210 F.3d 491 (5th Cir. 2000), 98-50061, Gibbs v Gibbs

Docket Nº:98-50061
Citation:210 F.3d 491
Party Name:CAROLYN J. GIBBS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ASHLEY C. GIBBS, A Minor Child; and ANDREW F. GIBBS, a Minor Child, Intervenor Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. GENERAL AMERICAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:April 21, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 491

210 F.3d 491 (5th Cir. 2000)

CAROLYN J. GIBBS, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

ASHLEY C. GIBBS, A Minor Child; and ANDREW F. GIBBS, a Minor Child, Intervenor Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

GENERAL AMERICAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 98-50061

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 21, 2000

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

Before POLITZ, DeMOSS, and BENAVIDES, Circuit Judges.

DeMOSS, Circuit Judge:

Carolyn J. Gibbs (hereinafter "Appellant") appeals from the final judgment in her ERISA action which awarded attorneys' fees to both the Defendant-Appellee, General American Insurance Company (hereinafter "General American"), and to the Intervenor Plaintiff-Appellees, Ashley C. Gibbs and Andrew F. Gibbs, both minors (hereinafter "Intervenors"). Appellant contends that the district court erred in denying her request for attorneys' fees against General American because she was the prevailing party, and that the Court also erred in awarding attorneys' fees and costs to both Intervenors and General American out of the disputed insurance proceeds which were being held in the court's registry. Appellant also contends that the district court erred in admitting certain polygraph results into evidence during the bench trial, and in relying on such evidence in awarding attorneys' fees.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Carolyn J. Gibbs was married to Joel W. Gibbs in 1988. During their marriage they had two children, Ashley and Andrew. Mr. Gibbs maintained employment as a director of operations for Waco Magnetic Imaging, which provided him, as part of his benefits package, a life insurance policy issued through General American Life Insurance Company ("General American"). That policy designated Carolyn Gibbs, as the policy's named beneficiary, with life benefits in the amount of one times Mr. Gibbs' annual salary rounded to the next even thousand dollars ($42,000) with double indemnity accidental death benefits (for a total of $84,000 in the event of accidental death).

At some point in 1994, Appellant contacted a former boyfriend, Bartley Bell, after seeing his appearance on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey television show. Bell was then attending college in Alabama. The two began corresponding and spoke on the phone almost daily. At one point in 1995, Appellant flew to Alabama to

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attend Bell's high school reunion. During their correspondence with one another, they discussed their feelings for one another and their plans for a future together. Due to marital problems, the Gibbses separated from one another on several occasions during 1995.1 In December of the same year, Mr. Gibbs filed for a divorce and moved out of the family residence. The divorce agreement drafted by Mr. Gibbs' attorney, and which Appellant had agreed to sign, would have given Mr. Gibbs the authority to determine where the children would live. Upset by the divorce proceedings, Appellant told one of her friends, Stephanie Grimm, that it would have been a lot easier for her if Mr. Gibbs were killed in a car wreck.

On January 25, 1996, Appellant took her children to a Mother's Day Out program at the Crestview Church of Christ. She had planned her class schedule at Baylor University for the Tuesdays and Thursdays that this program was offered. Shortly after arriving at the church, Appellant testified that she discovered her son Andrew had forgotten his lunch. She told him that his father would bring it to him. But when Andrew began crying, she promised to bring it to him herself. At approximately 9:30 a.m., she called Mr. Gibbs' office, but he was on another phone call. She left a message with Pat Johnson, the office manager, that she was late for her classes and that Mr. Gibbs needed to go by her townhouse to get Andrew's lunch bag and take it to him at the church. She advised Johnson to tell Mr. Gibbs that the kitchen door was unlocked.

After receiving the telephone message, Mr. Gibbs left his office at approximately 9:50 a.m. to retrieve his son's lunch. After several hours had passed without his return, and because he had not responded to numerous pages and telephone calls, his co-workers contacted the police. After her classes ended at 2:00 p.m., Appellant arrived to pick up her children at the church around 2:30 p.m. -- Andrew was crying because his daddy had never shown up with his lunch. When she arrived with the children back at her townhouse, she found Mr. Gibbs' car in her carport. Also present was a police car and a uniformed officer who informed Appellant that the police had been called by Mr. Gibbs' co-workers when he failed to return to work.

Appellant told the officer to drive around the front of the house because of the dog in the backyard. She proceeded into the house through the back door, and upon entering the house noticed that it was messy. Pictures and videos were spread out on the floor and drawers were opened as if they had been searched. She received no response upon calling out Mr. Gibbs' name. When she went upstairs, she found his body lying in the hallway with blood everywhere. She then ran back downstairs and took the children out the front door.

The police then entered the house and found Mr. Gibbs' body. They initially told Appellant that Mr. Gibbs appeared to have taken his own life, but it was later determined that he had been stabbed repeatedly and his throat had been cut open a number of hours before he was discovered. The Hewitt Police Department released the townhouse back to Appellant by 5:00 p.m. that same afternoon. The very next day, Appellant's father, who had arrived the previous evening from Colorado, organized the efforts of Appellant's Sunday school class in cleaning the murder scene. They ripped out the blood-stained carpet, repainted the walls, and generally cleaned up all indications that a murder had occurred. Ms. Truitt also visited the townhouse and removed incriminating love letters which she had written to the Appellant.

In an effort to solve the murder, the Hewitt Police Department enlisted the aid

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of the Texas Rangers; however, their investigation did not begin until after Appellant's friends and family had completely cleaned the murder scene.2 The murder weapon was located sometime thereafter. Appellant, who later found additional bloodstains when she returned for a final clean-up on January 31 , notified the police of the same. Ultimately, the following items were identified as missing from the townhouse: a camcorder, some home videos, Appellant's high school class ring, and one of the children's silver baby mugs. Ten days after the murder, the Texas Rangers requested that Appellant submit to a polygraph examination, but upon the advice of her counsel, she refused.3

Appellant and her children then moved in with Ms. Truitt for approximately four weeks. They then moved to Colorado Springs to live with her parents. By January of 1997, Appellant's former boyfriend, Bartley Bell, had moved to Colorado, where the two were married that July.

In April 1996, Appellant first submitted a claim to General American for the proceeds of Mr. Gibbs' aforementioned life insurance policy. Due to an improper address, General American received the claim three months later. Having been advised by Mr. Gibbs' employer that Appellant was a suspect in her husband's death, General American contacted the Hewitt Police Department which advised that, indeed, Appellant had not been ruled out as a suspect.

In October 1996, Appellant contacted General American to inquire as to the status of her pending claim. Again, General American contacted the Hewitt Police Department, which again advised that Appellant had not yet been ruled out as a suspect. General American then wrote to Appellant and advised her that her claim could not be paid until the investigation into Mr. Gibbs' death had been completed.4 Appellant declined to exercise her rights under a provision of the policy which would have permitted her, as a beneficiary under suspicion of involvement in the insured's death, to waive payment of the insurance proceeds to her directly and to have the proceeds flow directly to her minor children.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In February 1997, Carolyn Gibbs filed this action under ERISA, as the named beneficiary of an ERISA plan, alleging that General American failed to pay benefits under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B), and she requested attorneys' fees pursuant to ERISA's fee provisions, see 29 U.S.C. § 1132(g), because General American's failure to pay was allegedly in bad faith. Upon the filing of the ERISA claim, General American filed an interpleader counterclaim pursuant to Rule 22 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, depositing $88,852.00 (the insurance proceeds plus interest) into the district court's registry. General American never contested its obligation to pay, but pleaded that it was facing potential exposure to conflicting claims from Appellant and the minor children for the proceeds because Carolyn was a suspect in Mr. Gibbs' murder. General American sought to compel the intervention of the Gibbses' minor children and to be itself released from the case. General American also requested an award of attorneys' fees at the time it moved to be dismissed from the case.

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The district court refused to let General American out of the case upon interpleader and required that it litigate the issue of Appellant's entitlement to attorneys' fees under ERISA. The district court reasoned that General American's alleged bad faith was in issue because it withheld payment and failed to file its interpleader before Appellant filed her ERISA action, which was nearly...

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