The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kahn, District Judge.
MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER
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
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.
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).)
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 ...