United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
DOMINION RESOURCES INC., et al.. Interpleader Plaintiffs,
ESTATE OF DAVID GRIFFIN et al., Interpleader Defendants.
A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge.
motion before the Court is the latest battle in the Hundred
Years' War over the assets of David Griffin. The war pits
David's children and ex-wife, Sandra, James, and Gloria
Griffin (collectively, "the Griffins"), against
David's second wife, Kimberly Cowser-Griffin. The
Griffins and Cowser-Griffin have litigated cases in various
Virginia trial and appellate courts, and now present this
Court with baroque procedural issues.
case, the parties dispute who is the rightful beneficiary of
David's Dominion Salaried Savings Plan ("the
Plan"). Dominion filed this interpleader action to
resolve the competing claims to the money. The Griffins have
moved for summary judgment, arguing that rulings in another
part of their litigation have conclusively identified the
proper beneficiary, so collateral estoppel bars
Cowser-Griffin from litigating the issue. The Griffins argue
that Cowser-Griffin advances here the same arguments as she
did in the state court proceedings; the Griffins therefore
contend that this action presents identical issues to those
resolved in the earlier court litigation.
Griffins' argument fails for two reasons. First,
Dominion, a party here, did not take part in the state court
proceedings. Prior rulings, therefore, cannot estop Dominion
from defending its interests and decisions as a fiduciary in
this action. Second, this action presents a new issue not
resolved in the state court litigation, because it results
from a decision made by the Plan Administrator after
the prior litigation had concluded. Because this action
involves a new-party and presents a new issue not resolved in
the state court proceedings, the doctrine of collateral
estoppel does not apply. The Court, therefore, DENIES the
Griffins' motion for summary judgment.
working for Dominion, David participated in a retirement
savings plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA").
and Sandra Griffin, his first wife, divorced in 1998. Their
separation agreement said the Plan benefits should be payable
to their children upon David's death. The parties,
however, never reduced the separation agreement to a
qualified domestic relations order ("QDRO"),
ordinarily a requirement for a change of beneficiaries after
divorce. The Plan defines a QDRO as "any domestic
relations order or judgment that meets the requirements set
forth in Section 414(p) of the Internal Revenue Code."
(Compl. Ex. A, at 66.) It also says that "the Plan
Administrator shall determine whether the order is a
Qualified Domestic Relations Order under the provisions of
Section 414(p) of the Internal Revenue Code."
(Id. at 65.)
married Cowser-Griffin, his second wife, in 2007. When David
died in May 2012, the Plan documents listed Cowser-Griffin as
the beneficiary of the funds. Sandra petitioned the Circuit
Court of Sussex County, Virginia, to reopen the divorce case
and enter a proposed domestic relations order
("DRO") memorializing her claim, on behalf of her
children, to the benefits in the Plan. She argued that James
and Gloria should receive the funds because her divorce
agreement with David named her children as the beneficiaries.
Cowser-Griffin, as Executrix of the Estate of David Griffin,
opposed the action and argued that her rights to the Plan
vested upon David's death.
Circuit Court denied Sandra's motion for a DRO, finding
that the funds had vested entirely in Cowser-Griffin as soon
as David Griffin died. The Virginia Court of Appeals reversed
the Circuit Court, ordering the Circuit Court to enter a DRO
designating the Griffin children as the sole beneficiaries.
The Supreme Court of Virginia later affirmed the Court of
Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court denied
certiorari. Although the Court of Appeals clearly viewed
Sandra's proposed DRO as a QDRO, Dominion, the
administrator of the retirement plan, never took part in the
18, 2015, the Circuit Court entered the DRO ("May 18
DRO"). The May 18 DRO includes a clause that states that
"notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained
herein, no amounts shall be distributed to the Alternate
Payees [the children of the first Griffin marriage] prior to
the time the Plan Administrator determines that this Order is
a Qualified Domestic Relations Order within the meaning of
Code § 414(p) and ERISA § 206(d)." (Compl. Ex.
H, at 2.) In other words, although the Court thought the DRO
was a QDRO, Dominion had to decide it was a QDRO before
anyone got any money. Sandra submitted the May 18 DRO to
Dominion for payment of the Plan benefits. To her chagrin,
the Plan Administrator determined that the May 18 DRO did not
meet the requirements of a QDRO under the terms of the Plan.
Her children, therefore, have not received the money.
filed this interpleader action because both the Griffins and
Cowser-Griffin claim one hundred percent of the funds, which
Dominion argues leaves it open to multiple claims.
courts must apply the rules governing collateral estoppel of
the state that rendered the original judgment. Kroner v.
Chem. Constr. Corp., 456 U.S. 461, 482 (1982) (holding
that federal courts must "accept the rules chosen by the
State from which the judgment is taken"); Sartin v.
Macik, 535 F.3d 284, 292 (4th Cir. 2008) (holding that
federal courts "must look to the law of the state that
rendered the judgment to determine whether the courts of that
state would afford the judgment preclusive effect"). In
deciding whether a previous state court decision bars a
litigant from bringing an action in federal court under
federal question jurisdiction, the Full Faith and Credit Act,
28 U.S.C. § 1738, requires that federal courts apply
state preclusion law. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic
Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 293 (2005).
estoppel, also known as "issue preclusion!, ] . . .
'bars successive litigation of an issue of fact or law
actually litigated and resolved in a valid court
determination essential to the prior judgment, even if the
issue recurs in the context of a different claim.'"
Lee v. Spoden,290 Va. 235, 246, 776 S.E.2d 798, 803
(2015) (quoting Taylor v. Sturgell,553 U.S. 880,
892 (2008)). For collateral estoppel to apply, the defendant
must show each of the following elements: (1) the parties to
the prior and subsequent proceedings or their privies must be
the same; (2) the issue in contention must have been
litigated in the prior action; (3) the issue must have been
essential to the judgment in the prior action; (4) there must
have been a valid, final judgment in the prior action; and
(5) mutuality.Scales v. Lewis,261 Va. 379,
382, 541 S.E.2d 899, ...