United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
EVELYN H. DAVIS, Plaintiff,
JOHNSON MACK DAVIS, Defendant.
KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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
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).
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
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. 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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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). 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.
FINDINGS OF FACT
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.
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. Plaintiff testified, though, that she had
been the beneficiary on the Policy for many years, even prior
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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 ...