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Calmon-Hess v. Harmer

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 15, 2012

Sharon CALMON-HESS, Individually and as Heir to the Estate of Christopher L. Calmon, Plaintiff,
v.
Robin HARMER and The Prudential Insurance Company of America, Defendants.

Page 389

DeSimone Law Offices, John G. DeSimone, LLC, John G. DeSimone, Woodbury, NJ, for Plaintiff.

Page 390

Hoffman Dimuzio, Dante B. Parenti, Esq., John P. Ciocco, Esq., Franklinville, NJ, for Defendant Robin Harmer.

OPINION

IRENAS, Senior District Judge.

This action arises from a dispute over the distribution of proceeds from a life insurance policy under the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance Act (SGLIA), 38 U.S.C. ยงยง 1965-80A, held by decedent, Christopher Calmon. [1] Plaintiff Sharon Calmon-Hess, the decedent's mother, and Defendant Robin Harmer, the decedent's ex-wife, both claim to be the rightful beneficiary of the life insurance policy. Both parties have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein Defendant Harmer's motion will be granted; Plaintiff Calmon-Hess's cross-motion will be denied.

I.

Christopher Calmon joined the United States Marines Corps on February 11, 2008. (Ex. A to Def.'s Br. 14:16-19 (" Calmon-Hess Dep." )). Prior to that, Calmon was in high school in New Jersey. For a large part of his life, Calmon suffered from bipolar disorder. Between the ages of four to twelve, he was hospitalized ten times for psychiatric treatment. ( Id. 8:11-16). He was on various medications for treatment of his mental illness until the age of fourteen. ( Id. 10:1-6, 13:15-16). After he stopped taking medication, he continued to receive treatment once every three months until he enlisted with the Marines. ( Id. 13:17-14:2). Calmon did not start therapy again until October 2009. ( Id. 16:5-16; Ex. D to Def.'s Br. 80:11-12 (" Harmer Dep." )).

When he joined the Marines, Calmon enrolled in a life insurance policy under the SGLIA and designated his mother, Plaintiff Calmon-Hess, as his principal beneficiary. (Ex. B to Def.'s Br.). At that time, Calmon told her that he wanted her to have the proceeds if anything happened to him. (Calmon-Hess Dep. 26:21-23). She remained the principal beneficiary until July 2009.

After completing basic training, Calmon was stationed at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. (Calmon-Hess Dep. 17:11-15; Harmer Dep. 17:14-16). While on leave in May 2009, Calmon came to New Jersey to visit family and began dating Defendant Harmer. (Harmer Dep. 13:21-22, 16:15-20). The day after their first date, Calmon asked Harmer to go back to Calmon-Hess's house to help him balance his checkbook. ( Id. 24:8-20). After approximately one month of dating, Calmon proposed to Harmer, ( id. 19:3-6), and she moved to North Carolina shortly thereafter. ( Id. 31:5-9). They were married there on July 21, 2009. (Ex. E to Def.'s Br.). At the time, Calmon did not tell his mother that he had married Harmer. When Calmon-Hess found out, she threatened to disown him. (Calmon-Hess Dep. 38:24-39:17).

Three days after Calmon married Harmer, Calmon executed a new Servicemembers' Group Insurance Election and Certificate in which he named Harmer as the principal beneficiary and his natural father and Calmon-Hess as contingent beneficiaries. (Ex. F to Def.'s Br.). That same day, he completed a dependency application, listing Harmer as his sole beneficiary. (Ex. G to Def.'s Br.).

Page 391

While Calmon and Harmer lived together, Calmon was the sole wage earner. However, Harmer was instrumental in managing their finances and set a budget for them. (Harmer Dep. 59:22-60:4). In early October 2009, Calmon took out a loan to buy a car for Harmer to use. ( Id. 57:24-58:4). While Harmer was there, Calmon spent less time with his friends, Ryan Dotson and Brandi Castleberry. (Ex. K to Def.'s Br. 26:23-27:6 (" Castleberry Dep." )). Castleberry and Dotson observed that Harmer would become upset when Calmon discussed certain subjects with Castleberry or Dotson, and, at least one time, they saw Harmer smack Calmon. ( Id. 18:12-18, 23:20-25; Ex. I to Def.'s Br. 19:18-20 (" Dotson Dep." )). Castleberry and Dotson also commented that Calmon seemed stressed and depressed on occasion. (Castleberry Dep. 36:20-37:8; Dotson Dep. 24:7-8). Calmon continued to perform the duties that the Marines assigned to him during this time. (Castleberry Dep. 56:12-14; Calmon-Hess Dep. 30:24-31:4).

Harmer left North Carolina for New Jersey in mid-October 2009 when Harmer and Calmon were evicted from their apartment. (Harmer Dep. 14-17). She returned to North Carolina on October 31, 2009, and stayed for a few days before returning to New Jersey permanently. (Harmer 62:8-20). While Harmer was in North Carolina in October, Calmon attempted suicide. (Calmon-Hess Dep. 29:13-16; Harmer Dep. 64:10-20; Castleberry Dep. 40:19-41:1). Calmon was hospitalized for one or two weeks following that incident. (Calmon-Hess Dep. 29:1-6; Castleberry Dep. 41:15-16).

Within a few days of his suicide attempt, Calmon executed another change of beneficiary form, this time naming Harmer as the principal beneficiary with no contingent beneficiaries. (Ex. H to Def.'s Br.). He did not make any further changes to his life insurance beneficiary. Although Dotson told Calmon to remove Harmer as his beneficiary in December 2009 (Dotson Dep. 16:2-14), Calmon took no action to change his policy.

Calmon and Harmer continued to talk after Harmer left North Carolina, although they saw each other only once more in January, 2010. ( Id. 67:11-21). During the course of these conversations, Calmon threatened to take away Harmer's insurance. ( Id. 46:1-48:48:2). He also asked Harmer to come back to North Carolina. Later, when he found out that Harmer was pregnant, Calmon threatened to seek custody of Harmer's child, even though he was not the father, if she did not come back to him. ( Id. 72:23-73:22). After Calmon said that he would seek custody of the child, Harmer filed for divorce. ( Id. 72:19-73:22). The divorce was finalized in March 2011. Calmon committed suicide on April 3, 2011. (Ex. L to Def.'s Br.).

In June 2011, Calmon-Hess filed suit against Harmer and the Prudential Insurance Company of America, the insurer, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Gloucester County asserting two counts: (1) Calmon's designation of Harmer was invalid because Calmon was of unsound mind and lacked the capacity to effect a valid designation, and (2) Calmon and Harmer's divorce revoked the designation under New Jersey law, making Calmon-Hess the beneficiary. Following Harmer's removal of the claim to this Court, Prudential Insurance deposited life insurance proceeds of $400,000 with the Court and was dismissed as a defendant. (Dkt. No. 8).

Harmer has moved for summary judgment on both counts. She first argues that there is no evidence that Calmon was lacked the mental capacity to change his insurance policy beneficiary designation.

Page 392

On the second claim, Harmer argues that the SGLIA preempts New Jersey law. Calmon-Hess has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. She counters that Harmer exerted an undue influence over Calmon and that Calmon-Hess should be granted summary judgment based on Calmon's intent to change his beneficiary.

II.

" [S]ummary judgment is proper ‘ if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.’ " Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pollock v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir.1986). The role of the Court is not " to weigh the evidence and determine the ...


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