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Caterpillar Inc. v. Estate of Lacefield-Cole

September 27, 2007

CATERPILLAR INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
ESTATE OF VELTON LACEFIELD-COLE, ANTHONY A. COLE AND ALISON H. COLE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles P. Kocoras, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the court on the cross motions of Defendant Estate of Velton Lacefield-Cole ("the estate") for summary judgment and Defendants Anthony A. Cole ("Alexander") and Allison H. Cole (collectively referred to as "the children") for summary judgment on the interpleader complaint of Caterpillar, Inc. For the reasons set forth below, the children's motion [58] is granted and the estate's motion for summary judgment [57] is denied. The estate has also moved for leave to amend its answer and to strike the children's cross motion. Those motions [61, 62] are both denied.

BACKGROUND

In 2005, six years after they were married, Anthony Eugene Cole ("Anthony") and Velton Lacefield-Cole ("Velton") died of gunshot wounds. Velton was shot several times, in the arm, back, chest, and chin. Anthony's death was caused by a single shot to the head. According to the report of the Cook County Medical Examiner, the causes of death for Velton and Anthony were homicide and suicide, respectively, though the examiner's reports do not provide the time of death for either person. Anthony was 54 years old when he died.

Prior to his death, Anthony worked for Caterpillar, who commenced this suit as an interpleader action to determine the proper distribution of benefits under an employee retirement savings plan ("the Plan") in which Anthony participated. The Plan is regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"). 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. The terms of the Plan appear to provide*fn1 that a participant would be paid the proceeds of Anthony's retirement account when he or she reached retirement age, in accordance with 29 U.S.C. § 1055. If a participant dies before reaching retirement age, the Plan specifies that the contents of the account will be paid to the participant's surviving spouse if the participant had been married throughout the one-year period prior to his or her death. Estate's Mem. in Supp., Ex. A, § 9.3(a)(ii). A participant could also designate beneficiaries. Id. at § 9.3(a)(i). These beneficiaries become entitled to benefits if 1) the participant had not been married throughout the one year before he or she died or 2) the surviving spouse consented in writing to the designation. Id. at § 9.3(a)(ii). If a participant does not designate a beneficiary (and presumably had not been married for a year before dying), the contents of the account are paid directly to the participant's estate. Id. at § 9.3(a)(i).

In 1998, Anthony was divorced. On June 22 of that year, he executed a beneficiary designation form ("the 1998 form") that named Alexander and Allison, his children with a woman other than Velton, as beneficiaries. Below the area where the beneficiaries were named, the form contained three boxes that specified the manner in which the participant intended the assets to be allocated: to all the named beneficiaries in equal shares; to the beneficiaries in the order they were listed (i.e., the first person named who survived the participant would receive all of the assets); or according to another scheme specified in writing by the participant. On the 1998 form, Anthony checked the box directing equal distribution among the named beneficiaries, indicating that he wished for his children to each receive 50% of the contents of his account if he died before reaching retirement age.

In 1999, Anthony and Velton married. In May 2002, Anthony executed a new beneficiary designation form ("the 2002 form"), listing Velton, Alexander, and Allison as beneficiaries, in that order. None of the allocation boxes were checked. The form contained a section for a spouse to consent in writing to a designation of any beneficiary who was to receive more than 50% of the retirement assets.*fn2 That section of the form also included conspicuous wording regarding the need for such consent if a married participant designated beneficiaries other than his or her spouse. Velton did not execute the spousal consent section of the 2002 form.

After the parties' deaths in August 2005, Anthony's estate, Alexander, Allison, and Velton's estate all asserted claims to the funds in Anthony's retirement account, prompting Caterpillar to file an interpleader complaint. Before any discovery took place, the parties requested and received a briefing schedule for simultaneous motions for summary judgment. In accordance with this schedule, each filed a motion for summary judgment on May 14. The children also filed a statement of material facts as required by Local Rule 56.1. On June 4, Velton's estate responded to the children's motion but did not file a response to their statement of material facts.

We denied both motions without prejudice, ruling that, despite the parties' implied positions that no material facts were in dispute, facts such as the existence of the marriage, the outcome of a related wrongful death suit pending in state court, and undeveloped issues of law prevented any summary disposition.

Shortly after we issued our ruling, the estate again moved for summary judgment in its favor. In the renewed motion, the estate contended that Velton and Anthony were married at the time of their deaths, but no competent evidence specifically established the medical sequence of the deaths. According to the estate, this lack of evidence mandates a conclusion that Velton should be treated as a surviving spouse in the absence of definitive proof of the actual sequence of deaths. Alternatively, the estate contends that the Illinois slayer statute should either be directly applied or adopted as federal common law to fix Velton's legal death after Anthony's, regardless of the order of their actual deaths.

The children later filed a cross motion for summary judgment, taking an opposite stance on each of the issues raised in the estate's motion.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate only 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. Proc. 56(c). A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find for the non-movant. Buscaglia v. United States, 25 F.3d 530, 534 (7th Cir. 1994). The movant in a motion for summary judgment bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact by specific citation to the record; if the party succeeds in doing so, the burden shifts to the non-movant to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of fact for trial. Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56(e); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2554 (1986). In considering motions for summary judgment, a court construes all facts and draws all inferences from the record in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2513 (1986).

When parties file cross motions for summary judgment, each motion must be assessed independently, and denial of one does not ...


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