Smith v. Farmer

Decision Date23 November 2022
Docket Number29524
Parties Elaine SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant v. Carolyn FARMER, Defendant-Appellee
CourtOhio Court of Appeals

MICHAEL W. SANDNER, Atty. Reg. No. 0064107, 2700 Stratacache Tower, 40 Main Street, Dayton, Ohio 45423, Attorney for Plaintiff-Appellant.

JAMES R. KIRKLAND, Atty. Reg. No. 0009731, 10532 Success Lane, Dayton, Ohio 45458, Attorney for Defendant-Appellee.



{¶ 1} Elaine Smith appeals from the trial court's denial of her motion for summary judgment and its grant of summary judgment in favor of Carolyn Farmer on Smith's claims related to Farmer's receipt of survivor benefits from the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund ("OP&F"). For the following reasons, the trial court's judgment will be affirmed.

I. Facts and Procedural History

{¶ 2} This action concerns whether Smith or Farmer is entitled to survivor benefits from OP&F. The following facts are undisputed.

{¶ 3} Elaine Smith ("Smith") is the former spouse of Larry Smith, a retired police officer. The two married on July 13, 1963. In December 1983, Larry applied for disability retirement benefits from OP&F, then known as the Police and Fireman's Disability and Pension Fund of Ohio. OP&F permits plan members to elect a retirement allowance payable for the retiree's lifetime or, instead, to receive an actuarial equivalent of his retirement allowance in a lesser amount payable for his life and continuing after his death to a surviving designated beneficiary. See R.C. 742.3711(A). Larry selected a single life annuity plan, which paid "the highest monthly amount to which the retirant is entitled and terminates at his death." Stipulation, Plt's Ex. 2.

{¶ 4} The Smiths divorced on August 15, 1988, after 25 years of marriage. Section III of the divorce decree, which addressed OP&F benefits, provided that Smith was to receive half of Larry's gross monthly benefits, including any increases. It also provided for Smith to be named the surviving spouse if the pension plan later was modified to provide for a surviving spouse benefit.

{¶ 5} On September 29, 1988, the domestic relations court issued a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO), which restated the terms of the divorce decree regarding OP&F. Soon thereafter, the Ohio Attorney General, on behalf of OP&F, filed a motion in the domestic relations court seeking vacation of the QDRO on the ground that OP&F was expressly exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The domestic relations court agreed, and on November 28, 1988, it filed an entry vacating the QDRO and ordering that Smith receive one-half of Larry's gross monthly benefit as spousal support. The entry did not mention the conditional surviving spouse benefit.

{¶ 6} OP&F did not receive a copy of the 1988 divorce decree. However, it was provided copies of the QDRO and the entry vacating the QDRO. Pursuant to the entry, Smith received her portion of Larry's gross monthly benefit.

{¶ 7} On July 14, 1993, Larry married Carolyn Farmer, and the couple remained married until Larry's death on August 7, 2019, 26 years later. Shortly after Larry died, Farmer submitted a Survivor Benefit Application to OP&F. Farmer received a one-time death benefit of $1,000 from OP&F on August 29, 2019. In addition, pursuant to R.C. 742.37(D), she has been receiving statutory survivor benefits from OP&F since September 1, 2019. Larry's spousal support obligation to Smith terminated with his death.

{¶ 8} On May 18, 2021, Smith filed a complaint against Farmer in common pleas court alleging that Farmer's receipt of survivor benefits from OP&F constituted unjust enrichment and conversion. She also alleged that Larry had breached their contract (divorce decree) by failing to ensure that she was designated the surviving spouse with OP&F, and that Farmer, as fiduciary of his estate, should be required to comply with the terms of the contract. Smith sought monetary damages, a constructive trust for all past and future survivor benefits paid from OP&F, and both preliminary and permanent injunctions enjoining Farmer from receiving, co-mingling, or disposing of survivor benefits from OP&F.

{¶ 9} The trial court's original deadline for filing motions for summary judgment was March 14, 2022. Upon the joint request of the parties, that deadline was extended to March 28, 2022.

{¶ 10} Smith filed a timely motion for summary judgment on March 25, 2022. She argued that the final judgment and decree of divorce contained an express provision for the handling of OP&F benefits, which required that she be named the alternate payee and that she receive half of the gross benefits, which she did from October 1, 1987 through August 1, 2019. Smith also asserted that the decree further provided that if the pension plan were modified to provide for a surviving spouse, then she, as the alternate payee, was to be designated the surviving spouse upon Larry's death, entitling her to survivor benefits from OP&F. Smith noted that a QDRO had been entered but was vacated because it was inapplicable to OP&F. She stated that, following new legislation in 2002, property divisions concerning OP&F were to be addressed through division of property orders (DPO); no DPO was filed prior to Larry's death. Smith argued that Farmer was unjustly enriched by her receipt of survivor benefits from OP&F and that she (Smith) was entitled to a constructive trust, in accordance with Fischbach v. Mercuri , 184 Ohio App.3d 105, 2009-Ohio-4790, 919 N.E.2d 804 (2d Dist.). Finally, Smith asserted that a preliminary injunction should be entered against Farmer, enjoining her from further receipt of OP&F benefits. Smith did not address her conversion or breach of contract claims.

{¶ 11} On April 1, 2022, Farmer filed a combined motion for summary judgment and memorandum in opposition to Smith's motion for summary judgment. Farmer emphasized that while the QDRO specifically mentioned a surviving spouse benefit, the entry vacating the QDRO did not, thus terminating any right Smith had to survivor benefits. Farmer noted that OP&F had received copies of the QDRO and the entry vacating it, but not the divorce decree. Farmer thus argued that she rightfully applied for survivor benefits after Larry's death and thereafter properly received them. Farmer also argued, alternatively, that even if the survivor benefit provision remained in force despite the order vacating the QDRO, the language of the divorce decree did not comply with the statutory mandates of distribution set forth in R.C. 3105.80 et seq., and neither a DPO nor the divorce decree was filed with OP&F. Farmer therefore asserted that Smith's unjust enrichment and constructive trust claims must fail.

{¶ 12} Smith moved to strike Farmer's motion as untimely and requested a status conference. The trial court held a status conference on May 19, but the record does not reflect whether the court addressed the motion to strike. No written entry addressing the motion to strike was filed.

{¶ 13} The trial court subsequently granted Farmer's motion for summary judgment and denied Smith's motion. The trial court stated that it was unclear whether the entry vacating the QDRO eliminated the surviving spouse provision in the divorce decree, and it noted that Larry had not designated Smith as the beneficiary of his pension benefits. However, the court found no evidence that this failure by Larry displayed an intentional disregard for the terms of the divorce decree. It distinguished Fischbach (involving constructive trusts), stating that it "cannot find that the defendant's retaining the survivor benefits she applied for, and which OP&F granted her, was based on misrepresentations, fraud, or deception" by Farmer. The court found no genuine issue of material fact as to Smith's claims of unjust enrichment and constructive trust and entered judgment for Farmer.

{¶ 14} Smith appeals from the trial court's judgment, raising four assignments of error. We will address them in a manner that facilitates our analysis.

II. Untimely Motion

{¶ 15} In her fourth assignment of error, Smith claims that the trial court erred in granting Farmer's motion for summary judgment because the motion was untimely.

{¶ 16} "Trial courts have inherent power to manage their own dockets and the progress of the proceedings before them." (Citations omitted.) Roberts v. Kauffman 4 Dayton, Ltd. , 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 29412, 2022-Ohio-3164, 2022 WL 4115168, ¶ 11. In reviewing whether a court erred in the implementation of its own scheduling order, we generally apply the abuse of discretion standard. Id. ; Pond v. Pond , 10th Dist. Franklin No. 20AP-262, 2021-Ohio-1708, 2021 WL 1990195, ¶ 9. Similarly, we review a trial court's denial of a motion to strike an untimely-filed motion for an abuse of discretion. Cromartie v. Goolsby , 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 93438, 2010-Ohio-2604, 2010 WL 2333004, ¶ 18. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's decision is unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable. Blakemore v. Blakemore , 5 Ohio St.3d 217, 219, 450 N.E.2d 1140 (1983).

{¶ 17} The trial court did not rule on Smith's motion to strike Farmer's motion for summary judgment and, instead, considered Farmer's motion on the merits. We therefore presume that the motion to strike was overruled. E.g., State ex rel. The V Cos. v. Marshall , 81 Ohio St.3d 467, 469, 692 N.E.2d 198 (1998) ("[W]hen a trial court fails to rule on a pretrial motion, it may ordinarily be presumed that the court overruled it.").

{¶ 18} We find no abuse of discretion in the trial court's consideration of Farmer's summary judgment motion. The motion was filed on April 1, 2022, only four days after the court's deadline for filing summary judgment motions, and it also served as Farmer's memorandum in opposition to Smith's summary judgment motion. The untimely filing did not cause any delay to the proceedings. Putting aside the trial court's ruling on Farmer's ...

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