Petition for review of a decision of the Bureau of Justice
Assistance in PSOB Claim No. 2011-016.
Poll Klaessy, Foley & Lardner LLP, Chicago, IL, argued
for petitioner. Also represented by Jill Nicholson; Jack
Gabriel Haake, Washington, DC.
Geu Oh, Commercial Litigation Branch, Civil Division, United
States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, argued for
represented by Joseph H. Hunt, Tara K. Hogan, Robert Edward
Kirschman, Jr.; Rafael Alberto Madan, Matthew T. Scodellaro,
Office of Justice Programs, Office of General Counsel, United
States Department of Justice, Washington, DC.
Newman, Moore, and Chen, Circuit Judges.
Li brought a claim for death benefits under the Public Safety
Officers' Benefits Act (PSOBA) of 1976, Pub. L. No.
94-430 (codified as amended at 34 U.S.C. §§ 10281-
10288). Ms. Li appeals a June 28, 2018, decision by the
Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) holding that she was not
entitled to the death benefits for her fiancé, San
Diego Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Collier. The BJA
determined that Ms. Li was not a designated beneficiary under
Deputy Collier's life insurance policy in accordance with
34 U.S.C. § 10281(a)(4)(B). Because the BJA's
decision is supported by substantial evidence and properly
applies the statute and the BJA's implementing
regulation, 28 C.F.R. § 32.13, we affirm the
BJA's denial of benefits.
February 2010, Sherriff's Deputy Kenneth Collier was
patrolling Route 52 in San Diego County, California, where he
observed a car driving the wrong way. Deputy Collier pursued
the driver by driving down the middle lane of the highway,
but the middle lane suddenly ended, and Deputy Collier lost
control of the car as he attempted to exit the middle lane.
Deputy Collier's car fell down the embankment on the side
of the highway. After his rescue, Deputy Collier was flown to
the hospital where he died.
Collier was survived by his fiancée, Karen Li. Deputy
Collier and Ms. Li started dating in 2003 and owned a house
together. The couple planned to get married three months
after Deputy Collier's accident, choosing that date to
combine the wedding celebration with Deputy Collier's
40th birthday. Deputy Collier told Ms. Li and their friends
on multiple occasions that he had made arrangements for Ms.
Li to be taken care of if anything ever happened to him,
including through a video he recorded after his mother died
in 2008. In that video, Deputy Collier explained that:
"My understanding is that the one-third interest that I
have [in Deputy Collier's mother's] house upon my
death or incapacitation reverts back-control back to [Deputy
Collier's siblings], but all other assets, savings,
everything like that, will be separate and go to Karen."
Collier's job benefits included workers'
compensation, retirement benefits, and life insurance. In
re Li, No. 2011-016, at 6-7 (BJA June 28, 2018). Deputy
Collier designated Ms. Li as a partial dependent in his
workers' compensation program and as his beneficiary for
his retirement benefits. Id. However, since 1997,
Deputy Collier's designation form for his life insurance
designated his mother as the primary beneficiary and his
ex-girlfriend, Monique Stamp, as his contingent beneficiary.
Deputy Collier signed forms in 2003, 2006, and 2007
reaffirming these beneficiary designations. While the forms
in 1997-2006 explicitly listed the beneficiary designations
above the signature line (identifying Deputy Collier's
mother and Ms. Stamp by name on Deputy Collier's signed
forms), the County of San Diego (the County) changed its
policy in 2007 and stopped including this explicit listing on
life insurance policy stated that to change the beneficiary
designation, "[y]ou must name or change Beneficiaries in
writing. Writing includes a form signed by you or a
verification from the Policyholder or Employer of an
electronic or telephonic designation made by you. Your
designation . . . [m]ust be delivered to the Policyholder or
Employer during your lifetime." J.A. 202-03. There is no
evidence that Deputy Collier ever provided any such written
designation change, or otherwise made any effort to contact
the County or the insurance company to make a beneficiary
time of Deputy Collier's death, Deputy Collier's
mother had passed away, leaving Ms. Stamp as the designated
beneficiary for his life insurance policy. Ms. Li contested
to the insurance company that she should be the beneficiary
for Deputy Collier's life insurance policy. The insurance
company determined that Ms. Li had a colorable claim to
Deputy Collier's life insurance. But rather than
determine whether Ms. Li had the stronger claim, the
insurance company told Ms. Li that she could either settle
the claim with Ms. Stamp or the insurance company would file
an interpleader to have a court determine who had the better
claim. Ms. Li and Ms. Stamp arrived at a settlement in which
Ms. Li received $560, 920 and Ms. Stamp received $25, 000.
The insurance company honored this settlement agreement.
then filed for PSOB death benefits. However, the BJA
determined that Ms. Li had failed to show she was the
designated beneficiary of Deputy Collier's life insurance
policy. Li, No. 2011-016, at 19. In accordance with
34 U.S.C. § 10281(a) and 28 C.F.R. § 32.13, the BJA
analyzed whether Ms. Li was the designee of a "legal and
valid" life insurance policy. Id. at 9-11. To
make this determination, the BJA analyzed California
insurance law, determining that, with three limited
exceptions, the law requires strict compliance with the terms
of the insurance policy. Id. at 11-12. Those
exceptions include (1) the insurance company waives strict
compliance, (2) it is beyond the power of the policyholder to
comply, or (3) the policyholder "pursued the course
pointed out by the laws of the association [i.e. the
insurance company], and has done all in his power to change
the beneficiary" but failed to properly make the change.