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Wilton Reassurance Life Ins. Co. v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 21, 2015

WILTON REASSURANCE LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF NEW YORK, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL SMITH, ANTHONY COLUMBIS SMITH, VANESSA SMITH also known as Benhester Craig, JANE DOE, and SAKINA SMITH, Defendants

For Wilton Reassurance Life Insurance Company of New York, Plaintiff: Jaime M. Merritt, LEAD ATTORNEY, White and Williams LLP, New York, NY.

Michael Smith, Defendant, Pro se, Brooklyn, NY.

Anthony Columbis Smith, Defendant, Pro se, Brooklyn, NY.

Vanessa Smith, also known as Benhester Craig, Defendant, Pro se, East Point, GA.

Sakina Smith, Defendant, Pro se, Brooklyn, NY.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

VERA M. SCANLON, United States Magistrate Judge.

Wilton Reassurance Life Insurance Company of New York (" Wilton") brought this interpleader action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1335 to resolve conflicting claims as to a life insurance policy (the " Policy"), the proceeds of which are claimed by the Defendants-in-interpleader: Michael Smith (" Michael"); Anthony Columbus Smith (" Anthony"); [1] Vanessa Smith, also known as Benhester Craig (" Benhester"); and Sakina Smith (" Sakina") (collectively, " Defendants"). Defendants appear pro se.

From the commencement of this action, Wilton has acknowledged its obligation to render payment under the Policy. See Compl. ¶ 26, ECF No. 1. Wilton sought the Court's intervention because it was " unable to determine to whom the death benefits due under the Policy are payable, or which of the Defendants is entitled thereto." Id. ¶ 27. The Parties filed a stipulation for Wilton to deposit the disputed funds, minus $4, 460.35 for Wilton's attorneys' fees and costs in bringing this action, with the Clerk of Court. Stip., ECF No. 20-1. Thereafter, the Honorable Sandra L. Townes entered an Order providing that, inter alia, once Wilton deposited the funds, Wilton would be dismissed from this action and discharged of all liability to Defendants relating to the death benefits under the Policy. Order, ECF No. 25; see Stip. Order, ECF No. 26. Wilton deposited the funds, which totaled $22, 072.55. Letter, ECF No. 27.

Presently before the Court on referral from the Honorable Sandra L. Townes, see Order, ECF No. 34, is the summary judgment motion of Defendant Michael Smith. For the reasons stated herein, this Court respectfully recommends that his motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, this Court recommends dismissing Sakina's claims, but denying Michael's motion as it pertains to Michael's, Anthony's and Benhester's claims. This Court further recommends that an order be issued designating this case for court-annexed mediation pursuant to Local Civil Rule 83.8(b)(1).

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are drawn from the Amended Complaint, unless otherwise stated, and are provided for background purposes only.

A. The Parties

Wilton is an insurance company organized and existing under the laws of the State of New York, with a principal place of business in Wilton, Connecticut. Am. Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 14. The Policy at issue in this action insured the life of Columbus Smith (" Columbus") for $25, 000.00. Am. Compl. ¶ 9.[2]

It is undisputed that Defendants Michael and Anthony are the sons of Columbus Smith, and that they are residents of Brooklyn, New York. Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 2-3; Anthony Answer ¶ ¶ 2-3, ECF No. 19; Benhester Answer ¶ ¶ 2-3, ECF No. 42-1 at 3.[3] It is also undisputed that Defendant Sakina, as the wife of Michael, is Columbus's daughter-in-law; she is also a resident of Brooklyn, New York. Am. Compl. ¶ 5; Anthony Answer ¶ 5; Benhester Answer ¶ 5; Michael Answer at 1; Sakina Answer at 1.

The Parties dispute Benhester's biological relationship to Columbus. Benhester contends that she is Columbus's daughter, while Michael and Anthony contend that they share a mother, but not a father, with Benhester. See Am. Compl. ¶ 4 (Benhester is the " surviving daughter of the Insured"); Anthony Answer ¶ 4 (" No."); Benhester Answer ¶ 4 (" I agree . . . ."); Michael Answer at 1 (" Benhester Craig is my sister claiming she's aka Vanessa Smith but [she is] not a biological child of my father."); Sakina Answer at 2 (Columbus " established [Benhester] was not a Smith with friends and family."); see also Tr., May 28, 2013 (" Tr. III") 16:14-23, ECF No. 41 (Anthony stated to the Court that Benhester was his sister " on our mother's side"). At all times relevant to this litigation, Benhester was a resident of the state of Georgia. Am. Compl. ¶ 4; Letter, ECF No. 37.[4]

A. The Life Insurance Policy

On April 1, 1992, North American Company for Life and Health Insurance of New York (" NANY"), to which Wilton is the successor, issued life insurance policy No. LN00414370 to " Columbis Smith." Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 1, 8, Exs. 1-2. On the Policy application, Columbus identified the beneficiaries of the Policy as " 4/5 Vanessa Smith [age] 38 [relationship] daughter" and " 1/5 Michael Smith [age] 36 [relationship] son." Id. ¶ 9, Ex. 2. Columbus and Michael J. Troisi (" Mr. Troisi"), the Licensed Agent and witness, signed the Policy application. Id. at Ex. 2. According to Benhester, and undisputed by any Party, Mr. Troisi is deceased. See, Letter at 6, ECF No. 29.

The Policy provided that the death benefit was payable to the beneficiary or beneficiaries at the time of the insured's death. Id. ¶ 10. The Policy included the following provision concerning changing beneficiaries:

A new Beneficiary may be designated from time to time. A request for change of Beneficiary must be: (a) in writing on a form satisfactory to us [the insurer]; and (b) filed at the Home Office. The request must be signed by you [the insured]. . . . A change of Beneficiary does not take effect until recorded by us. When a change of Beneficiary is so recorded, whether or not the insured is then alive, it takes effect as of the date the request is signed.

Am. Compl. Ex. 1 at 5.

B. Columbus Smith's Attempts To Change The Beneficiaries

Beginning in 2007, Columbus filed several forms to, inter alia, change the beneficiaries of the Policy; these forms were rejected by Wilton.

1. The First Form

The first form, dated January 24, 2007, and filed with NANY, listed the insured as " Columbus Smith, " and requested changes under the portions of the form titled " Change Address, " " Beneficiary Change, " " Name Change" and " Owner Change." Am. Compl. Ex. 3. First, under " Change Address, " the insurer requested that mail be sent " to owner, in care of: Anthony Columbus Smith, son." Id. Second, the insured requested that the primary beneficiary be changed to " Columbus Smith, " described as " Father, " and that the contingent beneficiary be changed to " Anthony Columbus Smith, " described as " Son." Id. Third, concerning " Name Change, " the insured failed to check any of the boxes for requesting a name change for the insured, owner, beneficiary or premium payer. Id. Nevertheless, the insured completed the lines under these boxes: next to " From, " he wrote, " Benhester Craig, Michael Smith"; next to " To, " he wrote, " Anthony C. Smith"; and next to " State reason for change, " he wrote, " Mr. Columbus ask to change [sic]." Id. Fourth, in the section titled " Owner Change, " he wrote, " Son, Anthony Columbus Smith - only!" and listed two phone numbers. Id. (emphasis in original). At the bottom of the form, under " Present Owner Signature, " the name " Columbus Smith" is signed; the name of " Mr. Anthony Columbus Smith" is signed thrice, once under " New Owner Signature" and twice under the two spots for " Trustee Name"; and under " Witness" is written " None." Id. [5]

By letter dated February 7, 2007, Wilton informed Columbus that " [w]e are unable to accept the insured as the beneficiary" and directed him to " complete the new form enclosed." Am. Compl. Ex. 4.

2. The Second Form

The second form, dated December 18, 2007, and filed with Wilton, listed the insured as " Columbis Smith, " and--notwithstanding the instructions that the insured could not be the beneficiary--provided the same information as in the first form under the " Change Address" and " Beneficiary Change" sections. Id. In addition, under the " Name Change" section, the box for " Beneficiary" was checked; next to " From" was written, " Michael, Benhester, Change"; next to " To" was written, " Anthony Columbus Smith - 'only'"; and next to " State reason for change" was written, " Columbus Smith wanted to change the policy." Id. Under the section for " Owner Change" was written, " I am the son of Columbus Smith. He change[d] the beneficiary to son Anthony Columbus Smith only. 12-18-07 - Respectfully, Mr. Anthony C. Smith." Id. At the bottom of the form, the name " Columbus Smith" is signed as the " Present Owner, " and the name " Anthony Columbus Smith" or " Anthony Smith" is signed as the " Witness, " " Owner's Spouse, " and on the two " Trustee" lines, but not on the " New Owner" line. Id.

By letter dated January 14, 2008, Wilton again informed Columbus that " the insured cannot be named as beneficiary"; requested additional information and documentation " to complete your ownership change request" and to change the name of " Columbis Smith" on the Policy; and provided a new form for Columbus to complete. Am. Compl. Ex. 6.

3. The Third Form

The third form, which was undated and filed with Wilton, listed the insured as " Columbus Smith." Am. Compl. Ex. 7. Specifically, the typed name of " Columbis" was crossed out by hand, and the name " Columbus" was written in by hand. Id. Under " Change Mailing Address, " the form listed Columbus's name and address, not Anthony's name. Id. Under " Beneficiary Change, " the primary beneficiary was listed as " Anthony Columbus Smith, " and no other beneficiary was named. Id. The sections for " Name Change" and " Owner Change" were left blank. Id. In the signature section, only the name " Columbus Smith" was signed; the ...


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