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Guardian Life Insurance Co. v. Gilmore

United States District Court, S.D. New York

September 9, 2014


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For The Guardian Life Insurance Company, Plaintiff: Robert D. Meade, Esq., Bleakley Platt & Schmidt, LLP, White Plains, NY.

For Nanette S. Gilmore, Defendant: Joseph M. Saffioti, Esq., Saffioti and Anderson, Newburgh, NY.

Barbara Gilmore-Smit, Defendant, Pro se, Brooksville, FL.

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Plaintiff The Guardian Life Insurance Company (" Guardian" ) brings this Interpleader Action under 28 U.S.C. § 1335, seeking, among other forms of relief, discharge from all liability in connection with a life-insurance policy (" the Policy" ) that it issued to Robert C. Gilmore (" Decedent" ) in 1984. Following Decedent's death in 2013, three Parties asserted entitlement to all or part of the Policy's proceeds: Defendant Nanette S. Gilmore (" Gilmore" ), Decedent's wife; Defendant Barbara Gilmore-Smit (" Gilmore-Smit" ), Decedent's mother; and Defendant Applebee-McPhillips Funeral Home, Inc. (" Applebee-McPhillips" ), the funeral home that provided funeral services to Decedent's family after his passing. Gilmore has moved for summary judgment against Gilmore-Smit and Applebee-McPhillips, claiming that, as the Policy's sole beneficiary, she is entitled to all of its proceeds, and that she has paid Applebee-McPhillips the full amount of the bill for Decedent's funeral expenses. For the following reasons, the Court grants some, but not all, of the relief that Guardian requests, and grants in part and denies in part Gilmore's Motion for Summary Judgment.


A. Factual Background

The following facts are undisputed. On or about April 3, 1984, Guardian issued the

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Policy to Decedent. ( See Gilmore's Statement of Material Facts Pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 (" Gilmore's 56.1 Statement" ) ¶ ¶ 1, 3 (Dkt. No. 20); Letter from Gilmore-Smit to the Court (June 24, 2013) (" June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter" ) (Dkt. No. 8) (" [Decedent] has had [the Policy] since April 3, 1984." ).) The Policy had an initial face amount of $100,000. ( See Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 2.) Decedent originally named Gilmore-Smit as the Policy's beneficiary. ( See id. ¶ 4; June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter (" [Decedent] told [Gilmore that] he was going to keep [Gilmore-Smit] as . . . beneficiary of [the Policy] . . . ." ).) However, approximately 28 years after Guardian issued the Policy, on or about April 25, 2012, Decedent filed a change-of-beneficiary form (" the Form" ) with Guardian, through which form Decedent appears to have sought to change the Policy's beneficiary from Gilmore-Smit to Gilmore. ( See Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 5; id. Ex. A (" Change of Beneficiary Form" ); June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter (" [T]he beneficiary was changed [in] April 2012 . . . ." ).) In keeping with Guardian's requirements, Janet Mosner (" Mosner" ), a New Jersey notary public, notarized the Form. ( See Change of Beneficiary Form; Aff. of Janet Mosner (" Mosner Aff." ) ¶ ¶ 1, 3-4 (Dkt. No. 17).)

Decedent died on February 5, 2013, approximately nine months after he filed the Form. ( See Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 6; id. Ex. B (" Certificate of Death" ); June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter (describing Decedent's death as occurring on February 5, 2013).) Decedent's death certificate lists his immediate cause of death as liver cancer, due to or as a consequence of cirrhosis and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. ( See Certificate of Death; see also June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter (describing Decedent's liver cancer).) Three days later, on February 8, 2013, Applebee-McPhillips filed an Insurance Proceeds Assignment (" the Assignment" ) with Guardian, through which it sought $7,475 of the Policy's proceeds for the payment of Decedent's funeral expenses. ( See Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 9.) The Assignment was signed by Gilmore. ( See id.) Approximately one month later, on March 6, 2013, Gilmore filed a Claimant's Statement with Guardian, through which she sought to recover the entirety of the Policy's proceeds. ( See Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 7; id. Ex. C.) As of the date of Decedent's death, such proceeds totaled $164,777, with interest payable from that date at the rate of three percent per year. ( See Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 11.) Gilmore-Smit thereafter notified Guardian that she contested Gilmore's claim to such proceeds. ( See id. ¶ 8.)

There are only two facts in dispute in this Action. The first is whether Decedent had the mental capacity to execute the Form changing the Policy's beneficiary from Gilmore-Smit to Gilmore in April 2012. In a letter that she submitted to the Court before Gilmore filed her Motion, Gilmore-Smit stated that she " think[s]" that, in the months leading up to Decedent's death, Decedent " was on heavy doses of morphine due to . . . ammonia on the brain," and that as a result, " he was not of sound mind," and " unknowingly signed something . . . which changed the beneficiary or gave someone power of attorney to do so." (June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter.) For her part, Gilmore states that " the presumption by law is that [Decedent] had legal capacity to change the beneficiary of [the Policy,] and that no evidence has been given to overcome this presumption." (Gilmore's Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (" Gilmore's Mem." ) at unnumbered 1 (Dkt. No. 21).) Gilmore has also submitted various affidavits through which she seeks to show that Decedent was in fact capable at the time that the

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Form was executed. ( See Mosner Aff.; Aff. of Irene Lynn Labate Vanatta (" Vanatta Aff." ) (Dkt. No. 18); Aff. of Nanette S. Gilmore (" Gilmore Aff." ) (Dkt. No. 19).)

The second fact in dispute is whether, as Gilmore claims, " the Applebee-McPhillips funeral bill was paid in full out of [Gilmore's] personal funds," which would mean that " Applebee-McPhillips no longer has any rights to any portion of the insurance proceeds." (Gilmore's 56.1 Statement ¶ 10.) Gilmore has submitted what appears to be a May 13, 2013 funeral bill from Applebee-McPhillips, at the bottom of which Applebee-McPhillips appears to state, " Thank you, the funeral expenses for Robert are paid in full." ( See id. Ex. D (" Funeral Bill" ).) Applebee-McPhillips has failed to appear or take any action in this matter.

B. Procedural Background

Guardian filed an Interpleader Complaint on April 23, 2013. ( See Compl. (Dkt. No. 1).) In its Complaint, Guardian states that it " is indifferent and disinterested as to which of . . . [D]efendants is entitled to the proceeds of the [P]olicy or to the division of the proceeds among them" ; that it is " unable to determine to whom the amount due under the [P]olicy is payable" or " which of . . . [D]efendants is entitled to payment" ; and that, as a result, it " is, or may be, exposed to multiple liability." ( Id. ¶ ¶ 21-22.) Accordingly, Guardian seeks the following relief:

(1) That each of . . . [D]efendants be restrained from instituting or maintaining any action against [Guardian] for the recovery of the proceeds of [the Policy] or any action seeking any part of these proceeds;
(2) [An order] [r]equiring [D]efendants to interplead together concerning their claims to the proceeds;
(3) That upon payment of the proceeds of the . . . [P]olicy into the Registry of this Court that [Guardian] be discharged from all further liability on the [P]olicy or for the proceeds payable on it;
(4) For such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper, together with expenses, costs and disbursements of this [A]ction payable from the proceeds of the . . . [P]olicy.

( Id. at 4.)

A summons was issued to Applebee-McPhillips, Gilmore, and Gilmore-Smit on the same day that Guardian filed its Complaint. ( See Summons (Dkt. (minute entry for Apr. 23, 2013)).) On May 10, 2013, Guardian sent Gilmore-Smit a waiver of the service of summons, an executed version of which Gilmore-Smit returned on June 5, 2013. ( See Waiver of Service Returned Executed (Dkt. No. 2.).) Guardian sent the waiver that Gilmore-Smit returned to an address in Brooksville, Florida. ( See id.) On June 27, 2013, Gilmore answered Guardian's Complaint and filed a cross-claim against Gilmore-Smit, ( see Answer and Cross-Claim (Dkt. No. 6)), a copy of which Gilmore sent to the same Brooksville, Florida address to which Guardian sent the waiver, ( see Aff. of Service of Answer and Cross-Claim (Dkt. No. 7)). Gilmore-Smit responded in a letter that she submitted to the Court on July 1, 2013. ( See June 24 Gilmore-Smit Letter.)

On September 17, 2013, Gilmore submitted a pre-motion letter to the Court, in which letter she requested that the Court schedule a pre-motion conference. ( See Dkt. No. 9.) The Court granted Gilmore's request, ( see id.), and scheduled a conference for October 4, 2013, ( see Dkt. No. 10). The Court also directed Gilmore-Smit to respond to Gilmore's letter by September 27, 2013. ( See Dkt. No. 9.) Gilmore-Smit never responded, but she did appear by telephone at the October 4, 2013 conference,

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at which conference the Parties discussed the status of the case. ( See Hr'g Tr. (Oct. 4, 2013 Hr'g).) The Court stated on the record that it would hold the next conference in the case on January 14, 2014, at 11:00 a.m., at which conference the Parties would discuss " if there[] [were] going to be any motions." ( Id. at 8.) The Court also provided Gilmore-Smit with the telephone number for the pro se office, which the Court described to her as " the office that's connected to the court that assists people who are representing themselves," and which " sometimes . . . can provide resources and answer certain basic questions." ( Id. at 11-12.)

As scheduled, the Court held another conference on January 14, 2014. ( See Dkt. (minute entry for Jan. 14, 2014).) However, Gilmore-Smit failed to appear, by telephone or otherwise. ( See id.) At the conference, Gilmore requested permission to file a Motion for Summary Judgment, which request the Court granted. ( See id.) On January 23, 2014, the Court issued a Motion Scheduling Order, in which Order it directed Gilmore to file her Motion by February 18, 2014, Gilmore-Smit to file her opposition papers by March 18, 2014, and Gilmore to file her Reply by April 1, 2014. ( See Dkt. No. 11.) The Court also directed that a copy of the Order be mailed to Gilmore-Smit. ( See id.)

Gilmore filed her Motion on February 14, 2014. ( See Dkt. No. 15.) Along with her Motion, Gilmore submitted a sworn certificate stating that " a true and correct copy of the Notice of Motion for Summary Judgment was . . . served via First Class, U.S. Mail" to Gilmore-Smit's Brooksville, Florida address. ( See Dkt. No. 20.) Yet, Gilmore-Smit did not respond in any way to Gilmore's Motion before the March 18, 2014 deadline. Following Gilmore-Smit's failure to respond, and out of an abundance of caution, the Court sent another copy of its January 23, 2014 Motion Scheduling Order to Gilmore-Smit's Brooksville, Florida address on April 7, 2014. ( See Dkt. (minute entry for April 7, 2014).) However, Gilmore-Smit still did not submit any opposition papers.

On May 23, 2014, Guardian filed a Motion through which it sought the Court's permission to deposit the Policy's proceeds into the Court's Registry. ( See Dkt. Nos. 27-31.) On August 7, 2014, the Court issued an Order directing Defendants to submit any objections to Guardian's Motion within 10 days of the issuance of the Court's Order. ( See Dkt. No. 32.) Having received no such objections, the Court granted Guardian's Motion on August 21, 2014, ( see Dkt. No. 33), and Guardian deposited the Policy's proceeds into the Court's Registry on September 3, 2014, ( see Unnumbered Dkt. Entry of September 8, 2014).


A. Standard of Review

Guardian and Gilmore assert that this Court has jurisdiction over this Action under the interpleader statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1335. ( See Compl. ¶ 6 (" This Court has jurisdiction over this statutory interpleader action pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1335(a) . . . ." ); Aff. of Joseph M. Saffioti, Esq. (" Saffioti Aff." ) ¶ 4 (Dkt. No. 16) (" This Court has jurisdiction over this statutory interpleader action pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1335(a) . . . ." ).) An " interpleader is designed to protect stakeholders from undue harassment in the face of multiple claims against the same fund, and to relieve the stakeholder from assessing which claim among many has ...

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