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Hill v. Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan

November 4, 2010

LAVONA HILL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BERT BELL/PETE ROZELLE NFL PLAYER RETIREMENT PLAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

Who is entitled to the benefits of former National Football League running back Thomas Sullivan ("Thomas")? The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan and the Retirement Board of the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (collectively "the NFL Defendants") filed an interpleader action to answer that question. Barbara Sullivan was married to Thomas at the time of his death and was receiving benefits from the NFL Defendants. Unbeknownst to her, Thomas had been married to Lavona Hill and had never secured a divorce from her prior to marrying Barbara. The Court conducted a bench trial on October 21, 2010, and pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), the Court enters the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

Lavona Hill met Thomas Sullivan in the 1970s through a friend of her family. (Trial Tr. at 15.) They dated in the mid-1970s. (Id. at 16.) Thomas had been married and divorced once before, although Hill was unaware of that fact. (Id. at 36.) Hill had been married to Arthur Wells in 1975 but the couple divorced in 1978. (Id. at 29, 32.) Hill married Thomas in Baltimore, Maryland on March 15, 1979. (Admin. R. Ex. 4 [MD Marriage License].) Neither Thomas Sullivan nor Lavona Hill divorced or annulled the marriage. (Trial Tr. at 17, 22.) They lived as husband and wife in Media, Pennsylvania as well as in Ohio during their marriage. (Id. at 17-18.)

Thomas played professional football from 1972 to1978 for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns. Based on his years of service in the NFL, he and his beneficiaries were entitled to certain benefits, including death benefits. Specifically, the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan ("the Plan") provided:

7.2 Widow's and Surviving Children's Benefit. If a Player dies before the date his retirement benefits begin, and he was, at the time of his death, (a) an Active Player, (b) a Vested Inactive Player who is vested solely because of Credited Seasons, and not by reason of Years of Service after ceasing to be an Active Player, or (c) entitled to disability benefits under Articles 5 or 6 (regardless of when such entitlement is determined), his surviving Spouse, or if there is no surviving Spouse, his surviving minor children, if any, will, subject to Section 7.4. below, receive a monthly widow's and surviving children's benefit equal to the greater of (a) 50% of the Player's Benefit Credits, or (b) $1,200. Further, for the first 48 months following such Player's death, the amount of this benefit will be (a) for a Player who is an Active Player after the 1976 Plan Year, no less than $2,000 per month, and (b) for a Player who is an Active Player after the 1981 Plan Year, no less than $3,000 per month. (Interpleader Compl. ¶ 12.) Effective April 1, 2006, certain benefits under the Plan were increased such that a qualified individual would: receive a monthly widow's and surviving children's benefit equal to the greater of (a) 50% of the Player's Benefit Credits, or (b) $3,600. Further, for the first 48 months following such Player's death, the amount of this benefit will be (a) for a Player who is an Active Player after the 1976 Plan Year, no less than $6,000 per month, and (b) for a Player who is an Active Player after the 1981 Plan Year, no less than $9,000 per month. For payments with respect to months prior to April 1, 2006, the Widow's and Surviving Children's Benefit will be determined based on the Plan in effect for such periods. (Interpleader Compl. Ex. 1 [Plan].) The Plan defines "Spouse" as "a Player's lawful spouse, as recognized under applicable state law . . . or a former spouse to the extent provided under a Qualified Domestic Relations Order." (Id.)

According to Hill, Thomas suffered from drug and alcohol problems throughout their relationship, problems that Hill unsuccessfully tried to help him overcome. (Trial Tr. at 19.) She also testified that they planned to build a home together in Pennsylvania but that never occurred. (Id. at 21.) They would at times travel to South Carolina, where they would stay as husband and wife. (Id. at 20.) Sometime around 1983, Thomas went to South Carolina "on a more permanent basis" to help his family build a home. (Id. at 19-20.) Thomas and Hill stopped living together as husband and wife around 1983 and last had contact with each other around 1985. (Id. at 20-21, 36.)

On March 15, 1986, Thomas married Barbara Hicks Carson (neé Hicks) in South Carolina. (Admin. R. Ex. 9 [SC Marriage License].) Both the bride and groom listed the marriage as their second. (Id.) In 1991, Thomas designated Barbara as his current living spouse. (Id. Ex. 20 [Marital Status Questionnaire and Consent].) Barbara also submitted a notarized statement confirming that she was Thomas's "legal spouse." (Id.)

Thomas Sullivan died on October 10, 2002. Hill learned about his death from her son. (Trial Tr. at 36-37.) Thereafter, Hill attempted to claim social security benefits as his widow but she was too young. (Id. at 27.) In 2006, she again applied for widow's insurance benefits through social security. The Social Security Administration determined that Hill was entitled to benefits as Thomas's widow. (Pl.'s Tr. Ex. 2 [Soc. Sec. Determination].) Hill was also notified that she may be entitled to benefits as a result of Thomas's professional football career. (Admin. R. Ex. 80 [Potential Private Pension Benefit Info.]; Trial Tr. at 25-26.)She eventually learned that Barbara Sullivan was receiving benefits under the Plan.

Shortly after Thomas's death, Barbara made a claim for benefits under the Plan. (Admin. R. Ex. 50 [Application for Widow's Death Benefits].) Her claim included her 1986 South Carolina marriage license to Thomas Sullivan and stated that she was Thomas's wife at the time of his death. (Id.) Beginning in November of 2002, the Plan began paying Barbara benefits. (Id. Ex. 56 [Nov. 5, 2002 Letter].) On a number of subsequent occasions, Barbara certified her eligibility to receive benefits under the Plan.

On November 28, 2006, Hill sent a letter to the Plan seeking benefits as the surviving spouse of Thomas Sullivan. (Id. Ex. 71 [Nov. 28, 2006 Letter].) Hill later submitted her 1979 Maryland marriage certificate to Thomas as proof of her marriage and entitlement to benefits as Thomas's surviving spouse. (Id. Ex. 72 [Feb. 22, 2007 Letter].) Although the Plan invited Hill to submit additional evidence, she failed to do so. (Id. Ex. 75 [Mar. 13, 2007 Letter].) The Plan requested that Hill seek a court order that identified Thomas's surviving spouse. (Id. Ex. 79 [Apr. 24, 2007 Letter].) Effective May 1, 2007, the Plan suspended payments to Barbara "pending a judicial decision instructing the Plan as to where to send future benefit payments." (Id.) Barbara subsequently reiterated her eligibility to receive Thomas's benefits and Hill failed to seek a court order; the Plan therefore resumed payments to Barbara retroactive to May 2007. (Id. Ex. 87 [Sullivan Statement]; Id. Ex. 95 [Feb. 20, 2008].)

In 2008, Hill again wrote to the Plan seeking benefits. (Id. Ex. 97 [Aug. 19, 2008 Letter].) On August 13, 2009, Hill sued the NFL Defendants in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. The Complaint accused the NFL Defendants of acting in bad faith by having failed to pay benefits to Hill.The Complaint alleged no wrongdoing on the part of Barbara Sullivan nor did it include a cause of action against her. On September 4, 2009, the NFL Defendants removed the case to this Court because the Plan was governed by ERISA. Hill filed an Amended Complaint on September 24, 2009, under ERISA against the NFL Defendants. The Amended Complaint made no allegations and pled no causes of action against Barbara Sullivan. In fact, the name "Barbara Sullivan" does not appear in the Amended Complaint. On October 13, 2009, the NFL Defendants answered the Amended Complaint and filed an interpleader counterclaim against Hill and Barbara Sullivan. Hill answered the interpleader counterclaim. Once again, she raised no claim against Barbara Sullivan.

According to the NFL Defendants, the Plan has made $192,900 in payments to Barbara, has interpled $29,700 beginning November 2, 2009, and will pay a total of $2,700 per month to either ...


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