August 18, 2019

Tenth Circuit: In Divorce Case, Husband’s Pension Trust Did Not Qualify as Employee Benefit Plan Under ERISA; GAL Entitled to Quasi-Judicial Immunity on Wiretapping Claims

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Dahl v. Dahl on Thursday, February 20, 2014.

Dr. Charles Dahl and Ms. Kim Dahl were divorced on July 20, 2010. After the divorce, Ms. Dahl filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Utah, alleging federal-law and state law claims (1) that Dr. Dahl improperly administered the pension trust of his medical practice to deny her funds and an accounting and (2) that her telephone conversations with the Dahls’ minor children were unlawfully monitored, recorded, and disclosed by Dr. Dahl, his attorney, and the children’s guardian ad litem (GAL) in the divorce proceedings. The district court dismissed the federal-law pension claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and granted summary judgment against Ms. Dahl on the federal-law wiretapping claims. It then declined to exercise jurisdiction on the state-law claims. Ms. Dahl appealed.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Ms. Dahl’s pension claims under ERISA on the ground that the pension trust did not qualify as an employee benefit plan under ERISA, although the dismissal should have been on the merits rather than for lack of jurisdiction. Ms. Dahl did not show that the pension trust qualified as an employee benefit plan under ERISA. Given that ruling, the court also held that the court properly declined to exercise jurisdiction over the related state-law claims.

The court also affirmed the district court’s summary judgment for the GAL because he was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity for his actions. The claim against the GAL (Mr. Peterson) rested on his use of the recording of a conversation between Ms. Dahl and her child C.D. on October 12, 2009. He used the recording twice: first, when he played part of it during an interview with C.D.; and second, when he discussed it during his verbal report to the court. Because the court directed the GAL to meet with the children and report on how they were responding to the change in Ms. Dahl’s visitation privileges, both uses were within the functions that generally warrant immunity for guardians ad litem. Because Mr. Peterson used the recording in furtherance of his GAL duties and in response to the court’s order to report on the well-being of the children, he was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity on the federal wiretapping claim.

The court also affirmed the summary judgment on the federal wiretapping claim against Dr. Dahl based on the monitoring of a telephone call on October 12, 2009, because at that time it was objectively reasonable for Dr. Dahl to rely on a court order that had authorized monitoring. The federal wiretap statute makes it unlawful to intentionally intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication or to intentionally use or disclose the contents of any communications known to be illegally obtained. The statute, however, provides an exception when one party to the communication has given prior consent to the interception, and recognizes a defense for good-faith reliance on a court order. The Tenth Circuit held that it was objectively reasonable for Dr. Dahl to believe that the monitoring of the October 12 conversation was authorized by the court’s previous order.

But the court remanded for further proceedings on the alleged monitoring of calls after November 3, 2009, because there was a genuine dispute of fact about whether such monitoring occurred.

In sum, the judgment of the district court on the ERISA claims was AFFIRMED, except that the court instructed the district court to dismiss the claims on the merits with prejudice.

The district court’s decision not to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law pension claims was AFFIRMED.

The grant of summary judgment to Mr. Peterson on the federal wiretapping claims was AFFIRMED.

The summary judgment to Dr. Dahl and Ms. Blakelock on the federal wiretapping claims based on the October 12, 2009, telephone monitoring was AFFIRMED.

The court REMANDED to the district court for further consideration of Ms. Dahl’s claims against Dr. Dahl and Ms. Blakelock based on alleged monitoring of telephone conversations after November 3, 2009, and for further consideration of whether to exercise its discretion not to assume jurisdiction over the state-law wiretapping claims.


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