Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
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Thomas Cabatit was survived by two sons, Jerediah and Joseph, who were given equal shares of Thomas’s Estate after his death. In his will, Thomas designated his sister, Julibel, as the personal representative of his Estate. Julibel subsequently retained Steven Canders and Maine Legal Associates, P.A. (collectively, MLA) to represent her in probate of the Estate. Jerediah and Joseph later filed a petition to surcharge Julibel and remove her as personal representative, alleging mismanagement of the Estate. The probate court removed Julibel and designated Joseph as the successor personal representative. Thereafter, Joseph, in his capacities as a beneficiary and as the personal representative of the Estate, sued MLA, alleging that MLA breached duties it owed to the Estate and to Joseph as a beneficiary by giving Julibel improper advice. The superior court granted summary judgment for MLA, concluding that the scope of the attorney-client relationship did not include a duty to the Estate. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) no attorney-client relationship existed between Joseph in his role as successor personal representative of the Estate and MLA; and (2) MLA did not owe a duty to Joseph as a nonclient. View "Estate of Cabatit v. Canders" on Justia Law

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Appellant Erika Fabian brought this action for legal malpractice and breach of contract by a third-party beneficiary, alleging respondents attorney Ross M. Lindsay, III and his law firm Lindsay & Lindsay made a drafting error in preparing a trust instrument for her late uncle and, as a result, she was effectively disinherited. Appellant appealed the circuit court order dismissing her action under Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP for failing to state a claim and contended South Carolina should recognize a cause of action, in tort and in contract, by a third-party beneficiary of a will or estate planning document against a lawyer whose drafting error defeats or diminishes the client's intent. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court agreed, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Fabian v. Lindsay" on Justia Law

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In 2002, David hired the Attorneys to represent him in petitioning for his appointment as probate conservator of the person and estate of his mother, Donna. In his petition, David represented there were no conservatorship assets and that all of Donna’s assets were held in her Trust, so that no bond was required. Donna actually owned significant assets, including real property and several individual retirement accounts (IRAs), individually and not as assets of her Trust. The probate court appointed David as conservator of both Donna’s person and estate and waived bond. The Attorneys continued to represent David and allegedly “knew that Donna . . . had assets in her name that under California law were assets of the conservatorship,” but never informed the probate court of their existence nor petitioned the court to require or increase a bond. David subsequently misappropriated over one million dollars. Stine, a subsequently-appointed licensed professional fiduciary sued David for financial elder abuse and conversion and the Attorneys for legal malpractice. The trial court dismissed the Attorneys. The court of appeal reversed holding that the successor trustee is not subject to any defense that can be interposed against David and David’s malfeasance. View "Stine v. Dell'Osso" on Justia Law

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Powell was adjudicated a disabled adult due to severe mental disabilities in 1997. His parents, Perry and Leona, were appointed as co-guardians of Powell’s person, but were not appointed as guardians of his estate. In 1999, Perry died following surgery. Leona engaged the Wunsch law firm to bring a claim against the doctors and hospital, Leona was appointed special administratrix of Perry’s estate. Wunsch filed a complaint under the Wrongful Death Act on behalf of Leona individually and as administratrix estate. The estate’s only asset was the lawsuit. A 2005 settlement, after attorney fees and costs, amounted to $15,000, which was distributed equally between Leona, Emma (the couple’s daughter) and Powell. The settlement order provided that Powell’s share was to be paid to Leona on Powell’s behalf. Leona placed both shares into a joint account. The probate court was not notified. Wunsch had referred the action to attorney Webb, for continued litigation. Emma waived her rights under a second settlement, Leona and Powell each received $118,000. A check was deposited into the joint account. The order did not provide that Powell’s was to be administered under supervision of the probate court and Powell did not have a guardian of his estate. Wunsch purportedly advised that it was “too much trouble” to go through the probate court for funds every time Leona needed money for Powell. In 2008, Emma petitioned to remove Leona as guardian of Powell’s person. The probate court appointed Emma as guardian of Powell’s person and the public guardian as guardian of his estate. Leona had withdrawn all but $26,000 and provided no accounting. The public guardian sued the attorneys and Leona. The trial court dismissed as to the attorneys, finding that the complaint failed to sufficiently allege defendants owed Powell a duty and to allege proximate cause. The appellate court determined that an attorney retained by a special administrator of an estate to bring a wrongful death action for the benefit of the surviving spouse and next of kin owed a fiduciary duty to those beneficiaries and remanded, with respect to the second settlement. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed.View "In re the Estate of Powell" on Justia Law

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Elmer Gaede, who owned a 120-acre farm together with his wife, died testate on February 2005. Elmer’s daughter, Diean, was named executor under the will. Diean designated Ivan Ackerman to render legal services in the administration of the estate. During the pendency of the probate proceedings, Elmer’s son James and his wife, who were leasing the farm, exercised the option under the lease agreement to purchase the farm. Diean later filed this legal malpractice lawsuit against Ackerman, alleging that Ackerman failed to adequately protect her personal interests relating to the enforceability of the option. The district court granted summary judgment for Ackerman, determining that Ackerman did not have a duty to protect Diean’s personal interests. The court of appeals reversed, holding that a factual dispute existed over the question of whether Diean had a reasonable expectation that Ackerman was representing her personal interests. The Supreme Court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and affirmed the judgment of the district court, holding that insufficient facts supported Diean’s claim that Ackerman reasonably understood that Diean expected him to protect her personal interests in challenging the option. View "Sabin v. Ackerman" on Justia Law

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After Daniel Nickerson suffered a fatal heart attack, Nickerson’s wife, Cecelia, as personal representative of Nickerson’s estate, filed professional negligence and wrongful death claims against Daniel’s doctor, Dr. Alan Carter, and vicarious liability claims against Mercy Primary Care, Dr. Carter’s employer. A jury found that Dr. Carter was negligent but not the legal cause of Daniel’s death. The Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s judgment, holding that the court erred in admitting the findings of a medical malpractice screening panel, as the panel chair’s consideration of evidence outside the record violated the Maine Health Security Act and Maine’s procedural rules. Remanded. View "Estate of Nickerson v. Carter" on Justia Law

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The Kivers retained C&T, an Illinois law firm, to prepare trusts to benefit their daughters, Diane and Maureen, among others. Maureen and Diane each served as trustee of various trusts. Maureen died in 2007. Her husband, Minor, represents Maureen’s estate, which filed suit against C&T, alleging that C&T failed to disclose the existence and terms of certain trusts to Maureen, to her detriment, and failed to make distributions to her. The estate filed a separate state court suit against Diane, alleging that Diane breached her duties as trustee by failing to disclose the existence of certain trusts to Maureen or make distributions to her. Diane was a client of C&T during the relevant period. The district court entered an agreed protective order governing discovery disclosure to deal with privilege issues and denied the estate’s motion to compel production. The estate violated the protective order. The district court imposed sanctions and dismissed several of the estate’s claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating that “The complexity of the multiple trusts … the untimely death of Maureen, the pursuit of concurrent state and federal suits … the length of this litigation, and the disorderly nature of the estate’s presentation… evoke a middle installment of Bleak House." View "Scott v. Chuhak & Tecson, PC" on Justia Law

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In 1998, Hedstrom married Kotter, a real estate agent. The marriage lasted two years, but the two were on good terms when Hedstrom died. There is no evidence that Hedstrom lacked mental capacity. In 2006 Hedstrom purchased two Chicago condominiums. Kotter acted as his real estate agent and Geldes acted as his real estate attorney. Kotter told Geldes that Hedstrom would take title in another name and that Hedstrom could not hear over a phone so she would answer questions for him. Hedstrom died in 2007. Hedstrom’s children from a prior marriage were appointed administrators. Title to one condominium vested fully in Kotter, the other was titled to the Kotter Family Trust. The administrators sued, alleging breach of fiduciary duty by a real estate agent and legal malpractice. Because the administrators failed to timely identify experts, the magistrate barred them from presenting expert testimony encompassing Kotter’s position as a real estate agent and Geldes’ position as an attorney. The district judge affirmed and the administrators did not appeal. The district court granted summary judgment because expert testimony was needed on the standard of care and because undisputed evidence demonstrated the units were titled in accordance with Hedstrom’s intent. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. View "Ball v. Kotter" on Justia Law

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In 1968 French founded a successful manufacturing firm that he sold, in 1996, for about $200 million. French executed interlocking irrevocable trusts to benefit his four children upon his death. In 2004 he moved the trust accounts to Wachovia Bank. The trusts held two whole life insurance policies. Wachovia replaced the policies with new ones, providing the same benefit for a significantly lower premium, after months of evaluation and consultation with French and his lawyers. Wachovia received a hefty but industry-standard commission for its insurance-brokerage affiliate. French’s adult children sued Wachovia for breach of fiduciary duty by self-dealing. The district court rejected the claim, based on the trust document’s express conflict-of-interest waiver, and held that the transaction was neither imprudent nor undertaken in bad faith. The court ordered the Frenches to pay the bank’s costs and attorney’s fees. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The trust documents gave Wachovia broad discretion to invest trust property without regard to risk, conflicts of interest, lack of diversification, or unproductivity. The trust instrument overrides the common-law prohibition against self-dealing and displaces the prudent-investor rule. While there is always a duty to administer the trust in good faith, there was no evidence that the bank acted in bad faith. View "French v. Wachovia Bank, N.A." on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed the district court's denial of his 28 U.S.C. 2255 federal habeas corpus petition based upon the Supreme Court's decision in Skilling v. United States, which narrowed the scope of the honest services fraud theory. Defendant,a former attorney and trustee of private trusts, pleaded guilty to honest services fraud. The government conceded that defendant was actually innocent of honest services fraud in light of Skilling, which confined the reach of the offense to cases of bribes and kickbacks. The court vacated the district court's dismissal of defendant's honest services fraud claim where no evidence suggested that defendant either engaged in bribery or received kickbacks. View "United States v. Avery" on Justia Law