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Jenkins-Dyer v. Drayton

United States District Court, D. Kansas

October 16, 2014

ANITA L. DRAYTON, et al., Defendants.


JULIE A. ROBINSON, District Judge.

Plaintiff Isoke N. Jenkins-Dyer brings this pro se action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") for benefits due and breaches of fiduciary duties, and to recover damages for fraud and conversion under state law. The case comes before the Court on Defendant Exxon Mobil Corporation's Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 53), Defendant Douglas E. Garrison's Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 58), and Defendant Anita L. Drayton's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 55). The motions are fully briefed, and the Court is prepared to rule. As explained more fully below, the Court grants Defendant Drayton's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and denies Defendant Exxon's and Defendant Garrison's motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. However, the Court allows the parties additional time to brief the issue of transfer.

I. Factual Background

Because Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, the Court must construe her pleadings liberally and apply a less stringent standard than that which is applicable to attorneys.[1] If a pro se plaintiff's complaint can reasonably be read "to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, [the court] should do so despite the plaintiff's "failure to cite proper legal authority, h[er] confusion of various legal theories, h[er] poor syntax and sentence construction, or h[er] unfamiliarity with pleading requirements."[2] It is not proper, however, for "the district court to assume the role of advocate for the pro se litigant."[3] For that reason, the court should not "construct arguments or theories for the plaintiff in the absence of any discussion of those issues, "[4] nor should it "supply additional factual allegations to round out a plaintiff's complaint or construct a legal theory on a plaintiff's behalf."[5] The court need only accept as true the plaintiff's "well-pleaded factual contentions, not h[er] conclusory allegations."[6]

Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Plaintiff, the Court takes the following facts from Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint and an undisputedly authentic copy of the ExxonMobil Savings Plan, [7] which Defendant Exxon has attached to its motion to dismiss. Plaintiff is the natural-born daughter of the late Connington L. Wood ("Wood"), a former Exxon employee based in Houston, Texas. At the time of his death, Wood owned an ExxonMobil Savings Plan (the "Savings Plan") account worth about $94, 000. Defendant Garrison was Exxon's plan administrator, and the Savings Plan was subject to ERISA regulation. The Savings Plan's terms provided that, in the event of a plan participant's death, the participant's account would transfer to any named beneficiary. If the participant died without naming a beneficiary, the account would transfer pursuant to the standard beneficiary provision: first to the participant's spouse, then to his children. Any prior beneficiary designation would be canceled if the participant subsequently married. Neither Plaintiff nor Defendant Drayton were named beneficiaries on Wood's Savings Plan account. Plaintiff alleges, however, that Wood had named his ex-wife, Leontyne Holloway, as a beneficiary and that Ms. Holloway had waived her interest in the account in favor of Plaintiff.

Wood died of lung cancer in May 2007. One week after Wood's death, Defendant Drayton recorded a marriage certificate in Harris County, Texas, purporting to certify that Drayton and Wood were married in a ceremony performed March 29, 2007. On the day she recorded the marriage certificate, Drayton called Plaintiff's mother in Kansas seeking financial information that would help her obtain Wood's employee benefits. Drayton told Plaintiff's mother that she had married Wood in September 2006. Plaintiff's follow-up inquiry with the Harris County Clerk's Office revealed that Drayton had applied for marriage licenses in that county on December 5, 2006, and March 2, 2007.

Plaintiff filed a claim for ownership of Wood's Savings Plan account on May 15, 2007, informing Defendants Exxon and Garrison of her suspicion that Wood and Defendant Drayton were not married when Wood passed away. Drayton filed her claim for the account in either May or June 2007. Without notifying Plaintiff, Exxon and Garrison denied Plaintiff's claim and transferred the account to Drayton in July 2007. Despite Plaintiff's repeated inquiries and a Savings Plan provision requiring a response to each claim within ninety days, Exxon and Garrison failed to notify Plaintiff of her claim's disposition until February 21, 2008. Plaintiff appealed the denial of her claim. She further alleges that Exxon and Garrison concealed from her the details of Wood's Savings Plan account and failed adequately to investigate Drayton's claim for ownership of the account.

In September 2008, Defendant Exxon brought an interpleader action in the Southern District of Texas, stating it could not "safely determine the proper beneficiary" of Wood's employee pension and disability plans. Exxon named both Plaintiff and Defendant Drayton as defendants. That interpleader suit mirrored an earlier one filed in the District of Kansas by Life Insurance Company of North America to determine the proper beneficiary of Wood's employee life insurance policy. Drayton did not defend either action, and both cases were ultimately resolved in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff claims the issues in the interpleader suits are identical to those before the Court in this action.

II. Lack of Personal Jurisdiction-Drayton

Plaintiff, a Kansas resident, invokes this Court's diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1332, alleging that Defendant Drayton has been at all times material to this case a resident of Washington, D.C., and that the amount in controversy is at least $94, 000. Defendant Drayton moves to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Plaintiff has the burden of establishing personal jurisdiction over Defendant Drayton.[8] In the absence of an evidentiary hearing, as in this case, the plaintiff must make only a prima facie showing of jurisdiction to defeat a motion to dismiss.[9] "The plaintiff may make this prima facie showing by demonstrating, via affidavit or other written materials, facts that if true would support jurisdiction over the defendant."[10] Allegations in a complaint are accepted as true if they are plausible, non-conclusory, and non-speculative, to the extent that they are not controverted by submitted affidavits.[11] At the same time, the Court does not have to accept as true conclusory allegations, nor incompetent evidence. When a defendant has produced evidence to support a challenge to personal jurisdiction, a plaintiff has a duty to come forward with competent proof in support of the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint.[12] The court resolves all factual disputes in favor of the plaintiff.[13] Conflicting affidavits are also resolved in the plaintiff's favor, and "the plaintiff's prima facie showing is sufficient notwithstanding the contrary presentation by the moving party."[14] "In order to defeat a plaintiff's prima facie showing of jurisdiction, a defendant must present a compelling case demonstrating that the presence of some other considerations would render jurisdiction unreasonable.'"[15]

"To obtain personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant in a diversity action, a plaintiff must show that jurisdiction is legitimate under the laws of the forum state and that the exercise of jurisdiction does not offend the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."[16] Kansas' long arm statute is coextensive with the constitutional limitations imposed by the due process clause. Thus, if jurisdiction is consistent with due process, Kansas' long arm statute authorizes jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant.[17]

"The Due Process Clause secures an individual's liberty interest in not being subject to the binding judgments of a forum with which he has established no meaningful contacts, ties, or relations.'"[18] A court may therefore exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant only if the defendant has "minimum contacts" with the forum state.[19] The "minimum contacts" requirement may be met in two ways:

First, a court may, consistent with due process, assert specific jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant "if the defendant has purposefully directed' his activities at residents of the forum, and the litigation results from alleged injuries that arise out of or relate to' those activities." Burger King , 471 U.S. at 472, 105 S.Ct. 2174 (internal quotations omitted). Where a court's exercise of jurisdiction does not directly arise from a defendant's forum-related activities, the court may nonetheless maintain general personal jurisdiction over the defendant based on the defendant's general... contacts with the forum state.[20]

Because Plaintiff does not contend the Court has general jurisdiction over Defendant Drayton, [21] the Court will consider only whether it may exercise specific jurisdiction. In the specific-jurisdiction arena, the "minimum contacts" standard requires (1) that the nonresident defendant purposefully directed her activities at residents of the forum state, and (2) that the plaintiff's injuries "arise out of or relate" to the defendant's forum-related activities.[22] Additionally, the Court's exercise of personal jurisdiction "must always be consonant with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice."[23]

A. Minimum Contacts

To establish purposeful direction in tort-based lawsuits like this one, the plaintiff must show that the defendant (a) intentionally acted (b) in a manner expressly aimed at Kansas with (c) knowledge that the brunt of the injury would be felt in the forum state.[24] This doctrine "ensure[s] that an out-of-state defendant is not bound to appear to account for merely random, fortuitous, or attenuated contacts with the forum state."[25] The court should evaluate both the quantity and quality of the defendant's contacts with the forum state.[26] Further, a plaintiff in the Tenth Circuit must present "something more" than the injuries the plaintiff allegedly suffered in order to show that the defendant "expressly aimed" her conduct at the forum state.[27] It is not enough, in other words, for the plaintiff to rely on the mere foreseeability that the defendant's alleged conduct would cause harm to the plaintiff in the forum state. Rather, " the forum state itself must be the focal point of the tort ."[28] Even a tort intentionally committed against a known forum resident is insufficient, standing alone, to satisfy the "expressly aimed" requirement.[29]

Defendant Drayton declares by affidavit, and Plaintiff does not dispute, that Drayton has never resided, owned property, or transacted business in Kansas. Her only visit to this state was for a church event that occurred over twenty years ago.[30] Nevertheless, Plaintiff contends Drayton has purposefully directed activities at Kansas because Drayton: (1) was a named defendant in a prior lawsuit in this Court; (2) initiated a claim for Wood's employment benefits that harmed Plaintiff, a Kansas resident; and (3) telephoned Plaintiff's mother seeking information that would help Drayton obtain Wood's employment benefits. Drayton responds that none of these acts provides a sufficient basis for the Court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over her. The Court will address each act in turn.

1. Prior Lawsuit

Plaintiff first claims that "[s]ince Defendant Drayton has been a party [to a lawsuit] in the District of Kansas, she has minimal contacts with the forum state such that she should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.'"[31] Plaintiff refers the Court to Life Insurance Co. of North America v. Jenkins-Dyer , [32] an interpleader action to determine the rightful beneficiary of Wood's life insurance policy. The court in that case entered default judgment against Drayton for failing to defend.[33] Drayton asserts that her involvement in that lawsuit resulted solely from the unilateral acts of third parties and does not constitute purposeful direction on her part.

The Court finds that Defendant Drayton did not purposefully direct any activity toward Kansas by being named as a defendant in the interpleader suit. The unilateral activity of third parties cannot satisfy the minimum contacts requirement.[34] Rather, the plaintiff must show that the defendant directed some activity toward residents of the forum state.[35] Here, Drayton took no action at all by defaulting in the interpleader suit: "she chose not to appear, challenge jurisdiction, or defend her claimed interests."[36] Her only affiliation with the case stemmed from a third party's decision to name her as an interpleader defendant. Thus, the Court may not rely on Drayton's involvement in the interpleader suit to exercise personal jurisdiction over her.

2. Tortious Acts

Plaintiff next argues the Court has jurisdiction over Defendant Drayton because she "claim[ed] benefits which rightfully belong to Plaintiff[, ] result[ing] in the injury alleged in this lawsuit."[37] Plaintiff contends, in effect, that Drayton's tortious activity directed at a Kansas resident provides a sufficient basis for jurisdiction. As explained above, however, a defendant does not "expressly ai[m]" her conduct at a forum simply by committing an intentional tort against a forum resident.[38] Exercise of jurisdiction in such a case would be based on the mere fortuity that the plaintiff resides in the forum state.[39] The Tenth Circuit requires "something more": "the ...

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