METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY v. HARRIS et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Noel L. Hillman on 11/21/2017. (dmr)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE
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,
JOAN M. HARRIS
P.O. BOX 34
MILLERSVILLE, MARYLAND 21108
Appearing pro se
MARK J. DANTONI
P.O. BOX 1071
MEDFORD, NEW JERSEY 08055
Appearing pro se
43 RADNOR BLVD.
MARLTON, NEW JERSEY 08053
Appearing pro se
121 W. DOMINION DRIVE
MARLTON, NEW JERSEY 08053
Appearing pro se
JAMES LLEWELLYN MATHEWS, Trustee
EAST GATE CENTER
309 FELLOWSHIP ROAD
MOUNT LAUREL, NEW JERSEY 08084
On behalf of Defendant James Llewellyn Mathews
HILLMAN, District Judge
This matter arises from a Complaint in Interpleader filed
by Plaintiff Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
Joan Harris moves for the release of life insurance funds to
her, which this Court construes as a motion for summary
This motion is unopposed by all other defendants,
with the exception of Defendant Mark Dantoni (“Dantoni”).
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
Accordingly, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 56(f), the Court hereby gives notice to the parties of
This Court granted interpleader relief for Plaintiff prior
to deciding this motion, but after said motion was filed.
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
Decedent, the insured, was covered by Plaintiff under the
Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Policy (the “FEGLI
Harris, Dantoni, Brinster, and Platas are Decedent’s
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.
the death of an insured, documents from the deceased’s personnel
5 U.S.C. § 8705(a) provides, in part:
[T]he amount of group life insurance and group
accidental death insurance in force on an employee at
the date of his death shall be paid, on the establishment
of a valid claim, to the person or persons surviving at
the date of his death, in the following order of
designated by the employee in a signed and witnessed
writing . . . .
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
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
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”).
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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,
This Court has federal question jurisdiction over this case
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Decedent was covered by a
federally provided life insurance policy, provided by his
federal employer, pursuant to a federal statute. This is
Platas, and Mathews, as Trustee of the Trust, answered the
Complaint in Interpleader.
Plaintiff tried to serve Dantoni, who evaded Plaintiff’s
By a September 20, 2016 Order, Magistrate Judge Karen
M. Williams granted Plaintiff’s motion seeking an order
permitting substitute service on Dantoni.
Dantoni by e-mail on December 20, 2016, after other attempts to
serve Dantoni were unsuccessful.
By an October 20, 2016 Order, Judge Williams granted
sufficient to confer federal question jurisdiction on this
Court. See, e.g., Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Johnson, No.
14-811, 2015 WL 1945398, at *2 (D. Colo. Apr. 29, 2015) (finding
federal question jurisdiction where “the Decedent’s Policy was
issued pursuant to FEGLI and the proceeds became payable
pursuant to FEGLI”); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Pritchett,
843 F. Supp. 1006, 1007 (D. Md. 1994) (finding federal question
jurisdiction where “Plaintiff s[ought] a declaratory
judgment . . . as to the rightful beneficiary of life insurance
benefits which are payable under the Federal Employees’ Group
Life Insurance Act”).
It also appears this Court has diversity
jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1335, which provides, in
The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of
any civil action of interpleader . . . if . . . [t]wo or
more adverse claimants, of diverse citizenship as
defined in subsection (a) or (d) of section 1332 of this
title, are claiming or may claim to be entitled to such
money or property, or to any one or more of the benefits
arising by virtue of any note, bond, certificate, policy
or other instrument, or arising by virtue of any such
obligation . . . .
Viewing the case as a whole, the minimal diversity required by §
1335 exists, as it appears one claimant is a citizen of Maryland
and others are citizens of New Jersey.
Plaintiff’s application to deposit the FEGLI Benefits with the
In accordance with that Order, Plaintiff sent a check in
the amount of $61,610.00 to the Clerk of the Court, which was
deposited by the Clerk into the Registry on November 4, 2016.
Plaintiff moved for interpleader relief on January 25,
On July 26, 2017, this Court found Plaintiff met the
requirements of the interpleader statute and was relieved from
Thus, the Court granted Plaintiff’s motion for
interpleader relief, dismissing Plaintiff from this action with
On April 18, 2017 (prior to this Court granting
interpleader relief), Harris moved for the release of life
insurance proceeds to her.
On May 1, 2017, Matthews, Platas,
and Brinster all filed separate letters with this Court stating
they do not oppose the motion.
Dantoni filed opposition.
The Court construes the motion for release of life
insurance proceeds as a motion for summary judgment.
Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Leonis, No. 14-1104, 2015 WL
1262114, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 18, 2015) (construing a motion to
distribute FEGLI benefits as a motion for summary judgment).
Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is
satisfied that “’the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits if any,’ . . . demonstrate the absence of a genuine
issue of material fact” and that the moving party is entitled to
a judgment as a matter of law.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477
U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56).
An issue is “genuine” if it is supported by evidence such
that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
A fact is “material” if, under the governing
substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the
outcome of the suit.
“In considering a motion for summary
judgment, a district court may not make credibility
determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence;
instead, the non-moving party’s evidence ‘is to be believed and
all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.’”
Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004)
(citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).
Initially, the moving party bears the burden of
demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (“[A] party seeking summary judgment
always 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.”); see Singletary v. Pa.
Dep’t of Corr., 266 F.3d 186, 192 n.2 (3d Cir. 2001) (“Although
the initial burden is on the summary judgment movant to show the
absence of a genuine issue of material fact, ‘the burden on the
moving party may be discharged by “showing” – that is, pointing
out to the district court – that there is an absence of evidence
to support the nonmoving party’s case’ when the nonmoving party
bears the ultimate burden of proof.” (citing Celotex, 477 U.S.
Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving
party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.
U.S. at 324.
A “party opposing summary judgment ‘may not rest
upon the mere allegations or denials of the . . . pleading[s].’”
Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).
“the non-moving party to prevail, [that party] must ‘make a
showing sufficient to establish the existence of [every] element
essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will
bear the burden of proof at trial.’”
Cooper v. Sniezek, 418
F. App’x 56, 58 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at
Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for
summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific
facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by
the moving party.
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.
Notably for this case, the Court is permitted, “[a]fter
giving notice and a reasonable time to respond,” to
grant summary judgment for a nonmovant;
grant the motion on grounds not raised by a party; or
consider summary judgment on its own after identifying
for the parties material facts that may not be
genuinely in dispute.
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(f).
The Court first addresses Dantoni’s failure to answer the
complaint and his lack of involvement in this case until filing
his opposition to this motion.
Courts “tend to be flexible when
applying procedural rules to pro se litigants, especially when
interpreting their pleadings.”
704 F.3d 239 (3d Cir. 2013).
Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc.,
Indeed, this is an “obligation”
for district courts, “driven by the understanding that
‘[i]mplicit in the right of self-representation is an obligation
on the part of the court to make reasonable allowances to
protect pro se litigants from inadvertent forfeiture of
important rights because of their lack of legal training.’”
Higgs v. Attorney Gen. of the U.S., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir.
2011) (alteration in original) (quoting Tristman v. Fed. Bureau
of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 475 (2d Cir. 2006)).
The Court interprets Dantoni’s April 5, 2017 letter and May
11, 2017 response to Harris’s motion as an answer to the
See, e.g., Travelodge Hotels, Inc. v. JC & APR
Invs., LLC, No. 13-3280, 2014 WL 3620945, at *2 (D.N.J. July 22,
2014) (finding a letter “served the function of a timely-filed
Answer,” prompting the court to “liberally construe that letter
as an Answer”); U.S. v. Hoy-Nielsen, No. 12-1220, 2013 WL
4766438, at *1 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 4, 2013) (construing “a pro se,
typed response” as an answer to the complaint); Metropolitan
Life Ins. v. Harris, No. 07-12342, 2008 WL 2095384, at *1-2
(E.D. Mich. May 16, 2006) (construing an “Answer to Show Cause,”
filed in response to an Order to Show Cause, as an “answer and
appearance in th[e] action as a pro se litigant” after the
defendant failed to file an answer to the complaint); Gavenas v.
Kurtz, No. 98-2789, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13392, at *12 (E.D.
Pa. Aug. 18, 1999) (construing a “pro se letter as an answer to
the complaint”). 4
In opposition to Harris’s motion, Dantoni asserts that
Decedent was diagnosed with psychosis and dementia in September
2009 and that he could not legally designate a beneficiary after
September 7, 2012.
Viewing the documents attached to Dantoni’s
opposition, the Court concludes there is a genuine issue of
material fact with regard to Decedent’s mental capacity at the
The Court acknowledges that, even construing these filings
as an answer, the “answer” was untimely. However, given the
leniency this Court affords to pro se litigants, Dantoni will
not be penalized for his untimely response.
time he completed the 2013 Beneficiary Designation form.
A July 11, 2011 Physician’s Certificate diagnosed Decedent
with senile dementia and determined the disability “prevents the
patient from making or communicating responsible decisions
concerning the patient’s property and/or person.”
An August 9,
2011 Physician’s Certificate also diagnosed Decedent with
dementia, which had “progressed to the point that the patient
can no longer make responsible financial or health care
In a September 7, 2012 Order for the Appointment of
a Guardian, the Maryland Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County
found Decedent “lacking sufficient understanding or capacity to
make or communicate responsible decisions concerning his person,
including provisions for health care, food, clothing, or
While this Order did not reference financial
decisions specifically, this Court finds the Maryland Order and
the two Physician’s Certificates provided by Dantoni are
sufficient to deny Harris’s motion for summary judgment.
While the Court is denying summary judgment for Harris, the
Court’s review of the record as a whole suggests an obvious
resolution of this case, as it appears the siblings and Mathews
entered into a binding settlement over the distribution of the
life insurance funds in 2015.
“The validity of a contract is a
question of law, which it is the court’s sole province to
Pinebrook Minerals, LLC v. Anadarko E & P Co., LP, No.
11-177, 2011 WL 3584783, at *8 (M.D. Pa. July 25, 2011).
The 2015 General Release provided: “[T]he Releasors have
agreed that the FEGLI Benefits should be divided and paid in
four equal shares to Patricia Brinster, Mark Dantoni, Joan
Harris, and Carole Platas, with each receiving $15,250, plus 25%
of any applicable interest.” 5
It further provided: “This Release
shall not be modified, amended or superseded except in writing
signed by each Releasor and MetLife.”
On December 12, 2015,
Dantoni signed this General Release, certifying that “ANY AND
ALL PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE CLAIMS AND CAUSES OF ACTION RELATED
TO THE POLICY BENEFITS, AS SET FORTH ABOVE, ARE HEREBY FULLY AND
FOREVER RELEASED AND EXTINGUISHED.”
However, Plaintiff’s Complaint in Interpleader stated that,
on December 22, 2015, Dantoni advised Plaintiff he was
rescinding his agreement to the General Release until further
By a January 11, 2016 e-mail, Dantoni stated: “Since
there is no valid agreement until All parties have signed,
mailed and had the Agreement received and reviewed by you for
its validity, my notification to you is timely and as such it is
my position that I have rescinded my release agreement per my
email to you dated December 22, 2015.”
The “Releasors” were defined in the General Release as
“Patricia Brinster, Mark Dantoni, Joan Harris, and Carole
A contract is binding on parties when it demonstrates there
was a “meeting of the minds” and mutual assent between the
parties to be bound by the contract.
The Court finds the
signing of the General Release sufficient evidence of the
claimants’ mutual assent.
The Court finds no legal authority for Dantoni’s assertion,
as stated in Plaintiff’s Complaint in Interpleader, that the
agreement was not binding at the time he attempted to rescind
because “ALL parties [had not] signed, mailed, and had the
Agreement received and reviewed by [MetLife] for its validity.”
Plaintiff’s Complaint in Intervenor states “Dantoni advised
counsel for MetLife that he rescinded his agreement to the
General Release as of December 22, 2015, both prior to MetLife’s
receipt and review of the General Release bearing his signature
and prior to it being signed on behalf of the Trust.”
The General Release was signed by all claimants.
signed by Plaintiff, Plaintiff was not claiming an entitlement
to the funds.
Rather, the General Release was solely amongst
the siblings and the trustee.
The General Release did not
contain a provision stating it was only valid upon mail or
receipt by Plaintiff, or only upon review by Plaintiff or
approval by Plaintiff.
Accordingly, upon signing, the claimants
created a legally binding agreement.
Further, Mathews signed
the agreement on December 10, 2015, twelve days prior to
Dantoni’s attempted rescission.
This Court can find no factual
support for the allegation that Dantoni’s December 22, 2015
rescission occurred prior to Mathews’ signing of the agreement.
The notarization of the General Release says otherwise. 6
Finding the General Release resolves who is entitled to the
life insurance funds, the Court determines Harris, Dantoni,
The Court finds the Limited Release Agreement between
Mathews and the siblings has no effect on this determination.
In Mathews’ answer, the following facts were asserted. Mathews
and the siblings agreed to execute a Limited Release Agreement,
which would release Mathews from claims of breach of fiduciary
duty. Mathews claims his agreement to the General Release was
conditioned on the prior receipt of the Limited Release
Agreement signed by all parties to that document. He claims
Dantoni’s signed Limited Release Agreement arrived by mail on
Monday, December 21, 2015. That same day, Dantoni e-mailed
Mathews rescinding his signature. Mathews did not sign the
Limited Release Agreement until January 5, 2016, after he
received Dantoni’s rescission e-mail.
The Court notes that the General Release contains an
“Entire Agreement” provision:
This Release constitutes the entire agreement of
Releasors with Releasees.
This Release cancels and
supersedes any and all prior agreements and negotiations
by and between Releasors with Releasees. This Release
does not incorporate any additional agreement beyond the
terms of this Release that may have been made by the
Releasors. This Release shall not be modified, amended
or superseded except in writing signed by each Releasor
Mathews asserted that, if Dantoni’s rescission was
effective, Mathews’ signature to the General Release is rendered
ineffective. The Court need not reach whether Dantoni
effectively rescinded his agreement to the Limited Release
Agreement because the General Release is binding, does not
incorporate that contract, and specifically contains an “Entire
Agreement” clause excluding any binding effect the Limited
Release Agreement might have had.
Brinster, and Platas are each entitled to a one-quarter share of
the life insurance proceeds.
The Court notes Brinster and Platas both, by way of
separate April 27, 2017 letters, did not oppose Harris’s motion
and “fully support[ed] the Motion to have the life insurance
proceeds paid to Joan Harris as the valid beneficiary.”
they would relinquish their shares after agreeing to resolve the
dispute over the funds is unclear.
Nonetheless, pursuant to the
General Release, Brinster and Platas are entitled to a onequarter share of the life insurance proceeds and the Court
intends to distribute the funds accordingly.
What Brinster and
Platas do with the funds afterwards in entirely up to them.
The Court further notes that this is not the outcome
requested by the moving party, Harris, nor is it the outcome
requested by the opposing party, Dantoni. 7
However, pursuant to
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f), this Court is permitted
to grant relief to a non-moving party and on a basis not
propounded in the moving papers.
Accordingly, unless Defendants
show cause within 30 days of the date of this Opinion as to why
this disbursement of the life insurance funds is improper or
The Court acknowledges, however, that this was the relief
requested in the answers filed by Harris, Platas, and Brinster.
All three answers call for the enforcement of the General
Release. Mathews’ answer states similarly, although conditioned
on finding the Limited Release Agreement binding.
unlawful, the Court will disburse them as detailed above.
An appropriate Order will be entered.
Date: November 21, 2017
At Camden, New Jersey
s/ Noel L. Hillman
NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.
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