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Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Harris

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 21, 2017

METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
JOAN M. HARRIS, MARK J. DANTONI, PATRICIA BRINSTER, CAROLE PLATAS, JAMES LLEWELLYN MATHEWS, AS TRUSTEE OF THE SAMUEL J. DANTONI AND MARILYN H. DANTONI TRUST, Defendants.

          JOAN M. HARRIS Appearing pro se

          MARK J. DANTONI Appearing pro se

          PATRICIA BRINSTER Appearing pro se

          CAROLE PLATAS Appearing pro se JAMES LLEWELLYN MATHEWS,

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter arises from a Complaint in Interpleader filed by Plaintiff Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Defendant Joan Harris moves for the release of life insurance funds to her, which this Court construes as a motion for summary judgment.[1] This motion is unopposed by all other defendants, with the exception of Defendant Mark Dantoni (“Dantoni”). Based on a genuine issue of material fact raised by Dantoni regarding Decedent Samuel Dantoni (“Decedent”)'s mental capacity at the time he made Harris a beneficiary, the Court will deny Harris's motion for summary judgment.

         However, after a review of the record as whole and for the reasons that follow, this Court believes that the proper resolution of this matter is a distribution of the contested funds equally between Harris, Dantoni, Patricia Brinster, and Carole Platas pursuant to a 2015 General Release signed by Defendants. Accordingly, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f), the Court hereby gives notice to the parties of its intention to enter summary judgment sua sponte as delineated below and in the Court's accompanying Order. The parties will be afforded thirty days to contest this Opinion and Order before the Court.

         I.

         Decedent, the insured, was covered by Plaintiff under the Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance Policy (the “FEGLI Policy”). Harris, Dantoni, Brinster, and Platas are Decedent's four children. The FEGLI Policy, issued by Plaintiff to the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) pursuant to the Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance Act, 5 U.S.C. § 8701 et seq., provided life insurance benefits that became payable upon death.[2] The Office of Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance (OFEGLI) is an administrative unit of Plaintiff responsible for administering the claims process for the FEGLI Policy, which begins following the death of an insured. Upon the death of an insured, documents from the deceased's personnel file that are relevant to the adjudication of a claim are forwarded to OFEGLI by OPM, which is responsible for recordkeeping for retired employees under the FEGLI Policy. OFEGLI then adjudicates the claim.

         The most recent Beneficiary Designation form in Decedent's file, dated August 25, 2013, named Harris as the sole primary beneficiary to receive one hundred percent of the FEGLI Benefits. The prior Beneficiary Designation form on file for Decedent, dated July 21, 2011, named Marilyn Dantoni, wife of Decedent, as the sole primary beneficiary to receive one hundred percent of the FEGLI Benefits. Marilyn Dantoni died on February 24, 2013.

         In May 2013, Decedent completed an assignment form assigning his interest in his FEGLI coverage to the Trustee(s) or Successor Trustee(s) of the “Samuel J. Dantoni and Marilyn H. Dantoni Trust, dated 1/19/2011” (the “Assignment”). The Assignment was never processed by OPM, pursuant to instructions provided by Decedent to OPM in a submission dated August 30, 2013, whereby Decedent purportedly rescinded the Assignment and instructed that the FEGLI Benefits should be paid pursuant to the 2013 Beneficiary Designation, which named Harris as the sole primary beneficiary.

         Following Decedent's death on October 24, 2014, James Llewellyn Mathews, Esq., as Trustee of the Samuel J. Dantoni and Marilyn H. Dantoni Trust, submitted a Statement of Claim seeking the FEGLI Benefits on behalf of the Trust. In January 2015, Harris submitted a Statement of Claim seeking the FEGLI Benefits. By letter dated March 13, 2015, OFEGLI told Mathews the Trust's claim was denied because the Trust was not named as Decedent's beneficiary on the latest Beneficiary Designation form completed by Decedent on August 25, 2013. Later that month, Mathews wrote to OFEGLI and advised that Decedent's FEGLI Benefits were assigned to the Trust by the Assignment.

         In May 2015, OFEGLI received a letter from Dantoni stating Harris fraudulently completed the 2013 Beneficiary Designation form without Decedent's knowledge. Later that month, Dantoni submitted a Statement of Claim seeking the FEGLI Benefits. In June 2015, Dantoni wrote to OFEGLI alleging that the Trust was not validly formed and that the Assignment was invalid, because Decedent was declared incompetent by a Maryland court in 2012.

         On October 23, 2015, Plaintiff was told by its prior counsel that Decedent's children were unable to resolve their competing claims to the FEGLI Benefits. On that same day, Plaintiff was also told that Mathews filed an October 15, 2015 complaint in New Jersey Superior Court, seeking an order permitting him to serve as the attorney-in-fact for Decedent's four children for the purpose of receiving the FEGLI Benefits.

         Thereafter, Plaintiff was told the claimants resolved their competing claims and agreed the FEGLI Benefits would be divided equally between the Decedent's four children, Defendants Harris, Dantoni, Brinster, and Platas. Plaintiff proposed a general release memorializing the agreement and releasing Plaintiff from any further liability with respect to the FEGLI Policy or the FEGLI Benefits payable as a result of Decedent's death.

         Mathews signed the General Release on December 10, 2015. Brinster signed the General Release on December 11, 2015. Dantoni and Harris signed the General Release on December 12, 2015. Platas signed the General Release on December 15, 2015. However, by a December 22, 2015 e-mail, Dantoni told Plaintiff he was rescinding his agreement until further notice. By e-mail dated January 11, 2016, Dantoni told Plaintiff that “since there was no valid agreement until all parties have signed, mailed and had the Agreement received and reviewed by you for validity, my notification to you is timely and as such it is my position that I have rescinded my Release Agreement per my e-mail to you dated December 22, 2015.” By e-mail dated January 12, 2016, Harris stated the General Release could not be rescinded.

         Plaintiff commenced this action by filing its January 19, 2016 Complaint in Interpleader.[3] Defendants Harris, Brinster, Platas, and Mathews, as Trustee of the Trust, answered the Complaint in Interpleader.

         Plaintiff tried to serve Dantoni, who evaded Plaintiff's efforts. By a September 20, 2016 Order, Magistrate Judge Karen M. Williams granted Plaintiff's motion seeking an order permitting substitute service on Dantoni. Plaintiff served Dantoni by e-mail ...


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