Monday, April 12, 2021

No. 416: An Interesting Beneficiary Dispute

On January 22, 2021, a three-judge panel of a state appellate court in Georgia unanimously upheld a trial court ruling in an interesting beneficiary dispute between the widow and a granddaughter of the insured. For ease of reference, here are the key parties:
Donald: Donald Usher, insured, grandfather of Emery
Emery: Sarah Emery, granddaughter of Donald
Gayle: Gayle Usher, widow of Donald
GTL: Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Company, insurer
I have the trial court ruling, the appellate court panel ruling, and some documents from the trial court proceedings. Here I describe the case based on those rulings and documents. The two rulings are in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post. (See Emery v. GTL, State Court of Gwinnett County, Georgia, Case No. 18-C-04523-S6, and Georgia Court of Appeals, Third Division, Case No. A20A2082.)

Background of the Case
On October 15, 2010, GTL issued a $25,000 policy on the life of Donald. Gayle was the beneficiary. On September 11, 2015, Donald made Emery the owner and beneficiary. I found no explanation of the reason why Donald made the change.

In August 2016, about a month before Donald died, Gayle called GTL and inquired about the policy. GTL initially informed Gayle that it could not discuss the policy with her without the permission of the owner.

On August 15, 2016, despite not having sought Emery's permission to discuss the policy with Gayle, GTL faxed a policy change form to Gayle. On August 18, 2016, Gayle returned the policy change form to GTL. When GTL received the form from Gayle, it was missing a page requiring the signatures of Gayle and Emery. GTL notified Gayle and Emery that it could not process the form because it did not contain the signatures.

Emery did not respond to GTL at that time. Gayle responded that she had retained a copy of the signature page, and faxed it to GTL. The fax showed the purported signatures of Gayle and Emery.
On August 31, 2016, GTL updated its records to reflect that Gayle was the owner and beneficiary. On September 9, 2016, Donald died. On October 15, 2016, GTL paid the death benefit to Gayle. A year later, on October 3, 2017, Emery's attorney wrote to GTL and enclosed an affidavit from Emery confirming her status as owner and beneficiary of the policy.

Emery's Lawsuit
On June 18, 2018, Emery filed a lawsuit against GTL alleging bad faith failure to perform under an insurance contract, breach of contract, and negligence. After a hearing, the trial court granted GTL's motion for summary judgment. The trial court reasoned that, because GTL had paid the beneficiary named in its file, the company had complied with applicable law and was therefore insulated from liability.

Emery's Appeal
On appeal, Emery argued that the trial court erred in finding that GTL paid the death benefit to Gayle in accordance with the terms of the policy as contemplated by §33-24-41 of the Georgia Code. The appellate court panel disagreed with Emery. The panel said the statute in question does not impose on an insurance company the duty to investigate and determine whether a person fraudulently completed and submitted a policy change form.

General Observations
As indicated at the beginning of this post, I think this is an interesting case. Because I am not an attorney, it would be inappropriate for me to express a legal opinion on the case. Having said that, it is my personal belief that Gayle stole the death benefit from Emery.

Available Material
I am offering a complimentary 10-page PDF consisting of the trial court ruling (3 pages) and the appellate court panel ruling (7 pages). Email jmbelth@gmail.com and ask for the April 2021 package about the case of Emery v. GTL.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

No. 415: Georgia's New Election Law Faces Strong Legal Challenges

The Republican-controlled legislature in Georgia recently passed, and the Republican governor immediately signed, a new election law (Georgia Senate Bill 202). It is called an "election security law" by its proponents, and a "voter suppression law" by its opponents. The 98-page law faces several strong court challenges.

Here I discuss one such court challenge, a 35-page complaint in a Georgia federal court. The law and the complaint are in the complimentary package offered at the end of this post. (See The New Georgia Project et al. v. Raffensperger et al., U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.)

The New Law
Two sentences on page 4 of the new law make clear it was prompted by "The Big Lie" perpetrated by former President Donald J. Trump about the results of the 2020 general election. Here are those sentences:
  • Following the 2018 and 2020 elections, there was a significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems, with many electors concerned about allegations of rampant voter fraud.
  • Many Georgia election processes were challenged in court, including the subjective signature-matching requirements, by Georgians on all sides of the political spectrum before and after the 2020 general election.
The Complaint
The plaintiffs are The New Georgia Project and two other entities. The defendants are Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and four other Georgia election officials. The plaintiffs allege that the new law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs seek a declaration of such violations and an injunction prohibiting the defendants from enforcing the challenged provisions.

The "Nature of the Case" section of the complaint consists of seven paragraphs. Here is the second paragraph of that section:
2. After the high-turnout general election [in 2020] officials conducted multiple recounts and audits. Supporters of former President Donald J. Trump filed several lawsuits seeking to overturn the general election's results, falsely alleging widespread fraud and misconduct on the part of election officials. No court in any of these lawsuits found support for these litigants' fanciful claims. After the senatorial runoff elections, Secretary [of State] Raffensperger declared in a nationally-televised interview that Georgia "had safe, secure, honest elections."
The complaint challenges many of the provisions of the new law. Here are some of those provisions:
  • Despite nationwide scrutiny of Georgia's elections, which confirmed the absence of any fraud, insecurity, or wrongdoing, Republican members of the General Assembly passed legislation clearly intended to make it harder for lawful Georgia voters to participate in the state's elections.
  • It will impose unjustifiable burdens disproportionately on the state's minority, young, poor, and disabled citizens.
  • It will impose unnecessary and burdensome new identification requirements for absentee voting.
  • It will unduly restrict the use of absentee drop boxes and bank mobile polling places.
  • It will prohibit the state from distributing unsolicited absentee ballot applications.
  • It will prohibit third parties—including voter engagement organizations—from collecting absentee ballot applications.
  • It will burden voters with the risk of disenfranchisement due to meritless challenges that require an immediate defense of their qualifications.
  • It will invalidate ballots cast by local voters before 5:00 p.m. in a precinct other than the one to which the voters were assigned, regardless of the reason or their inability to travel to another location.
  • It will compress the time period for voting in a runoff election.
  • It will ban any non-poll worker from giving food or drink, including water, to voters waiting in line.
General Observations
The new law is a brazen attack on the voting rights of Georgians. The law was signed by the governor in a secret signing session attended by a few Republicans immediately after he received the bill. The secrecy of the signing session became a media sensation when State Representative Park Cannon of Atlanta, a Black woman and member of the Democratic minority in the legislature, knocked quietly on the governor's office door in an effort to witness the signing of the bill. She was arrested by state troopers and dragged kicking and screaming to jail.

The new law is an outright takeover of Georgia's election system by the legislature. It is clear that, if the election result in any county or precinct is disliked by the Republicans, they can take steps to alter the result to their liking.

It is my hope that the federal judge will grant the declaratory relief and the injunctive relief that the plaintiffs seek. I plan to report further developments.

Available Material
I am offering a complimentary 133-page PDF consisting of the new Georgia election law (98 pages) and the complaint filed in federal court against the law (35 pages). Send an email to jmbelth@gmail.com and ask for the April 2021 package about the new election law in Georgia.

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