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Pruco Life Insurance Co. v. Breen

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

September 20, 2018


         SECTION “R” (3)



         Before the Court are intervenor defendant Sean Michael Breen's motion for relief from judgment, [1] his motion to strike portions of defendant Kacie Breen's response in opposition to the motion for relief from judgment, [2]defendant Kacie Breen's motion for Rule 11 sanctions, [3] and Sean Michael Breen's motion for Rule 11 sanctions.[4] For the following reasons, the Court denies all of the motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of the death of Dr. Wayne Breen. On March 1, 2015, Dr. Breen was shot and killed by his wife, defendant Kacie Breen.[5] Dr. Breen had two life insurance policies, one with Pruco Life Insurance Company (Pruco) and the other with Lincoln National Life Insurance Company (Lincoln).[6] Both policies name Kacie Breen as the sole beneficiary.[7] Dr. Breen and Kacie Breen had one child together, Aiden Breen, who is not a party to this suit.[8] Dr. Breen also had six adult children-five from a previous marriage and one from an extra-marital relationship.[9]

         After Dr. Breen's death, Pruco and Lincoln filed these consolidated interpleader actions in federal court.[10] Kacie Breen, the adult Breen children, and Alyce Landry, the administratrix of Dr. Breen's estate, are named claimants. Landry and the adult Breen children sought to defeat Kacie Breen's status as beneficiary by invoking the provisions of Louisiana Revised Statutes § 22:901(D), also known as Louisiana's “slayer rule.”[11] This rule bars a beneficiary from receiving life insurance proceeds if she is either “[h]eld by a final judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction to be criminally responsible for the death, disablement, or injury of the individual insured, ” or “[j]udicially determined to have participated in the intentional, unjustified killing of the individual insured.” La. R.S. § 22:901(D). Kacie Breen maintained that she killed her husband in self-defense.[12]

         Judge Kurt Engelhardt held a two-day bench trial on this matter in March 2017. On June 9, 2017, the court held that the adult Breen children and Landry had not met their burden of proving that the killing was unjustified.[13] Kacie Breen was thus entitled to the proceeds of the policies as a qualified beneficiary.[14] One of the adult Breen children, Sean Breen, appealed the judgment to the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed Judge Engelhardt's decision on August 16, 2018.[15] While the appeal was pending, Sean Breen filed this motion for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b).[16]

         In addition to his motion for relief from judgment, Sean Breen moves to strike portions of Kacie Breen's response in opposition to the motion as immaterial, impertinent, and scandalous under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f).[17] Sean Breen and Kacie Breen also filed motions for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.[18]


         A district court has broad discretion to grant or deny a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Lyles v. Medtronic Sofamor Danek, USA, Inc., 871 F.3d 305, 315 (5th Cir. 2017). Rule 60(b) permits a court to grant relief from a final judgment or order only upon a showing of one of the following:

(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
(2) newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b);
(3) fraud (whether previously called intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party;
(4) the judgment is void;
(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable; or
(6) any other reason that justifies relief.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). Relief under Rule 60(b) is considered an extraordinary remedy, but courts may construe the Rule in order to do substantial justice. Carter v. Fenner, 136 F.3d 1000, 1007 (5th Cir. 1998). Courts must balance “the sanctity of final judgments and the incessant command of the court's conscience that justice be done in light of all the facts.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). A district court has the authority to relieve a party from final judgment under Rule 60(b), even if the trial court's earlier judgment was affirmed on appeal. Standard Oil Co. of California v. U.S., 429 U.S. 17, 19 (1976).


         A. The Court denies the Rule 60(b) Motion for Relief from Judgment

         Sean Breen makes several arguments under Rule 60(b). He first alleges that the trial judgment is void under Rule 60(b)(4) because Aiden, the child of Dr. Breen and Kacie Breen, was not properly represented, violating his due process rights.[19] He also requests that the judgment be set aside under Rule 60(b)(3) on the basis of fraud, misrepresentation, and misconduct by both Kacie Breen and by her attorney Richard Ducote.[20] He next argues that the judgment should be set aside under Rule 60(b)(6) because Mr. Ducote's misconduct constitutes fraud on the court.[21] Finally, Sean Breen argues that the trial court made a mistake of law under Rule 60(b)(1) in failing to assess whether Kacie Breen's use of deadly force was necessary as required by La. Rev. Stat. § 14:20(A).[22] The Court addresses each of these arguments in turn.

         1. The Judgment Is Not Void Under Rule 60(b)(4)

         A judgment is void under Rule 60(b)(4) in two circumstances: (1) when the deciding court “lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter, or of the parties” or (2) when the court “acted in a manner inconsistent with due process of law.” Carter, 136 F.3d at 1006 (quoting New York Life Ins. Co. v. Brown, 84 F.3d 137, 143 (5th Cir. 1996)). Sean Breen does not contest the trial court's jurisdiction over the subject matter or the parties to the case.[23] Due process in civil cases generally requires “proper notice and service of process and a court of competent jurisdiction; procedural irregularities during the course of a civil case, even serious ones, will not subject the judgment to collateral attack.” New York Life, 84 F.3d at 143. But the opportunity to be heard is also a fundamental requirement of due process. See id.

         Sean Breen argues that the judgment is void because the trial court acted in a manner inconsistent with the due process rights of Kacie's and Dr. Breen's child, Aiden.[24] He contends that the minor's due process rights were violated because he was not given notice of the interpleader action, had no legal representative protecting his interests, and had no opportunity to be heard in the interpleader action.[25] As a non-party to the case, Aiden Breen would ordinarily have no rights to notice, legal representation, or to be heard, because he is not bound by the judgment. See 18A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4449 (3d ed. 2018) (“The basic premise of preclusion is that parties to a prior action are bound and nonparties are not bound.”). But Sean Breen contends that the child did have these rights along with the right to be a party to the case, because he was a required party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19.[26]

         Generally, parties should be joined under Rule 19 if they are required to fairly and completely resolve the dispute. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a). Under Rule 19(a)(1), a party is “required” if:

(A) in that person's absence, the court cannot accord complete relief among existing parties; or
(B) that person claims an interest relating to the subject of the action and is so situated that disposing of the action in the person's absence may:
(i) leave as a practical matter impair or impede the person's ability to protect the interest; or
(ii) leave an existing party subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations because of the interest.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a). But when no party asserts the Rule 19 issue at trial, the court's review becomes narrower. Sch. Bd. of Avoyelles Par. v. U.S. Dep't of Interior, 647 F.3d 570, 578 (5th Cir. 2011). In such cases, the court looks in particular to whether the omitted third party will be prejudiced by adjudication in his absence. Id.

         Aiden Breen was not a required party under any of the Rule 19(a) tests. The existing parties to this case were the insurance companies, Kacie Breen, and the adult Breen children. The only issue in dispute was to whom the insurance proceeds must be paid. Kacie Breen was the only named beneficiary, [27] and if she forfeited her interest the proceeds would go to the estate.[28] Therefore, the only parties necessary to grant relief were the estate as an entity and Kacie Breen, the only parties potentially eligible to recover the insurance proceeds. The administratrix Landry was a party on behalf of the estate, and Kacie Breen was a party as the sole beneficiary. Complete relief could be accorded without the child. He thus was not a required party under Rule 19(a)(1)(A).

         Proceeding without Aiden Breen also did not impair the child's ability to protect his interest in the litigation or leave another party subject to multiple liability under Rule 19(a)(1)(B). His interest as to this action is solely as an heir to the estate. He was not named as a beneficiary in either policy.[29] His interest was protected by Landry who represented the estate as a whole. For the same reason, his absence did not leave another party subject to multiple liability. His interests matched those of the rest of the heirs. He does not have separate claims that could expose the insurers to multiple liability.

         The conclusion that Aiden Breen is not a required party is strengthened by Magistrate Judge Daniel E. Knowles' previous denial of Aaron Knapp's motion to intervene.[30] In that order, Magistrate Judge Knowles explained, “as an alleged heir of Wayne Breen, Knapp's interest will not be impaired or impeded because the decedent's children - who battle their mother for the interest herein - will adequately represent his interest. Should it be found that the funds devolve to the decedent's children - who, it must be noted, do not oppose this motion - Knapp may assert his interest against them at the appropriate time.”[31] Aiden Breen is identically situated. Neither Aaron Knapp nor Aiden Breen is prejudiced by a lack of involvement in this suit because their interests have been protected by Landry. Individual claims to divide assets in the estate will be adjudicated in a separate action.

         Sean Breen also argues that Kacie Breen was not Aiden Breen's tutor. This line of argument is irrelevant to this motion, which is a motion for reconsideration of judgment in the federal interpleader action to which the child was not a party. Kacie Breen did not claim to be the child's tutor in the federal court action and did not seek adjudication of claims on his behalf. Because Kacie Breen did not impair the child's claims or rights in federal court, there is no need to consider whether Kacie Breen was the child's tutor.

         Aiden Breen was not a required party under Rule 19(a). As a non-party, he did not have due process rights in the federal interpleader action. The judgment is not void under Rule 60(b)(4). These arguments are plainly meritless.

         2. There Was No. Actionable Fraud, Misconduct, Or Misrepresentation by Opposing Party ...

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