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Ifergane v. Fratellini

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

January 16, 2020

Adriana Ifergane, Plaintiff,
v.
Pascal Fratellini and Scott Holland Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THE DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Robert N. Scola, Jr. United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Adriana Ifergane accuses Defendants Pascal Fratellini and Scott Holland of interfering with her expectancy that she would receive benefits under a life-insurance policy maintained by her former husband, Charles Schreiner. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 9.) In particular, she says the Defendants forged her former husband's signature on a beneficiary-change form or, alternatively, wrongfully convinced him to change the policy beneficiary to Fratellini. In her complaint she seeks relief through two counts: one for declaratory relief; and the other for tortious interference with an expectancy. Fratellini and Holland have, separately, moved for summary judgment (Defs.' Mots. for Summ. J., ECF Nos. 32, 33.) They submit Ifergane has failed to come forward with evidence sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact with respect to her claims. Ifergane, of course, opposes both motions, arguing she has indeed presented genuine issues of material fact and that she is therefore entitled to a trial on the merits of her claims. (Pl.'s Resps., ECF No. 35, 36.) Having considered the parties' briefing, the record, and the relevant legal authorities, the Court is persuaded, for the following reasons, that Fratellini's motion is to be granted (ECF No. 32) and Holland's motion is to be granted in part and denied in part (ECF No. 33).

         1. Background[1]

         Ifergane and Schreiner married in 1999. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def. Holland's Stmt. of Facts ¶ 1, ECF No. 36-1, 2.) Fidelity & Guaranty Life Insurance Company issued a $250, 000 life-insurance policy to Schreiner, insuring his own life, in November 2002. (Id. at ¶ 2.) Although there appears to be some disagreement as to when, at some point, whether at the policy's initial issuance or sometime later, Schreiner designated Ifergane as the sole beneficiary under the policy. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Thereafter, Ifergane filed for divorce in 2007 and then remarried some four years later in California. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6.) Despite their divorce and Ifergane's remarriage, she and Schreiner remained close friends. (Id. at ¶ 64.) Indeed, Schreiner continued to designate Ifergane as the sole beneficiary under the policy well beyond the end of their marriage, going so far as to update his policy, in December 2017, to reflect Ifergane's new married name and marital address, in California. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6.)

         In August 2017, Schreiner was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. (Id. at ¶ 7.) Two months earlier, Schreiner had asked Holland, Schreiner's longtime friend, to move into Schreiner's apartment, in Miami Beach. (Id. at ¶ 8.) Thereafter, Holland helped care for Schreiner following his diagnosis. (Id. at ¶ 8.) During this time, on February 14, 2018, Holland says he witnessed Schreiner sign a form, changing the beneficiary of his insurance policy from Ifergane to Fratellini, a long-time friend of both Holland and Schreiner's. (Holland Dep. 29:25-30:5; 48:6-8; ECF No. 36-2). Ifergane acknowledges telling Schreiner, prior to this, in November 2017, that her estranged father had died and she expected to inherit a substantial sum as a result. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def. Holland's Stmt. of Facts ¶ 12.)

         Schreiner died on March 10, 2018. The day before his death, Fidelity received the change-of-beneficiary-request form and a change-of-name or mailing-address form, both of which appeared to be signed by Schreiner and dated February 14, 2018. (Fidelity Docs., ECF No. 30-1, 9-16.) On the change-of-beneficiary form, Holland is listed as, and signed as, a disinterested third-party witness to Schreiner's signature. (Id. at 10.) Further, Holland testified that he watched Schreiner sign the forms. (Holland Dep. at 30:2-5.) However, Ifergane has presented the opinion of a purported handwriting expect who opines that it is “highly probable” that the February 14 signature is a forgery. (Hoeltzel Aff., ECF No. 30-7, 4-5.) Additionally, Ifergane says that on March 6, 2018, just four days before his death, as well as on the day before he died, Schreiner reminded her about the insurance policy, telling her not to forget to call the insurance company. (E.g., Ifergane Dep. 4:13-18; 10:22-23 (“Mr. Schreiner told me 24 hours before passing away “don't forget to call the insurance.”).)[2]

         In any event, upon being notified of Schreiner's death, Fidelity reviewed its file and paid the policy death benefits to Fratellini, or his attorney, in May 2018. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def. Holland's Stmt. of Facts ¶ 22.) After learning that she had been removed as the beneficiary of the policy and replaced by Fratellini, Ifergane concluded that either the change of beneficiary form had been forged (Ifergane Dep. 7:25-8:3, 13:1-13; ECF No. 36-2, 90, 91) or that Holland and Fratellini had, in some way, tricked or unduly influenced Schreiner into making the change (id. at 15:15-18).

         2. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper if following discovery, the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, affidavits and admissions on file show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. “An issue of fact is ‘material' if, under the applicable substantive law, it might affect the outcome of the case.” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259-60 (11th Cir.2004). “An issue of fact is ‘genuine' if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 1260. All the evidence and factual inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Jackson v. BellSouth Telecomms., 372 F.3d 1250, 1280 (11th Cir. 2004).

         Once a party properly makes a summary judgment motion by demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, whether or not accompanied by affidavits, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings through the use of affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24. The nonmovant's evidence must be significantly probative to support the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court will not weigh the evidence or make findings of fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249; Morrison v. Amway Corp., 323 F.3d 920, 924 (11th Cir. 2003). Rather, the Court's role is limited to deciding whether there is sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable juror could find for the nonmoving party. Id.

         3. Analysis

         A. Tortious Interference with an expectancy.

         In order to establish her claim for interference with an expectancy, Ifergane must set forth evidence supporting “(1) the existence of an expectancy; (2) intentional interference with the expectancy through tortious conduct; (3) causation; and (4) damages.” Mulvey v. Stephens, 250 So.3d 106, 109 (Fla. 4th Dist. App. 2018). The parties' dispute, here, centers on the second element: Ifergane alleges Holland and Fratellini both tortiously interfered with her expectancy of the life-insurance proceeds by either (1) forging Schreiner's signature on the beneficiary-change forms; or (2) unduly influencing or tricking him into making the change. The Defendants both submit Ifergane has failed to come forward with evidence supporting her claims. Instead, they maintain (1) the unrebutted evidence shows Holland, as a disinterested party, witnessed Schreiner sign the change form and (2) Ifergane herself has acknowledged not having any actual evidence to support her undue influence claim against either Defendant. Ifergane counters on many fronts. She argues that Holland was not a disinterested witness to Schreiner's signature and therefore his testimony should be discounted. She also says the signature on the beneficiary-change form is not Schreiner's based on (1) her own evaluation and (2) her expert witness's conclusion that the signature is likely a forgery. She also contends the Defendants' testimony is undercut based on discrepancies in their recollections of whether and when Schreiner communicated the beneficiary change to Fratellini. She further insists there are issues of material fact because what Holland says Schreiner told him about changing the beneficiary is inconsistent with other evidence and what she says Schreiner told her about the policy. After review, the Court readily agrees with Fratellini that there are no genuine issues of material fact ripe for determination at trial regarding Ifergane's claims against him. The Court also agrees with Holland that there are no genuine issues of material fact regarding Ifergane's claims of undue influence or trickery against him. Conversely, after a careful assessment of the record, the Court finds there are indeed genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Holland forged Schreiner's signature.

         (1) Ifergane has not set forth any genuine issues of material fact with respect to her tortious ...


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