United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO
DISMISS [DKT. 58]
Vanessa L. Bryant, United States District Judge.
the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus
(“Province” or “Plaintiff”), brings
this claim against Defendants, Audrey F. Cassem and Thomas F.
Owens (“Defendants”), concerning two retirement
accounts held by the late Rev. Edwin H. “Ned”
Cassem (“Fr. Cassem”). Before the Court is
Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Count One of the Amended
Complaint, which seeks “declaratory judgment that the
original beneficiary designations remain enforceable pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202” on the grounds
that “[a]s a result of his vows, Fr. Cassem did not own
the funds in the TIAA-CREF Accounts and thus, did not have
the authority to designate a beneficiary in place of the
province.” [Dkt. 44 (Amended Complaint) at 8-9].
Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claim is preempted by
the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)
and that ERISA's anti-alienation provision prohibits
Plaintiff from asserting a contractual right to Fr.
Cassem's retirement accounts. [Dkt. 58 (Motion to
Dismiss)]. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion
to Dismiss is GRANTED as to Count One.
following facts are taken from the Amended Complaint [Dkt.
44]. The facts alleged in the Amended Complaint are taken as
true and construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff
for the purpose of a motion to dismiss. See Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).
Province is a nonstock corporation organized in Wisconsin
with its principal place of business in Chicago.
[Id. at ¶ 2]. The Province is one of several
geographical subgroups of the Society of Jesus (the
“Society”), commonly known as the
“Jesuits.” [Id.] Defendant Audrey V.
Cassem (“A. Cassem”) is the widow of Fr.
Cassem's deceased brother, John M. Cassem. [Id.
at ¶ 3]. Defendant Thomas M. Owens, II
(“Owens”) is the son of A. Cassem from a marriage
that predated her marriage to John M. Cassem. [Id.
at ¶ 4].
Cassem was a lifelong Jesuit and member of the Province.
[Dkt. 44, ¶ 11]. He died on July 4, 2015. [Id.
at ¶ 1]. He entered the society in 1953, at the age of
eighteen. [Id. at ¶ 12]. He was ordained on
June 4, 1970, and pronounced his “final vows of
perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience on December 26,
1985.” [Id. at ¶ 14]. While a member of
the Society, Fr. Cassem obtained an undergraduate degree in
psychology and a medical degree in psychiatry. [Id.
at ¶ 13].
his graduation from Harvard Medical School, Fr. Cassem began
what would become a long and distinguished career as a
psychiatrist in Boston, Massachusetts at Massachusetts
General Hospital (“MGH”) and Harvard Medical
School (“HMS”). [Dkt. 44, ¶ 16]. He founded
the Optimum Care Committee at MGH in 1973 and chaired it
until 2009. [Id. at ¶ 17]. He served as Chief
of Psychiatry at MGH from 1989 to 2000. [Id.] Fr.
Cassem conducted research on the relationship between
depression and heart disease and worked in palliative and
end-of-life care. [Id. at ¶ 18].
Fr. Cassem's career, he “tendered his income, as he
earned it, to the Province, and the Province, in turn,
provided for his lifelong wants and needs. [Dkt. 44, at
¶ 15]. This was in fulfillment of his vows, which
included “a renunciation of his right to own
property.” [Id.] Plaintiff alleges that the
vow of poverty:
Enables each Jesuit to live simply and promotes a feeling of
empathy for the poor. Jesuit priests share possessions
communally. Accordingly, a Jesuit turns over all
after-acquired property to his province after taking his
vows, and the province, in turn, provides for his wants and
needs . . . Each member of the community relinquished title
to personal property and monies, turned over money and
property for their common benefit, and, in return, received a
living sustenance in the form of food, shelter, health
insurance premiums, car payments and car insurance.
[Id. at ¶ 14 n. 3].
connection with his positions at MGH and HMS, Fr. Cassem
accumulated two retirement accounts with TIAA-CREF (the
“Accounts”). [Dkt. 44, at ¶ 20]. As of
September 30, 2017, the value of the funds in the Accounts
was $1, 258, 530.07 in “TIAA-A741815-3” and $253,
656.04 in CREF-P741815-0. [Id. at ¶ 23]. In
1976, Fr. Cassem executed beneficiary designation forms with
TIAA-CREF naming the Province as the beneficiary for the
TIAA-CREF accounts. [Id. at ¶ 21].
in roughly 2010, Fr. Cassem “began to display symptoms
of dementia, which symptoms became significantly worse over
time.” [Dkt. 44, at ¶ 24]. In or around December
2010, Fr. Cassem moved into A. Cassem's home in West
Hartford. [Id. at ¶ 25]. In or around December
2010, Fr. Cassem “was taken to a local attorney,
previously unknown to him, and executed a Durable Power of
Attorney in favor of Owens.” [Id. at ¶
about January 11, 2011, “TIAA-CREF received a form
purportedly executed by Fr. Cassem” that changed the
beneficiary of the Accounts from the Province to A. Cassem,
as primary beneficiary, and Owens, as contingent beneficiary.
[Dkt. 44, at ¶ 22]. At this time, Fr. Cassem was
seventy-five years old, residing alone with A. Cassem, and
“living hundreds of miles away from any blood relatives
and hours away from his friends and colleagues at the
Society.” [Id. at ¶ 27]. Fr. Cassem
continued to live with A. Cassem until his death in 2015.
[Id. at ¶ 28].
September 1, 2017, the Province brought this action against
Audrey Cassem, Thomas Owens II, TIAA-CREF, and Neil Kraner in
his capacity as Temporary Administrator of the Estate of
Edwin H. Cassem. [Dkt. 1]. Defendant TIAA-CREF filed a
Counterclaim for interpleader on November 13, 2017, asking
the Court to order that Plaintiff and Defendants A. Cassem,
Thomas Owens, and Neil Kraner interplead their respective
claims amongst themselves. [Dkt. 22 (Answer to Complaint and
Counterclaim for Interpleader), at 8]. Plaintiff filed the
Amended Complaint on June 7, 2018. [Dkt. 44]. TIAA-CREF filed
a renewed counterclaim for interpleader on July 4, 2018.
[Dkt. 51]. Defendants A. Cassem and Thomas Owens filed this
Motion to Dismiss on August 20, 2018. [Dkt. 58].
survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead
“enough facts to state a claim to relief that is
plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has
facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content
that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In
considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim,
the Court should follow a “two-pronged approach”
to evaluate the sufficiency of the complaint. Hayden v.
Paterson, 594 F.3d 150, 161 (2d Cir. 2010). “A
court ‘can choose to begin by identifying pleadings
that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not
entitled to the assumption of truth.'” Id.
(quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). “At the
second step, a court should determine whether the
‘well-pleaded factual allegations,' assumed to be
true, ‘plausibly give rise to an entitlement to
relief.'” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556
U.S. at 679). “The plausibility standard is not akin to
a probability requirement, but it asks for more than a sheer
possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotations
8(a) provides that a pleading must contain “a short and
plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is
entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).
“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of
action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not
suffice.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. A claim is
“facially plausible” when “the plaintiff
pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
misconduct alleged.” Id.
alleges that the change in beneficiary designation was
improper because Fr. Cassem's vows prevented him from
legally acquiring personal property and, therefore, he never
owned the Accounts. Plaintiff alleges that “Fr.
Cassem's final vows constitute an enforceable contract
among and between the Province and Fr. Cassem, through which
Fr. Cassem fully and finally renounced and assigned any and
all property then owned or later acquired to the
Province.” [Dkt. 44, at ¶ 33]. The Province argues
that because Fr. Cassem was not entitled to retain or direct
property for the benefit of any party other than the
Province, the original designation of the Province as the
beneficiary of the Accounts remains valid and enforceable.
[Id. at ¶ 38].
argues that Fr. Cassem's contractual obligation to tender
property to the Province is pre-empted and legally barred by
the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).
[Dkt. 58-1 (Memo. of Support of Defendant's Motion to
Dismiss), at 2-3]. Specifically, Defendant invokes §
514(a) of ERISA, which states that the Act pre-empts
“any and all State laws insofar as they may now or
hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan, ” with
exceptions. See [Dkt. 58-1, at 8] (quoting 29 U.S.C.
§ 1144(a)). Furthermore, Defendants argue that Fr.
Cassem's rights to designate a beneficiary could not be
alienated due to the ERISA provision stating that
“[e]ach pension plan shall provide that benefits
provided under the plan may not be assigned or
alienated.” See [Dkt. 58-1, at 16] (quoting 29
U.S.C. § 1056(d)(1)).
Whether Fr. Cassem's Vows are
argues in briefing that the Province has a right to the
accounts because Fr. Cassem's vows are enforceable under
federal common law. [Dkt. 64, at 4-10]. Although Plaintiff
cites precedent for the proposition that a cause of action
exists at federal common law, the courts in Plaintiff's
cases all say they are interpreting the enforceability or
validity of a contract. It is axiomatic that contract
formation is governed by state law in the United States. The
Amended Complaint even characterizes the vows as an
“enforceable contract.” [Dkt. 44, at ¶¶
33, 34]. Therefore, the Court construes Count One as alleging
a contractual right. Formation of a contract generally
requires a bargain in which there is a manifestation of
mutual assent and a consideration. See Restatement
(II) of Contracts, § 17; see e.g. Knauss v. Ultimate
Nutrition, Inc., 514 F.Supp.2d 241, 245 (D. Conn. 2007).
Plaintiff pleads facts supporting the inference that Fr.
Cassem and the Province formed a contract in which Fr. Cassem
provided all of his income and property to the Province, and
in return the Province paid for his undergraduate and medical
studies and his living expenses throughout his life.
See [Dkt. 44, at ¶¶ 14, 14 n. 3, 15, 19,
case principally relied on by Plaintiff, Order of St.
Benedict v. Steinhauser, does not create federal common
law requiring the enforcement of religious vows. See
Order of St. Benedict of New Jersey v. Steinhauser, 234
U.S. 640 (1914). Plaintiff argues that “[i]n
Steinhauser, a unanimous Supreme Court applied
long-standing federal precedent to explicitly
recognize ‘[t]he validity of agreements
providing for community ownership with renunciation of
individual rights of property during the continuance of
membership in the community, where there is freedom to
withdraw, has repeatedly been affirmed.” [Dkt. 73
(Plaintiff's Sur-Reply to Defendant's Memorandum of
Law) at 2] (quoting Steinhauser, 234 U.S. at 649)
(emphasis added). This statement mischaracterizes the
opinion. In Steinhauser, Augustin Wirth - a member
of the religious Order of St. Benedict - took a similar vow
to that allegedly taken by Fr. Cassem. See Id. at
642. The Order's constitution included the provision that
“the real estate of said order and the individual
earnings of its members are and must be considered as common
property of the Order of St. Benedict of New Jersey, from
which the members of said Order derive their support, and the
balance of which income and property should serve for
following up and carrying out of the charitable objects of
the Order.” Id. at 642-43. The Supreme Court
identified the question before it by stating that it was
“not concerned in the present case with any question of
ecclesiastical requirement or monastic discipline. The
question is solely one of civil rights.” Id.
at 641-42. First, the Court interpreted the constitution of
the Order to determine whether Wirth had some special
dispensation to retain certain property. Id. at
642-47. It concluded that he did not. Ibid. Second,
the Supreme Court was “brought to the question whether
the requirement [to renounce all property], which lies at the
foundation of this suit, is void as against public
policy.” Id. at 647. The Court found that the
requirement was not contrary either to Wirth's individual
liberty or the inherent right to acquire and hold property,
or to New Jersey public policy. Id. at 649. These
two holdings were the extent of the opinion in
Steinhauser. The Supreme Court did not hold that
federal common law required enforcement of the agreement -
the Court applied New Jersey law to enforce the contract and
cited federal cases to determine whether the contract was
contrary to public policy.
to Plaintiff's assertions, “federal common
law” does not recognize religious oaths as enforceable
as a distinct category from contract law. See [Dkt.
64, at 5]. The cases cited by Plaintiff all enforce
contracts. The Supreme Court in Steinhauser
relies, in part, on a 19th century case
characterizing the vows of a religious order as follows:
An association of individuals is formed under a religious
influence, who are in a destitute condition, having little to
rely on for their support but their industry; and they agree
to labor in common for the good of the society, and a
comfortable maintenance for each individual; and whatever
shall be acquired beyond this shall go to the common stock.
This contract provides for every ...