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Brenner v. Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corp.

September 29, 2000

BARBARA BRENNER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHASE MANHATTAN MORTGAGE CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jerome B. Simandle United States District Judge

Not For Publication

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

SIMANDLE, District Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Barbara Brenner brings this suit in diversity as the surviving spouse and personal representative of the estate of Michael Brenner. In her complaint, Mrs. Brenner seeks to recover from defendant Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corporation certain disputed Group Universal Life Insurance proceeds worth $160,000.00, as well as Basic Life Insurance proceeds in the amount of $15,599.96. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶¶ 10, 16.) Plaintiff claims that she deserves the proceeds from a Group Universal Life Insurance policy even though the late Mr. Brenner never filed the Group Universal Life Insurance Special Annual Enrollment Form (1) because Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corporation was supposed to submit the appropriate paperwork, or (2) because Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corporation allegedly failed to provide her husband with the correct form to apply for GUL insurance, or (3) because her husband filed a form that he incorrectly thought was an application for the insurance and had no reason to think that it was not. (Pl.'s Br. at 8-9.) Plaintiff also claims that she deserves $25,000 more in Basic Life Insurance proceeds because her husband's death benefit was not equal to the amount she anticipated. Defendant has responded by submitting documentation which explains the Group Universal Life Insurance application process and accounts for its calculation of Basic Life Insurance coverage for Mr. Brenner. Presently before this Court is defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), or, in the alternative, defendant's motion to strike plaintiff's jury demand. For reasons stated herein, defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted as against plaintiff's claim for Basic Life benefits, but will be denied as against the claim for Group Universal Life coverage.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff's husband, Michael B. Brenner, was hired by Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corporation ("Chase Manhattan") on December 23, 1996 as the manager of their Mount Laurel branch office. (Threston Cert. Ex. H.) His written offer of employment promised $85,599.96 as his minimum annual income. (Id.) The offer sheet provided that Mr. Brenner could exceed the minimum salary if the overrides for 1997 surpassed expectations. (Id.)

In accordance with standard procedures, Nancy Sayan, the Operations Supervisor for the Mid-Atlantic Division of Chase Manhattan, sent Mr. Brenner a package of information and enrollment materials concerning the employee benefit plans which were available to him. (Sayan Cert. at 1-2 ¶ 2; Sayan Dep. at 6.) Included in the standard packet was the "Chase Choice" informational booklet regarding "Life Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Long Term Care Insurance." (Sayan Cert. at 2 ¶ 3; Sayan Cert. Ex. A.)

The life insurance section of the Chase Choice booklet informs a new employee about his options for life insurance through Chase Manhattan. (Sayan Cert. Ex. A.) According to the booklet, Chase automatically provides an employee with Basic Life Insurance, underwritten by CIGNA, in an amount equal to the employee's eligible compensation rounded to the next highest thousand dollars. (Id. at 2.)

An employee's eligible compensation was known as his Benefits Eligible Compensation ("BEC"). (Sayan Cert. Ex. B.) The BEC for someone who was hired, like Mr. Brenner, after January 1, 1996 was equal to "the greater of [his] base salary (including shift differential), draw, commissions, and production overrides during 1996 or $50,000 (excluding overtime and performance-related bonuses)." (Id.) To determine the 1997 BEC, actual earnings between August 1, 1995 and July 31, 1996 would be used. (Id.) In addition to the company-provided insurance, the booklet informs employees about voluntary life insurance options. (Sayan Cert. Ex. A at 3.)

One voluntary option was the Employee Voluntary Group Universal Life Insurance ("GUL"). (Id. at 4.) The GUL plan was administered by Johnson & Higgins/Kirke Van-Orsdel, Inc. ("J&H/KVI") and was underwritten by MetLife. (Id. at 5.) The Chase Choice booklet included the following instructions for the employee:

For Employee GUL, you must complete the GUL Special Annual Enrollment Form, which includes a Beneficiary Designation section.... Your GUL Special Enrollment Form must be sent directly to the Plan administrator, J&H/KVI, in the enclosed envelope. The form and envelope is located in the "Forms and Envelopes" section of this Enrollment Kit. Be sure to keep a copy of the form for your records. (Id. at 6.)

It also directed the employee to

[m]ake sure you complete the forms as soon as possible or your coverage may be delayed. Coverage for the Guaranteed Issue amount will be effective January 1, 1997, provided your GUL Special Annual Enrollment Form is received by J&H/KVI by the end of the enrollment period (November 30, 1996).... You will be notified if and when the coverage is approved. (Id.)

As discussed below, there is a dispute whether defendant ever furnished the GUL Special Annual Enrollment Form to Mr. Brenner. The form entitled "Group Universal Life Special Annual Enrollment Form" included instructions to complete, sign, and date the form and return it in an enclosed envelope to an address in Des Moines, IA. (Sayan Cert. Ex. C.) The form also included a 1-800 number for assistance. (Id.) If Mr. Brenner did not receive this "GUL Special Annual Enrollment Form," he would not have received the instructions it contained, including the address to which he had to mail the GUL Form in order to enroll in this benefit.

Under the GUL plan, a covered employee was guaranteed coverage for an amount that did not exceed two times his BEC as of October 1, 1996. (Sayan Cert. Ex. A at 6.) For amounts greater that this "Guaranteed Issue amount," the employee would have to submit "Evidence of Insurability" as insurability was subject to the "Full Evidence of Good Health" guidelines. (Id.; Sayan Cert. Ex. C at 2.)

It is undisputed that Mr. Brenner never completed the Group Universal Life Special Annual Enrollment Form. He did, however, complete a "Chase Choice Enrollment Form" which indicated his preferences for medical, dental, disability, accidental death, and life insurances. (Sayan Cert. Ex. D.) The form indicates that Mr. Brenner sought $200,000 in GUL insurance coverage. *fn1 (Id.) Mr. Brenner also told a co-worker, Ken Hantman, that he had applied for GUL coverage. (Hantman Dep. at 31, Threston Cert. Ex. B.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Brenner was being monitored for a heart murmur. (Brenner Dep. at 37, Threston Cert. Ex. A.) In July 1997, his family doctor noticed an increased slushing sound indicative of mitral valve regurgitation. (Id.) Mr. Brenner was referred to a cardiologist who advised him to undergo elective surgery to repair his valve. (Id. at 38.) Mr. Brenner suffered complications during the surgery. (Id.) After one month in an induced coma, he died on December 5, 1997. (Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts at 1 ¶ 2; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts at 1 ¶ 2.)

Plaintiff, Mr. Brenner's wife, then filed for Mr. Brenner's Chase Manhattan death benefits. She was paid $70,000 in Basic Life Insurance Benefits. (Pl.'s Br. at 5.) She was not able to receive any benefits from Mr. Brenner's GUL insurance because he had never filed the Group Universal Life Special Annual Enrollment Form with J&H/KVI. (Id.)

Plaintiff filed the current claim on January 4, 1999 in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Burlington County, Law Division. Defendant removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441 & 1446 on February 18, 1999 on the ground that plaintiff's claims concerning life insurance is completely preempted by the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461. (Notice of Removal at 2.) Plaintiff has not disputed this Court's jurisdiction. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as plaintiff's claim is governed by ERISA with respect to employee benefit programs.

III. DISCUSSION

In her complaint, plaintiff, as the surviving spouse and personal representative of the estate of Michael Brenner, seeks to recover damages from Chase Manhattan in the amount of $160,000 which she claims she should have received from Mr. Brenner's GUL insurance and $15,599.96 which she claims she should have received from Mr. Brenner's Basic Life Insurance from Chase Manhattan beyond the $70,000 sum that she received already. This matter is presently before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment.

A. Standard of Review for Motion for Summary Judgment

A court may grant summary judgment when the materials of record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Hersh v. Allen Prods. Co., 789 F.2d 230, 232 (3d Cir. 1986); Lang v. New York Life Ins. Co., 721 F.2d 118, 119 (3d Cir. 1983). A dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Id. Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Id.

In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party. See Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1080-81 (3d Cir. 1996); Kowalski v. L & F Prods. , 82 F.3d 1283, 1288 (3d Cir. 1996); Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corp., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n.2 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. dismissed, 465 U.S. 1091 (1984). The threshold inquiry is whether there are "any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 250; Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329-330 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248) ("[T]he nonmoving party creates a genuine issue of material fact if it provides sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find for him at trial.").

The moving party always bears the initial burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists, regardless of which party ultimately would have the burden of persuasion at trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Jalil v. Avdel Corp., 873 F.2d 701, 706 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1023 (1990). However,

the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient 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. In such a situation, there can be `no genuine issue as to any material fact,' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders other facts immaterial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-323.

In such situations, "the burden on the moving party may be discharged by `showing' -- that is, pointing out to the district court -- that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325; Brewer, 72 F.3d at 329-330 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23) ("When the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party may meet its burden on summary judgment by showing that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to carry its burden of persuasion at trial.").

The non-moving party, here the plaintiff, "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of" her pleading in order to show the existence of a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). They must do more than rely only "upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions." Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 341 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1010 (1985) (citation omitted); see Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50; Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324-25. Once the moving party has carried its burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Thus, if the non- movant's evidence is merely "colorable" or is "not significantly probative," the court may grant summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50.

B. Analysis

Plaintiff seeks to recover the following proceeds from two insurance policies that were offered to Mr. Brenner through his employment at Chase Manhattan: (1) $200,000 from a GUL insurance policy, and (2) $25,000 more from a Basic Life Insurance policy. Defendant claims that, based on the proof submitted, there ...


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