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Firestone v. Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 25, 2019



          Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Cai-Yen Firestone alleges that she is the designated beneficiary of a Thrift Savings Plan (“TSP”) account containing retirements benefits accrued by her now-deceased brother, Bernard Hsieh. But because Mrs. Firestone cannot show that Mr. Hsieh effectively designated her prior to his death, she is unable to prevail. Mr. Hsieh's surviving spouse, Defendant Melissa Wang, shall receive the proceeds of his TSP account pursuant to the statutory order of precedence.[1]

         Upon consideration of the pleadings, [2] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, the Court GRANTS Mrs. Wang's [29] Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment, and GRANTS Defendants Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board's (“FRTIB”) and TSP's[3] [30] Motion to Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         To summarize the few relevant factual allegations, the Court shall rely on the [17] Amended Complaint, as supplemented by the record where the Court indicates.

         While he was battling cancer, Bernard Hsieh prepared and submitted a Form TSP-3 to FRTIB and TSP that purported to designate one of his sisters, Mrs. Firestone, as the 100% beneficiary of his TSP account numbered 6801147154539. Am. Compl., ECF No. 17 (“Am. Compl.”), ¶¶ 7, 8 10, 11. Mrs. Firestone alleges that the form was “properly signed and dated” on November 5, 2015, by not only Mr. Hsieh but also his two witnesses. Id. ¶ 10. A copy of the operative portion of Mr. Hsieh's Form TSP-3 is in the record and, with one exception, it undisputedly supports her contention. Pl.'s Opp'n to FRTIB's Mot., Ex. 5, ECF No. 33-5 (“Hsieh TSP-3”).[4] Although the parties dispute the significance of that exception, they do not dispute that Carolan Bontje, one of Mr. Hsieh's two witnesses, did not add a date to the blocks above the language, “Date Signed (mm/dd/yyyy), ” next to her signature on the first page of his Form TSP-3. Id.; see also, e.g., [FRTIB's] Stmt. of Material Facts as to Which There Is No. Genuine Dispute, ECF No. 30, ¶ 3 (asserting that government received Mr. Hsieh's Form TSP-3 that lacked date of one witness's signature); [Wang's] Undisputed Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 29-1, ¶ 22 (same); Pl.'s Opp'n to FRTIB's Mot., Ex. 4, ECF No. 33-4 (Aff. of Carolan Bontje ¶ 11 (“I am fairly certain that I did not include the numerical date in these blocks on the first page because . . . .”)); Pl.'s Opp'n to Wang's Mot., Ex. 4, ECF No. 31-5 (Aff. of Carolan Bontje ¶ 11 (same)). Upon Mr. Hsieh's death, Mrs. Firestone allegedly asked FRTIB and TSP about her rights to his account and was told that she is not a beneficiary. Am. Compl. ¶ 13.

         Mrs. Firestone filed this suit on September 9, 2016, against FRTIB and TSP. Compl., ECF No. 1. The Court granted FRTIB's and TSP's motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19(a) to join Mr. Hsieh's surviving spouse, Mrs. Wang. Mem. Op. and Order, ECF No. 16. The Court agreed that Mrs. Wang is a necessary party because, in short, she would be entitled to Mr. Hsieh's TSP funds if his designation of Mrs. Firestone were found invalid. See Id. at 2. FRTIB and TSP have evidently agreed not to make a distribution from that account until this litigation concludes. Am. Compl. ¶ 13.

         In an Amended Complaint adding Mrs. Wang as a defendant, Mrs. Firestone pleads four claims against some combination of the three defendants. Am. Compl. In Count I, she seeks a Declaratory Judgment vis-à-vis all three defendants that she is the beneficiary of Mr. Hsieh's TSP account No. 6801147154539 and any other account where associated funds may currently be held. Count II alleges that FRTIB and TSP have breached a putative contract they had with Mr. Hsieh and of which Mrs. Firestone is allegedly a third-party beneficiary. In Count III, Mrs. Firestone requests specific performance of FRTIB's and TSP's alleged obligation to make a distribution to her from the subject TSP account. And Count IV asserts equitable estoppel to prevent FRTIB and TSP from withholding those TSP assets from Mrs. Firestone and distributing them to anyone else, and to prevent Mrs. Wang from attempting to claim those assets.

         At Mrs. Firestone's and Mrs. Wang's request in June 2017, the Court postponed the deadline for Mrs. Wang's response to the Amended Complaint to permit those parties to engage in mediation. Order, ECF No. 26. When mediation did not succeed, Mrs. Wang filed her motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. FRTIB and TSP followed shortly thereafter with their own such motion. Briefing having concluded, both motions are now ripe for resolution.


         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1)

         A court must dismiss a case pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(1) when it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. In determining whether there is jurisdiction, “the court may consider the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record, or the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.” Coal. for Underground Expansion v. Mineta, 333 F.3d 193, 198 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (quoting Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis., 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992)) (internal quotation marks omitted). “At the motion to dismiss stage, counseled complaints, as well as pro se complaints, are to be construed with sufficient liberality to afford all possible inferences favorable to the pleader on allegations of fact.” Settles v. U.S. Parole Comm'n, 429 F.3d 1098, 1106 (D.C. Cir. 2005). In spite of the favorable inferences that a plaintiff receives on a motion to dismiss, still that “[p]laintiff bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.” Am. Farm Bureau v. EPA, 121 F.Supp.2d 84, 90 (D.D.C. 2000). “Although a court must accept as true all factual allegations contained in the complaint when reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), [a] plaintiff['s] factual allegations in the complaint . . . will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Wright v. Foreign Serv. Grievance Bd., 503 F.Supp.2d 163, 170 (D.D.C. 2007) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The mere existence of some factual dispute is insufficient on its own to bar summary judgment; the dispute must pertain to a “material” fact. Id. Accordingly, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Nor may summary judgment be avoided based on just any disagreement as to the relevant facts; a “genuine” dispute requires sufficient admissible evidence to support a jury verdict for the non-movant. Id.

         A party attempting to place a fact beyond dispute, or to show that it is truly disputed, must (a) rely on specific parts of the record, such as documentary evidence or sworn statements, or (b) “show[ ] that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Conclusory assertions offered without any factual basis in the record cannot create a genuine dispute sufficient to survive summary judgment. See Ass'n of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO v. U.S. Dep't of Transp., 564 F.3d 462, 465-66 (D.C. Cir. 2009). Moreover, where “a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact, ” the district court has the discretion to “consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

         When faced with a motion for summary judgment, the district court may not assess credibility or weigh evidence; instead, the evidence must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, with “all justifiable inferences . . . drawn in his favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “If material facts are at issue, or though undisputed, are susceptible to divergent inferences, summary judgment is not available.” Moore v. Hartman, 571 F.3d 62, 66 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quoting Kuo-Yun Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635, 638 (D.C. Cir. 1994)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In the end, the district court's task is to determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52. In this regard, the non-movant must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50.


         Because Mrs. Firestone has not established subject-matter jurisdiction, all four of her claims must be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(1). The Court need not reach Rule 12(b)(6) grounds for dismissal. In the alternative, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as to all four of Mrs. Firestone's claims.

         A. Dismissal for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Under Rule 12(b)(1)

         Mrs. Firestone alleges that this Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a federal question pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 8477(e)(7)(A). See Am. Compl. ¶ 5; 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Her additional assertion now of jurisdiction under the Declaratory Judgment Act is unavailing; settled precedent recognizes that this statute does not independently confer jurisdiction. See Pl.'s Opp'n to Wang's Mot. at 9-10 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a)); Pl.'s Opp'n to FRTIB's Mot. at 4-5 (same); FRTIB's Reply at 5 (citing C&E Servs., Inc. of Wash. v. D.C. Water & Sewer Auth., 310 F.3d 197, 201 (D.C. Cir. 2002)); 10B Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure Civil § 2766 (4th ed.). Because Mrs. Firestone has not pled diversity jurisdiction or supplemental jurisdiction in the alternative, the Court finds that she has waived those grounds for jurisdiction over any claims in her Amended Complaint for which jurisdiction by federal question is unavailing.

         Mrs. Firestone's federal question arises under the Federal Employees' Retirement System Act of 1986 (“FERSA”), as amended, 5 U.S.C. § 8401, et seq., which governs Mr. Hsieh's TSP. “A TSP is a retirement savings plan for federal employees, and it operates much like the Section 401(k) savings plans which are offered to employees by private sector employers.” Kriebel v. Long, 994 F.Supp.2d 674, 675 (E.D. Pa. 2014). Section 8477(e) furnishes exclusive jurisdiction over the FERSA claims in this case to federal district courts and expressly recognizes the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as an available option. 5 U.S.C. § 8477(e)(7)(A), (B).[5]

         In Section 8477(e), Congress has likewise specified the types of actions that fall within this grant of subject-matter jurisdiction:

A civil action may be brought in the district courts of the United States . . . by any participant or beneficiary . . . to recover benefits of such participant or beneficiary under the provisions of subchapter III of this chapter, to enforce any right of such participant or beneficiary under such provisions, or to clarify any such right to future benefits under such provisions[.]

Id. § 8477(e)(3)(C)(i). Only if Mrs. Firestone can establish that she is a participant or beneficiary would the Court consider whether it has jurisdiction under Section 8477(e) over the four specific claims she raises.

         It is undisputed that Mrs. Firestone is not the relevant participant for purposes of her claim to the proceeds Mr. Hsieh's TSP account. See Id. § 8471(3) (defining “participant” as “an individual for whom an account has been established under section 8439 of this title”). Mrs. Firestone instead maintains that she is a beneficiary, or rather, the beneficiary. The Court shall evaluate Mrs. Firestone's ability to make that ...

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