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Davis v. Davis

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

August 31, 2017

EVELYN H. DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHNSON MACK DAVIS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          W. KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On April 11, 2014, two days prior to his death, L. A. Davis changed the beneficiary designation on his life insurance policy from his wife (Plaintiff) of nearly two decades to his brother (Defendant). Plaintiff contends that, while her husband was in the final throes of his battle with lung cancer, her brother-in-law procured the beneficiary designation by undue influence or fraud. The sole issue remaining in this federal-question, interpleader action is whether L. A. Davis's beneficiary designation, dated April 11, 2014, is invalid due to either undue influence or fraud.

         On August 8, 2017, the court presided over a bench trial in this action. At the close of Plaintiff's case, Defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law, which is construed as a motion for judgment on partial findings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(c). The court orally granted the motion; this opinion memorializes the supporting findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a).

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         This federal-question, rule-interpleader action originated in the Circuit Court of Macon County, Alabama, when Plaintiff filed a state-law declaratory judgment action against Johnson Mack Davis and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”). MetLife, which administered the Policy, removed the action to the Middle District of Alabama on grounds of complete preemption under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq.[1] Accordingly, subject-matter jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, 28 U.S.C. § 1441, and 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1). The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In a nonjury case, the district judge has “the exclusive province . . . to assess the credibility of witnesses and to assign weight to their testimony.” Hearn v. McKay, 603 F.3d 897, 904 (11th Cir. 2010) (alteration omitted). That province extends to entering judgment under Rule 52(c). See United States v. $242, 484.00, 389 F.3d 1149, 1172 (11th Cir. 2004). Pursuant to Rule 52(c), the court “evaluate[s] the evidence without making special inferences in the Plaintiff's favor.” Emerson Elec. Co. v. Farmer, 427 F.2d 1082, 1086 (5th Cir. 1970).[2] It “can resolve conflicts in the evidence and make credibility determinations.” Caro-Galvan v. Curtis Richardson, Inc., 993 F.2d 1500, 1504 (11th Cir. 1993); see also Denson v. United States, 574 F.3d 1318, 1334 n.48 (11th Cir. 2009) (Judgment is appropriate under Rule 52(c) “if . . . based on the evidence before it, the court finds, after resolving the credibility issues and weighing the evidence, for the defendant.”). Notably, Plaintiff called Defendant as an adverse witness in her case-in-chief.

         III. FINDINGS OF FACT[3]

         In 1996, Plaintiff and L. A. Davis were married in Macon County, Alabama. L. A. Davis's twenty-year, intermittent career with General Motors Co. in Defiance, Ohio, kept them from living under the same roof from 2000 to 2007. The couple also separated and lived apart for sixteen months between 2008 and 2010, but they reconciled their differences and moved back in together, residing in Tuskegee, Alabama.

         Through his employer, General Motors, L. A. Davis earned benefits, including a group term life insurance policy (“Policy”), administered by MetLife. In 2008, he signed a MetLife beneficiary designation form, naming Plaintiff as the primary beneficiary on the Policy and two of his children, Loisa and Darius, as contingent beneficiaries in equal shares.[4] Plaintiff testified, though, that she had been the beneficiary on the Policy for many years, even prior to 1996.

         Throughout Plaintiff and L. A. Davis's marriage, L. A. Davis had strong relationships with his multiple siblings, but he was particularly close to Defendant, his younger brother. In 2013, Defendant lived in Prattville, but stayed most nights with his sister, Mamie. Mamie lived in Hurtsboro, Alabama, which is less than thirty miles from Tuskegee. Defendant and L. A. Davis were so close that Plaintiff became annoyed with Defendant's daily visits to her and L. A. Davis's home during the two to three years preceding L. A. Davis's cancer diagnosis. The purpose of those visits, according to Plaintiff, was to ease Defendant's loneliness after his wife died; according to Defendant, the purpose of the visits primarily was to fish.

         In September 2013, L. A. Davis received a diagnosis of lung cancer. His treatment entailed multiple medications, radiation, doctor visits, and several hospitalizations. His last hospitalization from May 31, 2014, to April 8, 2014, in particular that last day, is when the present legal dispute started percolating. Although Plaintiff did not provide much detail, by this point she viewed her relationships with Defendant and at least two of L. A. Davis's sisters (Mamie and Isa Mae) as strained.

         During this last hospitalization, L. A. Davis learned that his physicians had determined that they could provide no further treatment for his terminal cancer. Hence, on the morning of April 8, 2014, Plaintiff went to the hospital to gather L. A. Davis's belonging and take him home. But L. A. Davis needed an oxygen tank, which the hospital did not have on hand, and the delivery of a tank from out of town delayed his release. This gave Plaintiff the opportunity to take care of an unrelated matter, while one of L. A. Davis's sisters stayed at the hospital with L. A. Davis. When Plaintiff returned that same afternoon, Defendant was in the hospital room, and L. A. Davis informed Plaintiff “he was riding with his brother, Mack Davis.” Plaintiff was not happy with this change of events, but, not wanting to upset her husband and risk exasperating his cancer, she did not vocalize her objection to her husband leaving the hospital with Defendant. Plaintiff assumed also that Defendant would be driving her husband to their marital home, although there had been no explicit discussion on that matter. That assumption turned out to be wrong.

         Plaintiff says that Defendant called Plaintiff when he was en route with L. A. Davis and said “that he wasn't trying to take over.” Upset, Plaintiff retorted that he had “taken over” and that she was holding him “fully responsible” if anything happened to L. A. Davis “while he [was] in [his] possession.” At trial, Plaintiff could not recall how Defendant responded to her ultimatum. There was no discussion during this phone call about where Defendant was taking L. A. Davis, but, by this time, Plaintiff speculated that something was “up his sleeve.” Defendant denies that the phone call occurred.[5]

         Plaintiff contends that, after that call, she stopped by the bank to make sure “they didn't get any money out” and consulted with a local probate judge. Although she still was unaware that L. A. Davis was not coming home, she knew something was awry when she drove by her home and saw that L. A. Davis was not there yet. Labeling it “lady's intuition, ” Plaintiff knew at that point that her husband was at Mamie's in Hurtsboro, where Defendant had been living since his home in Prattville burned. Plaintiff did not stop at her house, but instead turned around and headed to Hurtsboro. For one thing, she had L. A. Davis's medications that he would need. When she arrived, her sisters-in-law, Mamie and Isa Mae, as well as others, were standing together outside the home. Plaintiff perceived that they “look[ed] like they were about to attack [her], ” so she summoned the only “friendly one” of the group she could identify. She handed that individual L. A. Davis's medication and left without seeing L. A. Davis.

         Plaintiff testified that she believed that her husband had been taken against his will to Mamie's, and, at some point, she told Defendant that she wanted L. A. Davis to come home. During this time, she was unable to reach L. A. Davis on his cell phone because he did not have any pre-paid minutes on his phone card.[6]Consequently, she made several calls to the Macon County Sheriff's Office for her husband's rescue, but Hurtsboro is in neighboring Russell County, a different law enforcement jurisdiction. On April 12, four days after her husband's release from the hospital, Plaintiff called the Russell County Sheriff's Office. She informed dispatch that her husband was the victim of a kidnapping, was being held at his sister's home in Hurtsboro, and was not receiving proper medical attention.

         In response to Plaintiff's call, a deputy sheriff and medical unit went to Mamie's home. The deputy spoke with L. A. Davis, who said “he was in good hands, ” and the medical unit reported that L. A. Davis's vital signs were normal and that he was not in medical distress. (Russell Cnty. Sheriff's Office, Incident Report, dated 04/12/14 (Def.'s Tr. Ex. 1).) The sheriff's office took no further action. In the meantime, Plaintiff waited at a nearby hospital, anticipating that an ambulance would transport her husband there. After waiting thirty-five minutes- a reasonable time for vehicle travel from Mamie's to the hospital-Plaintiff called Mamie's home and spoke to one of the siblings. Plaintiff learned of L. A. Davis's condition, which apparently had worsened, and he died in the early morning hours of the next day, April 13.

         Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, two days prior to his death, on April 11, L. A. Davis changed the beneficiary designation on the Policy, revoking all previous designations and designating Defendant as the beneficiary. Defendant was not present when L. A. Davis signed the form, but, at L. A. Davis's direction, Defendant faxed the beneficiary designation form to MetLife. According to Defendant, L. A. Davis orally directed Defendant to give each of his three children $10, 000 and told Defendant he could do “whatever” he wanted with the remaining life insurance proceeds.

         Contrary to her pretrial stipulation, Plaintiff testified, at trial, that the signature on the beneficiary designation form was not L. A. Davis's. She said, although the signature resembled L. A.'s signature prior to his cancer diagnosis, it could not have been his current signature because he “was so weakened by ...


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