Robinette v. Hunsecker

Decision Date29 May 2013
Docket NumberSept. Term, 2011.,No. 2444,2444
Citation66 A.3d 1093,212 Md.App. 76
PartiesLori A. ROBINETTE, et al. v. Luan HUNSECKER.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland


Peter D. Fitzpatrick (The Stern Group, on the brief), Frederick, MD, for Appellant.

Brian E. Barkley (Barkley & Kennedy, Chartered, on the brief), Rockville, MD, for Appellee.



“The alphabet soup world of pension benefits has spawned a dizzying array of acronyms, like ERISA, QDRO, and QPSA, and a complex web of interrelated statutory provisions” that collide at the intersection of federal statutes with State domestic relations law. Hamilton v. Wash. State Plumbing and Pipefitting Indus. Pension Plan, 433 F.3d 1091 (9th Cir.2006). In this case of first impression, we are asked to resolve contentions relating to the entry of a domestic relations order and the existence of an equitable remedy in the form of a constructive trust when a party to a divorce fails to obtain a qualified domestic relations order prior to the pre-retirement death of a former spouse, when that former spouse remarries and—prior to pre-retirement death—designates his or her surviving spouse as sole beneficiary of his/her pension.

Lori A. Robinette, appellant, appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court for Frederick County granting summary judgment and awarding a constructive trust and partial pension benefits to her deceased husband's former spouse, Luan Hunsecker, appellee.

On appeal, appellant presents two questions for our review: 1

I. Did the circuit court err by entering an order for the alienation of pension benefits after the death of the plan participant?

II. Did the circuit court err by creating a constructive trust to alienate pension benefits after the death of the plan participant?

For the reasons outlined below, we answer both questions in the negative, and affirm the judgment of the circuit court.


The essential facts pertinent to this appeal are undisputed. On June 6, 1981, appellee, Luan Hunsecker (“Ms.Hunsecker”), was married to the decedent, Roger Robinette (“Mr.Robinette”). During their marriage, Mr. Robinette was employed by Montgomery County Public Schools (“MCPS”) and a participantin its pension plan. After nearly seventeen years of marriage, Ms. Hunsecker and Mr. Robinette executed a voluntary separation agreement on April 16, 1998. Pursuant to that agreement, Ms. Hunsecker transferredand assigned all her rights, title, and interest in the marital home, with the proviso that the proceeds of any sale would be the “sole and exclusive property” of Mr. Robinette. In addition, Ms. Hunsecker further conveyed all her rights, title, and interest in a boat and trailer the couple owned, and she released and discharged any claims for pendente lite and indefinite alimony. Following their agreement, a judgment of divorce was entered by the Circuit Court for Frederick County, Maryland, providing that the terms of the voluntary separation agreement would be incorporated, but not merged, into the judgment of absolute divorce.

Most notably, paragraph eight of the separation agreement provided that the judgment of divorce, issued on August 3, 1998, would serve as a qualified domestic relations order (“QDRO”) in the pension benefits and death (“surviving spouse”) benefits provided to Mr. Robinette through his employ with MCSS. 2 Specifically, the provision stated:

PENSION: [Mr. Robinette] is a participant in a pension plan through his employment with [MCPS]. The parties agree that [Ms. Hunsecker] shall be the alternate payee of the aforesaid pension and that the parties' judgment of divorce shall be a Qualified Domestic Relations Order as defined by the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, as from time to time amended. [Ms. Hunsecker's] equitable interest in [Mr. Robinette's] pension is hereby declared to be fifty percent (50%) of the “marital share” of said pension benefit, the marital share being that fraction of the benefit whose numerator shall be the number of months of the parties' marriage during which the benefits were accumulated, which number shall be determined as of the date of this Agreement, and whose denominator shall be the total number of months during which the benefits were accumulated prior to the time when payment of such benefits shall commence. [Ms. Hunsecker] shall receive fifty percent (50%) of the aforesaid marital share of any benefits made from the pension to [Mr. Robinette], including any death benefits if, as and when such payments are made.

(emphasis in original). This provision, however, was never enrolled in a QDRO.

After their divorce, Mr. Robinette continued working for MCSS. He remarried on June 25, 2000, to Lori A. Robinette (“Ms.Robinette”). Throughout their nine years of marriage, Mr. Robinette continued working for MCSS until his untimely death on October 2, 2009. Ms. Robinette was named as the personal representative of Mr. Robinette's small estate, which she administered without publication.

Upon learning of Mr. Robinette's passing, Ms. Hunsecker attempted to obtain a portion of the pension benefits from MCSS on May 12, 2010, pursuant to the separation agreement that she had entered eleven years earlier. Her efforts proved unsuccessful because MCSS had never received a QDRO to indicate Ms. Hunsecker as the partial beneficiary of Mr. Robinette's pension benefits. Mr. Robinette had named Ms. Robinette the beneficiary of record with MCSS on September2, 2003. As a consequence, Ms. Hunsecker was denied any portion of the pension benefits, and she was apprised that Mr. Robinette's pension was being paid to Ms. Robinette.

Thereafter, Ms. Hunsecker instituted a cause of action in the Circuit Court for Frederick County, Maryland, against Ms. Robinette on January 20, 2011, seeking the establishment of a constructive trust on grounds of Ms. Robinette's unjust enrichment. The parties filed a joint stipulation of facts on October 14, 2011. On that same day, Ms. Hunsecker additionallymoved for summary judgment, arguing that she had a superior equitable title to Mr. Robinette's pension.

Ms. Robinette responded in opposition on November 3, 2011, filing her own motion for summary judgment, arguing three points. First, Ms. Robinette attested that Ms. Hunsecker had failed to obtain a QDRO prior to Mr. Robinette's death, and, as a consequence was precluded from asserting any interest to Mr. Robinette's pension pursuant to Title I of ERISA. Second, she argued that Ms. Hunsecker's claim of unjust enrichment was inapplicable because the parties “have no privity whatsoever, whether contractual or quasi-contractual.” Third, Ms. Robinette argued that the creation of a constructive trust was an improper method of acquisition of Mr. Robinette's pension and that she maintained higher equitable call.

After hearing argument of counsel on November 17, 2011, and taking each parties' motions sub curia, the circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Ms. Hunsecker on January 4, 2012, granting her a constructive trust in a portion of Mr. Robinette's pension and death benefits and further ordered the issuance of a posthumous QDRO, consistent with the separation agreement.

Ms. Robinnette subsequently noted her timely appeal to this Court.


Md. Rule 2–501(f) provides that a trial court “shall enter [summary] judgment in favor or against the moving party if the motion and response show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the party in whose favor judgment is entered is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” We review a trial court's grant or denial of summary judgment de novo by conducting our own independent review of the record and deciding the same legal issues as the trial court. Haas v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 396 Md. 469, 478–79, 914 A.2d 735 (2007). When, as in this case, there are no disputed facts related to the trial court's grant or denial of summary judgment, our only task is to determine whether the trial court's decision was legally correct. Id. at 479, 914 A.2d 735.See also Gonsalves v. Bingel, 194 Md.App. 695, 708, 5 A.3d 768 (2010).

(A) Did the Circuit Court Err by Entering a Domestic Relations Order for the Alienation of Pension Benefits After the Death of the Plan Participant?

Ms. Robinette first contends that the circuit court erred by entering a domestic relations order for the alienation of pension benefits that had already vested in the pre-retirement pension plan participant's designee upon the death of the pension plan's participant. In response, Ms. Hunsecker argues that [t]he [c]ourt could ... enter a QDRO since Mr. Robinette was a participant in the MCPS Retirement Plan, a governmental retirement plan that is exempt from the provisions of ERISA.’ We find Ms. Hunsecker's argument more persuasive.

In considering Ms. Robinette's first assignment of error, we preliminarily begin with an overview of the applicability—or, in this case, the inapplicability—of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. (1999) (ERISA), to pension plans. See, e.g., Potts v. Potts, 142 Md.App. 448, 454–55, 790 A.2d 703 (2002). ERISA was first enacted in 1974 in order to remedy long-standing abuses and deficiencies in the private pension system. See generally H.R.Rep. No. 533, 93d Cong., 2d Sess., reprinted in, 1974 U.S.Code Cong. & Ad. News 4639. See also29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. “These deficiencies included inadequate vesting provisions, insufficient assets to assure payment of future benefit obligations, and premature termination of under-funded benefit plans.” Rose v. Long Island R.R. Pension Plan, 828 F.2d 910, 913 (2d Cir.1987) (citations omitted). Thus, ERISA's purpose is to “to provide better protection for beneficiaries of employee pension and welfare benefit plans abounding in the private workplace.” Rohrbeck v. Rohrbeck, 318 Md. 28, 30, 566 A.2d 767 (1989) (discussing the history...

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