Metropolitan Life Insurance Company v. Brown et al
ORDER Granting Defendant Breanna Brown's 21 Motion for Summary Judgment and Denying Defendant Charles H. Brown's 17 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by District Judge Denise Page Hood. (JOwe)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
CASE NO. 16-10500
HON. DENISE PAGE HOOD
CHARLES H. BROWN,
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT BREANNA BROWN’S MOTION FOR
SUMMARY JUDGMENT [#21] AND DENYING DEFENDANT
CHARLES H. BROWN’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [#17]
On February 11, 2016, Interpleader-Plaintiff Metropolitan Life Insurance
Company (“MetLife”) filed a Complaint in Interpleader against Defendants
Breanna Brown and Charles H. Brown because MetLife, as claim fiduciary, could
not determine the proper beneficiary(ies) of the remaining benefits under an
employee welfare benefit plan. (Doc # 1) MetLife has been dismissed from this
action pursuant to a Stipulated Order, dated June 3, 2016, after having deposited
into the Registry of the Court in an interest bearing account the group life
insurance benefits at issue. (Doc # 14) On September 19, 2016, Charles H. Brown
filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc # 17) On September 22, 2016,
Breanna Brown filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc # 21) On October
10, 2016, Breanna Brown filed a Response to Charles H. Brown’s Motion. (Doc #
The Decedent, Charles A. Brown, an employee of Fiat Chrysler
Automobiles, had a life insurance policy through FCA US LLC Group Life
Insurance Plan (the “Plan”), an employee welfare benefit plan issued by MetLife
and regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974
(“ERISA”), as amended 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. Pursuant to the Summary Plan
Description, Decedent was entitled to designate beneficiaries as follows:
You may designate or change your beneficiary at any time . . . . If you
designate more than one beneficiary, the surviving beneficiaries will
share equally, unless you specify otherwise. If you do not designate a
beneficiary, or if at your death, no designated beneficiary is living,
your benefits will be distributed as follows:
• To your surviving spouse;
• Equally to your surviving children;
• Equally to your parents or the survivor of them;
• Equally to your surviving brothers and sisters; or
• To your executors or administrators.
(Doc # 1-2, Pg ID 21-22) The Certificate of Insurance also stated that Decedent
could designate beneficiaries as follows:
You may designate a Beneficiary in Your application or enrollment
form. . . . If two or more Beneficiaries are designated and their shares
are not specified, they will share the insurance equally. If there is no
Beneficiary designated or no surviving Beneficiary at your death, We
will determine the Beneficiary according to the following order:
• Your Spouse, if alive;
• Your child(ren), if there is no surviving Spouse;
• Your parent(s), if there is no surviving child;
• Your siblings, if there is no surviving parent; or
• Your estate, if there is no surviving sibling.
(Doc # 1-3, Pg ID 28)
Defendants agree that the only beneficiary designation form (“Designation
Form”) on file with MetLife at the time of Decedent’s death is dated August 17,
1994. (Doc # 1-4, Pg ID 30) It is undisputed that the Designation Form names
two individuals, each as 50% Primary Beneficiary. Id. It first names “Charles A.
Brown,” and under the space designated for identifying the “Relationship” of
Charles A. Brown, the Designation Form is blank. Id. The Designation Form then
names “Breanna C. Brown,” and under the space designated for identifying the
“Relationship” of Breanna C. Brown, the Designation Form identifies her as
“Daughter.” Id. Defendants agree that there is no Charles A. Brown, other than
Decedent himself, who is related to or connected to Decedent, and that there is no
known friend or acquaintance of Decedent who also bore that name.
undisputed that Breanna Brown was three years old when Decedent completed the
Decedent died on November 16, 2014. (Doc # 1-5, Pg ID 32) The parties
agree that, at the time of his death, Decedent was enrolled for life insurance
coverage in the amount of $64,000.00. Following his death, his daughter, Breanna
Brown, received 50% of the Plan Benefits, an amount of $32,250.00. (Doc # 14,
Pg ID 80) On January 14, 2015, Breanna Brown claimed 100% of the Plan
Benefits. (Doc # 1-6, Pg ID 35-36) On June 22, 2015, Charles H. Brown,
Decedent’s father, claimed the remaining 50% of the Plan Benefits. (Doc # 1-8, Pg
ID 42-43) MetLife advised Defendants that their claims were adverse to one
another and could not be resolved by MetLife without exposing the Plan to double
liability. (Doc # 1-9, Pg ID 46) It is undisputed that Decedent was never married,
that Breanna Brown was his only child, and that Decedent’s mother pre-deceased
A. Standard of Review
Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures provides that the court
“shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The presence of factual disputes will preclude
granting of summary judgment only if the disputes are genuine and concern
material facts. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A
dispute about a material fact is “genuine” only if “the evidence is such that a
reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. Although the
Court must view admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party, where “the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its
opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as
to the material facts.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,
475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986).
Summary judgment must be entered 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
all other facts immaterial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23. A court must look
to the substantive law to identify which facts are material. Anderson, 477 U.S. at
B. Determining the Proper Beneficiary of the Remaining 50% of the Plan
Through the instant Motions, the parties agree that there are no genuine
issues of material fact in this case. The parties rely solely on Plan documents and
law, and argue solely about how to determine the proper Beneficiary of the
remaining 50% of the Plan Benefits.
Charles H. Brown relies on Michigan law and argues that parol evidence
should be admitted to show Decedent’s intention because the Designation Form is
ambiguous; however, he points to no extrinsic parol evidence for the Court to
consider. Charles H. Brown argues that Decedent’s intent would be “perverted” if
Breanna Brown were to receive 100% of the Plan Benefits because Decedent
specified in the Designation Form that he only wanted her to receive 50%. Charles
H. Brown further argues that, because it “makes no sense” that Decedent would
have intended to name himself as Beneficiary of his own life insurance policy,
Decedent’s intent must have been to designate Charles H. Brown, his father, as
50% Primary Beneficiary, and that Decedent simply made a typographical mistake
with respect to his father’s middle initial.
Breanna Brown asserts that, under the Plan, Decedent could name
whomever he liked as Beneficiary, including himself. She argues that ERISA does
not allow for speculation regarding why Decedent would have named himself as
his own Beneficiary; rather, ERISA directs that Beneficiaries be paid as per the
plan documents. Breanna Brown argues that, even if Decedent’s designation of
himself failed, the remaining Plan Benefits would still flow only to Breanna Brown
pursuant to the Plan documents because Decedent is deceased, there is no
surviving spouse, and Breanna Brown is the sole surviving child. Likewise, if the
Designation Form is interpreted as designating Decedent’s estate as Beneficiary,
then the remaining Plan Benefits would still flow only to Breanna Brown because
Decedent died intestate, and Breanna Brown is his only descendant by
representation. Breanna Brown also argues that the Designation Form is clear, and
that consistent with it, the remaining 50% of the Plan Benefits should be
distributed to Charles A. Brown.
Since he is deceased, as since he has no
surviving spouse, the remaining 50% of the Plan Benefits should be distributed to
Breanna Brown, his sole surviving child. Breanna Brown further argues that, even
if Michigan law were not pre-empted by ERISA, Charles H. Brown has produced
no evidence of an intent of Decedent to name him as Beneficiary or evidence that
the Designation Form is ambiguous. Breanna Brown notes that the Designation
Form is clear on its face, designating “Charles A. Brown” as Beneficiary with the
space designated for identifying the “Relationship” left notably blank. If Decedent
intended to designate Charles H. Brown as 50% Primary Beneficiary, then he
would have filled in the space with “Father” in the same way that he identified
Breanna Brown as “Daughter” in the same Designation Form; he did not do so
because he intended to name himself.
ERISA is designed to protect plan participants and beneficiaries, and to
enable employers “to establish a uniform administrative scheme, which provides a
set of standard procedures to guide processing of claims and disbursement of
benefits.” Fort Halifax Packing Co. v. Coyne, 482 U.S. 1, 9 (1987); see Boggs v.
Boggs, 520 U.S. 833, 845 (1997). “ERISA’s express pre-emption clause states that
the Act ‘shall supersede any and all State laws insofar as they may now or
hereafter relate to any employee benefit plan . . . .’” Boggs, 520 U.S. at 841
(quoting 29 U.S.C. § 1144(a)). “The term ‘State law’ includes all laws, decisions,
rules, regulations, or other State action having the effect of law, of any State.” 29
U.S.C. § 1144(c)(1). A state law “relates to” an employee benefit plan “if it has a
connection with or reference to such a plan.” Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463
U.S. 85, 97 (1983).
A claim fiduciary must administer claims “in accordance with the
documents and instruments governing the plan.”
29 U.S.C. § 1104(a)(1)(D).
Determination of beneficiary status in accordance with plan documents is an “area
of core ERISA concern.” Egelhoff v. Egelhoff ex rel. Breiner, 532 U.S. 141, 147
ERISA mandates that payments be made to a “beneficiary” who is
“designated by a participant, or by the terms of an employee benefit plan.” 29
U.S.C. § 1002(8). The Supreme Court has held that, to the extent that state law
conflicts with ERISA’s requirement that plan benefits be paid in accordance with
plan documents, “it has a ‘connection with’ ERISA plans and is therefore preempted.” Egelhoff, 532 U.S. at 150. In Kennedy v. Plan Adm’r for DuPont Sav.
And Inv. Plan, the Supreme Court stressed the “bright-line requirement to follow
plan documents in distributing benefits,” noting the following:
[B]y giving a plan participant a clear set of instructions for making his
own instructions clear, ERISA forecloses any justification for
enquiries into nice expressions of intent, in favor of the virtues of
adhering to an uncomplicated rule: simple administration, avoiding
double liability, and ensuring that beneficiaries get what’s coming
quickly, without the folderol essential under less-certain rules.
555 U.S. 285, 301-02 (2009) (internal quotations and citation omitted).
The Sixth Circuit has held that, in determining plan beneficiaries, the plan
documents control, noting that this “fulfills the intent of Congress that ERISA
plans be uniform in their interpretation and simple in their application.” McMillan
v. Parrott, 913 F.2d 310, 312 (1990); see Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Pressley, 82
F.3d 126, 130 (1996). As the Sixth Circuit has explained, “[a] participant is master
of his own ERISA plan.” Parrott, 913 F.2d at 312. The participant’s intent is
determined by the designation on file, and the participant’s designation controls.
Accordingly, the Court turns to the Plan documents in this case. Here, the
Plan documents state: “If you die from any cause while group life insurance is in
force, the amount of your insurance is paid to your designated beneficiary(ies).”
(Doc # 1-2, Pg ID 19) Plan documents specify how to designate a beneficiary and
how to make changes to the designation. Plan documents further specify how
benefits will be distributed in the event that a designated beneficiary is not living.
Nothing in the Plan documents prevented the Plan Participant from designating
himself as Beneficiary. Under our precedent, Decedent’s intent is determined by
the Designation Form, the Designation Form and Plan documents control, and
there are no further inquiries into intent.
Decedent designated the following
Beneficiaries on his Designation Form in the manner prescribed by the Plan: (1)
Decedent himself, “Charles A. Brown,” with the “Relationship” space left notably
blank; and (2) his daughter, “Breanna C. Brown,” with the “Relationship” space
indicating “Daughter.” That is the end of the inquiry into Decedent’s intent, and
even if the Court were willing to entertain the argument that any evidence beyond
the Plan documents should be considered here, the fact is that Charles H. Brown
has produced no evidence that Decedent intended to name him as Beneficiary, and
the name “Charles H. Brown” and/or the word “Father” do not appear anywhere on
the Designation Form.
While it is odd, perhaps absurd, for a participant to
designate himself (or his estate at a time when there is no estate and the beneficiary
of a future estate is unknown) as beneficiary of his own life insurance policy, it
does not follow that the Designation Form and other Plan documents should be
ignored. The Court finds that, because Decedent and Beneficiary Charles A.
Brown is deceased, the remaining Plan Benefits flow to Breanna Brown pursuant
to the Plan documents given that there is no surviving spouse, and Breanna Brown
is Decedent’s sole surviving child.
For the reasons set forth above,
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant Charles H. Brown’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc # 17) is DENIED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant Breanna Brown’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc # 21) is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the parties shall submit, after approval by
the Financial Department, Clerk’s Office, a proposed order regarding the
disbursement of funds as set forth in Local Rule 67.1. See E.D. Mich. LR 67.1(b).
Dated: April 28, 2017
s/Denise Page Hood
Chief, U.S. District Court
I hereby certify that a copy of the foregoing document was served upon counsel of
record on April 28, 2017, by electronic and/or ordinary mail.
s/Julie Owens acting in the absence of LaShawn R. Saulsberry
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