Metropolitan Life Insurance Company v. Kelly et al
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING SHIRLEY CONNER-BARNETT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT 37 . Signed by District Judge Gershwin A. Drain. (TBan)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE
Case No. 16-cv-12544
DEBORAH KELLY; EDITH BARNETT;
SHIRLEY CONNER-BARNETT; M–B-M, A
MINOR; AND O.H. PYE III FUNERAL
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
GERSHWIN A. DRAIN
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
DAVID R. GRAND
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING SHIRLEY CONNER-BARNETT’S MOTION FOR
SUMMARY JUDGMENT 
This case was brought via interpleader in response to a dispute over a
decedent’s life insurance benefits. The cross-claimants dispute whether the
decedent’s modifications of his life insurance beneficiary were invalid due to lack
of capacity or undue influence. Pending before the Court is Shirley ConnerBarnett’s, the final beneficiary, Motion for Summary Judgment . For the
following reasons, the Court will GRANT summary judgment.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
James Barnett, Jr. (hereinafter “Mr. Barnett”), was born on November 21,
1943. Dkt. No. 5-9, p. 2 (Pg. ID 168). Mr. Barnett worked for Fiat Chrysler
Automobiles US LLC (hereinafter “Fiat”) and eventually retired. Dkt. No. 5, p. 3
(Pg. ID 118). Mr. Barnett secured life insurance coverage through Fiat Group Life
Insurance Plan (the “Plan”). Id. Metropolitan Life Insurance (“MetLife”) is a
fiduciary and is responsible for administering the Plan in accordance with The
Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”). Id.
Throughout his life, Mr. Barnett struggled with alcohol abuse and also
suffered from hypertension and diabetes. Dkt. No. 39-2. On December 1, 2014,
Detroit Police reported to Mr. Barnett’s residence. Dkt. No. 5-13, p. 2 (Pg. ID 179).
According to the police report, Mr. Barnett fired one shot into the drivers-side
window of his own vehicle, believing that he saw someone in his vehicle. Id. Mr.
Barnett also stated to officers that there was a woman seated at a table in his home
and that an unknown man was in the rear of his home. Id. However, the officers did
not see either of the people Mr. Barnett described. Id.
The officers confiscated Mr. Barnett’s gun, a black .40 caliber Smith &
Wesson semi-automatic pistol. Dkt. No. 5-13, p. 3 (Pg. ID 180). Later, the police
transported Mr. Barnett to the hospital. Dkt. No. 39-2, p. 3 (Pg. ID 358). At that time,
medical notes indicated that Mr. Barnett did not have any hearing or visual problems.
Id. Additionally, Mr. Barnett denied having any visual hallucinations. The doctors
scheduled a series of medications. Id. As best as the Court can tell, all medications
seemed to address Mr. Barnett’s diabetes and hypertension.
On July 16, 2015, Detroit Police again reported to Mr. Barnett’s residence.
Dkt. No. 5-13, p. 4 (Pg. ID 181). According to the police report, Deborah Kelly, Mr.
Barnett’s girlfriend, visited him. Id. When Ms. Kelly left, Mr. Barnett realized that
his wallet and his gun, a black Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol, were missing. Id.
The police report states that Ms. Kelly took the gun to secure it. Id.
Mr. Barnett passed away on October 15, 2015 at the age of 71. Dkt. No. 5-9,
p.2 (Pg. ID 168). He left behind six children, at least one grandchild, an ex-wife, and
a long-term girlfriend. At the time of his death, Mr. Barnett earned life insurance
benefits in the amount of $27,488.00. On October 30, 2015, Shirley Conner-Barnett
executed a funeral home assignment in the amount of $12,534.54 for Mr. Barnett’s
funeral expenses at O.H. Pye, III Funeral Home. Dkt. No. 5-15, p. 2 (Pg. ID 194).
Shortly after Mr. Barnett’s death, MetLife received competing claims for Mr.
Barnett’s life insurance benefits. Dkt. No. 5, pp. 5–6 (Pg. ID 120–121). In the years
leading up to his death, Mr. Barnett changed the beneficiary to his life insurance
several times. The changes are as follows:
Beneficiary’s Relationship Channel
Dkt. No. 5-8, p. 3 (Pg. ID 165).
On November 4, 2015, LaShawn Barnett, Mr. Barnett’s daughter, alleged that
Mr. Barnett suffered from alcoholic hallucinations at the time he changed the
beneficiary from Deborah Kelly to his ex-wife Shirley Conner-Barnett. Id. MetLife
brought this action, as an interpleader, to resolve the dispute among the potential
beneficiaries. Although five potential beneficiaries are listed in this action, now, only
two potential beneficiaries seem to make claims to the benefits: Shirley ConnerBarnett and Edith Garnett. Ms. Conner-Barnett filed a Motion for Summary
Judgment on March 3, 2017. Only Edith Garnett responded to the Motion for
The pending motion for summary judgment and its response, raise two issues:
(1) where the burden lies in prosecuting a motion for summary judgment; and (2)
The parties refer to Edith sometimes as Edith Barnett and sometimes as Edith
Garnett. It seems that after marriage, Edith changed her last name to from Barnett to
Garnett. To be consistent, the Court will refer to Edith as “Edith Garnett” or “Ms.
whether the evidence presented creates an issue of material fact with regard to the
alleged undue influence.
III. LEGAL STANDARD FOR A MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) “directs that summary judgment shall
be granted if 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.” Cehrs v. Ne. Ohio Alzheimer’s
Research Ctr., 155 F.3d 775, 779 (6th Cir. 1998) (quotations omitted). The court
must view the facts, and draw reasonable inferences from those facts, in the light
most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S.
242, 255 (1986). No genuine dispute of material fact exists where the record “taken
as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.”
Matsushita Elec. Indus., Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct.
1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Ultimately, the court evaluates “whether the evidence
presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so
one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at
IV. LAW AND ANALYSIS
1. Burden of Prosecuting a Motion for Summary Judgment
“When moving for summary judgment, the movant has the initial burden of
showing the absence of a genuine dispute as to a material fact.” Automated Sols.
Corp. v. Paragon Data Sys., Inc., 756 F.3d 504, 520 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). “To meet this burden, the
moving party may rely on any of the evidentiary sources listed in Rule 56(c) or may
merely rely upon the failure of the nonmoving party to produce any evidence which
would create a genuine dispute for the jury.” Cox v. Kentucky Dep’t of Transp., 53
F.3d 146, 149 (6th Cir. 1995) (internal citations omitted). Only after the moving
party meets this burden must the non-moving party come forward with specific facts
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Electric Industrial Corp.,
475 U.S. at 587.
Ms. Garnett argues that Ms. Conner-Barnett has not met this initial threshold
under Celotex. The Court disagrees. Celotex does not require the moving party to
support its motion for summary judgment with evidence negating its opponent’s
claims. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. 317, 323. The movant may meet the initial burden
by “pointing out to the court that the nonmoving party, having had sufficient
opportunity for discovery, has no evidence to support an essential element of his or
her case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Farmington
Cas. Co. v. Cyberlogic Techs., Inc., 996 F. Supp. 695, 698 (E.D. Mich. 1998) (citing
Tolton v. American Biodyne, Inc., 48 F.3d 937 (6th Cir.1995); Street v. J.C. Bradford
& Co., 886 F.2d 1472 (6th Cir. 1989)). In this case, the movant argues that, “the only
formal discovery…was done by Edith Barnett…and otherwise fails to provide
evidentiary support for…claims of undue influence.” Dkt. No. 37, p. 6 (Pg. ID 328).
By pointing out an alleged failure to produce evidence of undue influence, the
movant has met her initial burden, requiring Ms. Garnett to show that there is a
genuine issue for trial. See Cox, 53 F.3d at 149 (“Essentially, a motion for summary
judgment is a means by which to challenge the opposing party to put up or shut up
on a critical issue.”).
2. Undue Influence
In Michigan, “[t]o establish undue influence it must be shown that the grantor
was subjected to threats, misrepresentation, undue flattery, fraud, or physical or
moral coercion sufficient to overpower volition, destroy free agency and impel the
grantor to act against his inclination and free will. Motive, opportunity, or even
ability to control, in the absence of affirmative evidence that it was exercised, are
not sufficient.” In re Estate of Karmey, 468 Mich. 68, 75, 658 N.W.2d 796, 799
(2003). “In some transactions the law presumes undue influence. The presumption
of undue influence is brought to life upon the introduction of evidence which would
establish (1) the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the
grantor and a fiduciary, (2) the fiduciary or an interest which he represents benefits
from a transaction, and (3) the fiduciary had an opportunity to influence the grantor’s
decision in that transaction.” Kar v. Hogan, 399 Mich. 529, 537, 251 N.W.2d 77, 79
(1976). “It is frequently said, therefore, that a presumption of undue influence arises
where the person benefitted is in a fiduciary, confidential or quasi-confidential
relationship, e. g., a trustee, attorney, physician, clergyman or business adviser.”
Kar, 399 Mich. 529, 556.
In this case, there does not appear to be an allegation of undue influence taken
by any person with a fiduciary relationship. Therefore, consistent with Michigan
law, there is no presumption of undue influence. Instead, non-movant must
demonstrate that there is an issue of fact regarding whether Mr. Barnett was subject
to undue influence.
Ms. Garnett argues that summary judgment is improper on the issue of undue
influence because “medical records show that [Mr. Barnett] was suffering from
mental issues due to, at minimum, alcohol, starting in at least 2014 wherein they
manifested themselves in via violent hallucinations.” Dkt. No. 39, p. 9 (Pg. ID 353).
Ms. Garnett also objects to the presumption that Mr. Barnett was competent to
contract. Id. The Court will take up the matter of competence first.
A. Presumption of Competence
In Michigan, competence to change a beneficiary on a life insurance policy is
akin to the test of metal capacity to contract. “The test of mental capacity to contract
is whether the person in question possesses sufficient mind to understand in a
reasonable manner the nature and effect of the act in which the person is engaged.
To avoid a contract it must appear not only that the person was of unsound mind or
insane when it was made, but that the unsoundness or insanity was of such a
character that the person had no reasonable perception of the nature or terms of the
contract.” In re Estate of Erickson, 202 Mich. App. 329, 332, 508 N.W.2d 181, 183
(1993) (emphasis added). “Similarly, the test to be applied in determining the mental
competency of an insured at the time the insured attempts to effect a change of
beneficiaries of a life insurance policy is whether the insured then had sufficient
mental capacity to understand the business in which the insured was engaged, to
know and understand the extent of the insured’s property, how the insured wanted
to dispose of it, and who are dependent upon the insured. A mentally incompetent
person is one who is so affected mentally as to be deprived of sane and normal action.
A person may be incapable of conducting his business successfully and still not be
mentally incompetent.” Id. at 332–33 (internal citations omitted).
“Michigan courts generally presume the legality, validity, and enforceability
of contracts.” Coates v. Bastian Bros., Inc., 741 N.W.2d 539, 545 (Mich. Ct. App.
2007). This presumption includes the assumption that the individuals signing a
contract were mentally competent at the time of the signing. See Van Buren v. St.
Joseph Cnty. Village Fire Ins. Co., 28 Mich. 398, 408 (1874) (“And for this purpose
the person applying for insurance, and entering into a contract with that view, must
be presumed to know something, to be competent to contract, and therefore to
understand the general nature and fundamental principles of the contract into which
he enters, especially when these are expressed in unambiguous terms, and unless
some imposition or deception has been practiced to prevent it; and if it is not shown
that he is incapable of reading, he must be presumed to have read the paper he has
signed.”); Beaubien v. Cicotte, 8 Mich. 9, 11 (1860) (“But it is said, the law presumes
this soundness of mind till the contrary be proved.”). Therefore, the party seeking to
invalidate an insurance designation (Ms. Garnett, in this case) bears the burden of
proving that the decedent lacked the legal capacity to contract.
Ms. Garnett urges the Court to reject Michigan’s presumption of competence
to contract. Ms. Garnett argues that the “presumption that Decedent was competent
to contract is not binding on this Court and is further incompatible with the standards
of review.” Dkt. No. 39, p. 353. Neither argument is persuasive. It is true that
Michigan state courts do not bind this Court. Nevertheless, Michigan case law
provides important guidance. “It is clear that the law of this Circuit requires the
ERISA plan administrator to pay out plan proceeds in accordance with the ERISA
plan documents.” Cent. States, Se. & Sw. Areas Pension Fund v. Howell, 227 F.3d
672, 678 (6th Cir. 2000). However, since ERISA does not contain any provisions
regulating the problem of beneficiary designations that are the result of undue
influence, or otherwise improperly procured, federal common law must apply to Ms.
Garnett’s claims. Tinsley v. Gen. Motors Corp., 227 F.3d 700, 704 (6th Cir. 2000).
In the absence of established federal common law in this Circuit dealing with the
issues of undue influence and competence, it is proper to look to state-law principles
for guidance. Id.
In this case, it is telling that Ms. Garnett does not support her argument with
any authority—be it federal common law, statute, or even a secondary source. The
Court is unpersuaded by an unsupported argument that the Court should disregard
Michigan precedent that dates back to the 1800s, simply because it is adverse to Ms.
Garnett. Accordingly, Mr. Barnett is presumed competent unless evidence rebuts
Having determined that Mr. Barnett is presumed competent to contract, the
Court turns next to whether the evidence before the Court (Edith Garnett’s Affidavit,
Mr. Barnett’s medical records, and police reports) creates an issue of fact that
prohibits summary judgment as to the issue of undue influence.
B. Edith Garnett’s Affidavit
Attached to the Ms. Garnett’s Response is a document titled “Affidavit of
Edith Garnett.” Dkt. No. 39-3, p. 2 (Pg. ID 360). The document is not signed by
Edith Garnett; nor is it dated; nor is it notarized. Id. p. 3 (Pg. ID 361).
“Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) explicitly allows the non-movant to file affidavits in
response to a summary judgment motion, regardless of whether discovery has
closed.” Bell v. Prefix, Inc., 321 F. App’x 423, 427 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Bilyeu v.
Metro. Gov. of Nashville & Davidson County, 136 F. App’x. 786, 788 (6th Cir.
“[A]ffidavits must be signed and properly attested to be cognizable under Rule
56.” Sfakianos v. Shelby Cty. Gov’t, 481 F. App’x 244, 245 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing
Nassif Ins. Agency, Inc. v. Civic Prop. & Cas. Co., No. 03-2618, 2005 WL 712578,
at *3 (6th Cir. Mar. 30, 2005) (“Unsigned affidavits do not comply with Fed. R. Civ.
P. 56(e).”)). “By definition an affidavit is a sworn statement in writing made...under
an oath or on affirmation before...an authorized officer.” Id. An unsworn declaration
may satisfy Rule 56(e) if it is signed, dated, and recites that it was signed “under
penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.” 28 U.S.C. § 1746. However,
“an unsigned affidavit is a contradiction in terms.” Sfakianos, 481 Fed. App’x at 245.
In this case, Edith Garnett’s unsigned and unsworn “affidavit” is not
cognizable under Rule 56. See Wingz & Thingz 1 v. Penn-Star Ins. Co., 547 F. App’x
766, 767 (6th Cir. 2013) (“The district court properly rejected plaintiff’s unsigned
and unsworn ‘affidavits.’ ”); Sfakianos, 481 F. App’x. at 245 (affirming district court
judgment discarding unsigned, unsworn affidavits.). Accordingly, its contents, and
the associated arguments are rejected.
On May 9, 2017, Robert Hamor, who has not filed an appearance on behalf
of any party, filed a second affidavit. This second affidavit appears to be signed,
sworn and notarized. It is dated March 27, 2017—three days after Ms. Garnett’s
Response was submitted to the Court. Mr. Hamor offers no explanation or
justification for why the affidavit is untimely.
The second affidavit states:
I have personal knowledge of the statements made in this
Affidavit…During several conversations, [Mr. Barnett] indicated that
he felt that Shirley and Deborah were forcing themselves back into his
life and that they were manipulating him and his finances….It is my
belief that, based upon these concerning allegations and my
conversations with James, that Shirley and Deborah were taking
advantage of him based upon his lack of understanding and confusion
by changing his beneficiary designation to them.
Dkt. No. 40, p. 1 (Pg. ID 362).
Even if the Court accepted this improperly filed, unexcused and untimely
affidavit, there are several problems with it. First, despite the statement to the
contrary, the affidavit proceeds on hearsay, rather than personal knowledge. This is
evident because the manipulation mentioned in Ms. Garnett’s affidavit is based on
Mr. Barnett’s recollection restated to Ms. Garnett, rather something Ms. Garnett
directly observed. This is insufficient. See Mitchell v. Toledo Hosp., 964 F.2d 577,
584–85 (6th Cir. 1992) (“[W]ith regard to Plaintiff’s hearsay Affidavit, the District
Court correctly found that the Affidavit was not a proper Rule 56(e) affidavit because
it was not made on personal knowledge and did not set forth “facts” that would be
admissible into evidence. Even if the Court were to consider the Affidavit, the
statements contained therein are nothing more than rumors, conclusory allegations
and subjective beliefs which are wholly insufficient evidence to establish a claim of
discrimination as a matter of law.”).
Second, the portions of the affidavit that are not hearsay are conclusory, and
insufficient to defeat summary judgment. See Alexander v. CareSource, 576 F.3d
551, 560 (6th Cir. 2009) (“Conclusory statements unadorned with supporting facts
are insufficient to establish a factual dispute that will defeat summary judgment.”);
see also Lewis v. Philip Morris Inc., 355 F.3d 515, 533 (6th Cir. 2004) (finding that
“conclusory statements” unsupported by specific facts will not permit a party to
survive summary judgment); Doren v. Battle Creek Health System, 187 F.3d 595,
598–99 (6th Cir. 1999) (holding that affidavits that contained no “specific facts” but
“are merely conclusory, restating the requirements of the law...therefore cannot
create a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment.”);
Robinson v. Union Carbide Corp., 805 F. Supp. 514, 523 (E.D. Tenn. 1991) (holding
that the opponent of a motion for summary judgment cannot survive it “merely by
restating his conclusory allegations in affidavit form, or by presuming the existence
of material facts.”) Because the critical portions of the affidavit proceed on hearsay
and conclusory allegations, the affidavit should be excluded.
C. The Totality of the Evidence
With the affidavit excluded, this case boils down to two pieces of evidence:
the police reports and Mr. Barnett’s medical records. When viewing that evidence
in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, it is clear that Mr. Barnett
struggled with alcohol and hallucinated on at least two occasions. Six months after
Mr. Barnett shot a gun into his own vehicle while hallucinating, Mr. Barnett changed
his life insurance beneficiary from Edith Garnett to Deborah Kelly. Then, two weeks
after Mr. Barnett called the police (seemingly and mistakenly believing that Deborah
Kelly took his gun), he changed his life insurance beneficiary from Deborah Kelly
to Shirley Conner-Barnett.
At most, the evidence demonstrates that within a year of Mr. Barnett’s death,
he suffered from a weakened mental state due to hallucinations and alcohol. Even if
the Court accepted the argument that Mr. Barnett was manipulated—that still would
not be enough survive summary judgment. Demonstrating undue influence pursuant
to Michigan state law is very high hurdle to clear. There must be more than the
existence of mere coercion or manipulation. The coercion must reach a level that
overpowers volition, destroys free will and agency and impels the grantor to act
against the grantor’s inclination and free will. Karmey, 468 Mich. 68, 75 (emphasis
added). An extremely liberal weighing of the evidence could lead to the inference
that Mr. Barnett was being manipulated. In this case, the non-moving parties fail to
present any evidence or argument that any manipulation, albeit in Mr. Barnett’s
weakened mental state, rose to a level to destroy Mr. Barnett’s free will and forced
him to act against his own free will.
Therefore, despite the arguments to the contrary, there are insufficient facts to
invalidate Mr. Barnett’s life insurance designation as a result of undue influence.
For the reasons stated above, Shirley Conner-Barnett’s Motion for Summary
Judgment  is GRANTED.
Dated: July 17, 2017
/s/Gershwin A Drain
HON. GERSHWIN A. DRAIN
United States District Court Judge
I hereby certify that a copy of the foregoing document was mailed to the attorneys
of record on this date, July 17, 2017, by electronic and/or ordinary mail.
Case Manager, (313) 234-5213
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