United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
NANNETTE JOLIVETTE BROWN, District Judge.
This interpleader action was initiated by Plaintiff/Stakeholder American General Life Insurance Company, Co. ("Plaintiff") in order to determine the interests of Defendants/Claimants Nakia Harris, Ulysses S. Gibson, Forethought Capital Funding, Inc. ("Forethought"), and Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home, Inc. ("Charbonnet-Labat") to the proceeds of a life insurance policy issued to Glenda Gibson ("Decedent"). Presently before the Court is Defendant Nakia Harris's "Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings or, Alternatively, Motion for Summary Judgment." No opposition to this motion has been filed into the record. Having reviewed the memorandum in support and the applicable law, the Court will grant-in-part and deny-in-part the pending motion, granting it insofar as it seeks summary judgment, and denying it insofar as it seeks attorney's fees.
A. Factual Background
In Plaintiff's "Complaint for Interpleader Relief, " Plaintiff contends that in March 2000, Glenda M. Taylor, "later known as Glenda M. Gibson, " applied for a life insurance policy providing for $35, 000 in benefits, with her then-husband Alton Taylor, Jr. listed as the primary beneficiary, as well as a "rider for term life insurance for Alton Taylor, Jr." Subsequently, Plaintiff asserts, it issued Decedent a $35, 000 life insurance policy, Policy No. 6201650718. Plaintiff contends that Decedent, in a form dated January 2010, designated her then-husband Ulysses Gibson as primary beneficiary, requested that her name be changed to Glenda Gibson, and also named her children Nicole Causey and Nakia Harris, and Alton Taylor III as contingent beneficiaries. Plaintiff represents that it confirmed these changes in letters dated February 2, 2010. Plaintiff contends that on October 11, 2012, the Decedent designated her daughter, Nakia Ann Harris, as primary beneficiary of the policy, and Nakia Ann Harris, Nicole Causey, and Alton Joseph Taylor III as contingent beneficiaries. Plaintiff asserts that on November 26, 2012, it learned that Decedent had died.
Plaintiff alleges that it received a letter from Ulysses Gibson on November 26, 2012 that stated, in part, that:
On October 11, 2012, changes were made to policy #XXXXXXXXXX via fax. My wife, Glenda Gibson and I have had this policy for many years. At the time the beneficiary was changed my wife was severely ill. She was diagnosed with bone cancer, chromes disease [sic], asthma, and diabetes. She was under the influence of strong narcotics such as morphine and oxytocin [sic] and was mentally incapable of making such a drastic decision. Considering the above if the signature on the document is actually my wife's signature she must have been coerced into signing the form or unclear as to the content or changes being made. My wife was admitted into Louisiana State Medical Center hospital on October 12, 2010, the day after the document was allegedly signed. Please take the time to research and review this situation prior to distributing funds on this policy. For further information regarding my wife's medical information I am willing to sign any documents necessary to release her medical records.
Plaintiff asserts that on November 30, 2012, it received from Forethought Capital Funding, Inc. "an assignment dated November 27, 2012 in which Nakia Harris assigned to Forethought Capital Funding, Inc. $12, 509.10 of the Policy benefit relating to services provided by Mt. Olive Cemetery." Plaintiff contends that on December 3, 2012, it received another copy of the November 27, 2012 Assignment from Harris, plus a "Claimant's Statement dated November 29, 2013 from Ms. Harris."
Plaintiff maintains that on December 4, 2012, it left a Ulysses Gibson a voice mail message informing him that in light of his November 26, 2012 letter asserting that the Decedent "was under the influence of pain medications at the time [of] the requested change of beneficiary, " he "would need to submit a statement" from the physician treating the Decedent on or around October 11, 2012. Plaintiff asserts that on December 7, 2012, it received a facsimile from Lisa R. Mondello of Mondello Investigative & Paralegal Services, Inc., stating that "Ulysses S. Gibson had received [Plaintiff's] message" requesting a statement from Decedent's treating physician, and that Ulysses S. Gibson had retained her to assist him in obtaining the requested records.
Plaintiff contends that around January 14, 2013, it received from Nakia Harris "a completed Claimant's Statement, Death Certificate for the Decedent, and" another "Assignment of Proceeds of Insurance, " dated November 28, 2012, "in which Ms. Harris assigned to Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home $10, 951.40 of the Policy benefit for funeral services and merchandise for the Decedent."
Plaintiff asserts that Forethought again notified it of the assignment of $12, 509.10 on February 12, 2013, and attached to its letter a copy of Decedent's Death Certificate. Plaintiff contends that on March 19, 2013, it received from Nakia Harris a "March 18, 2013 letter" from Victoria LaBruzzo, N.P. and Dr. Hana Safah of Tulane Hospital, stating, in part, that:
This is to notify you that Glenda Gibson was diagnosed with metastic multiple myeloma in September 2012. She was admitted to Tulane Hospital November 1, 2012 for this disease. During the entire time of her diseased [sic] she remained mentally competent. If you have any further questions please fee free to contact my nurse practitioner, Victoria LaBruzzo, NP...
Plaintiff contends that in a letter dated May 28, 2013, it notified Harris, Forethought, and Ulysses Gibson that although it admitted its liability for the $35, 000 policy proceeds, it "could not determine to whom the Policy benefits are payable without incurring the risk of multiple liability." In that letter, Plaintiff maintains, it notified Harris, Forethought, and Ulysses Gibson that it would file an interpleader action "if it did not hear from them within 30 days, " or that if "they advised that no agreement" about the distribution of the policy proceeds "could be reached." Plaintiff contends that the claimants have been unable to reach agreement.
B. Procedural Background
Plaintiff filed its "Complaint for Interpleader Relief" on July 12, 2013. On July 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed an ex parte "Motion to Deposit Funds." This Court granted Plaintiff's motion on July 16, 2013. Nakia Harris filed an answer on September 11, 2013. On February 11, 2014, Plaintiff filed an ex parte "Motion for Entry of Order of Default Against Defendants Forethought Capital Funding, Inc., Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home, Inc., and Ulysses Gibson, " asserting that although these defendants had been served on November 27, 2013, January 3, 2014, and January 4, 2013, respectively, none of these defendants had yet filed responsive pleadings. The Clerk of Court granted Plaintiff's ex parte motion on February 11, 2014, causing default to be entered against Forethought, Charbonnet-Labat, and Ulysses Gibson.
Charbonnet-Labat filed an answer on February 13, 2014. Forethought filed an ex parte motion to set aside the entry of default against it on June 20, 2014. On June 26, 2014, the Court granted Forethought's ex parte motion, vacating the Court's order granting Plaintiff's motion for entry of default against Forethought. On June 27, 2014, Harris filed the pending "Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, or, Alternatively, for Summary Judgment." On July 8, 2014, Forethought filed an ex parte "Motion for Relief from Judgment, " requesting that this Court grant it "relief from the default judgment entered by the Court on February 11, 2014." On July 10, 2014, the Court, noting that it had previously ordered a Preliminary Default, rather than a Default Judgment, against Forethought, granted Forethought's motion.
On July 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed a "Motion for Order of Final Decree of Interpleader." Forethought filed an answer on July 23, 2014. On August 22, 2014, the Court granted Plaintiff's "Motion for Order of Final Decree of Interpleader, " dismissing Plaintiff as a party.
II. Parties' Arguments
In support of her "Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, or, Alternatively, Motion for Summary Judgment, " to which no opposition has been filed into the record, Harris contends that she "filed an answer asking the Court to allow her to obtain all of the insurance proceeds in the registry of the Court because she was the only named primary beneficiary under the policy at the time of Glenda Gibson's death." According to Harris, "all of the other defendants in this matter failed to timely file an Answer, " leading the Court to enter default against them. Harris asserts that "[a]lthough the default against Forethought has been vacated, Forethought is not making any further claims to the insurance proceeds."
Harris maintains that although Charbonnet-Labat filed an answer, that answer "was filed after this Court issued an Order of Default" against Charbonnet-Labat, making Charbonnet-Labat's answer "untimely." Harris maintains that "there is no dispute as to the material facts" upon which Harris's claims are based. Therefore, Harris asserts, "this Court should grant her motion for judgment on the pleadings."
Harris, contends, in the alternative, that the Court should grant summary judgment in her favor "as the sole primary beneficiary of the Policy on the date of [Decedent's] death." According to Harris, the only party that has allegedly challenged "Glenda Gibson's" status as primary beneficiary is Ulysses Gibson." Harris asserts that although Ulysses Gibson represented to Plaintiff that Decedent was "mentally incapable" of changing the primary beneficiary on the policy, Ulysses Gibson "has presented no evidence to [Plaintiff] or to this Court to support such a claim, " whereas the March 18, 2013 letter written by Dr. Safah states that Decedent "remained mentally competent" while she was ill. "Regardless, " Harris avers, Ulysses Gibson "did not file an answer in this proceeding and therefore has not made a timely claim for the proceeds of the policy."
In support of summary judgment, Harris asserts that the following facts are "material" and "undisputed:" (1) Decedent died on November 26, 2012 (2) the insurance policy at issue "was in full force and effect on November 26, 2012;" (3) the insurance policy listed Nakia Harris as the "sole primary beneficiary;" (4) Plaintiff filed this interpleader action "so that all interested parties making claims to the Policy could be heard by this Court;" and (5) Nakia Harris "is the only defendant to file a timely Answer asking the Court for the policy proceeds."
Based on these allegedly undisputed facts, Harris urges the Court to grant judgment on the pleadings or, alternatively, summary judgment because, as a matter of law, "she is entitled to [j]udgment in her favor." Harris also contends that this Court should award $11, 615.31 in attorney's fees, representing one-third of the insurance proceeds, pursuant to her contingency fee agreement with her attorney, with the balance payable to her.
III. Law and Analysis
As an initial matter, the Court notes that Harris's motion is unopposed. "Although failure to respond to a motion will be considered a statement of no opposition, the court is not required to grant every unopposed motion." Rather, the Court will only grant unopposed motions that have merit, after having considered the papers before it.
A. Legal Standards
1. Judgment on the Pleadings
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides that "after the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Wright and Miller describe practice under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) as follows:
[A] Rule 12(c) motion is designed to provide a means of disposing of cases when the material facts are not in dispute between the parties and a judgment on the merits can be achieved by focusing on the content of the competing pleadings, exhibits thereto, matters incorporated by reference in the pleadings, whatever is central or integral to the claim for relief or defense, and any facts of which the district court will take judicial notice. The motion for a judgment on the pleadings only has utility when all material allegations of fact are admitted or not controverted in the pleadings and only questions of law remain to be decided by the district court.
In Voest-Alpine Trading USA Corp. v. Bank of China, the Fifth Circuit held that "[j]udgment on the pleadings is appropriate only if material facts are not in dispute and questions of law are all that remain." In resolving a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), courts in the Fifth Circuit use "the same standard applicable to a [Federal] Rule [of Civil Procedure] 12(b)(6) motion." Under this standard, the "plaintiff must plead sufficient facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." In considering whether a plaintiff has stated a plausible claim for relief, the Court "[does] not accept as true conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions" unsupported by factual allegations.
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(d):
If, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56. All parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.
Addressing what materials may be considered when deciding a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Fifth Circuit has cited cases addressing 12(b)(6) motions. In deciding a 12(b)(6) motion, courts in the Fifth Circuit may only consider "the contents of the pleadings, including attachments thereto... [and] documents attached to either a motion to dismiss or an opposition to that motion when the documents are referred to in the pleadings and are central to a plaintiff's claims."
2. Summary Judgment
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that "[a] party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought." Pursuant to that rule, 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." A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, " and a dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court "views all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, and draws all reasonable inferences in the nonmovant's favor." Nonetheless, the nonmovant "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but... must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." The nonmovant "cannot create a genuine issue of material fact with some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ' ...