300 U.S. 227 (1937), 446, Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Haworth

Docket Nº:No. 446
Citation:300 U.S. 227, 57 S.Ct. 461, 81 L.Ed. 617
Party Name:Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Haworth
Case Date:March 01, 1937
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 227

300 U.S. 227 (1937)

57 S.Ct. 461, 81 L.Ed. 617

Aetna Life Insurance Co.



No. 446

United States Supreme Court

March 1, 1937

Argued February 4, 1937




1. The Federal Declaratory Judgment Act deals with "controversies" in the constitutional sense, and is procedural only. P. 239.

2. In the exercise of its control over practice and procedure of the lower federal courts, Congress is not limited to traditional forms or remedies, but may create and improve, as well as abolish or restrict. P. 240.

3. A controversy, in the constitutional sense and in the sense of the Declaratory Judgment Act, must be justiciable -- it must be definite and concrete, touching the legal relation of parties having adverse legal interests -- it must be a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a conclusive decree, as distinguished from an opinion advising whet the law would be upon a hypothetical statement of facts. P. 240.

4. There may be adjudication of the rights of parties without award of process or payment of damages and where no allegation of irreparable injury is made. P. 241.

5. Where the holder of life insurance policies claims, under disability benefit clauses, that, notwithstanding nonpayment of premiums, the policies, by reason of his total and permanent disability,

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remain in force and entitle him to cash benefits, and makes repeated and persistent demands upon the insurer accordingly, whereas the insurer denies that such disability existed and insists that the policies have lapsed because the premiums were not paid, there is an "actual controversy" on which suit may be maintained by the insurer against the insured under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act. P. 242.

8 F.2d 695, reversed.

CERTIORARI, 299 U.S. 536.

This suit by the Insurance Company, under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, was dismissed by the District Court upon the ground that there was no justiciable controversy. 11 F.Supp. 1016. The decree was affirmed by the court below.

Page 236

HUGHES, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the District Court had jurisdiction of this suit under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act. Act of June 14, 1934, 48 Stat. 955; Jud.Code, § 274D; 28 U.S.C. 400. *

The question arises upon the plaintiff's complaint, which was dismissed by the District Court upon the ground that it did not set forth a "controversy" in the constitutional sense, and hence did not come within the legitimate scope of the statute. 11 F.Supp. 1016. The decree of dismissal was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. 84 F.2d 695. We granted certiorari. November 16, 1936.

Page 237

From the complaint it appears that plaintiff is an insurance company which had issued to the defendant, Edwin P. Haworth, five policies of insurance upon his life, the defendant Cora M. Haworth being named as beneficiary. The complaint set forth the terms of the policies. They contained various provisions which, for the present purpose, it is unnecessary fully to particularize. It is sufficient to observe that they all provided for certain benefits in the event that the insured became totally and permanently disabled. In one policy, for $10,000, issued in 1911, the company agreed, upon receiving the requisite proof of such disability and without further payment of premiums, to pay the sum insured, and dividend additions, in twenty annual instalments, or a life annuity as specified, in full settlement. In four other policies issued in 1921, 1928 and 1929, respectively, for amounts aggregating $30,000, plaintiff agreed upon proof of such disability to waive further payment of premiums, promising in one of the policies to pay a specified amount monthly and in the other three to continue the life insurance in force. By these four policies, the benefits to be payable at death, and the cash and loan values to be available, were to be the same whether the premiums were paid or were waived by reason of the described disability.

The complaint alleges that, in 1930 and 1931, the insured ceased to pay premiums on the four policies last mentioned and claimed the disability benefits as stipulated. He continued to pay premiums on the first mentioned policy until 1934, and then claimed disability benefits. These claims, which were repeatedly renewed, were presented in the form of affidavits accompanied by certificates of physicians. A typical written claim on the four policies is annexed to the complaint. It states that, while these policies were in force, the insured became

Page 238

totally and permanently disabled by disease, and was "prevented [57 S.Ct. 463] from performing any work or conducting any business for compensation or profit"; that, on October 7, 1930, he had made and delivered to the company a sworn statement

for the purpose of asserting and claiming his right to have these policies continued under the permanent and total disability provision contained in each of them;

that, more than six months before that date, he had become totally and permanently disabled, and had furnished evidence of his disability within the stated time; that the annual premiums payable in the year 1930 or in subsequent years were waived by reason of the disability, and that he was entitled to have the policies continued in force without the payment of premiums so long as the disability should continue.

With respect to the policy first mentioned, it appears that the insured claimed that, prior to June 1, 1934, when he ceased to pay premiums, he had become totally and permanently disabled; that he was without obligation to pay further premiums, and was entitled to the stipulated disability benefits including the continued life of the policy.

Plaintiff alleges that consistently and at all times it has refused to recognize these claims of the insured, and has insisted that all the policies had lapsed according to their terms by reason of the nonpayment of premiums, the insured not being totally and permanently disabled at any of the times to which his claims referred. Plaintiff further states that, taking loans into consideration, four of the policies have no value, and the remaining policy (the one first mentioned) has a value of only $45 as extended insurance. If, however, the insured has been totally and permanently disabled as he claims, the five policies are in full force, the plaintiff is now obliged to pay the accrued instalments of cash disability benefits for which two of the policies provide, and the insured

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has the right to claim at any time cash surrender values accumulating by reason of the provisions for waiver of premiums, or at his death, Cora M. Haworth, as beneficiary, will be entitled to receive the face of the policies less the loans thereon.

Plaintiff thus contends that there is an actual controversy with defendants as to the existence of the total and permanent disability of the insured and as to the continuance of the obligations asserted despite the nonpayment of premiums. Defendants have not instituted any action wherein the plaintiff would have an opportunity to prove the absence of the alleged disability, and plaintiff points to the danger that it may lose the benefit of evidence through disappearance, illness or death of witnesses, and meanwhile, in the absence of a judicial decision with respect to the alleged disability, the...

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