March 23, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Erred in Summarily Dismissing Conversion and Unjust Enrichment Claims

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Scott v. Scott on Thursday, February 22, 2018.

Torts—Conversion—Unjust Enrichment—Life Insurance Proceeds—Motion to Dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) and (6)—Attorney Fees and Costs.

Roseann’s marriage to Melvin Scott was dissolved. Their separation agreement provided that Melvin’s life insurance policies were to be maintained until Roseann remarried, and at that time the beneficiaries could be changed to the children of the parties. Upon emancipation of the children, if Roseann had remarried, Melvin could change the beneficiary to whomever he wished. A Prudential life insurance policy was the policy at issue in this case.

After the divorce, Melvin married Donna and remained married to her until his death. Roseann never remarried. A few years before Melvin died and decades after his divorce from Roseann, Melvin changed the named beneficiary on his life insurance policies to Donna. Melvin died and Donna received the proceeds from his life insurance policies. Roseann sent a demand letter to Donna, requesting the proceeds pursuant to the separation agreement. The proceeds were placed in a trust account pending the outcome of this litigation.

Roseann sued Donna in Mesa County District Court, alleging civil theft, conversion, and unjust enrichment/constructive trust. Donna did not answer but removed the case to federal district court based on administration of the veteran life insurance policies by the federal government. She then moved to dismiss Roseann’s claims under a theory of federal preemption. Ultimately, the federal court agreed with the preemption argument and dismissed Roseann’s claims with prejudice as to the veteran policies but remanded the remaining claims to the Mesa County District Court for resolution regarding the Prudential policy.

Donna filed a motion in the district court to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) and (6), arguing that Roseann’s claims failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and that she had failed to join Melvin’s estate, a necessary party. The district court granted the motion and a subsequent motion for attorney fees and costs.

On appeal, the court of appeals first examined whether Roseann had stated claims sufficient to withstand the plausibility standard required to survive a motion to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5). To state a claim for civil theft, a plaintiff must allege the elements of criminal theft, which requires the specific intent of the defendant to permanently deprive the owner of the benefit of his property. Roseann made a single, conclusory allegation, repeating the language in the statute, that Donna acted with the requisite intent to state a claim for civil theft. The court concluded that, without more, the allegation was not entitled to the assumption of truth, and the district court did not err in dismissing the civil theft claim.

Conversion, unlike civil theft, does not require that the convertor act with the specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of his property. Even a good faith recipient of funds who receives them without knowledge that they belonged to another can be held liable for conversion. Here, Roseann adequately alleged that Donna’s dominion and control over the Prudential policy proceeds were unauthorized because of the separation agreement language and Donna’s refusal to return the allegedly converted funds. Roseann pleaded each element of conversion sufficiently for that claim to be plausible and withstand a request for dismissal under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5).

Similarly, the court concluded it was error to dismiss Roseann’s claim for unjust enrichment and constructive trust. In general, a person who is unjustly enriched at the expense of another is subject to liability in restitution. Here, Roseann alleged that Donna received a benefit that was promised to Roseann in the separation agreement and it would be inequitable for Donna to retain the funds. Roseann asked the court to impose a constructive trust on the assets. While this may be a difficult case in that two arguably innocent parties are asserting legal claims to the same insurance proceeds, resolution should be left to the fact finder and not resolved under a C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) motion to dismiss.

It was not clear whether the district court had dismissed the claims for failure to join a necessary party under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(6), so the court addressed this issue as well. Here, the court held that Melvin’s estate was not a necessary party because Donna has possession of the proceeds at issue, and thus complete relief can be accorded between Roseann and Donna. In addition, the life insurance proceeds were never a part of Melvin’s estate assets and therefore the estate has no interest in those proceeds. Further, this is not an action for enforcement of the separation agreement, but is essentially an action in tort. The district court erred by dismissing the case under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(6).

Lastly, Roseann contended that Donna is not entitled to attorney fees and costs because the court erred in granting Donna’s motion to dismiss. The court agreed.

The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded with directions. The award of attorney fees and costs was vacated.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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