insurance coverage, the plan specifies that
a "spouse" is eligible and that
"'[s]pouse' wherever used includes domestic
partner." That same "spousal enlargement
language," as the district court termed it, makes an
encore under the heading delimiting what dependents are
eligible for accidental-death coverage.
interprets the phrase "wherever used" broadly to
mean that the term "spouse" includes a domestic
partner even in the provisions involving the payment of
benefits. The district court read an implied limit into the
spousal-enlargement language and held that the phrase
"wherever used" meant only wherever the word
"spouse" appeared under the headings relating to
insurance coverage, and not to benefits. After all, the
district court reasoned, if Unum wanted "spouse" to
include domestic partners throughout the plans, then it could
have said so in the glossary. The district court rightly
pointed out, moreover, that if the phrase "wherever
used" is taken literally, then there was no need for
Unum to use the enlargement language twice.
district court certainly adopted a reasonable reading of the
plans, though its interpretation is not without its own
difficulties. For example, its interpretation essentially
requires reading the phrase "wherever used" to mean
"wherever used under this heading," arguably adding
words to the plans. Further, if the spousal-enlargement
language applies only to uses of the word "spouse"
under the heading in which it appears, then curious anomalies
arise in other parts of the plans where "spouse" is
used. For example, the term "spouse" is used
several times in the plans' insurance-portability
sections without any enlargement, and it would seem odd to