MONY Life Insurance Company v. Snyder et al
MEMORANDUM re dft's MOTION in Limine to Exclude Expert Report and Testimony of Dr. Susan Rushing 62 (Order to follow as separate docket entry)Signed by Honorable William W. Caldwell on 7/31/17. (ma)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
MONY LIFE INSURANCE
CAROL SNYDER, f/k/a CAROL
ECKERT, and PAMELA ECKERT,
: CIVIL NO. 1:CV-15-2109
: (Judge Caldwell)
Introduction and Background
Plaintiff, MONY Life Insurance Company (“MONY”), filed this
interpleader action to resolve which of the defendants is entitled to the proceeds of
an insurance policy MONY issued on the life of Steven Eckert (the “Insured”).
Defendants are Carol Snyder (“Snyder”), the Insured’s ex-wife, and Pamela Eckert
(“Eckert”), his widow. Snyder has apparently always been the named beneficiary,
and the Insured had transferred ownership of the policy to her about a year before
We have before us Snyder’s motion in limine to exclude the report of
Susan E. Rushing, M.D., J.D., Eckert’s expert.
According to the expert, Eckert’s counsel “specifically asked whether
Mr. Eckert suffered from weakened intellect as defined by the Pennsylvania courts
in Owens, Reichel and Lakatosh at the time he transferred a longstanding Mony
Life Insurance policy purchased in 1985 to his former wife Carol Snyder on
September 5, 2014.” (Doc. 62-5, ECF p. 1, expert report).
After a review of the Insured’s medical records, deposition testimony
in the case, the three cases mentioned above, and after a one-hour interview with
Eckert, the expert rendered opinions that the Insured suffered from a weakened
intellect and that Snyder was in a confidential relationship with the Insured. She
It is my opinion that the medical records demonstrate
that Mr. Eckert, the testator was in ill-health and
suffering from memory impairment and bouts of
confusion, forgetfulness and disorientation due to a
number of medical conditions. These conditions predate the transfer of the MONY life insurance policy to
his former wife, Carol Snyder. Therefore, it is my
opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty
that Mr. Steven Eckert suffered from weakened intellect
as defined by the Pennsylvania courts at the time he
transferred [the policy] to his former wife Carol Snyder
on September 5, 2014.
(Doc. 62-5, ECF p. 11, expert report). The expert also opined:
Further, medical records demonstrate that Ms. Snyder
was present at medical appointments when Mr.
Eckert’s medical conditions and mental frailties were
discussed, served as a liaison with the medical team
and as power of attorney during periods when the
couple was no longer married in years prior to the
transfer. As such, it can be argued that Ms. Snyder had
a confidential relationship with Mr. Eckert and owed
him a duty not to take advantage of his frailty for
(Doc. 62-5, ECF p. 11, expert report). Elsewhere in the report, the expert states
that “[a]ll of my opinions expressed in this report are given within a reasonable
degree of medical certainty.” (Id., ECF p. 1).
Defendant Snyder moves to exclude the expert’s opinion that the
Insured suffered from a weakened intellect. Among other reasons for exclusion,
she argues that weakened intellect is not part of the analysis for challenging an
inter vivos gift, as opposed to a testamentary one, and that the opinion is therefore
irrelevant. She cites In re Tylenol (Acetaminophen) Mktg., Sales Practices, &
Prod. Liab. Litig., 198 F. Supp. 3d 446, 452 (E.D. Pa. 2016)(“‘Expert testimony
which does not relate to any issue in the case is not relevant and, ergo, nonhelpful.’”)(quoted case omitted).
Snyder points out that two of the cases used by the expert, Estate of
Reichel, 400 A.2d 1268 (Pa. 1979), and Estate of Lakatosh, 656 A.2d 1378 (Pa.
Super. Ct. 1995), involved will contests. In a will contest, when the proponent of
the will shows that it has been validly executed, the burden shifts to the challenger
asserting undue influence to prove “that there was a confidential relationship, that
the person enjoying such relationship received the bulk of the estate, and that the
decedent's intellect was weakened.” Reichel, 400 A.2d at 1270; Lakatosh, 656
A.2d at 1383. The third, Owens v. Mazzei, 847 A.2d 700 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2004),
did not involve a will contest but a challenge to a bank account in which the
decedent held the principal in trust for the two defendant bank officers as
beneficiaries, a financial arrangement described by the court in Owens as a “poor
man’s will.” Id. at 703. In those circumstances, the court analyzed the estate’s
challenge to the bank account under the framework for a will contest.
In contrast, Snyder argues that the instant case involves an inter
vivos gift, the Insured’s transfer of the policy to her during his lifetime. When an
inter vivos gift is challenged, weakened intellect is not part of the analysis.
Instead, to rebut the presumption that the gift is valid, the challenger can show that
a confidential relationship between the donor and the donee existed at the time of
the gift. In re Clark’s Estate, 359 A.2d 777, 781 (Pa. 1976).1 “[T]he burden then
shifts to the donee to show that the gift was free of any taint of undue influence or
In opposition, Eckert maintains that “weakened intellect” is a concept
that applies to inter vivos gifts.3 She also maintains that Owens is an inter vivos
gift case, not a testamentary gift case, because the designation of the two bank
“A confidential relationship exists ‘. . . as a matter of fact whenever one person has
reposed a special confidence in another to the extent that the parties do not deal with each
other on equal terms, either because of an overmastering dominance on one side, or
weakness, dependence or justifiable trust, on the other.’” Id. (quoted case omitted).
To carry this burden, the donee must “show that the gift was the free, voluntary and
intelligent act of” the donor. Id. at 635.
A weakened intellect has not been specifically defined, but it “is typically
accompanied by persistent confusion, forgetfulness and disorientation.” Owens, 847 A.2d at
officers as beneficiaries was done during the decedent’s lifetime. She further
Owens and other cases test the validity of the gift
using the concept of undue influence. If a challenger to
a gift establishes a confidential relationship, the
analysis turns to whether there was undue influence.
Undue influence is established where the donor is
suffering from a “weakened intellect.”
(Doc. 73, Eckert’s Br. in Opp’n at p. 2).
We disagree with Eckert that Owens is an inter vivos gift case. The
material fact is not the decedent’s making the bank officers the beneficiaries of the
account during his lifetime, but that the account acted as a poor man’s will, as the
court itself in Owens noted; the beneficiaries of the bank account are sure of
receiving the account balance only upon the death of the decedent. As such,
Owens is a testamentary gift case and cannot be relied on here.
Eckert also relies on Jackson Nat’l Life Ins. Co. v. Heyser, No. 12CV-5051, 2013 WL 5278240 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 19, 2013). However, the language
she quotes from Heyser actually supports Snyder. In Heyser, the court had to
decide whether to apply the testamentary gift framework or the inter vivos gift
framework to a challenge to a life-insurance beneficiary designation. 2013 WL
5278240 at *4. In making that decision, the court reviewed the two different
standards and noted that the framework for an inter vivos gift did not require the
challenger to prove the donor’s “weakened intellect.” Id.4
We conclude that the motion in limine should be granted as to the
expert’s opinion on the Insured’s weakened intellect as such a concept is not part
of the framework we must apply to the transfer of the policy.
Snyder also argues that the expert’s opinion that Snyder had a
confidential relationship with the Insured should also be excluded. The expert
opined that “it can be argued” that Snyder had a confidential relationship with the
Insured. Snyder asserts that Pennsylvania law requires that an expert must testify
that her opinion is made within a reasonable degree of certainty and expert
testimony that “it can be argued” that there was a confidential relationship is not
sufficient. Eckert counters that her expert did supply the requisite testimony when
she affirmed in her report that all of her opinions were given within a reasonable
degree of medical certainty.
Pennsylvania requires that an expert give her opinion within a
reasonable degree of medical certainty. Montgomery v. South Philadelphia Med.
Group, 656 A.2d 1385, 1390 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995). Whether she has done so is
determined from her testimony in its entirety. Id. An expert can use less definite
language as long as she at some time during her testimony expresses her opinion
Eckert also relies on Estate of Frisina, 2014 Pa. Super. Unpub. Lexis 217 (Pa. Super.
Ct. July 8, 2014). In that case, the court did analyze a challenge to an inter vivos gift under the
testamentary gift framework. Id. at *57-58. However, Frisina is an unpublished decision
which we need not consider.
with reasonable certainty. Id. An opinion couched in terms of possibilities or
probabilities is not sufficient. Id.
Here, Eckert’s expert has not expressed herself with the requisite
certainty about the confidential relationship. Saying that “it can be argued” that
there was a confidential relationship is not enough. Nor is Eckert assisted by the
expert’s statement elsewhere in the report that all of her opinions were given
within a reasonable degree of medical certainty. At best, as Snyder argues, this is
an assertion to a reasonable degree of certainty that it can be argued that there
was a confidential relationship. This is not enough. See Estate of Carratura, 2017
WL 75873, at *4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017)(nonprecedential)(passing reference
elsewhere in expert’s report to phrase “reasonable degree of neuropsychological
certainty” not sufficient when the expert never stated that decedent suffered from a
weakened intellect and at best the expert testified to a reasonable certainty that
the decedent “most probably” suffered from a weakened intellect). Our ruling
would be the same under federal law. See Schulz v. Celotex Corp., 942 F.2d 204,
208 (3d Cir. 1991).
Based on the foregoing, we will grant Snyder’s motion in limine and
will exclude the expert’s opinion that: (1) the Insured suffered from a weakened
intellect and (2) Snyder had a confidential relationship with the Insured.
/s/William W. Caldwell
William W. Caldwell
United States District Judge
Date: July 31, 2017
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