Insurance Agent Should Not Steal From an Old Lady
Aaron Pittman (defendant) appealed from judgments entered upon jury convictions for 1) insurance fraud, 2) obtaining property by false pretenses, and 3) exploitation of an elder adult. He unsuccessfully asked the North Carolina Court of Appeal to reverse his convictions in State of North Carolina v. Aaron Pittman, No. COA11-1114 (N.C.App. 03/20/2012).
In late 2003 defendant was employed as an insurance salesman. Around this time, he went to the home of Effie Satterwhite, a woman in her eighties who was limited in her abilities to read and write. Defendant spoke to Satterwhite about purchasing insurance, and Satterwhite decided to buy a $10,000.00 burial insurance policy from defendant. Defendant helped Satterwhite complete the forms. The policy listed Satterwhite’s half-sister, Sally, as the beneficiary.
Defendant continued to have a relationship with Satterwhite after he sold the policy to her. After some time, defendant introduced Satterwhite to his wife, Mildred Dew. Satterwhite then developed a relationship with defendant and Dew, and the couple occasionally cleaned Satterwhite’s house. During one of his visits, defendant took copies of Satterwhite’s driver’s license and some of her financial records and began a series of activities that wiped oup much of Ms. Satterwhite’s assets.
For example defendant sold Satterwhite two additional insurance policies, 1) another $10,000.00 life insurance policy and 2) a $50,000.00 annuity. These policies also listed Sally as the beneficiary. However, sometime later Dew was made the beneficiary on all three of Satterwhite’s policies. Both Satterwhite’s and Dew’s signatures appeared on the change forms, and Dew was listed as Satterwhite’s niece. After that, Dew began taking money out of the cash values of the life insurance policies and withdrawing money from the annuity.
By March 2008, the annuity was “totally cashed out” and had “no value” remaining.
In 2010 Satterwhite went to her local bank to withdraw money. She was informed by the teller that she did not have enough money in her account to complete her withdrawal. Satterwhite, alarmed and spoke with the teller manager. The manager informed Satterwhite that defendant was a joint owner on her account, and that defendant had opened a checking account and linked it to her account. At that time, the local police department was contacted, and Detective Ricky Cates was assigned to the case.
Detective Cates discovered that defendant had changed the address listed on Satterwhite’s account so that the monthly statements were being sent directly to him. Detective Cates also discovered that defendant had linked his account to Satterwhite’s under the guise that he was her son. A review of Satterwhite’s bank records also revealed that defendant had made a series of large cash withdrawals from her account.
THE ARREST AND TRIAL
Defendant and Dew were then arrested. At the time of his arrest, defendant was in possession of Satterwhite’s driver’s license and the title to her car. Defendant and Dew were each charged with:
- two counts of insurance fraud,
- one count of obtaining property by false pretenses, and
- one count of exploitation of an elder adult.
Prior to trial, the State filed a motion to allow for joinder of defendant and Dew for trial and the trial court granted the motion. On 28 February 2011 the case came on for trial by jury. At trial, the State offered into evidence prior statements made by Dew. These statements, in sum, established:
- that “her husband, Aaron Pittman told her to sign the form[s],” and
- that “she thought it was wrong, but she trusted her husband.”
Defendant testified at trial in his own defense. On 3 March 2011, the jury found defendant guilty. The trial court then sentenced defendant to 96 to 125 months imprisonment for insurance fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses and to 21 to 26 months imprisonment for exploitation of an elder adult. These sentences were ordered to be served consecutively.
Defendant argued that the trial court violated North Carolina law by granting the State’s motion for joinder. Joinder decisions are in the sound discretion of the trial court. According to North Carolina General Statutes, charges against two or more defendants may be joined for trial if the charges are part of a common scheme or plan and public policy strongly compels consolidation as the rule rather than the exception when each defendant is sought to be held accountable for the same crime or crimes.
Here, defendant and Dew were charged with the same crimes, and these crimes arose out of the same common scheme. Defendant sold the policies to Satterwhite, and Dew signed the paperwork necessary to add herself as the beneficiary on the policies.
The Court of Appeal found that the record clearly established that defendant did not dispute the fundamental accuracy of the State’s showing that:
- he sold Satterwhite multiple insurance policies and an annuity;
- he later changed the beneficiaries associated with those policies to Dew and converted Satterwhite’s bank accounts from individual accounts solely owned by Satterwhite to joint accounts owned by both defendant and Satterwhite; and
- he obtained money from the insurance policies, the annuities, and the joint accounts and used that money for personal purposes.
The essential difference between the evidence presented by the State and the evidence presented on behalf of defendant was that the State’s evidence tended to show that Satterwhite never authorized or approved of defendant’s actions while the evidence presented on defendant’s behalf tended to show that he had been acting on Satterwhite’s behalf, in Satterwhite’s best interests, or with Satterwhite’s consent.
The central issue that the jury was required to resolve was not whether the relevant financial transactions occurred but whether Satterwhite had authorized or approved of those transactions.
When viewed in this context, Dew’s statements likely had little bearing on the jury’s evaluation of the credibility of defendant’s claim to have acted in Satterwhite’s best interests or with her consent. The appellate court concluded that Dew’s statements did no play a significant role in the jury’s determination of the issue of defendant’s guilt given that Dew’s statements shed little or no light on the intent with which defendant acted. As a result it concluded that the trial court’s joinder decision did not impermissibly prejudice defendant.
The convictions were affirmed and defendant stays in jail.
Insurance fraud by an insurance agent is sufficient to give a bad name to the entire insurance industry. When the insurance agent takes advantage of a little old lady who trusted him only to find that he depleted her assets it is unconscionable. Every person involved in the insurance industry, especially agents and brokers, should cheer the result of this case and use all of their wits and energies to make sure that agents or brokers like Mr. Pittman are never allowed to commit such a crime successfully and complain that the sentence handed down to Mr. Pittman was too little too late.
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© 2012 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, is a California attorney, insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud. Mr. Zalma serves as a consultant and expert, almost equally, for insurers and policyholders.
He founded Zalma Insurance Consultants in 2001 and serves as its senior consultant.
Mr. Zalma recently published the e-books, “Zalma on Insurance Fraud – 2012″; “Zalma on Diminution in Value Damages – 2012,”“Zalma on Insurance,” “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose — 2011,” “Zalma on Rescission in California,” “Arson for Profit,” “Insurance Fraud,” and others that are available at www.zalma.com/zalmabooks.htm.