Tatum v. Barrentine, 1999-CA-01775-SCT.

Decision Date18 October 2001
Docket NumberNo. 1999-CA-01775-SCT.,1999-CA-01775-SCT.
Citation797 So.2d 223
PartiesDavid TATUM, Administrator of the Estate of D. Marshall Tatum, Deceased v. Amanda BARRENTINE a/k/a Amanda Lopez.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

David Wayne Baria, Jackson, for Appellant.

John R. Reeves, Jackson, for Appellee.

EN BANC.

SMITH, Justice, for the Court.

ON MOTION FOR REHEARING

¶ 1. The motion for rehearing is denied. The original opinion is withdrawn, and this opinion is substituted therefor.

¶ 2. This life insurance proceeds dispute comes to this Court on appeal by the insured's estate from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Attala County, Mississippi directing a verdict in favor of the primary beneficiary, Amanda Barrentine a/k/a Amanda Lopez. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW

¶ 3. D. Marshall Tatum ("Tatum") met Amanda Barrentine ("Barrentine") while they worked together at Mississippi Sportswear in Kosciusko, Mississippi between 1995 and 1996. Over time, Tatum became quite fond of Barrentine. He bought her lunch on a daily basis and continually purchased flowers and other gifts for her. Tatum's estate alleges that Barrentine falsely led Tatum to believe that she would become his wife and that he later relied on this promise. Barrentine claims that she never shared Tatum's level of infatuation nor did she ever promise to marry him.

¶ 4. In December of 1997, Tatum applied with Kansas City Life Insurance Company for a life insurance policy on his life. He named Barrentine as the primary beneficiary of the policy proceeds. Gary Bryan, insurance agent for Kansas City Life Insurance, asked Tatum what relation Barrentine was to him. Tatum responded that Barrentine was his girlfriend. Bryan falsely informed Tatum that the person designated as beneficiary must be a blood relative or have an insurable interest. It was at this point that Tatum responded that Barrentine was, in fact, his fiancee. The policy was issued, and Tatum's estate was named as secondary beneficiary of this policy. Barrentine maintains that she was not aware of the insurance policy or the fact that she was named beneficiary.

¶ 5. On February 10, 1998, Tatum was tragically killed in an automobile accident. Within a few weeks, Barrentine was contacted by a representative of the insurance company informing her that she was the beneficiary of Tatum's policy. The representative informed her that another company representative would contact her soon to discuss the matter further. Two or three weeks passed, and Barrentine heard nothing from the insurance company. Barrentine then contacted a former co-worker of Marshall's to find out the insurance company's name. Barrentine then called Kansas City Life Insurance Company and spoke with William Stetzler. Stetzler instructed her to fill out a claimant's statement and to return it to his office. She filled out the form and described her relationship to Tatum as one of friendship. In the meantime, Tatum's estate wrote a demand letter to Kansas City and demanded payment of the insurance proceeds. Since two parties were claiming rights to the proceeds, Kansas City put a hold on payment until the matter could be resolved.

¶ 6. Tatum's estate, represented by David Tatum as administrator (the Estate), filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in the Circuit Court of Attala County on June 10, 1998. The complaint alleged that Barrentine "knowingly and fraudulently induced D. Marshall Tatum, deceased, to rely on her promise of marriage and considered her to be his fiancee." The insurance proceeds were interpled by Kansas City on July 21, 1998.

¶ 7. The Estate claimed that Barrentine's answer was due on July 10, 1998, and when it was not filed by that date, the Estate asked that the circuit clerk make an entry of default against Barrentine. The circuit clerk of Attala County entered an Entry of Default against Barrentine on July 14, 1998. Barrentine had also filed her Answer on July 14, 1998 and therein a counterclaim for declaratory judgment. Barrentine filed a Motion to Set Aside Entry of Default on August 12, 1998, and the Motion was granted.

¶ 8. Trial was held on September 8, 1999, and after the Estate rested, the court directed a verdict in favor of Barrentine. On October 19, 1999, the trial court denied the Estate's Motion for New Trial and Motion to Correct or Amend Judgment. The Estate made a timely appeal to this Court on October 26, 1999.

¶ 9. On October 27, 1999, Barrentine filed a Motion to Release Funds which was granted on December 13, 1999. The court ordered the Circuit Clerk of Attala County to pay the funds to Barrentine if the Estate failed to post a supersedeas bond in the amount of $75,000.00 within 30 days. The Estate did not post the bond, and the funds were released to Barrentine.

¶ 10. The Estate alleges the following assignments of error:

I. WHETHER THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN SETTING ASIDE THE ENTRY OF DEFAULT?
II. WHETHER THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN REFUSING TO ALLOW DISCOVERY TO BE CONDUCTED OUTSIDE OF THE NINETY DAY PERIOD PRESCRIBED BY U.C.C.C.R. 4.04(A)?
III. WHETHER THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION IN LIMINE REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S TRIAL WITNESSES?
IV. WHETHER THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN GRANTING A DIRECTED VERDICT?
V. WHETHER THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN REFUSING THE PLAINTIFF AN APPEAL WITHOUT THE NECESSITY OF A SUPERSEDEAS BOND?
VI. WHETHER THE LOWER COURT ERRED IN GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO RELEASE FUNDS?

DISCUSSION OF LAW

¶ 11. This Court conducts a de novo review in cases where a directed verdict has been granted. Vu v. Clayton, 765 So.2d 1253, 1254 (Miss.2000) (citing Pace v. Financial Sec. Life of Miss., 608 So.2d 1135, 1138 (Miss.1992). "If the Court finds that the evidence favorable to the nonmoving party and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom present a question for the jury, the motion should not be granted." Pace, 608 So.2d at 1138. This Court has also held that the trial court should submit a question to the jury if the evidence raises a fact question upon which reasonable jurors could disagree. Vines v. Windham, 606 So.2d 128, 131 (Miss.1992)).

I.

¶ 12. The first question presented to this Court is whether the circuit court erred in setting aside the entry of default? M.R.C.P. 55(c) states: "[f]or good cause shown, the court may set aside an entry of default and, if a judgment by default has been entered, may likewise set it aside in accordance with Rule 60(b)." Judgment by default had not been entered in this case. The circuit clerk of Attala County made an entry of default against Amanda Barrentine on July 14, 1998. An entry of default can be set aside if "good cause" is shown to the court. M.R.C.P.55(c). The Estate also made a Motion to Enter Default Judgment against Barrentine. Since the entry of default was set aside, the Motion for Default Judgment was effectively denied the same day.

¶ 13. The Estate argues that there are three factors that a court must consider before setting aside an entry of default: (1) whether the movant's basis for requesting relief is legitimate, (2) whether the movant has a colorable defense to the merits, and (3) whether the nonmovant will be unduly prejudiced if the motion is granted. Rich ex rel. Brown v. Nevels, 578 So.2d 609, 613 (Miss.1991). The Estate mistakenly assumes that these factors apply to an entry of default. However, this case deals with setting aside a default judgment. It is again important to note that a default judgment had not been entered in this case. Again, M.R.C.P. 55(c) states that an entry of default may be set aside upon a showing of "good cause."

¶ 14. In Barrentine's motion to set aside the entry of default, she argued several defenses. First, Barrentine urged the court that the entry of default should be set aside because she is the named beneficiary of the life insurance policy. Next, Barrentine argued that she was not actually in default since her Answer, Cross Claim and Counterclaim was filed on the same date of July 14, 1998. Another defense pointed out in this motion was that the Estate failed to follow the clerk's entry of default with an affidavit or other proof that entry of default was proper. M.R.C.P. 55(a).

¶ 15. "[T]he decision to grant or set aside a default judgment is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court." Williams v. Kilgore, 618 So.2d 51, 55 (Miss.1992) (citing Pointer v. Huffman, 509 So.2d 870, 875 (Miss.1987)). The discretion must be exercised in conformity with the rules set forth in M.R.C.P. 55(c) and 60(b). Guar. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. Pittman, 501 So.2d 377, 388 (Miss.1987). This Court has also held that "[a]bsent abuse of discretion, we will not disturb the rulings of the trial court on a default judgment." Id.

¶ 16. Based on the record, we hold that the circuit judge was certainly within his discretion to set aside this entry of default. Barrentine's motion provided numerous defenses that established "good cause" consistent with M.R.C.P. 55(c). "[A]n application for vacation of such a judgment is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court." Pittman, 501 So.2d at 388 (citing Bryant, Inc. v. Walters, 493 So.2d 933, 936-37 (Miss.1986)). For this reason, the Estate's argument fails.

II.

¶ 17. The second issue presented to this Court is whether the circuit court erred in refusing to allow discovery to be conducted outside of the ninety day period prescribed by Uniform Rule of Circuit and County Court Practice 4.04(A)? "All discovery must be completed within ninety days from service of an answer by the applicable defendant." U.C.C.C.R. 4.04(A). The Estate filed its complaint on June 10, 1998. Barrentine filed an answer on July 14, 1998. The Estate did not make its first request for admissions until December 30, 1998. This request was made 169 calendar days after Barrentine filed her answer. Barrentine objected to certain interrogatories as violating U.C.C.C.R. 4.04(A) and as being duplicitous. Accordingly, the Estate...

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