Sovereign Immunity

It’s Hard to Sue the U.S. Government Without Its Permission

See the full video at https://rumble.com/v2i922w-sovereign-immunity.html  and at https://youtu.be/OXWSfeq1bAE

Roberta Jean Champlin appealed a decision from the United States Court of Federal Claims dismissing for lack of subject matter jurisdiction her claim that the United States must pay damages for the nonpayment of life insurance proceeds from her deceased former husband’s Federal Employees Group Life Insurance policy.

In Roberta Jean Champlin v. United States, No. 2022-1402, United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit (April 10, 2023) Ms. Champlin sought payment of a Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) policy after he ex-husband died because her divorce decree granted her half ownership in the policy.

BACKGROUND

The Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Act (FEGLIA) establishes a group life insurance program for federal employees. The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for managing FEGLI polices and has entered a contract with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife) to provide insurance to federal employees.

FEGLI proceeds are to be paid in the following order of precedence: (1) designated beneficiaries; (2) widowed spouse; (3) children or descendants; (4) parents of deceased; (5) executor or administrator of the estate; and (6) next of kin.

The order of precedence can be overridden “if and to the extent expressly provided for in the terms of any court decree of divorce, annulment, or legal separation” but only if that order or decree is “received . . . before the date of the covered employee’s death, by the employing agency or, if the employee has separated from service, by the [OPM].” When these circumstances are met, the proceeds “shall be paid (in whole or in part) by the [OPM]” to the individual who is entitled to the proceeds under the court order.

Factual & Procedural Background

Lewis Dean Champlin, during and after his marriage to Ms. Champlin, had life insurance through a FEGLI policy. In September 2012, the Champlins divorced. As part of their divorce proceedings, Ms. Champlin obtained from the Alaskan state divorce court “award[ed Ms. Champlin] the option to continue maintaining a one-half interest in that policy . . . [while Mr. Champlin] ha[d] the option of paying the other half of the policy and c[ould] designate whoever he chooses to be beneficiary to the other half of the policy benefits.” Ms. Champlin paid for half of the policy thereafter.

On January 3, 2016, Mr. Champlin died. Ms. Champlin did not receive her half of the proceeds of his life insurance policy. Instead the proceeds were paid to Mr. Champlin’s designated beneficiary at the time of his death-Marilyn Susano.

Ms. Champlin sued the United States in the Court of Federal Claims, alleging that she is entitled to half of Mr. Champlin’s issued life insurance coverage and further requesting a judgment directing the United States to pay her half of the FEGLI proceeds, along with costs and attorney fees. Unfortunately for Ms. Champlin the complaint failed to allege a statutory or legal basis for jurisdiction for her claim.

The government moved to dismiss Ms. Champlin’s claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis that FEGLI-related claims cannot be against the United States because the government has not waived its sovereign immunity for such claims.

The OPM authorized MetLife to provide life insurance, and MetLife established an administrative office, which is responsible for administering FEGLI claims. The Court of Federal Claims noted that it found that Ms. Champlin’s complaint made no claim for a breach of a legal duty, only a claim to obtain money due under the FEGLI policy.

DISCUSSION

The Court of Federal Claims’ determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Ms. Champlin’s claim for life insurance proceeds from Mr. Champlin’s FEGLI policy was correct.

The Federal Circuit concluded that Court of Federal Claims is a court of specific jurisdiction and can resolve only those claims for which the United States has waived sovereign immunity.

The government’s duties under the statute are limited to contracting with and managing private insurance companies that issue FEGLIA-compliant insurance to federal employees, as well as implementing regulations to support the FEGLIA’s statutory mandates.”

Because the United States’ duties under the FEGLIA and relevant regulations do not extend to claims for proceeds due under a FEGLI policy, Ms. Champlin has failed to establish that the United States has breached any duty when insurance proceeds are allegedly due.

Ms. Champlin sought money that she believes is due to her under the policy because she complied with a divorce court’s order. The fact that the policy had already been paid out to another beneficiary before Ms. Champlin became aware of her alleged injury had no effect on the regulation’s application. The  Court affirmed the Court of Federal Claims’ dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

ZALMA OPINION

Ms. Champlin sued the wrong party. The US had no obligation under the FIGLIA statute and did not waive its sovereign immunity. She could have sued MetLife but did not. Alaska’s court order could not compel the US to do anything and if anything her case is against the ex-husband’s estate for not complying with the Alaska Order to make her a designated beneficiary. The payment was made to a designated beneficiary so MetLife did what it was required to do. A person can only sue the government if it waives its sovereign immunity. Since it did not do so she had no case.

(c) 2023 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 54 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and zalma@zalma.com

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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