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Smith v. Moman

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

June 20, 2018

SONYA MOMAN, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), this case was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for review and submission of a report with recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law (Doc. 20, entered 8/9/17). For the reasons discussed below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the Defendant's claims to the insurance proceeds be dismissed and any remaining motions be denied as moot.

         I. Factual Background, Jurisdiction, and Procedural History

         On April 17, 2017, Plaintiff Unum Life Insurance Company of America (“Plaintiff” or “Unum”) filed its Complaint in Interpleader on April 17, 2017 in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. See Doc. 1. The interpleader action seeks to determine the proper beneficiary of an employee benefit plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA” or “Act”), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. The interpleader complaint requested the Court (a) require Defendants Kimberly Smith and Sonya Moman to answer the complaint in interpleader and litigate between themselves their respective claims to the life insurance proceeds under the life insurance policy for Willie Smith, (b) enjoin the Defendants from instituting or prosecuting any proceeding against Unum relating to those insurance proceeds, (c) require Defendants to settle between themselves or the Court determine to whom the insurance proceeds should be paid, (d) permit Unum to deposit the amount of insurance proceeds into the Court, (e) dismiss Unum from the suit and discharge it from further liability, (f) award Unum attorneys' fees and costs, and (g) award Unum any other and further relief the Court deemed appropriate. According to the well-pleaded allegations in the Complaint, Unum issued a life insurance policy to Willie Smith through an employee benefit plan with MobileNow, Inc. - specifically group policy number 294131 (“the Policy”). The Insured, as a benefit of his employment with MobileNow, received $50, 000 in basic life insurance coverage. The Insured died on December 19, 2016. After his death, Unum received two separate claims for the Policy proceeds from Defendants. Defendants in this action are Kimberly Smith (“Smith”) and Defendant Sonya Moman (“Moman”). Smith is Willie Smith's daughter while Moman was Smith's “significant other.” Unum communicated with both Defendants and suggested they attempt to resolve the matter. When that failed, Unum filed this interpleader action.

         Subject matter jurisdiction proceeds pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Smith filed a motion to transfer venue to the Middle District of Alabama. See Doc. 6. Unum took no position on the motion, but requested it first be discharged and awarded its attorneys' fees before the transfer. See Doc. 11. Ultimately, on July 20, 2017, the Court granted the request to transfer venue, but declined to act on the motion for discharge or other relief requested by Unum. See Doc. 13. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue in the Middle District of Alabama and there are allegations sufficient to support both.

         On September 1, 2017, Unum moved for leave to deposit into the registry of the court “the disputed proceeds payable under an employment welfare benefit plan, identified as proceeds from Unum group life insurance policy number 294131 . . . which covered the life of the late Willie Smith, and which are the subject of the [c]omplaint for [i]nterpleader[, ]” in connection with this case. See Doc. 28. On September 20, 2017, the Court granted Unum's motion for leave to deposit funds into the registry of court. See Doc. 31. On October 2, 2017, the Clerk of Court received interpleader funds in the amount of $50, 074.66. See Docs. 41-42.

         Shortly thereafter, Unum filed its motion for discharge and motion for attorneys' fees. See Docs. 44, 45. After the motions were fully briefed, Moman's counsel filed a motion to withdraw as counsel for the case. See Doc. 58. After holding an ex parte hearing on the matter, the Court granted the motion to withdraw on December 7, 2017. See Doc. 61. The Court also informed Plaintiff that it would wait on reviewing this case until at least January 6, 2018 when either Plaintiff would have secured new counsel or indicated she would proceed pro se. Id. Specifically, the Court stated:

It is further ORDERED that on or before January 6, 2018, defendant Moman shall either (a) secure counsel, who shall file a notice of appearance not later than January 6, 2018, or (b) file a statement advising the court that she wishes to proceed with the case pro se. Defendant Moman is advised that regardless of whether she is able to retain counsel, this case will move forward, even if she must proceed pro se.
This order does not preclude defendant Moman from obtaining counsel after January 6, 2018. However, if defendant does not have counsel by that date, she will be required to proceed pro se until such time as she is able to secure counsel. Defendant Moman is also reminded that regardless of her status as an unrepresented defendant, she is still obligated to comply with all court orders and with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This includes, but is not limited to, orders and rules governing discovery.

See Doc. 61. January 6, 2018 came and went without any filing by Plaintiff, thus the Court presumed that she proceeded pro se and addressed the pending motion to discharge Unum from this litigation. See Docs. 68, 69.

         Additionally, Kimberly Smith filed a motion for summary judgment and Motion to Compel Sonya Moman to Fully Respond to Discovery Requests by Smith. See Docs. 64, 65, 66. While those motions were held in abeyance pending the discharge motion, they were set for subsequent briefing after Unum was released from the litigation and the parties realigned as Plaintiff and Defendant. The Court realigned the parties as Kimberly Smith (Plaintiff) and Sonya Moman (Defendant), but it is important to note that it could have just as easily been reversed with Moman as Plaintiff and Smith as Defendant. In short, both Smith and Moman laid claim to the insurance proceeds at issue.

         On May 7, 2018, the Court issued an order directing Moman to respond to the motion to compel on or before May 21, 2018. See Doc. 70. In the order, the Court specifically advised that:

Sonya Moman is specifically cautioned that if she fails file a response as required by this order, the court may grant the motion to compel and/or treat her failure as an abandonment of her claims against the insurance proceeds at issue. Defendant Moman must remain an active participant in this lawsuit should she continue to assert claims for the life insurance proceeds.

Id. No. response was filed. Therefore on May 25, 2018, the Court issued a second order which reiterated to Moman that there were consequences to failing to respond to court orders. See ...

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