Taraszka v. Graziosi
ORDER granting in part and denying in part 49 Motion for Summary Judgment. MetLifes request to be discharged is GRANTED, and MetLifes request for attorneys fees is DENIED. Plaintiffs claims against MetLife are hereby DISMISSED. Ordered by Judge C. Ashley Royal on 2/14/13 (lap)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
KELLIE WHITE GRAZIOSI,
No. 3:11‐CV‐80 (CAR)
METLIFE INVESTORS USA
EUGENE TARASZKA and ANN
TARASZKA, Individually, KEN
TARASZKA, M.D., as Administrator :
of the Estate of DR. STEVEN
ORDER ON DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Before the Court is Defendant MetLife Investors USA Insurance Company’s
(“MetLife”) Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 49] as to Plaintiff Kellie White
Graziosi’s action to recover life insurance policy proceeds, a bad faith penalty, and
litigation expenses. Having considered the relevant facts, applicable law, and the
Motion and responses thereto, MetLife’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 49] is
GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. In particular, MetLife’s request to be
discharged from the instant action is GRANTED, and MetLife’s request for attorney’s
fees is DENIED.
The instant action arises out of Defendant MetLife’s alleged failure to pay the
proceeds of a life insurance policy to the undisputed primary beneficiary, Plaintiff
Kellie Graziosi. Also pending before the Court is a dispute involving the
disbursement of the benefits between Plaintiff and interpleaded Counter‐Defendants
Ken, Eugene, and Ann Taraszka. This Order only addresses MetLife’s Motion. The
facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non‐moving party, are as follows.
Effective July 19, 2006, MetLife issued Dr. Steven Taraszka a life insurance
policy in the amount of $1,000,000.00, naming Plaintiff, his domestic partner, as the
primary beneficiary and Eugene Taraszka, his father, as the contingent beneficiary (the
“Policy”). According to his death certificate, Dr. Taraszka died of an accidental drug
overdose on October 19, 2010.
Shortly thereafter on December 8th, Kathleen Medeiros, a senior claim approver
for MetLife, sent Plaintiff claim application forms that required a certified copy of Dr.
Taraszka’s death certificate. On December 22nd, before Plaintiff had submitted her
claim, MetLife received a letter from Dr. Taraszka’s family: his father and contingent
beneficiary, Eugene Taraszka; his brother and estate administrator, Ken Taraszka; and
his mother, Ann Taraszka (collectively the “Taraszkas”). Therein, the Taraszkas asked
MetLife to refrain from paying Plaintiff the proceeds pending the outcome of “an
ongoing investigation into the circumstances” of Dr. Taraszka’s death.1
Two weeks later, on January 6, 2011, Plaintiff submitted her claim to the
proceeds and a certified copy of Dr. Taraszka’s death certificate. The record indicates
that MetLife would have, but for the Taraszkas’ involvement, paid the death benefits
to Plaintiff. In other words, Plaintiff, as primary beneficiary, had properly fulfilled all
of her obligations. Instead, however, Medeiros identified the Taraszkas as competing
claimants and designated Plaintiff’s claim as adverse, thereby precluding immediate
payment of the proceeds to Plaintiff. Medeiros promptly informed Plaintiff of the
Taraszkas’ investigation and their request to defer payment. In a separate letter to the
Taraszkas, Medeiros stated that Plaintiff had filed a claim to the proceeds and that
MetLife was “obligated to make payment” absent legal restraint.2
In this fashion, Medeiros continued to update the parties of the others’
correspondence throughout the rest of the month. The parties diligently responded,
each time requesting payment, as in Plaintiff’s case, or deferment, as in the Taraszkas’.
In a letter dated January 20, 2011, Plaintiff stated, in relevant part, “please accept this
letter as our demand that Met Life [sic] process the claim of [Plaintiff] forthwith, and
Def.’s Ex. 5 [Doc. 49‐7].
Def.’s Ex. 7 [Doc. 49‐9].
that the claim be adjusted in good faith.”3 Medeiros and MetLife interpreted this as a
“letter demanding payment under the policy.”4
Likewise, the Taraszkas continued to object to any payment of the proceeds. In
a telephone call on January 24th, the Taraszkas informed Medeiros of their intention to
file a lawsuit against MetLife, and in a letter dated January 27th, the Taraszkas advised
Medeiros of their preparations to “promptly file[ suit] in Federal Court” and to request
a restraining order against MetLife.5 On February 1, 2011, Medeiros informed Plaintiff
of the Taraszkas’ litigious intentions and stated that MetLife was “unable to proceed
with [Plaintiff’s] claim” due to its impending belief of litigation.6
On February 4, 2011, Medeiros received a courtesy copy of the complaint the
Taraszkas intended to file against Plaintiff. Although MetLife was not named as a
defendant, Medeiros referred Plaintiff’s claim to Kathy Kurtz, a life claims consultant
for MetLife, who, in turn, referred Plaintiff’s claim to Regina Soloman‐Stowe,
MetLife’s senior technical insurance advisor. Soloman‐Stowe reviewed Plaintiff’s
claim to ensure “all of the procedures were followed” and to determine if the claim
could be resolved between the parties.7 Eleven days later on February 15, 2011,
Def.’s Ex. 10 [Doc. 49‐12 at 3].
Def.’s Answer at 8 [Doc. 5 ¶ 23]; see Medeiros Dep. 80:22‐81:1.
5 Def.s’ Ex. 14 [Doc. 49‐16].
6 Def.’s Ex. 15 [Doc. 49‐17].
7 Soloman‐Stowe Dep. 27:10‐16.
Soloman‐Stowe forwarded Plaintiff’s claim to MetLife’s legal department.8
Subsequently, on February 28th, the Taraszkas filed suit against Plaintiff in superior
court. MetLife, again not named, received a copy of this complaint on March 3, 2011.
The full extent MetLife’s investigation of the Taraszkas’ claim is as outlined
above. MetLife employees did not investigate Dr. Taraszka’s cause of death because,
as in this case, “there [is] no reason” to investigate when the death is by accident.9
Moreover, despite Medeiros’ understanding that the Taraszkas were competing
claimants to the benefits, subsequent discovery has revealed the Taraszkas’ neither
disputed the beneficiary designation nor sought to collect the proceeds.
To date, the circumstances surrounding Dr. Taraszka’s death remain largely the
same as they were in February of 2011, save for the instant lawsuit against MetLife.
As of the date of this Order, no criminal charges have been filed against Plaintiff in
connection with Dr. Taraszka’s death. However, if it is determined that Plaintiff
contributed to his death, she will be prohibited from collecting the death benefits
payable by MetLife under Georgia’s Slayer Statute, O.C.G.A. § 33‐25‐13. Such
proceeds would instead be awarded to Eugene Taraszka, the contingent beneficiary
What happened after the claim was referred to MetLife’s legal department is largely unknown.
MetLife’s Rule 30(b)(6) witness was unable to respond to several of Plaintiff’s questions, although she did
testify that MetLife was “trying to see if the parties [could] reach an agreement.” Soloman‐Stowe Dep.
9 Medeiros Dep. 70:14‐16.
under the Policy.10 It is undisputed that neither Medeiros nor Soloman‐Stowe knew of
Georgia’s Slayer Statute when Plaintiff’s claim was filed.
On April 15, 2011, Plaintiff filed suit against MetLife in the Superior Court of
Walton County, Georgia, claiming (1) breach of contract; (2) bad faith refusal to pay
the proceeds under the Policy; and (3) litigation expenses. MetLife was served with
process on May 10th and subsequently removed the action to this Court on June 9th.
After removal, MetLife requested, and this Court granted, two joint motions for
extension of time in which to respond to Plaintiff’s complaint. On the final day of its
second extension, July 7th, MetLife filed an answer and a counterclaim‐in‐interpleader
against Plaintiff and the Taraszkas over the death benefits.
Shortly thereafter, MetLife filed a motion to join the Taraszkas in interpleader
and requested authorization to pay the Policy proceeds with applicable interest into
the Court’s registry. On October 19, 2011, the Court granted MetLife’s motion and
joined the Taraszkas as interpleader defendants pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1335 and Rules
19 and 21 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
On April 19, 2012, prior to the close of discovery at the end of the month,
MetLife filed the instant Motion, unilaterally precluding Plaintiff from deposing
Soloman‐Stowe, its Rule 30(b)(6) witness, and Medeiros. Although MetLife expressed
See O.C.G.A. § 33‐25‐13.
its displeasure at participating in discovery in the Court’s February Scheduling Order,
MetLife never filed a motion or a protective order. In a telephone conference on May
22, 2012, MetLife deigned to enlighten the Court that Plaintiff’s bad faith claim was not
viable, and it was therefore justified in refusing to participate in discovery. Without
addressing the merits of Plaintiff’s claim, the Court ordered MetLife to make its
witnesses available for Plaintiff to depose.
Summary judgment must be granted if Athere is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.@11
Not all factual disputes render summary judgment inappropriate; only a genuine issue
of material fact will defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment.12 This
means that summary judgment may be granted if there is insufficient evidence for a
reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party or, in other words, if
reasonable minds could not differ as to the verdict.13
In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence
and all justifiable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, but the
court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.14 The moving
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Johnson v. Clifton, 74 F.3d
1087, 1090 (11th Cir. 1996).
12 See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247‐48 (1986).
13 See id. at 249‐52.
14 See id. at 254‐55; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).
party Aalways bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis
for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it
believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact@ and that entitle it
to a judgment as a matter of law.15
If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden then shifts to the
nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing
there is a genuine issue of material fact (i.e., evidence that would support a jury verdict)
or the moving party is not entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.16 This evidence
must consist of more than mere conclusory allegations or legal conclusions.17
Ultimately, summary judgment must be entered where Athe nonmoving party has failed
to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [his] case with respect to which
[he] has the burden of proof.@18
On summary judgment, MetLife advances three arguments. First, MetLife
contends it is a disinterested stakeholder in the case by virtue of this Court’s decision
to grant interpleader and should be discharged. In the alternative, MetLife argues
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation marks omitted).
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324‐26.
17 See Avirgan v. Hull, 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir. 1991).
18 Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.
Plaintiff’s bad faith claim fails as a matter of law. And finally, MetLife asserts it is
entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. The Court will address these matters below.
MetLife first argues that it should be dismissed with prejudice because it has
admitted the benefits were payable and has paid the benefits, plus interest, into the
Court’s registry. In other words, MetLife contends it is immune from liability from
Plaintiff’s claims because of the Court’s previous decision granting interpleader.
While the Court agrees that MetLife is a disinterested stakeholder and should
ultimately be discharged, the Court disagrees that interpleader automatically shields
MetLife from all liability.
Rule 22 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a defendant “with claims
that may expose [it] to double or multiple liability” to seek interpleader through a
counterclaim.19 The purpose of interpleader “is to allow a party who fears being
exposed to the vexation of defending multiple claims to a limited fund or property
that is under his control a procedure to settle the controversy and satisfy his obligation
in a single proceeding.”20
Fed. R. Civ. P. 22(a)(1)‐(a)(2).
Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. v. Hovis, 553 F.3d 258, 264‐65 (3d Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted).
Here, interpleader protected MetLife only from the prospect of multiple
litigation and did not automatically immunize it from liability. 21 The Eleventh Circuit
has never explicitly required a stakeholder to show, as a prerequisite for interpleader,
“that he had incurred no independent liability to any claimant, such that he was
indifferent as between the claimants.”22 Accordingly, MetLife was not required to
establish indifference to properly interplead the Taraszkas, and thus, the Court’s
decision to grant interpleader did not automatically immunize MetLife from liability.
Contrary to MetLife’s mechanical immunization theory, the decision to
discharge a stakeholder and thus reject those claims against it depends instead on
“whether the [claims] are independent of the reason for the filing of the interpleader
action.”23 A claim “‘is not truly independent if it simply involves an allegation that the
interpleader failed to resolve the investigation in favor of the [claimant].’”24
In this case, Plaintiff’s bad faith and breach of contract claims arise directly out
of MetLifeʹs refusal to pay the proceeds and are therefore not truly independent of the
interpleader action. On summary judgment, Plaintiff argues that MetLife’s failure to
See Nat’l Life Ins. Co. v. Alembik‐Eisner, 582 F. Supp. 2d 1362, 1369 (N.D. Ga. 2008) (“[I]f the interpleader
is properly filed, it is possible that the merits of the state law [claims] could be rejected.”). (emphasis
22 Ohio Nat’l Life Assurance Corp. v. Lankkau ex rel. Estate of Langkau, 353 F. App’x 244, 248 (11th Cir. 2009)
(citing Odum v. Penn Mut. Life Ins. Co., 288 F.2d 744, 747‐48 (5th Cir. 1961)). See Bonner v. City of Prichard,
661 F.2d 1206 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc), adopting as binding precedent all of the decisions of the former
Fifth Circuit handed down prior to the close of business on September 30, 1981.
23 Id. at 1369‐70.
24 Sec. Life of Denver Ins. Co. v. Shah, No. CV411‐008, 2012 WL 3777135, at *5 (S.D. Ga. Aug. 29, 2012)
(quoting Hovis, 553 F.3d 258, 362 (3d Cir. 2009) (cited by Langkau, 353 F. App’x at 248)).
properly initiate interpleader in a timely and voluntary manner precludes MetLife’s
dismissal. In particular, Plaintiff challenges MetLife’s failure to investigate the
Taraszkas’ claim and its failure to pay Plaintiff’s claim. Neither of these arguments,
however, would exist if MetLife had immediately paid Plaintiff the proceeds.25
Certainly MetLife could have investigated the Taraszkas’ claim more in‐depth, and it
could have voluntarily filed for interpleader in a more timely fashion, but these
arguments are premised on MetLife’s refusal to pay Plaintiff the proceeds, and thus
are not truly independent of the interpleader action.
Accordingly, Plaintiff has failed to indicate how her state law claims against
MetLife are not simply an attempt to assert her entitlement to the proceeds, which is
the very issue the interpleader was brought to resolve.26 Thus, MetLife is a
disinterested stakeholder, and Plaintiff’s breach of contract and bad faith claims
against MetLife are DISMISSED. MetLife’s Motion with respect to this finding is
The Court’s remaining consideration is MetLife’s request for attorney’s fees in
light of Plaintiff’s “strenuous[ ]” resistance to MetLife’s dismissal.27 Specifically,
See Hovis, 553 F.3d at 264‐65 (concluding claimants claim was not independent of interpleader and
opining that had the insurer “immediately paid [claimant] the proceeds of [the life insurance policy, the
claimant] would not have brought an action against [the insurer] based on any of the causes of action”).
26 See Shah, 2012 WL 3777135, at *5 (holding claims for breach of contract and bad faith were not “truly
independent” of interpleader and stakeholder should therefore be dismissed).
27 [Doc. 49 at 19].
MetLife requests fees in an unknown amount for the following: opposing Plaintiff’s
motion to dismiss and her motion for judgment on the pleadings, responding to
written discovery in furtherance of Plaintiff’s claims, producing requested documents,
and “engaging in unnecessary discovery skirmishes with Plaintiff’s counsel.”28
An award of attorney’s fees to a disinterested stakeholder is not expressly
provided for in either federal statutory or rule interpleader. 29 However, disinterested
stakeholders may be awarded attorney’s fees for their participation as an equitable
remedy.30 Such awards “are common where the [disinterested] stakeholder has acted
in good faith.”31 “The court’s authority to make an award is discretionary; there is no
right for the stakeholder to recover costs and attorney’s fees.”32 The Eleventh Circuit
has articulated three justifications to award fees in interpleader actions: (1) “an
interpleader action often yields a cost‐efficient resolution of a dispute in a single
forum,” (2) the stakeholder “often comes by the asset innocently and in no way
provokes the dispute among the claimants,” and (3) the stakeholder’s fees “typically
are quite minor and therefore do not greatly diminish the value of the asset.”33
[Doc. 47 at 20].
Fed. R. Civ. P. 22; 28 U.S.C. § 1335; N. Am. Co. for Life & Health Ins. v. Campbell, No. 3:04‐cv‐118‐J‐TEM,
2007 WL 2209249, at *4 (M.D. Fla. July 30, 2007).
30 United States v. Sentinel Fire Ins. Co., 178 F.2d 217, 236 (5th Cir. 1949).
31 Katsaris v. United States, 684 F.2d 758, 763 (11th Cir. 1982).
32 Life Investors Ins. Co. of Am. v. Childs, 209 F. Supp. 2d 1255, 1256 (N.D. Ga. 2002) (internal quotations
33 In re Mandalay Shores Co‐op. Hous. Ass’n, Inc., 21 F.3d 380, 383 (11th Cir. 1994).
Here, MetLife’s delayed action certainly has not produced the “cost‐efficient
resolution” that justifies interpleader, and the Court cannot positively conclude that
MetLife’s inaction “in no way provoke[d] the dispute among the claimants.”34 Finally,
with respect to the third justification, MetLife’s fees are not admittedly the “quite
minor” fees envisioned by the Eleventh Circuit, but, as discussed below, they were not
entirely unforeseeable either.35 In short, none of the standard reasons for justifying
attorney’s fees weighs strongly in favor of MetLife.
More importantly, there is a well‐recognized, oft‐followed, exception to this
general rule when a stakeholder’s normal course of business involves initiating
interpleader actions.36 This exception “typically” applies to insurance companies as
they can “plan for interpleader as a regular cost of business.”37 The normal course of
business exception can trump the three reasons above for awarding attorney’s fees.38
Here, the normal course of business exception precludes MetLife from receiving
attorney’s fees. Although this exception was raised in Plaintiff’s response, MetLife
makes no mention, let alone submits any evidence, as to why MetLife, an insurance
company, would not expect this type of dispute to arise with consistency in its course of
business and, as a result, take appropriate mitigating measures in advance. Given that
MetLife refers to their fees as “substantial” in its Motion. [Doc. 49 at 4].
36 In re Mandalay, 21 F.3d at 383.
these disputes occur “with some modicum of regularity” in the life insurance business,
the Court finds that MetLife “can plan for interpleader as regular cost of business and,
therefore, is undeserving of a fee award.”39
Additionally, the amount of litigation in this case should not come as a surprise
to MetLife.40 MetLife was in a position from the beginning to bring an interpleader
action over the proceeds. Despite being fully aware of the underlying litigation
between the parties and of the Taraszkas litigious attitude, and despite MetLife’s belief
that the Taraszkas were competing claimants, MetLife did not file this action until after
it was sued by Plaintiff, at which point, its actions were anything but prompt. MetLife
initiated interpleader two months after receiving the complaint, using twenty‐nine of
the thirty days to remove the action and a full three week extension to file its answer.
Moreover, MetLife should not now be permitted to hold Plaintiff accountable for fees
that are largely its own creation. 41 Once interpleader was granted, MetLife did little, if
anything, to expeditiously move this action through discovery, or alternatively, to seek
a dismissal. Ultimately, the Court can find no basis to award MetLife’s attorney’s fees
as the age‐old maxim requires that “[h]e who seeks equity must do equity.”42
[Doc. 49 at 4].
41 Tilley v. Barrs, No. 5:08‐CV‐434 (HL), 2009 WL 2750991, at *1‐2 (M.D. Ga. 2009) (granting interpleader
through an earlier motion and subsequently considering MetLife’s separate request for dismissal).
42 Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Doran, 138 F. Supp. 47, 50 (S.D. N.Y. 1956).
The Court also rejects MetLife’s attempt to punish Plaintiff for resisting
dismissal. The Court finds that Plaintiff did not act in bad faith, especially in light of
MetLife’s failure to move for dismissal.43 Moreover, “the mere filings of motions,
without more, does not display a willful abuse of the judicial process by conduct
tantamount to bad faith” on the part of Plaintiff.44 Thus, this Court declines to use its
discretion to award attorney’s fees to MetLife where none are warranted under the law.
MetLife’s request is therefore DENIED.
In sum, MetLife’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 49] is GRANTED in
part and DENIED in part. MetLife’s request to be discharged is GRANTED, and
MetLife’s request for attorney’s fees is DENIED. Plaintiff’s claims against MetLife are
SO ORDERED, this 14th day of February, 2013.
S/ C. Ashley Royal
C. ASHLEY ROYAL
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Baton Rouge, 537 F. Supp. at 1151 (“This court has the inherent power in order to do substantial justice
to assess costs and attorneys’ fees against offending parties who act in bad faith.”).
44 Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada (U.S.) v. Williams, No. 5:06‐CV‐139 (CAR), 2007 WL 1541987, at *1 (M.D.
Ga. May 24, 2007).
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