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Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Johnson

July 17, 2002

METROPOLITAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MILDRED JOHNSON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT,
v.
LASHANDA SMITH, LEONARD SMITH AND CAROLYN HALL, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 00 C 2138--Joan Lefkow, Judge.

Before Posner, Manion, and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Manion, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED APRIL 2, 2002

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife") filed an interpleader action, requesting the district court to designate the proper beneficiary of Jimmie Johnson's life insurance policy. The district court ruled in favor of LaShanda Smith, Leonard Smith and Carolyn Hall, and the insured's former wife, Mildred Johnson, appeals. We affirm.

I.

Jimmie Johnson was an employee of General Electric ("GE") from 1968 until his death on February 15, 1999. During his employment, he was a participant in the GE Life, Disability and Medical Plan (the "Plan"), an employee welfare benefit plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. GE funded the Plan through an insurance policy issued by MetLife. Johnson had $104,902.00 in life insurance as of the date of his death. The Plan provides that the life insurance benefits will be paid to the beneficiary designated by the insured.

On October 8, 1968, Johnson designated his then-wife Mildred Johnson as sole beneficiary of the Plan. Several years later, Jimmie and Mildred divorced. On approximately December 27, 1996, Johnson completed a beneficiary designation form, naming LaShanda Smith, Leonard Smith and Carolyn Hall (jointly referred to as "SS&H") as co-beneficiaries. *fn1 The 1996 form contained a number of errors. First, Johnson checked the box for "GE S&SP Life Insurance Plan." However, he was never enrolled in that plan; rather, he should have checked the box for "GE Life or GE Leadership Life Insurance Plan." Also, Johnson listed his mother's address instead of his own. Finally, he indicated on the form that he was "separated" from his wife, Mildred, rather than divorced.

When Johnson died on February 15, 1999, GE informed Mildred that she was the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and she filed a beneficiary claim. Subsequently, on March 1, 1999, LaShanda Smith sent GE a letter stating that she was aware that her father had made her "the only primary beneficiary to receive his life insurance benefits" and inquiring how to receive those proceeds. In her letter, she stated that, in late 1996, she and her brother had signed a change of beneficiary form, and that, in January 1997, her father had received confirmation of the change of beneficiary. MetLife claimed to have no record of the change of beneficiary designation and requested LaShanda to provide documentation of the change. She provided a copy of the 1996 form and a copy of a letter sent to Jimmie Johnson from the General Electric Enrollment Center dated January 1, 1997. In this letter, GE confirms receipt of Johnson's completed beneficiary designation form. However, the letter did not refer to a particular plan, nor did it indicate the identity of the newly designated beneficiaries. *fn2

In response to the multiple claims to the proceeds of Johnson's life insurance policy, MetLife filed an interpleader action, requesting the court to determine who was properly entitled to the proceeds. *fn3 After Mildred Johnson and Carolyn Hall filed answers, all parties moved for summary judgment, agreeing that the sole issue was whether Johnson had executed a valid change of beneficiary form in 1996. The court denied Mildred's motion and granted summary judgment to SS&H, concluding that the 1996 form evidenced Jimmie Johnson's intent to change his beneficiary from Mildred to SS&H and that he substantially complied with the requirements of the Plan in doing so. Mildred Johnson appeals.

II.

A. Standard of Review

"We conduct de novo review of a district court's decision involving cross-motions for summary judgment." Ozlowski v. Henderson, 237 F.3d 837, 839 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting Hendricks-Robinson v. Excel Corp., 154 F.3d 685, 692 (7th Cir. 1998)). Summary judgment is proper when the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that 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." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). "With cross-motions, our review of the record requires that we construe all inferences in favor of the party against whom the motion under consideration is made." Hendricks-Robinson, 154 F.3d at 692. Accordingly, we review the record in the light most favorable to Mildred Johnson, viewing all of the facts, and drawing all reasonable inferences from those facts, in her favor and reversing if we find a genuine issue concerning any fact that might affect the outcome of the case. Id. However, the mere existence of an alleged factual dispute is not sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion. Vukadinovich v. Board of Sch. Tr. of North Newton Sch. Corp., 278 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2002).

While we must construe the facts in favor of Mildred, that, however, does not diminish her responsibility to present those facts in the manner dictated by local court rules. The Local Rules of the Northern District of Illinois require a moving party to submit, with its summary judgment motion, "a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue and that entitle the moving party to a judgment as a matter of law." N.D. Ill. Local R. 56.1(a)(3). This statement "shall consist of short, numbered paragraphs, including within each paragraph specific references to the affidavits, parts of the record, and other supporting materials relied upon to support the facts set forth in that paragraph." Id. at 56.1(a). The opposing party must also submit a statement responding to each numbered paragraph of the moving party's statement, likewise supporting any disagreement with references to the record. Id. at 56.1(b)(3)(A). All supported facts set forth in a moving party's Rule 56.1 statement "will be deemed admitted unless controverted by" the opposing party. Id. at 56.1(a).

In this case, Mildred failed to follow the procedures set forth by Local Rule 56.1. Mildred filed her summary judgment motion without the required statement, although her motion did include a section entitled "Facts." This section was not delineated into separate numbered paragraphs. She later filed an "Amended Statement of Material Facts," which is structured in separately numbered paragraphs, but many paragraphs lack any reference to relevant portions of the record. However, SS&H fared no better. They did not file a statement with their motion for summary judgment, and in responding to Johnson's statement, they, in many cases, also failed to make references to the record. But then, Mildred never responded to SS&H's statement. The district court, faced with this hodge-podge of factual and often unsupported assertions, accepted those facts that both parties admitted were uncontroverted. The court also deemed admitted any facts supported with citations to the record set forth in Mildred's statement, where SS&H stated they had insufficient knowledge to admit or deny the facts. The court then disregarded the statements set forth in SS&H's statement unless admitted by Mildred. This resulted in a version of the facts that is perhaps not as favorable to Mildred as it could have been had she followed the local rules. But, we have emphasized the importance of local rules and "have consistently ...


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