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Prudential Insurance Company of America v. Thomas

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 26, 2018

Prudential Insurance Company of America, Plaintiff,
Beverly Thomas, et al., Defendants.



         At issue are the following Motions: (1) Defendants Amanda Thomas, Matthew Thomas, Andrea Thomas-Fuller, and Michelle Thomas-Landovazo's (collectively, the “Thomas Children”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 79, Thomas Children MSJ), to which Defendant Dawn Begay (“Begay”) filed a Response (Doc. 83, Resp. to Thomas Children MSJ), and the Thomas Children filed a Reply (Doc. 92, Thomas Children Reply); (2) Defendant Beverly Thomas's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 81, BT MSJ), to which Defendant Dawn Begay filed a Response (Doc. 84, Resp. to BT MSJ), and Beverly Thomas filed a Reply (Doc. 93, BT Reply); and (3) Defendant Dawn Begay's Motion for Court Settlement Conference (Doc. 88), to which Beverly Thomas filed a Response (Doc. 94). No party requested oral argument on any Motion, and thus, the Court resolves the Motions without such argument. See LRCiv 7.2(f). Accordingly, the Court grants the Motions for Summary Judgment and denies the Motion for a Settlement Conference.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In the early hours of March 14, 2015, a fire ignited in a residential trailer located at Space #287 in the Kayenta Mobile Home Park in Kayenta, Arizona. (Doc. 82, Beverly Thomas Separate Statement of Facts (“BT SSOF”) Ex. A.) The fire department and other emergency personnel arrived on the scene shortly thereafter in an effort to extinguish the blaze. (BT SSOF Ex. A.) Upon arrival, the first responders found Beverly Thomas who reported that her husband, LeVon Thomas (“Mr. Thomas”), was still inside the trailer. The firefighters extinguished the fire and proceeded inside where they found LeVon Thomas's body Three days later, the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations performed an autopsy, which revealed that Mr. Thomas died from thermal injuries and smoke inhalation. His manner of death, however, was undetermined, and the Department closed the case because they found no evidence of foul play. (BT SSOF Ex. A.)

         Prior to Mr. Thomas's death, Prudential Insurance (“Prudential”) issued a group life insurance policy to his employer, Peabody Energy Corporation. (Doc. 1-1, Compl. Ex. A.) The Policy provided for $90, 000 in term life insurance benefits in the event that Mr. Thomas passed away prior to retirement. (Compl. Ex. A at 9.) Further, the policy allowed Mr. Thomas “to choose a Beneficiary for each Coverage under this Prudential Group Contract.” (Compl. Ex. A at 19.) In the event that Mr. Thomas failed to name a beneficiary, the plan would pay the benefit to “the first of the following: [his] (a) surviving spouse; (b) surviving child(ren) in equal shares . . . .” (Compl. Ex. A at 19.) However, Mr. Thomas named his wife-Beverly-as the primary beneficiary for both his life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment policies. (Doc. 4-1, Compl. Ex. D.) Additionally, Mr. Thomas named as contingent beneficiaries his “children on record 25% each.” (Compl. Ex. D.)

         On June 29, 2015, Beverly Thomas, as the designated beneficiary, submitted a claim with Prudential to collect Mr. Thomas's life insurance benefit. (Doc. 4-2, Compl. Ex. E.) However, Prudential did not pay out the policy because of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Thomas's death. Instead, Prudential filed an Interpleader action in this Court for a determination to whom the benefit should be paid, naming as Defendants Beverly Thomas, the Thomas Children, and Begay. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 2-7, 20-27.) In its Complaint, Prudential alleges that “[i]n the event that Beverly is not disqualified from receiving the Death Benefit, the Death Benefit will be payable to Beverly as the designated beneficiary under the Group Policy's Beneficiary Rules.” (Compl. ¶ 23.)

         Subsequently, Prudential deposited Mr. Thomas's death benefit into the Court's registry and the Court dismissed Prudential, and all claims against Prudential, with prejudice. (Doc. 66, Order.) Both Beverly Thomas and the Thomas Children now move for partial summary judgment on the Interpleader Complaint, arguing that Begay is not entitled to any portion of Mr. Thomas's death benefit.


         Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate when: (1) the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact; and (2) after viewing the evidence most favorably to the non-moving party, the movant is entitled to prevail as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Eisenberg v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 815 F.2d 1285, 1288-89 (9th Cir. 1987). Under this standard, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under governing [substantive] law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A “genuine issue” of material fact arises only “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must regard as true the non-moving party's evidence, if it is supported by affidavits or other evidentiary material. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Eisenberg, 815 F.2d at 1289. However, the non-moving party may not merely rest on its pleadings; it must produce some significant probative evidence tending to contradict the moving party's allegations, thereby creating a material question of fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57 (holding that the plaintiff must present affirmative evidence in order to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment); First Nat'l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968).

         “A summary judgment motion cannot be defeated by relying solely on conclusory allegations unsupported by factual data.” Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). “Summary judgment must be entered ‘against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'” United States v. Carter, 906 F.2d 1375, 1376 (9th Cir. 1990) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Motions for Summary Judgment

         As Prudential alleges in the Interpleader Complaint, if Beverly Thomas “is not disqualified from receiving the Death Benefit, ” it shall be paid to her as Mr. Thomas's designated beneficiary. (Compl. ¶ 23.) No party contests this allegation. (Doc. 50, Thomas Children Answer ¶ 23; Doc. 16, Begay Answer ¶ 23; Doc. 31, Beverly Thomas Answer ¶ 23.) Thus, the predicate question at summary judgment-which both Beverly Thomas and the Thomas Children raise-is whether or not Beverly Thomas is disqualified under Arizona law. Begay insists that she is, ...

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