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In Re: Estate of Michael Burkland, Gabriel Burkland v. Dorleen Burkland

January 3, 2012

IN RE: ESTATE OF MICHAEL BURKLAND, GABRIEL BURKLAND PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DORLEEN BURKLAND, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Goldberg, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case emanates from a pending homicide trial in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Dorleen Burkland is accused of shooting her husband, Michael Burkland ("the deceased"). Plaintiff, Gabriel Burkland, the son of Dorleen and Michael Burkland, alleges that he is entitled to insurance proceeds under a life insurance and accidental death policy, issued by Defendant, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Inc. (MetLife) on the life of his father.Defendant, Dean Burkland, the brother of the deceased and the executor of the deceased's estate ("the Estate"), challenges the distribution of these proceeds to Plaintiff under Pennsylvania's Slayer's Act, 20 PA. CONS. STAT. § 8801-15, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA").

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, which requests an order directing that the insurance proceeds be distributed to him by MetLife. For the reasons stated herein, we will deny Plaintiff's motion and order that the proceeds remain with MetLife pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings in Bucks County.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff is the son of Dorleen and Michael Burkland. Dorleen Burkland is accused of killing the deceased, her husband Michael, on October 3, 2010, and is currently represented by the Bucks County Public Defender's office. The deceased was a participant in a life insurance and accidental death plan through his employer, United Airways. The plan was issued by Defendant, MetLife, and provided for $149,000 in total coverage. Dorleen Burkland is named as primary beneficiary and Plaintiff is named as contingent beneficiary. (Pl.'s State. Facts ¶¶ 1-9, 12; Estate Resp. State. Facts ¶¶ 1-9, 12.)

On April 20, 2011, Dorleen Burkland appeared before the Honorable Jeffrey L. Finley of the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas to discuss the status of her counsel for the pending homicide trial. Plaintiff was present for this proceeding, and through his counsel, informed Judge Finley that Dorleen Burkland was in the process of disclaiming her rights to the life insurance policy and that Plaintiff, as contingent beneficiary, planned to gift a portion of the proceeds to Dorleen Burkland so that she could retain a private criminal defense attorney. In fact, at the time of this hearing, Dorleen Burkland had already faxed correspondence to MetLife, stating that she "disclaim[ed] any and all rights to collect as primary beneficiary or otherwise under the group term life insurance policy that was in effect for decedent, Michael A. Burkland[.]" (Doc. No. 2, Exs. 1-3; Doc. No. 6, Ex. A, Doc. No. 11, Ex. B.)

On May 2, 2011, the Estate sent correspondence to MetLife asserting that Gabriel's "plan . . . violates the spirit, if not letter, of [Pennsylvania's] Slayer Act[,]" and may be the product of "undue influence" on the part of Dorleen Burkland. The correspondence also stated that the Estate was planning to seek an injunction in state court, "requesting that the proceeds of the life insurance policy be paid into the Trust established for the benefit of Gabriel Burkland under the last will and testament of Michael Burkland." (Doc. No. 2, Ex. 3.) In response, MetLife put an "administrative hold" on the disbursement of proceeds under the policy, which presently remains in effect.*fn2 (Pl.'s State. Facts ¶¶ 18-20; MetLife Resp. State. Facts ¶¶ 18-20.)

On May 19, 2011, Plaintiff filed an emergency injunction petition in the Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, Orphan Division, to prevent the estate from interfering in the delivery of the insurance proceeds. On May 21, 2011, the Estate filed a cross petition for an injunction, seeking to prevent MetLife from distributing the funds until the dispute over the proceeds was resolved on the merits. On May 24, 2011, a hearing was held on these petitions before the Honorable C. Theodore Fritsch, Jr. Plaintiff testified that his mother had agreed to disclaim her interest in the deceased's life insurance policy after he informed her that he would use the proceeds to "pay out the sum that is required to give [her] private counsel."*fn3 (Doc. No. 12, Ex. E, pp. 29-38.)

On June 29, 2011, Judge Fristch denied Plaintiff's petition and granted the Estate's petition "in part insofar as [MetLife] is directed to maintain the status quo and refrain from disbursing life insurance proceeds . . . until further Order of the Court." (Doc. No. 12, Ex. F.) On July 12, 2011, Plaintiff filed a "Petition for Payment of Insurance Proceeds," in the Orphan's Court of Bucks County, naming MetLife, Dorleen Burkland and the Estate as Defendants. This petition requested a declaratory judgment declaring that Dorleen Burkland had disclaimed her benefits under the deceased's policy, thereby making Plaintiff the rightful beneficiary. In the alternative, Plaintiff requested that Dorleen Burkland be adjudicated a "slayer," under Pennsylvania's Slayer's Act, such that he would be entitled to payment as the contingent beneficiary.

On July 22, 2011, Dorleen Burkland filed a pro se notice of removal regarding all state court proceedings, invoking federal question jurisdiction under ERISA. No party involved in this litigation objected to, or challenged, this removal. On August 15, 2011, MetLife filed an answer to Plaintiff's petition in this Court and raised claims of interpleader, requesting that Dorleen Burkland, Plaintiff and the Estate be ordered to settle this dispute "among themselves." On September 19, 2011, the Estate also filed an answer in this Court to Plaintiff's petition and MetLife's claim of interpleader. (Doc. Nos. 2, 6.)

On October 19, 2011, we held a status conference. There, the parties agreed that discovery was not necessary and consequently, we entered a briefing schedule for summary judgment motions. On November 11, 2011, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, which Defendants MetLife and the Estate oppose. On December 15, 2011, oral argument was held on this motion.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper "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] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the moving party's initial Celotex burden can be met by showing that the non-moving party has "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case." Id. at 322.

After the moving party has met its initial burden, summary judgment is appropriate if the non-moving party fails to rebut the moving party's claim by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record" showing a genuine issue of material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). To survive a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must refer to specific facts in the record rather than "rely[ing] on unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions." Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010) (citing Williams v. Borough of W. Chester, Pa., 891 ...


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