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March 31, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kahn, District Judge.


I. Background

This appears to be a case of first impression,*fn1 setting forth the question of whether a foreign divorce decree that a state court finds null and void can nonetheless be a "qualifying event," 29 U.S.C. § 1163(3), that entitles a qualified beneficiary to elect continuation of coverage under a health plan when that person would otherwise lose coverage. See 29 U.S.C. § 1161(a). In the realm of ERISA suits, indeed, the factual setting for this case may even pass as sensational and riveting. Plaintiff Ms. Melody Edwardsen Phillips married Mr Frank Studenroth in 1985, and they lived together in Saratoga Springs, New York, until 1993. In July of that year, while they were on vacation in Maine, Mr Studenroth left the Plaintiff and moved out of their home. Their relationship continued to deteriorate until they were no longer speaking with each other.

Mr Studenroth commenced a divorce proceeding in the Dominican Republic on 29 August 1994. On 3 October 1994 Plaintiff commenced an action in New York State, seeking a judgment of separation against Mr Studenroth, by filing a summons and complaint in the office of the Saratoga County Clerk. On 5 October 1994, Mr Studenroth obtained an ex parte divorce in the Civil and Commercial chamber of the Fifth Circumscription of the Court of the First Instance of the Judicial District of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; that court issued a divorce decree on the ground that Plaintiff, who (apparently knowing nothing of the proceeding) did not appear, was in default. Mr Studenroth quickly returned to the United States, and married his secretary, Ms. Patricia Leadley, on 7 October 1994, in Vermont.

With the exception of a brief interim some ten years ago, Mr Studenroth has worked for Defendant Saratoga Harness Racing, Inc., since 1979. Mr Studenroth returned to work a few days after his marriage ceremony with Ms Leadley, informed his employer that he had divorced and remarried, and that he wished to drop Plaintiff from his medical coverage, and extend coverage to Ms Leadley as his new wife. Defendant claims that its plan administrator gave Mr Studenroth the required notice and forms for Plaintiff to extend her health insurance coverage under the terms of COBRA, on his assurances that he wanted to make sure she got them. Defendant asserts that Mr Studenroth attempted to deliver them personally to Plaintiff, although she may have refused to accept the forms at least once out of anger. Plaintiff claims that she never received the notice or forms.

Plaintiff has medical conditions, including Graves disease, that require medical treatment. She underwent medically necessary treatment in November 1994, including radiation therapy, under the assumption that her health insurance through Defendant was still in effect. She subsequently found that her health coverage had been terminated in October 1994, and thus her medical treatments had not been covered by Defendant's insurance.

In a decision and order entered 12 March 1996, by the Honorable William H. Keniry, Justice of the State of New York Supreme Court, 4th Judicial District, Saratoga County, the Dominican Republic divorce was declared null and void, on the ground that Plaintiff had not "been given adequate notice of the foreign divorce proceeding and an opportunity to be heard." Phillips v. Studenroth, Index No. 97-2427, slip op. at 4-6 (N.Y.Sup.Ct. filed 12 Mar. 1996) (copy attached as Ex. G to Pl.'s Rule 7.1(f) Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute (Doc. 25, 13 Feb. 1998) (submitted pursuant to Pl.'s mot. for summ. j. filed 13 Feb. 1998)).

Plaintiff brings this action invoking the jurisdiction of the Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1337, alleging that Defendant failed to fulfill its obligations to her in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001-1461, in particular the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 ("COBRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1161-1168, and further alleging supplemental New York State law claims for breach of contract and negligence arising from the same set of facts and circumstances. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant failed or refused to notify her of her rights regarding the continuation of her group health care plan or of her right to elect to extend coverage under COBRA. Plaintiff seeks compensation for all out-of-pocket medical bills incurred because of her termination of coverage, as-yet undetermined damages, further penalties should Defendant be found liable for willful neglect, reasonable attorney fees and costs, and such other and further relief as the Court deems reasonable and just.

II. Motions

Now before the Court are Defendant's and Plaintiff's motions for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. (See Def.'s Notice Mot. for Summ.J. (Doc. 13, 12 Feb. 1998), and Pl.'s Notice Mot. and Mot. for Summ.J. (Doc. 24, 13 Feb. 1998).)

III. Discussion

A. Jurisdiction

Although Defendant did not formally move for dismissal of this case pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) or 12(h)(3), it did argue that, on the pleadings, Plaintiff fails to establish a federal cause of action, and therefore this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. (See Mem.Law Supp. Def.'s Mot.Summ.J. at 7-8, 12-13 (Doc. 15, 12 Feb. 1998).) More importantly, a court is always obliged to review sua sponte whether it has jurisdiction in a case. In either event, Defendant's argument is that because Plaintiff was never divorced she never qualified ...

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