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Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Jackson

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

May 31, 2018

METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
STORMEY D. BURROUGHS JACKSON, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          CALLIE V. S. GRANADE, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is an interpleader action filed by Plaintiff Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) for a determination of the proper payee(s) of life insurance proceeds Plaintiff is holding as administrator of an ERISA-regulated employee benefit plan.

         The motions addressed in this Order are:

1) the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Stormey Burroughs Jackson (“Jackson”) (Docs. 62, 63 & 64), the Response of Defendants Marcia Burrell and Sherita Burrell (collectively “the Burrells”) (Doc. 68), and Jackson's Reply (Doc. 71);
2) the Burrells' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docs. 65), Jackson's Response (Doc. 69), and the Burrells' Reply (Doc. 75).
3) Jackson's Motion to Strike portions of the affidavits of Marcia Burrell (“M. Burrell”), Sherita Burrell (“S. Burrell”), and Shirley Ross Brooks (“Brooks”) (Doc. 72) as well as those portions of the Burrells' Response to Jackson's reliance on those affidavits, the Burrells' Opposition to the Motion to Strike (Doc. 81), and Jackson's Reply (Doc. 83).

         I. Background

         Edward L. Burrell (“Decedent”) was a retiree from Fiat Chrysler Automobile U.S. and a participant in the company's Basic Life Insurance Plan (“Plan”), an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) regulated employee benefit plan. Decedent was the father of the Burrells and the alleged father of Jackson. MetLife's records show that on October 3, 2003, Jackson was designated the sole primary beneficiary with a 100% share of Decedent's life insurance benefits. (Doc. 1, p. 3 ¶ 13). Decedent died on November 8, 2015, leaving $59, 500 of life insurance benefits payable to the proper beneficiary designated under the terms of the Plan. (Doc. 1, p. 4 ¶ 14-15). Jackson paid for decedent's funeral at Andrews Funeral Home and on November 13, 2015 assigned benefits due from the life insurance benefits to Andrews Funeral Home in the amount of $6, 879.43. (Doc. 1, p. 4 ¶ 16).

         On November 16, 2015, Marcia Burrell (“M. Burrell”) contacted Interpleader Plaintiff Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“MetLife”) Claims Department and identified herself as a child of Decedent. (Doc. 1, p. 4-5 ¶ 18). M. Burrell was informed she was not listed as a beneficiary on Decedent's Plan. (Doc. 1, p. 5 ¶ 18). M. Burrell believed Decedent's October 3, 2003 beneficiary designation was fraudulently completed. Id. On January 12, 2016, MetLife received Jackson's claim form for the Plan benefits. (Doc. 1, p. 4 ¶ 17).

         On February 4, 2016, M. Burrell contacted MetLife Claims Department to dispute the beneficiary designation. (Doc. 1, p. 4-5 ¶ 18). MetLife received a letter from M. Burrell on February 9, 2016 and February 22, 2016 regarding the beneficiary designation. (Doc. 1, p. 5 ¶ 19). M. Burrell stated Jackson changed the beneficiary designation without Decedent's consent. Id. M. Burrell also listed her sister, S. Burrell, as Decedent's child. Id.

         On March 29, 2016, MetLife received M. Burrell's claimant affidavit for the Plan benefits. (Doc. 1, p. 5 ¶ 20). M. Burrell signed under oath that she and S. Burrell are the sole children of Decedent. Id. MetLife received Jackson's claimant affidavit for the Plan benefits on April 15, 2016. (Doc. 1, p. 4 ¶ 17). MetLife is unable to determine whether a court would find Decedent's October 3, 2003 beneficiary designation as valid. (Doc. 1, p. 5 ¶ 21).

         II. Procedural History

         On August 4, 2016, MetLife filed a Complaint in Interpleader against Jackson, M. Burrell, S. Burrell, and Andrews in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in the Southern Division (No. 1:16-CV-00411). (Doc. 1). The Complaint asserts MetLife is unable to determine the proper beneficiary under Decedent's benefits Plan without exposing MetLife to the danger of double liability. (Doc. 1, p. 6 ¶ 25). MetLife claims if Decedent's October 3, 2003 beneficiary designation is valid, the Plan benefits would be payable to Jackson and Andrews pursuant to the funeral home assignment. (Doc. 1, p. 5 ¶ 22). However, if the beneficiary designation is invalid, the Plan benefits would be payable to Decedent's children and potentially to Andrews, per the funeral home assignment, if Jackson was a beneficiary with the authority to assign Plan benefits. (Doc. 1, p. 6 ¶ 23).

         On December 16, 2016, MetLife filed a Motion for Leave to Interplead Funds. (Doc. 32). MetLife sought to interplead $59, 500.00 of ERISA regulated benefits under Decedent's Plan. Id. at p. 1. This Court granted MetLife's Motion for Leave to Interplead Funds on December 21, 2016. (Doc. 37). The funds were deposited into the Court Registry Interest (“CRIS”) fund on December 27, 2016. (Doc. 39).

         On July 27, 2017, Jackson filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and brief in support thereof on the grounds that there is a valid beneficiary form naming Jackson as sole primary beneficiary of the Plan benefits at issue in this action. (Doc. 64; Doc. 62). On July 28, 2017, the Burrells filed their Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and brief in support thereof as to Jackson's paternity (Doc. 65). On August 24, 2017, the Burrells filed their Response to Jackson's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 68). Along with other documentation, the Burrells included the affidavits of S. Burrell, M. Burrell, and Brooks as supporting evidence with their motion. (Doc. 68-6; Doc. 68-7; Doc. 68-8).

         On August 25, 2017, Jackson filed her Response in Opposition to the Burrells' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (Doc. 69). On September 7, 2017, Jackson filed her Reply Brief in Support of her Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 71). Jackson also filed a Motion to Strike the Affidavits of M. Burrell, S. Burrell, and Brooks on September 7, 2017. (Doc. 72). On September 8, 2017, the Burrells filed their Reply to Jackson's Response to their Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (Doc. 75). The Burrells filed their Response in Opposition to Jackson's Motion to Strike on September 21, 2017 (Doc. 81), and Jackson filed her Reply thereto on September 25, 2017. (Doc. 83).

         III. Jackson's Motion to Strike the Affidavits of Marcia Burrell, Sherita Burrell, and Shirley Ross Brooks.

         A. Standard of Review for Affidavits in Support or Opposition of Summary Judgment

         When a party presents affidavit(s) to support or oppose a motion for summary judgment, the affidavit “must be made on personal knowledge, set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, and show that the affiant or declarant is competent to testify on the matters stated.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4). If the affidavit does not satisfy the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), “the court may: (1) give an opportunity to properly support or address the fact; (2) consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion; (3) grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials - including the facts considered undisputed - show that the movant is entitled to it; or (4) issue any other appropriate order.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

         The Court has noted that when affidavits are considered for summary judgment, they “cannot be conclusory, and must contain information that can be reduced to admissible form at trial.” Marable v. Marion Military Institute, 906 F.Supp.2d 1237, 1249 (S.D. Ala. 2012); See, e.g., Corwin v. Walt Disney Co., 475 F.3d 1239, 1249 (11th Cir.2007) (“Even on summary judgment, a court is not obligated to take as true testimony that is not based upon personal knowledge.”) (citation omitted); Leigh v. Warner Bros., Inc., 212 F.3d 1210 (11th Cir.2000) (“This court has consistently held that conclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have no probative value.”) (citation omitted); Rowell v. BellSouth Corp., 433 F.3d 794, 800 (11th Cir.2005) (“On motions for summary judgment, we may consider only that evidence which can be reduced to an admissible form.”). Statements based only upon belief rather than personal knowledge must be disregarded. See Marable, 906 F.Supp.2d at 1250. Affidavits may not be “so riddled-through with irrelevant statements, conclusory assertions with no probative value, [and] inadmissible hearsay.” Id.

         “When an affidavit submitted in support of, or opposition to, a motion for summary judgment contains inadmissible evidence, the court may strike the inadmissible portions of the affidavit and consider the rest.” Id.; See Lee v. National Life Assur. Co., 632 F.2d 524, 529 (5th Cir. 1980).

         B. Analysis

         Jackson moves to strike portions of the affidavits of M. Burrell, S. Burrell, and Brooks because they contain conclusory allegations, speculation, and conjecture that lack any evidentiary foundation; they are immaterial or irrelevant; or they are hearsay. The Court examines each affidavit in turn.

         C. Affidavit of Marcia Burrell (Doc. 68-7)

         Jackson contends that portions of M. Burrell's affidavit should be stricken because they contain conclusory allegations, speculation, and conjecture that lack any evidentiary foundation; they are immaterial or irrelevant; and they are hearsay.

         Specifically, Jackson contends a portion of M. Burrell's affidavit is immaterial or irrelevant. M. Burrell asserts the following in paragraph 2 of her affidavit:

I maintained a close relationship with my father until his death in 2015. On Father's Day in 2000, when I was only 18 years old, I rescued my father from a drug house. I was held at gunpoint and begged for my father's life. My father was forever grateful and called me every year on Father's Day to thank me for saving him. (Doc. 68-7 ¶ 2)

         Federal Rule of Evidence 401 states, “Evidence is relevant if: (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” Fed.R.Evid. 401. However, this Court must not determine “the probative value of any evidence presented to it, for this would be an unwarranted extension of the summary judgment device.” Allen-Sherrod v. Henry Cty. Sch. Dist., 248 Fed.Appx. 145, 147 (11th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted).

         The primary issue surrounding this litigation is the validity of Decedent's beneficiary designation. (Doc. 62; Doc. 68). Jackson argues this portion of M. Burrell's affidavit is irrelevant because “an event between Decedent and Marcia Burrell over 17 years ago and Decedent's alleged gratefulness to Marcia Burrell has no bearing on the issue at hand.” (Doc. 72, p. 3-4). In response, the Burrells argue “[t]he fact that the Decedent felt indebted to Marcia Burrell for saving his life makes it less probable that he would effectuate a change stripping her of her beneficiary rights.” (Doc. 81, p. 1-2).

         This Court will stop short of assessing the probative value of M. Burrell's assertion at this stage of the litigation. In doing so, this Court finds that M. Burrell's assertions in paragraph 2 of her affidavit have some tendency to make it more probable that Decedent would leave the policy to the Burrells. Though Jackson takes issue with the alleged event occurring “over 17 years ago, ” the beneficiary designation at the center of this litigation took place fourteen years ago. (Doc. 1, p. 3 ¶ 13). The relevant time frame is not the time between the onset of this litigation and M. Burrell's alleged event, but rather, the timing between the October 2003 beneficiary designation and the date of the incident M. Burrell discusses. Whether or not Decedent was grateful or felt indebted to M. Burrell for three years preceding the beneficiary designation is relevant to the issue at hand. Accordingly, the Court finds paragraph 2 of M. Burrell's affidavit should not be stricken.

         Additionally, Jackson objects to M. Burrell's statement in paragraph 3 that Decedent “did not change the beneficiary of his Chrysler life insurance policy in 2003 to Stormey D. Burroughs Jackson” because Decedent assured her “numerous times, both before 2003 and after 2003” that she was beneficiary of the policy. (Doc. 68-7 ¶ 3). Jackson argues that this portion is a conclusory allegation. Jackson notes M. Burrell's admission that M. Burrell was never identified as a beneficiary under Decedent's life insurance policy. (Doc. 72, p. 2).

         In response, the Burrells contest that Jackson's argument is deceptive. The Burrells explain they were never listed as a “named” beneficiary under the policy, but they are residual beneficiaries in accordance with the terms of Decedent's Plan. (Doc. 81, p. 2). The Burrells argue they are residual beneficiaries because Decedent's Plan specifies that if Decedent did not designate a beneficiary, his benefits would be distributed to his children if he did not have a surviving spouse. (Doc. 63-1, p. 2; Doc. 63-1, p.60). The Burrells argue that Decedent was unmarried at the time of his death, and the beneficiary designation to Jackson is invalid so, therefore, the benefits should be awarded to them.

         Though M. Burrell's assertion (“My father did not change the beneficiary”) is based on personal knowledge of her conversations with Decedent (“I know this because my father assured me numerous times”), the conclusion she draws regarding Decedent's changing of the beneficiary is speculative. As such, M. Burrell's statement, “My father did not change the beneficiary of his Chrysler life insurance policy in 2003 to Stormey D. Burroughs Jackson” is conclusory and speculative and is due to be stricken. (Doc. 68-7, ¶ 3).

         In addition, Jackson contends paragraph 3 of M. Burrell's affidavit should be stricken because it contains inadmissible hearsay. Hearsay is defined as “a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Fed.R.Evid. 801(c). Hearsay is only admissible if “the statement is not hearsay as provided by Rule 801(d) or falls into one of the hearsay exceptions enumerated in Rules 803, 804, and 807.” United States v. Baker, 432 F.3d 1189, 1203 (11th Cir. 2005). “The general rule is that inadmissible hearsay cannot defeat a motion for summary judgment where there is no indication that it is reducible to a form that would be admissible at trial.” Riley v. Univ. of Alabama Health Serv. Found., 990 F.Supp.2d 1177, 1188 (N.D. Ala. 2014); See Pritchard v. Southern Co. Services, 102 F.3d 1118 (11th Cir.1996) (citations omitted). “An affidavit submitted in connection with a motion for summary judgment may contain hearsay statements that would be admissible at the trial under exceptions to the hearsay rule.” Riley, 990 F.Supp.2d at 1188 (N.D. Ala. 2014) (quoting H. Sand & Co. v. Airtemp Corp., 934 F.2d 450, 454-55 (2nd Cir.1991).

         Decedent's statements assuring M. Burrell “numerous times, both before 2003 and after 2003, that [she] was the beneficiary of the life insurance policy” are out-of-court statements. (Doc. 68-7, ¶ 3). The gist asserted in the statement - “that I was a beneficiary of the life insurance policy” - is being offered for its truth: that M. Burrell is indeed a beneficiary of the policy. Accordingly, the statement is hearsay.

         The Burrells argue the statement is an exception to the hearsay rule under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(3) (“Rule 803(3)”). Fed.R.Evid. 803(3). Rule 803(3) establishes an exception to hearsay whenever the declarant's statement is “a statement of the declarant's then-existing state of mind (such as motive, intent, or plan) or emotion, sensory, or physical condition (such as mental feeling, pain, or bodily health.” Id. The Burrells assert the statement shows Decedent's then-existing state of mind conveying his intent to never designate Jackson as the sole beneficiary. (Doc. 81, p. 2). The Court finds that the statement properly falls within this exception to the hearsay rule, and it could be reduced to admissible form at trial.

         The Burrells also contend the statements in paragraph 3 qualify under the residual hearsay exception under Federal Rule of Evidence 807 (“Rule 807”). In relevant part, Rule 807 reads:

         Under the following circumstances, a hearsay statement is not excluded by the rule against hearsay even if the statement is not specifically covered by a hearsay exception in Rule 803 or 804:

(a) the statement has equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness;
(b) it is offered as evidence of a material fact;
(c) it is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence that the proponent can obtain ...

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