INDISPENSABLE PARTIES - MUNICIPAL IMMUNITY UNDER § 11-47-190 ON MISREPRESENTATION CLAIM - ACCRUAL OF CLAIM - STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS - MILLER V. CITY OF BIRMINGHAM
Miller v. City of Birmingham, [Ms. 1151084, Apr. 21, 2017] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2017). In this unanimous decision authored by Justice Parker, the Supreme Court reverses a summary judgment entered for the City of Birmingham and its employees Roberts and Crutchfield. The plaintiff’s deceased husband, Robert Miller, was a firefighter with the City of Birmingham. As part of his employment, he was provided with $151,000 in employee life insurance for which the City paid the premiums. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, Mr. Miller and his wife met with Roberts and Crutchfield concerning his employee benefits. In her affidavit opposing the City’s motion for summary judgment, Mrs. Miller testified that at the meeting she and her husband were informed by Roberts and Crutchfield that Mr. Miller’s only option if he could not return to work was to convert his life insurance to retiree insurance for which he would have to pay the premiums. Retiree coverage was limited to $50,000.
In early December 2014, through her counsel, Mrs. Miller received a summary of the benefits of Mr. Miller’s life insurance policy and learned that the policy contained a disability waiver of premium benefit. This benefit would have allowed Mr. Miller to maintain his $151,000 in coverage with the premiums waived during his disability. On January 16, 2015, Mrs. Miller filed a claim with the City alleging that Roberts and Crutchfield had been negligent in failing to inform the Millers of the existence of the premium waiver. The claim requested $101,000. At that time, Mrs. Miller also requested that Unum pay the full amount of the insurance benefit. Unum declined because the policy had been voluntarily converted by the Millers to retiree insurance in the amount of $50,000. Mrs. Miller sued the City defendants alleging a single claim of misrepresentation and alleging that the “representations were reckless, wanton, grossly negligent, and/or negligent.” Ms. *9. The Jefferson Circuit Court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment.
In reversing, the Supreme Court first addressed the City’s argument that Unum was an indispensable party. The Court noted that the summary judgment of dismissal expressly stated that it was with prejudice. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the circuit court had not granted the motion based upon the City’s indispensable party argument because the absence of an indispensable party authorizes dismissal without prejudice. Ms. *21-22, citing Liberty National Life Insurance Co. v. The University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C., 881 So. 2d 1013 (Ala. 2003).
The Court also rejected the City’s argument that failure to join an indispensable party deprives a circuit court of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court cited its decision in Campbell v. Taylor, 159 So. 3d 4 (Ala. 2014), “definitively stat[ing] that the failure to join an indispensable party does not affect the subject matter jurisdiction of a court ....” Ms. at *22.
On the merits, the Court found that Unum was not an indispensable party because Mrs. Miller did not claim that Unum had a contractual obligation to pay her the $151,000 in life insurance benefits. The Court concluded “Mrs. Miller is clearly asserting a misrepresentation claim against the City defendants. It is not alleged, nor is there any evidence indicating, that Unum had anything to do with the misrepresentation allegedly made by Roberts and Crutchfield.” Id. at *27. Relatedly, the Court rejected the City’s argument that Mrs. Miller was required to join Unum under 11-47-191 because “[t]here is no evidence indicating that Unum is liable for Mrs. Miller’s damages, if any.” Id. at *29.
The Court also rejected the City’s argument that the statute of limitations, § 6-2-38 or the presentment of claim statute, § 11-47-23, barred Mrs. Miller’s claim. The Court held “negligent misrepresentation claims are subject to a two-year statute of limitations, which begins running when the plaintiff discovers, or should have discovered, the fact constituting the fraud.” Ms. *32, quoting Bryant Bank v. Talmadge Kirkland and Co., 155 So. 3d at 235. The Court noted that per her affidavit testimony “Mrs. Miller discovered the misrepresentation allegedly made by Roberts and Crutchfield [in December 2014] when Mrs. Miller obtained a copy of the summary of benefits and discovered that Roberts and Crutchfield had misinformed the Millers about the benefits available to Mr. Miller under the policy. The City defendants have not offered any argument indicating that Mrs. Miller could have discovered the misrepresentation made by Roberts and Crutchfield without knowing what the policy actually provided.” Ms. *35.
The City argued that the statute of limitations began to run at the time of the meeting with Roberts and Crutchfield in March of 2013 because Mrs. Miller should have contacted Unum to verify the information Roberts and Crutchfield had provided about the policy. The Court rejected this argument noting that the defendants did not present evidence showing that the Millers had reason to doubt the information provided at the March 2013 meeting. Ms. *36. As to limitations, the Court further held “‘[t]he question of when a plaintiff should have discovered fraud should be taken away from the jury and decided as a matter of law only in cases in which the plaintiff actually knew of facts that would have put a reasonable person on notice of fraud.’” Ms. *38, quoting Hicks v. Globe Life and Accident Ins. Co., 584 So. 2d 458, 463 (Ala. 1991).
The Court affirmed the summary judgment for the City as to claims for reckless or wanton misrepresentation on the ground of immunity. However, the Supreme Court reversed the summary judgment as to the claim for negligent misrepresentation. While noting Mrs. Miller does not cite any authority other than § 11-47-190, the Court held “[i]t is evident under the plain language of § 11-47-190 that the City may be held liable for damages arising out of the negligence of Roberts and Crutchfield. Therefore, we reverse the summary judgment insofar as it held that the City could not be liable for damages arising out of Mrs. Miller’s claim that Roberts and Crutchfield made a negligent misrepresentation to the Millers.” Ms. *42.