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Mitchell v. Robinson

United States District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, Southeastern Division

April 14, 2015

JERRY MITCHELL, IREAN MITCHELL, individually and as Next Friends of Mq. R., M. R., Jr., and Mk. R., Plaintiff,
MARCUS TYRONE ROBINSON, SR., et al. Defendants.



This matter is before the Court on defendants Unilever United States, Inc. (“Unilever”), and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s (“Met Life”) motion for summary judgment. After an extended briefing schedule, the matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for disposition.

I. Background

Plaintiffs Jerry Mitchell and Irean Mitchell are the grandparents and Next Friends of minor plaintiffs Mq. R., M. R., Jr., and Mk. R., who allege a claim of wrongful death against defendant Marcus T. Robinson, Sr., for killing Shekiah Mitchell Robinson, and allege state law claims against defendants Unilever and Met Life for recovery of covered plan related benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. (“ERISA”).

The following facts are undisputed except where indicated. Plaintiffs’ decedent was employed by Unilever. Decedent was eligible for $121, 000 in life insurance benefits through three difference policies issued by defendant Met Life, and the policy or policies were administered by defendants Unilever and Met Life. She died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds to the head, chest, and arms on August 18, 2006 at her home. The decedent’s husband, defendant Marcus Robinson, Sr., submitted a claim to MetLife for the decedent’s death benefits on November 22, 2006. MetLife asked Robinson to submit a statement from the policy indicating whether or not Robinson was considered a suspect in the homicide and whether the decedent herself was considered an aggressor in the events leading up to her death. Robinson told MetLife to get in touch with the detectives, and, later, the county prosecutor. MetLife was unable to reach the detectives or the prosecutor. Then, on March 27, 2007, Robinson advised that he had hired an attorney and, on March 30, Robinson provided the name of a different prosecutor, Paul Boyd.

On March 30, MetLife called Mr. Boyd and was advised that he was “75% sure” that Robinson did not have involvement, but that the case had not yet been tried. He also advised that Robinson had passed a lie detector test but those tests are not 100% accurate nor admissible in court. Mr. Boyd requested that MetLife’s file remain open.

On May 10, MetLife again called Mr. Boyd, who advised that Robinson had not been indicted on any charges concerning the homicide and that MetLife could process its file accordingly. On May 21, a MetLife senior claim examiner advised another MetLife claim examiner (1) that MetLife would need the police to put something in writing regarding Robinson’s not being a suspect, and (2) that if police would not do that, MetLife should follow certain procedures for situations like this one, where the beneficiary has not been ruled out as a suspect and only the beneficiary is making a claim. Because the death occurred less than 18 months before, the claim was to be put on a monthly call-up for a total of 18 months from the date of death such that MetLife would follow up with police monthly.

On May 23, MetLife again contacted Mr. Boyd and advised that it needed a statement for the file regarding Robinson’s status. On August 3, MetLife wrote to Mr. Boyd and requested the same information again. On August 8, Robinson’s attorney wrote to MetLife and advised that an individual named Robert Madison II had been charged with murder in the second degree (and other crimes) and that the trial was scheduled for September 5, 2007. MetLife obtained copies of the online docket entries from the ongoing criminal court case. On September 19, Robinson’s attorney advised MetLife that Robinson had cooperated fully with the police, had taken a lie detector test and given depositional testimony, and that the trial of Robert Madison had been changed to February 13, 2008. The attorney demanded the benefits be paid to Robinson.

MetLife talked to a police captain on November 7, 2007. The captain stated the decedent was not the aggressor and that her husband shot her inadvertently while trying to shoot at the person breaking into the residence. The captain noted there was no prosecution of the husband and that, although the decedent’s family thought it was a set-up to kill the decedent, the police had found no basis for that claim.

On November 29, 2007, MetLife paid Robinson $136, 514.53, which was $50, 000 in Basic Life Insurance Benefits, $22, 500 in Optional Life Insurance Benefits, $48, 500 in optional accidental death benefits, and interest of $15, 514.53.

Notably, the decedent had not listed a beneficiary on her insurance forms. The applicable policies stated that where no beneficiary is listed, the benefits would be paid “to the first of the following who is alive at your death: your legal spouse; your children; your parents; your brothers and sisters; your estate.” In addition, the policies state that such a beneficiary is disqualified if the beneficiary is responsible for the death. Plaintiffs here ---the decedent’s parents and children --- claim they are entitled to the insurance proceeds because, as indicated above, they believed Robinson shot his wife intentionally and was thereby disqualified as a beneficiary. Defendants point out that prior to the filing of this lawsuit on June 9, 2011, none of the plaintiffs had submitted a claim for plan benefits by reason of the decedent’s death, and none of the plaintiffs had contacted MetLife. Robinson, as decedent’s husband, was the only person to file a claim for benefits.

Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit. Although their original complaint contained five counts, only Count V, for recovery of covered plan related benefits under ERISA, remains applicable to defendants MetLife and Unilever. The defendants have filed for summary judgment.

II. Legal Standard

Pursuant to Rule 56(c), a district court may grant a motion for summary judgment if all of the information before the court demonstrates that “there is no genuine issue as to material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Poller v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 368 U.S. 464, 467 (1962). The burden is on the moving party. Mt. Pleasant, 838 F.2d at 273. After the moving party discharges this burden, the nonmoving party must do more than show that there is some doubt as to the facts. Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Instead, the nonmoving party bears the burden of setting forth specific facts showing that there is ...

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