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Weaver v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 20, 2019

DIANE WEAVER, formerly known as Diane Hickey, Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellant
v.
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Counter Claimant-Appellee UNKNOWN PAYEE, Defendant-Appellee METROPOLITAN TOWER LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, formerly known as Metropolitan Insurance and Annuity Company, Counter Claimant-Appellee
v.
JAMES M. PERRY, Counter Defendant-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before DAVIS, HIGGINSON, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          DON R. WILLETT, Circuit Judge:

         This contract-interpretation case under Texas law concerns Diane Weaver's then-husband Larry Hickey, who suffered a diving accident in 1989. The couple received a structured settlement from the premises owner and its insurers. The couple later divorced, and Larry passed away in 2014. The issue is whether the settlement agreements gave Larry the right to replace Weaver as beneficiary of an annuity.

         Before deciding the merits, we must decide if the district court had diversity jurisdiction. Weaver initially sued Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and the "Unknown Payee" receiving the annuity payments. Met Life removed the case, then interpleaded James Perry-Larry's brother and the previously unknown payee. Weaver and Perry are both Texans. But, under the diversity and removal statues, the parties were diverse throughout this action. And the district court thus had jurisdiction.

         Turning to the merits, summary judgment was correctly granted based on the settlement agreements. These documents, read as a cohesive, contextual, harmonious whole, grant Larry the unilateral right to change the beneficiary. We decline to rewrite the agreements under the guise of interpreting them.

         We AFFIRM the judgment.

         I

         In 1989, Larry suffered a diving accident that left him quadriplegic. Weaver and Larry sued the premises owner for negligence. Larry sought damages for pain, disfigurement, lost income, and medical expenses. Weaver sought damages for loss of consortium, mental pain, and loss of monetary contributions. They obtained a settlement and dismissed the case. Four documents comprise the settlement-the Release, the Settlement Agreement, the Assignment, and the Annuity. Their contents overlap somewhat.

         In the Release, Weaver and Larry released their claims in exchange for $850, 000. Weaver, Larry, and their attorney were to receive $300, 000 immediately, and Met Life was to receive $550, 000 from another insurer, Metro Tower, to fund an annuity.

         In the Settlement Agreement, Weaver and Larry agreed to dismiss the case in exchange for those payments. The premises owner's insurer, Wausau Lloyds Insurance Companies, agreed to give Larry monthly payments for the longer of either his lifetime or 30 years. The Settlement Agreement addresses beneficiaries and changes:

If Larry Hickey dies before receiving all payments set forth in this paragraph, such payments shall be made as due to Diane Hickey [Weaver], his wife, if living, otherwise to the Estate of Larry Hickey, upon proof of death being furnished to Wausau Lloyds Insurance Company, or its assignee. Claimant reserves the right to request to change the beneficiary of future periodic payments.

         The Settlement Agreement does not define "Claimant." It goes on to provide that Wausau Lloyds would assign its duty to make payments to Metropolitan Insurance and Annuity Company, later renamed Metropolitan Tower Life Insurance Company. Metropolitan Tower would fund the periodic payments by purchasing an annuity contract from Met Life.

         In the Assignment, Wausau Lloyds assigned its duty to make payments to Metropolitan Tower. The Assignment identifies Larry as the "Claimant" in its parties list. Its addendum provides who to pay: "Payee: Larry Hickey, if living, otherwise to Diane Hickey, his wife. If Diane Hickey is not living, then payments shall be made to the Estate of Larry Hickey."

         In the Annuity, Met Life agreed to make payments. The Annuity provides that the "Measuring Life" is Larry; "Owner" is Metropolitan Tower; and "Beneficiary" is "Diane Hickey, wife if living; otherwise the Estate of Larry Hickey." If the Measuring Life died before the 30 years expired, Met Life agreed to make payments to the beneficiary.

         In 1999, Weaver and Larry divorced. Among the divorce decree's property distributions, Larry received "[a]ny property not otherwise awarded herein" that was in his possession or sole control.

         In 2002, unbeknownst to Weaver, Larry requested to change the annuity's beneficiary from her to his brother Perry. In 2014, Larry died. Weaver, believing she was now entitled to the annuity payments, demanded payment from Wausau Lloyds and Met Life. Met Life responded that it could not direct payments to Weaver because the beneficiary had been changed.

         Weaver initially sued Met Life and "Unknown Payee" in Texas state court. She asserted one cause of action: breach of contract against "Defendant." As used in the petition, "Defendant" meant Met Life. In a factual allegation, not a count or claim, she alleged that Unknown Payee was "believed to be a resident of the State of Texas who is currently receiving the periodic payments the subject of this suit." She did not assert a cause of action against Unknown Payee.

         Met Life removed the case to federal court. It alleged diversity jurisdiction because Weaver is a citizen of Texas and Met Life is a citizen of New York. It asserted that Unknown Payee was a defendant sued under a fictitious name, who must be disregarded for diversity purposes under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b)(1). Alternatively, it alleged that diversity jurisdiction existed because Weaver's petition asserted no claims against Unknown Payee.

         The day after Met Life removed the case, Met Life and Metropolitan Tower (the Met Life parties) filed an amended answer and counterclaim. The counterclaim was an interpleader action against Weaver and Perry. This pleading was both Metropolitan Tower's and Perry's first appearance in the case. It alleged that diversity jurisdiction remained proper because the Met Life parties, citizens of New York and Delaware, were diverse from Weaver and Perry, citizens of Texas.

         After learning Perry's identity from the answer and counterclaim, Weaver moved to amend her complaint to assert a claim against Perry for money had and received. She also moved to remand the case to state court because Perry's joinder destroyed diversity. The district court granted leave to amend but denied the motion to remand. It held that diversity jurisdiction over the interpleader action, combined with supplemental jurisdiction over the money-had-and-received claim, made remand unnecessary.

         The district court later granted summary judgment to the Met Life parties and Perry. It denied Weaver's motion for summary judgment. Weaver appealed the order denying remand, the summary judgment orders, and the final judgment.

         II

         The district court held it had jurisdiction based on diversity; Weaver challenges that decision on appeal.

         We "review the denial of a motion to remand de novo."[1] Similarly, we "review[] de novo an order granting summary judgment, 'applying the same standard as the district court.'"[2] Summary judgment is proper if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[3]

         III

         We view the district court's jurisdiction in three procedural stages. Diversity jurisdiction existed at each stage.

         A

         Diversity jurisdiction was proper when Met Life removed the case. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), defendants may generally remove "any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction." District courts have original jurisdiction over civil actions between citizens of ...


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