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Union Security Life Insurance Company of v. Jjg-1994

August 24, 2011

UNION SECURITY LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF NEW YORK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JJG-1994, A MINOR; JJG-2002, A MINOR, DEFENDANTS.



MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendant JJG-2002 ("JJG-2002")'s Motion for summary judgment against Defendant JJG-1994 ("JJG-1994"), filed September 22, 2010 in the interpleader action begun on March 30, 2010. Dkt. No. 13 ("Mot. for S. J."). Plaintiff Union Security Life Insurance Company of New York ("Plaintiff") filed the Complaint for interpleader relief after Defendants, who are both sons of the deceased, each filed competing claims for their father's life insurance benefits. Dkt. No. 1 at 3-4. ("Compl.") In the Motion, JJG-2002 claims that because JJG-1994 pled guilty to killing their father, he is precluded from receiving the life insurance benefits under the New York slayer rule. Affirmation in support of Motion for summary judgment ("Aff'n in Supp. of Mot.") (Dkt. No. 13-1) at 3. The Court acknowledges the efforts of the pro bono counsel, Lisa A. Proskin and Gerald J. Jennings, in briefing the Court on the issues in this case. For the reasons stated below, JJG-2002's motion for summary judgment is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 24, 2008, Decedent was shot and killed in his home in New York. Plaintiff's Certification in support of Motion for interpleader relief ("Pl. Cert'n in Supp. of Interpld. Mot.") (Dkt. No. 7-2) , Ex. 2. His older son, JJG-1994, was charged as an adult with second degree murder, and subsequently pled guilty to first degree manslaughter for the killing. Affirmation in opposition to Motion for summary judgment. Id., Ex. 6 at 2. At the time of the shooting, JJG-1994 was found to be acting under extreme emotional disturbance, but not out of self-defense. Id., Ex. 7. As part of the plea, JJG-1994 admitted to firing the shotgun at Decedent's head while he was lying on the couch. Id., Ex. 7. His case was handled in Family Court; he is currently at a secure juvenile detention facility. Id., Ex. 8 at 1.

Decedent was a participant in his employer's Employee Retirement Income Security Act-regulated ("ERISA") group life insurance plan (the "Plan"). Id. ¶ 2. At the time of his death, Decedent's sole beneficiary was JJG-1994, based on a beneficiary form dated September 7, 2006. Id., Ex. 3. Because of the nature of his death, Decedent's beneficiary is entitled to ten thousand dollars in life insurance, as well as an additional ten thousand dollars in accidental death benefits. Id., Ex. 1 at 6. Subsequent to his death, two claims for Decedent's benefits were filed on JJG-1994's behalf and one claim was filed on behalf of JJG-2002. Id., Exs. 4, 5. Believing JJG-1994 to be ineligible to receive the benefits under New York's common law slayer rule, Plaintiff was unsure of how to proceed and filed the present Complaint for interpleader relief. Compl. at 4.

In the Complaint, Plaintiff sought permission to pay the benefits plus interest into the Court's registry for disbursement upon judgment, to be dismissed from the action and discharged of liability, and an award of costs and attorney's fees. Compl. at 5. Plaintiff also requested that Defendants be appointed with guardians, enjoined from suing for the benefits, and required to settle their claims or alternatively, that the Court settle their claims. Compl. at 4-5. On July 9 2010, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion, with one exception-an award of costs and attorney's fees was denied. Order re Motion for interpleader relief ("Order on Interpld. Mot.") (Dkt. No. 8). The Motion was later amended to reflect the inclusion of Decedent's accidental death benefits in the amount paid into the Court's registry. Mot. Req. Am. Order; Amended order re Motion for interpleader relief ("Am. Order on Interpld. Mot.") (Dkt. No.11).

Once Plaintiff was dismissed from the action, Defendants were appointed pro bono counsel. Order appointing pro bono counsel ("Order Appointing Counsel") (Dkt. No. 12). On September 22, 2010, JJG-2002 filed this Motion, seeking summary judgment. Mot. for S. J.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

A court may grant summary judgment where there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56. For a motion to succeed, the moving party is required to present the basis for its motion and identify the evidence it believes demonstrates that no material dispute exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A genuine dispute of material fact exists where there is enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party; if the evidence is "merely colorable, or is not significantly probative," summary judgment may be granted. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986) (citations omitted).

On summary judgment, the court is not weighing the evidence, but determining the need for a trial. Id. at 250. Any inferences the court draws must be "viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). To establish the existence of a dispute, the non-movant must show specific facts that constitute a genuine issue for trial; mere "metaphysical doubt" as to the facts is insufficient. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). If the nonmoving party fails to establish the existence of "an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial," summary judgment must be granted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

B. New York's Slayer Rule Preempts ERISA

Plaintiff filed this claim in federal district court because the life insurance policy at issue is regulated by ERISA. However, JJG-2002 contends that the New York common law rule prohibiting a killer from profiting from his crime applies here, and is not preempted by ERISA. Memorandum in support of Motion for summary judgment ("Mem. in Supp. of S. J.") (Dkt. No. 13-2) at 5-6. This assertion is supported by the Second Circuit, which distinguished laws that are not preempted by ERISA as those "of general application-often traditional exercises of state power or regulatory authority-whose effect on ERISA is incidental." Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Borges, 869 F.2d 142, 146 (2d Cir. 1989). In Mendez-Bellido, an Eastern District Court found that the New York slayer rule is not preempted by ERISA. Mendez-Bellido v. Bd. of Trs. of Div. 1181, A.T.U. N.Y. Employees Pension Fund and Plan, 709 F.Supp. 329, 331 (E.D.N.Y. 1989). The reasoning in Mendez-Bellido is persuasive and falls within the Second Circuit guidelines; therefore, the Court concludes that the application of New York's slayer rule here is not preempted by ERISA.

C. Application of New York's Slayer Rule

New York common law holds that "one cannot take property by inheritance or will from an ancestor or benefactor whom he has murdered." Riggs v. Palmer, 115 N.Y. 506, 513 (1889); see also In re Estates of Covert, 97 N.Y.2d 68, 74 (N.Y. 2001); In re Wright, 859 N.Y.S.2d 864, 866 (Sur. Ct., Westchester County 2008). The slayer rule is based on the fundamental maxim that no one shall be permitted to profit by his own crime. See Riggs, 115 N.Y. at 511. It applies even if the crime was committed without the intent to acquire the victim's property or even to cause the victim's death. See In re Estate of Alexis, 14 Misc.3d 379, 381 (Sur. Ct., Nassau County 2006). Although the court in Matter of Wolf decided in equity to allow a man to inherit from his wife when he killed her while intending to kill another, no court has made a similar departure from the slayer rule, which has consistently been applied to those guilty of manslaughter. See Matter of Wolf, 88 Misc. 433, 442 (Sur. Ct., New York County 1914); but see Matter of Bach, 53 A.D.2d 612, 612 (N.Y. App. Div. 1976) (first degree manslaughter); Mark G. v. Sabol, 180 ...


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