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New York Life Insurance Co. v. Crayton

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

June 19, 2019



          Thomas D. Schroeder United States District Judge.

         This life insurance interpleader action is before the court on Defendant Athalia Crayton's post-trial motion for relief from the court's finding that the proper beneficiary of the death benefit accruing upon the passing of her mother, Joyce Ferron, is her sister, Defendant Taneeda Ferron. The motion seeks amended and additional findings of fact under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(b), or alternatively a new trial under Rule 59. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The court entered findings of fact after the bench trial in this case pursuant to Rule 52(a)(1). See (Doc. 55 ¶¶ 1-23). Summarized, those facts are as follows:

         Joyce entered into a life insurance contract with Plaintiff New York Life Insurance Company (“New York Life”) on or about September 17, 2004. (Id. ¶¶ 1-2.) She designated Taneeda as the beneficiary. (Id. ¶ 2.) Through the years, Joyce communicated with New York Life several times in order to make changes to the policy, provide corrected personal information, and/or make requests; each time, she did so via written letter. (Id. ¶¶ 5- 7.) From 2010 through late 2016 - except for roughly six months in mid-2016 - Joyce lived with Taneeda in Columbia, South Carolina. (Id. ¶ 8.) By late 2016, Joyce suffered from a No. of severe health conditions, including Stage IV cancer, glaucoma, osteoarthritis, and hearing loss. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 15.) She did not own a computer or subscribe to an internet service, and her electronic devices were limited to a “flip phone” and a CapTel telephone.[1] (Id. ¶ 12.)

         On December 19, 2016, through New York Life's internet portal, Taneeda was removed as the beneficiary of Joyce's life insurance policy and replaced with Athalia. (Id. ¶ 13.) Several days later, on December 23, 2016, Athalia took Joyce to live with her near High Point, North Carolina. (Id. ¶ 8.) When Taneeda received notice of the beneficiary change, she contacted New York Life to contest it. (Id. ¶ 14.) On January 10, 2017, Joyce passed away from her cancer, and the insurance policy death benefit became due in the amount of $25, 278.65. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Athalia and Taneeda both claimed entitlement to the proceeds, although they reached agreement that New York Life should remit $9, 852.60 to a funeral home to cover Joyce's funeral expenses. (Id. ¶ 17.) New York Life did so, leaving $15, 426.05 in proceeds. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.)

         Faced with conflicting claims to the remaining proceeds, New York Life filed an interpleader action in this court and deposited the proceeds with the Clerk of Court, after which the insurer was dismissed from the case. (Doc. 16.) The court conducted a bench trial on January 10, 2019. Athalia presented her own testimony, as well as that of her husband, Robert Crayton, and her brother, Clifford Thompson, and introduced exhibits. Athalia's evidence included her testimony of observing Joyce using a smartphone on the day the beneficiary was changed, and Thompson's testimony that Joyce told him she changed the beneficiary online. Taneeda then presented her own testimony, introduced exhibits, and rested. Taneeda's evidence included her testimony about Joyce's inexperience with computers and severe health problems, along with Taneeda's observations of Joyce during the day the policy beneficiary was changed.

         For the reasons explained in the court's prior opinion, the court did “not find Athalia Crayton's evidence - that Joyce Ferron changed the life insurance policy herself via a smartphone - credible.” (Doc. 55 ¶ 29.) Instead, the court found “Taneeda Ferron's evidence - that Joyce Ferron did not make and could not have made the beneficiary change via a smartphone - credible.” (Id.) As a result, the court found that Joyce had not substantially complied with the requirements of North Carolina law as to changing life insurance beneficiaries. See Primerica Life Ins. Co. v. James Massengill & Sons Constr. Co., 712 S.E.2d 670, 678 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2011) (“[A]ny changes made to an insurance policy affecting the beneficiary designation . . . must be made by the policy owner. If not, the changes are a legal nullity and of no force and effect . . . .”); Adams v. Jefferson-Pilot Life Ins. Co., 558 S.E.2d 504, 509 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2002) (noting that it is enough for a policyholder to “substantially compl[y]” with the requirement that “only the owner of a life insurance policy may change the beneficiary, ” but that “the policy owner must himself take affirmative steps to change the beneficiary, substantially fulfill the actions required on his part to accomplish the change, [and] must communicate these efforts to an agent of the insurer”). Therefore, the court found that the insurance proceeds were due to Taneeda, the original beneficiary, and entered judgment to that effect on January 15, 2019. (Doc. 56.)

         On February 12, 2019, Athalia timely filed the instant motion under Rules 52(b) and 59, purporting to identify a No. of errors in the court's factfinding and reasoning. (Doc. 57.) Taneeda responded (Doc. 58), and the motion is now ready for decision.[2]

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Failure to Adhere to Local Rules

         Local Civil Rule 7.3(a) requires that “[a]ll motions, unless made during a hearing or at trial, shall be in writing and shall be accompanied by a brief except as provided in section (j) of this rule. Each motion shall be set out in a separate pleading.” Section (j) of the rule lists various motions that may be filed without a separate brief; Athalia's motion is not one of them. See Local Rule 7.3(j). Notwithstanding this rule, Athalia - who is represented by counsel - filed her motion without a separate brief. For this reason alone, her motion will be denied. See Wolfe Fin. Inc. v. Rodgers, No. 1:17cv896, 2019 WL 203183, at *17 (M.D. N.C. Jan. 15, 2019) (“[Defendants'] Motion fails to satisfy the[] requirements [of Local Rule 7.3(a)]. This failure alone justifies its denial.” (citation and footnote omitted)). Nevertheless, because it is readily apparent that the substance of the motion also lacks merit, the court will deny it on that ground as well, as explained below.

         B. Standards of Review

         Pursuant to Rule 52(b), upon a timely motion, “the court may amend its findings - or make additional findings - and may amend the judgment accordingly.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(b). Rule 52(b) motions “are not intended merely to relitigate old matters nor are such motions intended to allow the parties to present the case under new theories.” Goodwin v. Cockrell, No. 4:13-cv-199-F, 2015 WL 12851581, at *1 (E.D. N.C. Dec. 30, 2015) (quoting Wahler v. Countrywide Home Loans Inc., No. 1:05CV349, 2006 WL 3327074, at *1 (W.D. N.C. Nov. 15, 2006)). “Instead, these ...

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