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Board of Trustees of Masters v. Carney

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

December 3, 2013



WILLIAM M. NICKERSON, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiffs are the trustees of three member benefit plans of the Masters, Mates & Pilots labor union: a pension plan, an individual retirement account plan, and a health plan. Defendant Dennis Carney (Dennis) has been a member of that union since 1977. Plaintiffs bring this action for declaratory judgment and equitable relief seeking the resolution of a dispute as to which of two women claiming to be Dennis's wife is actually his wife and thus entitled to benefits under those plans.

Dennis states in his affidavit that he married his first wife, Defendant Santina Vega Carney (Santina), in Tome, Chile in 1975, and they were divorced on July 25, 1983, in Tabasco, Mexico. Dennis's Aff. ¶ 3. Dennis married his second wife, Defendant Nilsa Carney (Nilsa), on August 20, 1983, in Los Angeles, California. Id . ¶ 7. Dennis and Nilsa had three children, all of whom are now emancipated. Dennis divorced Nilsa on December 29, 2006. Id . ¶ 9. As part of Dennis's divorce from Nilsa, a Qualified Domestic Relations Order was entered specifying that Nilsa would be paid certain benefits from Dennis's pension plan.

Dennis retired on or about April 1, 2010. He received a lump sum distribution of his pension at that time and also continues to receive monthly annuity payments. Pursuant to the Qualified Domestic Relations Order, Nilsa also received a lump sum payment upon Dennis's retirement and continues to receive monthly annuity payments.

On or about August 9, 2011, [1] Santina wrote to Plaintiffs claiming that, while she and Dennis separated in 1983, their divorce "has not been finalized" and, therefore, she is "still his legal wife." Compl. Ex. E. She was aware that Dennis had recently retired and was writing to inquire as to what benefits and pension she was entitled. Id . Santina followed up with additional letters on September 16 and 29, 2011, stating that the Mexican divorce that Dennis attempted to obtain was "illegal, " and that the Social Security Administration had investigated that divorce and concluded that she remains Dennis's legal wife. Compl. Exs. F and G.[2]

In response to her letters, and particularly in light of the purported results of the Social Security Administration's investigation of the divorce, [3] Plaintiffs informed Dennis and Nilsa that the initial determination regarding the lump sum payments and continued annuity payments was invalid and that repayment would be required. Dennis's counsel contacted Plaintiffs, disputing that determination, and Plaintiffs stayed any action to recoup or suspend payments to Dennis and Nilsa, thus preserving the status quo. Plaintiffs did begin providing health benefits to Santina as of January 1, 2012.

Plaintiffs then filed this action asking the Court to issue a declaratory judgment resolving the following three questions:

1) Is the Mexican divorce of Dennis and Santina valid?;
2) Are Dennis and Santina legally married?;
3) Was the marriage between Dennis and Nilsa valid?

Based on the resolution of these questions, the Complaint sets out the implications for each of the three Defendants in terms of continued entitlement to benefits or liability for repayment. Compl. ¶¶ 40-50.

Dennis has filed a motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 11, arguing that Santina has no right, claim, or benefit under the plans. In his affidavit accompanying his motion, he states that, immediately after his divorce from Santina almost thirty years ago, she was removed from his benefit plans. This removal resulted in the loss of her medical and dental benefits and yet, Santina never challenged the removal of those benefits until the recent claim that is the subject of this litigation. Dennis's Aff. ¶ 5. Dennis states that he last saw Santina in 1987 and they have not communicated since that time. Id . ¶ 6. Furthermore, since the divorce, Santina has represented herself as single, including in a statement made under oath in a November 2009 bankruptcy petition. Dennis Ex. 1. Based on this evidence, Dennis contends that Santina is estopped from now asserting that he is her husband and that she is entitled to benefits under his union plans.

As to the law to be applied to this estoppel argument, Dennis notes that there are several possibilities. Santina resided in New York at the time of the 1983 divorce. Dennis, however, was living in California at the time. Santina now lives in New Jersey. Dennis suggests that New York law should apply but also notes that analysis under the laws of either California or New Jersey would yield the same result.

Under New York law, "a spouse who by acts indicates acquiescence in the divorce and so induces the other spouse to act upon the assumed validity of the decree cannot be heard to contest it." Weiner v. Weiner , 216 N.Y.S.2d 788, 789 (N.Y.App.Div. 1961). "While mere inaction or delay does not constitute laches, an estoppel based on laches is appropriate where the lapse of time and the intervention of circumstances which render it unjust for the court to aid the challenger occur." In re Guido , 438 N.Y.2d 9, 11 (N.Y.App.Div. 1981). Chief among those intervening circumstances under which courts have found estoppel is where a spouse remarries or has children in a second marriage in reliance on the apparent acquiescence of the former spouse. See Schuman v. Schuman , 137 N.Y.S.2d 485, 490 (N.Y. 1954) ("plaintiff, by reason of her delay of almost ten years, is guilty of gross laches and is therefore estopped from challenging here the Florida [divorce] decree, especially in view of the defendant's remarriage in reliance thereon"); Kreiger v. Kreiger , 306 N.Y.S.2d 441, 446 (N.Y. 1969) (holding that action by husband to have divorce declared invalid commenced 12 ...

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