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Sutherland v. Maine Public Employees Retirement System

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

November 28, 2016

NELL SUTHERLAND, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Scott Sutherland, Plaintiff
v.
MAINE PUBLIC EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT SYSTEM, et al., Defendants

          ORDER

          Thomas D. Warren Justice.

         This lawsuit concerns claims by Nell Sutherland, individually and as Personal representative of the Estate of Scott Sutherland, arising out of certain life insurance proceeds and pre-retirement death benefits that were paid to Scott's ex-wife, Diane Sutherland. In addition to her role as the Personal Representative of Scott's Estate, Nell Sutherland was married to Scott Sutherland when he died. Diane Sutherland was paid the life insurance proceeds and pre-retirement death benefits because, even after Diane and Scott were divorced, Diane remained as Scott's designated beneficiary for those benefits.

         Plaintiff has asserted claims against MainePERS, against Lori Ann Garside, [1] against Aetna, and against Diane. All have moved to dismiss.

         For purposes of a motion to dismiss, the material allegations of the complaint must be taken as admitted. Ramsey v. Baxter Title Co., 2012 ME 113 ¶ 2, 54 A.3d 710. The complaint must be read in the light most favorable to the plaintiff to determine if it sets forth elements of a cause of action or alleges facts that would entitle plaintiff to relief pursuant to some legal theory. Bisson v. Hannaford Bros. Co., Inc., 2006 ME 131 ¶ 2, 909 A.2d 1010. Dismissal is appropriate only when it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff is not entitled to relief under any set of facts that she might prove in support of her claim. Moody v. State Liquor & Lottery Commission, 2004 ME 20 ¶ 7, 843 A.2d 43. However, a plaintiff may not proceed if the complaint fails to allege essential elements of the cause of action. See Potter, Prescott, Jamieson & Nelson P.A. v. Campbell, 1998 ME 70 ¶¶ 6-7, 708 A.2d 283.

         As discussed below, a number of the documents that are central to plaintiffs claims are attached to the complaint and the court can therefore consider those documents in considering whether the complaint states cognizable claims. Moody v. State Liquor & Lottery Commission, 2004 ME 20 ¶¶ 9-10.

         Count 1 - Plaintiffs Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim

         In Count One of the complaint plaintiff asserts a claim for breach of fiduciary duty against MainePERS, Garside, Aetna, and Diane. A fiduciary relationship requires (1) the actual placing of trust and confidence by the plaintiff in the alleged fiduciary and (2) a great disparity or power and influence. A sufficient disparity of power and influence may be demonstrated by diminished physical or emotional capacity on the part of plaintiff or by a letting down of all guards and defenses. See Oceanic Inn Inc. v. Sloan's Cove LLC, 2016 ME 34 ¶ 18, 133 A.3d 1021.

         The complaint does not contain any factual allegations that would support the existence of a fiduciary relationship between either Nell or the Estate and any of the defendants. As discussed below, MainePERS and Aetna may have had a contractual relationship with the Estate, but this does not translate into a fiduciary relationship.

         Count One of plaintiff s complaint is therefore dismissed.

         Count 2 - Plaintiffs Contract Claim

         Count Two of the complaint alleges breach of contract against MainePERS and Aetna. Nell Sutherland does not allege that she had any contractual relationship in her individual capacity with MainePERS or Aetna, so this claim can only be pursued by the Estate.

         Both Maine PERS and Aetna argue that even if a contractual relationship existed with the Estate, there was no breach of contract because they were statutorily obligated pursuant to 5 M.R.S. §§ 17952 and 18057 to pay the life insurance and the pre-retirement death benefits to Scott's designated beneficiary. The documents by which Scott Sutherland designated Diane as the beneficiary for both life insurance benefits and pre-retirement death benefits are attached as Exhibit 3 to the complaint.

         Plaintiff argues that those designations were superseded by provisions of the Divorce Judgment and Divorce Settlement Agreement between Scott and Diane which are attached to the complaint as Exhibit 5. Because the beneficiary designations and the Divorce Judgment and Divorce Settlement Agreement are central to the Estate's claim, the court can consider them in connection with the motion to dismiss. See Moody v. State Liquor and Lottery Commission, 2004 ME 20 ¶¶ 9-10.

         First, neither MainePERS nor Aetna were parties to the Divorce Judgment and Settlement Agreement between Scott and Diane, and the Estate cannot pursue a contract claim against MainePERS or Aetna based on an ...


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