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Leigertwood v. Leigertwood

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 7, 2013



ROBERT F. KELLY, Sr., District Judge.

Currently pending before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff, Raven Leigertwood ("Raven"), the Response in Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant, Viola Leigertwood ("Viola"), and Replies filed thereto. For the following reasons, the Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted.


On or about August 26, 2008, Banner Life Insurance Company ("Banner Life") issued insurance Policy Number XXXXXXXXX ("Banner Policy") in the face amount of $1, 000, 000.00 to Veno E.E. Leigertwood, Jr. ("Veno"), insuring his life. (Interpleader Compl. § 10.) Veno's wife, Raven, is the primary beneficiary of the Banner Policy. (Id. § 11.) Veno's mother, Viola, is the contingent beneficiary of the Banner Policy. (Id.) Eighteen days after the policy was issued, on September 13, 2008, Veno was murdered in the driveway of his home at 645 Church Lane, Yeadon, Pennsylvania, as a result of a gun shot wound. (Id. § 12.) Banner Life determined that $1, 000, 000.00 is due and payable under the Policy as a result of Veno's death. (Id. § 13.)

On September 24, 2008, Raven, as the named primary beneficiary under the Policy, submitted to Banner Life a Proof of Death/Claimant's Statement seeking payment of the Policy proceeds. (Id. § 14.) The Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division identified Raven as a "person of interest" regarding Veno's murder. (Id. § 17.) Banner Life filed a Complaint In Interpleader on August 30, 2011, in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Civ. Act. No. 11-5457. (Doc. No. 1.) Banner Life's action is based upon the Pennsylvania Slayer's Act, 20 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8811, [1] and its effect upon the distribution of the Banner Policy's proceeds either to Raven, as the primary beneficiary, or Viola, as the contingent beneficiary. (Interpleader Compl. §§ 22-23.) Contemporaneous with the filing of its Complaint In Interpleader, Banner Life deposited into the Registry of the Court the sum of $1, 091, 635.48, the entire amount due under the Banner Policy. (Id. § 30.) The Court accepted the Banner Policy proceeds and discharged Banner Life from all further liability and obligation under the Banner Policy. (Doc. No. 11.) The Court terminated Banner Life from the action and identified Raven as Plaintiff and Viola as Defendant. (Id.)

On July 17, 2012, Raven's attorney, Patrick T. Henigan, Esq. ("Henigan"), from the Media, Pennsylvania, law firm of Eckell, Sparks, Levy, Auerbach, Monte, Sloane, Matthews & Auslander, P.C. ("Media Firm") filed a Complaint for Distribution of Funds.[2] (See Compl. For Distr. of Funds.) On August 29, 2012, Viola's attorney, John S. DiGiorgio, Esq. ("DiGiorgio"), filed an Answer arguing that Raven is still a person of interest in the murder of Veno and the investigation was on-going. (Doc. No. 18.) He also requested that Raven's Complaint be dismissed and that judgment be entered in Viola's favor. (Id.)

Along with Viola's Answer, DiGiorgio filed a Motion to Disqualify Raven's counsel, Henigan, due to the fact his Media Firm was also involved in the administration of Veno's Estate in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, Orphans' Division ("Orphans' Court"), In Re: The Estate of Veno E.E. Leigertwood, No. 805 of 2008. (Doc. No. 17.) On September 21, 2012, the Court held an oral argument regarding the Motion to Disqualify. (See Transcript of Oral Argument on 9/21/12.) At the oral argument, Henigan explained that the Media Firm did administer Veno's Estate, but he was not personally involved with the Orphans' Court action or Veno's Estate. (Id. at 5-6.) Additionally, Henigan asserted that the Media Firm never represented Raven in the Orphans' Court matter. (Id. at 6.) Also, he stated that DiGiorgio represented Viola in the Orphans' Court during the entire administration of the Estate. (Id. at 5.) Since the instant case involves the Banner Life Policy and the Slayer's Act, and due to the fact that Henigan said that the Estate was successfully administered and concluded and he had no involvement in such, the Motion to Disqualify was denied. (Id. at 11.) During oral argument, DiGiorgio stated that he did not intend to engage in any discovery. (Id.) Also, it was clarified that neither side wanted a jury trial. (Id. at 13.)

On October 26, 2012, Henigan filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 22.) On November 9, 2012, he filed a Motion for Sanctions against DiGiorgio.[3] (Doc. No. 24.) In November 2012, the parties filed responses, replies, sur-replies, and a supplement to the outstanding motions. (Doc. Nos. 23, 25, 27, 30.) While deciding these Motions, the Court became aware, for the first time, of another million dollar life insurance policy on Veno's life. This policy was issued by West Coast Life Insurance Co. (Policy No. XXXXXXXXX) ("West Coast Policy"). (Transcript of Oral Argument on 2/5/13 at 10.) Similar to the Banner Policy, the West Coast Policy named Raven as beneficiary and Viola as contingent beneficiary. (Pl.'s Mem. Law Supp. Mot. for Summ. J. at 5.)

In his Motion for Summary Judgment, Henigan raised, inter alia , issue preclusion based upon the distribution of the West Coast Policy proceeds to Raven through the administration of Veno's Estate in the Orphans' Court. (Id. at 8-11.) Henigan's summary judgment argument based upon issue preclusion asserted that Viola cannot relitigate the Pennsylvania Slayer's Act issue in this action because the issue of Raven's disqualification pursuant to the Slayer's Act was judicially determined by the Orphans' Court regarding the West Coast Policy. (Id.) He argued that the Orphans' Court specifically addressed the disqualification of Raven under the Slayer's Act ordering that the West Coast Policy proceeds be distributed to her. (Id.) DiGiorgio responded to Henigan's issue preclusion argument by stating that Viola had agreed that some of the policy proceeds from the West Coast Policy could be used to buy Raven the marital house, but did not agree to the transfer of the remaining proceeds of the West Coast Policy to Raven. (Def.'s Resp. Mot. for Summ. J. at 6-8.)

In order to understand DiGiorgio's argument, as well as to better understand the issue preclusion claim, some background information is needed. In the Orphans' Court on March 7, 2012, an attorney from the Media Firm, Sam Auslander, Esq. ("Auslander"), filed a Petition for Sale of the Marital Home to Decedent's Wife and Transfer of Remaining Insurance Proceeds from West Coast Life Held in Escrow to Decedent's Wife ("Petition"). (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J.; Exs. D (Orphans' Court Docket Sheet), F (Petition)). The Petition was on behalf of Joseph L. Monte, Esq., the Administrator of the Estate. (Id.; Ex. F.) On March 8, 2012, the Orphans' Court judge issued a Preliminary Decree to show cause why the relief requested in the Petition should not be granted. (Id.; Ex. F (Preliminary Decree Order).) In response to the Petition for the Sale of the Marital Home and Transfer of the Remaining Insurance Proceeds, DiGiorgio sent a letter dated March 13, 2012, to Auslander stating that Viola had no objection to the sale of the marital home. (Id.; Ex. H.) DiGiorgio did not address the remaining issue regarding the transfer of the remaining proceeds to Raven in his letter. (Id.) Furthermore, he did not file any document with the Orphans' Court detailing his client's wishes. (Id.; Ex. D (Orphans' Court Docket Sheet)).

On April 10, 2012, a Final Decree was entered permitting the Administrator of the Estate to: sell the martial home to Raven for $180, 000.00; transfer from the insurance monies held in escrow to Raven sufficient monies to purchase the martial home and to pay all expenses in connection therewith; and transfer the remaining balance of the insurance proceeds to Raven. (Id.; Ex. I (Final Decree).) DiGiorgio never alerted the Orphans' Court to the fact that Viola did not agree to the transfer of the remaining West Coast Policy proceeds to Raven. (Transcript of Oral Argument on 2/5/13 at 7, 9-11.) DiGiorgio never tried to correct the mistake. (Id.) It appears that no one informed the Orphans' Court about the mistake.[4]

Regarding the matter at hand in the instant action, this Court held an oral argument on February 5, 2013, on the Motion for Summary Judgment and Motion for Sanctions filed by Raven. (See Transcript of Oral Argument on 2/5/13.) The Court insisted that Viola be present for the oral argument. During the oral argument, the Court explained to Viola that her attorney, DiGiorgio, apparently has a conflict of interest with her because his actions in the Orphans' Court concerning the West Coast Policy may directly impact his actions in the instant action. (Id. at 7-20) That is, if DiGiorgio won the Slayer's Act issue in our case it would show that he may have committed an error in the Orphans' Court regarding the awarding of the remaining proceeds of the West Coast Policy to Raven. I instructed Viola that there may be a possible conflict of interest between herself and DiGiorgio concerning what occurred in the Orphans' Court with the West Coast Policy and his representation of her in this action regarding the Banner Policy. (Id. at 11-13.) I further explained to Viola that she should seek independent counsel to determine whether she wants to proceed with DiGiorgio or with a new attorney. (Id.) Viola stated that she understood the situation. (Id. at 12-13.) The case was placed in suspense for thirty days and Viola was informed that she had thirty days to contact independent counsel and decide how she wanted to proceed. (Id. at 22.)

On March 5, 2013, DiGiorgio contacted the Court's law clerk informing her that he spoke with Viola and she wanted to withdraw from the case. DiGiorgio explained that Viola wanted him to represent her for the limited purpose of handling her withdrawal from the case. DiGiorgio said that he would file a document with the Court regarding Viola's withdrawal. After speaking with me, my law clerk informed DiGiorgio that he could file any document that he wanted, but no action would be taken without Viola explaining her intentions in open court. No document was ever filed. Viola has not withdrawn herself from the action.

On March 11, 2013, an order, under seal, was entered stating that a hearing be held on March 25, 2013, for DiGiorgio to show cause why he should not be disqualified from representing Viola. Viola was also ordered to attend the hearing. On March 18, 2013, DiGiorgio filed a Motion to Withdraw as Attorney. (Doc. No. 32.) By Order dated March 18, 2013, the Court granted DiGiorgio's Motion to Withdraw as Attorney. (Doc. No. 33.) Also, the Court cancelled the hearing scheduled for March 25, 2013, and ordered that Viola had thirty days from the date of the Order to find a new attorney and have the new attorney enter his or her appearance. (Id.) Viola never contacted the Court within the thirty day time period. After not hearing from Viola, an Order dated April 22, 2013, was entered setting forth that the Court will decide the outstanding Motion for Summary Judgment on Monday, May 6, 2013. (Doc. No. 39.) The Order further stated that Viola, on her own or though ...

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