Justia Professional Malpractice & Ethics Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Trusts & Estates
Ennenga v. Starns
In 2000, husband and wife, with an estate valued at $3 to $4 million, revised their estate plan with the assistance of their Illinois lawyer, a Minnesota lawyer, and a law partner of their son-in-law. The plan included a trust that treated their son and his daughter, India, less favorably than their two daughters and other grandchildren. When they died within a month of each other in 2004, their son and India sued the three lawyers, alleging malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. The district court rejected a conflict-of-interest argument and dismissed most of the claims as untimely or barred. India's minor status tolled the limitations period, but the court dismissed her claim as premature. The Seventh Circuit affirmed and held that India's claim should have been dismissed with prejudice. The district court properly chose Illinois's statute of limitations over Minnesota's; and properly rejected waiver and equitable-tolling arguments. The court properly dismissed the fiduciary-duty claims as barred by res judicata; there had been state court litigation concerning sale of the family home. There was no evidence to support India’s contention that her grandparents intended her to receive more than the documents provide. View "Ennenga v. Starns" on Justia Law
Vinton v. Virzi
Petitioner Amanda Vinton, Esq. sought relief from orders of the probate court that permitted Respondent Sharon Virzi to amend her challenge to a trust administration by adding a claim of fraud against Vinton, the attorney for the trustee. Over Petitioner's objection, the probate court summarily granted Respondent's motion to amend, forcing Petitioner to withdraw as counsel for the trustee. The probate court subsequently summarily denied two motions by Petitioner to dismiss the claim against her and ordered her to pay Respondent's attorney fees for having to defend against a substantially frivolous and groundless motion. The Supreme Court issued a rule to show cause. Because Respondent's fraud claim was not plead with sufficient particularity to withstand a motion to dismiss, it was futile, and the probate court abused its discretion in permitting the joinder of her opponent's attorney. The Supreme Court found that whether or not Petitioner's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction over the separate fraud claim was meritorious, the record was inadequate to support an award of attorney fees. The rule was therefore made absolute, and the matter was remanded to the probate court with directions to dismiss Respondent's claim of fraud against Petitioner and to vacate its award of attorney fees. View "Vinton v. Virzi" on Justia Law
In the matter of the Guardianship of Stanfield
Tracy Stanfield was injured in 1992. A settlement relating to his injuries resulted in an annuity providing periodic payments to Stanfield from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife). Stanfield assigned certain annuity payments, and the assignee in turn assigned them to J. G. Wentworth S.S.C. Limited Partnership (Wentworth). Stanfield later caused MetLife to ignore the assignments to Wentworth. Wentworth filed an action in a Pennsylvania state court and obtained a judgment against Stanfield. Wentworth then filed a motion for a judgment against MetLife for the same amount. A Pennsylvania court granted the motion. Soon thereafter, Stanfield's mother Mildred filed a petition in an Oklahoma district court to be appointed guardian of her son's estate. MetLife filed an interpleader action in a Pennsylvania federal district court and named Wentworth and Mildred in her capacity as guardian of her son's estate as defendants. Mildred asked attorney Loyde Warren to accept service of process on her behalf, and he agreed. Stanfield signed Warren's contingency fee agreement; Warren then engaged local counsel in Pennsylvania. At the settlement conference the parties agreed that Wentworth's judgment would be withdrawn; payments would be paid from Stanfield's annuity payments to Wentworth; the annuity assignment was rescinded; and future annuity payments from MetLife to Stanfield, as guardian, would be made payable in care of Warren. In 2009, Warren filed a motion in the open and continuing guardianship case before the Oklahoma district court for approval of both the 2001 contract for legal representation and the payment of legal fees made pursuant to that contract. Mildred objected and among her arguments, she maintained that a contingency fee for successfully defending a client from a judgment was improper, and that the fee agreement was unenforceable because it had not been approved by the guardianship court. The district court denied Warren's motion, "[b]ecause the application was not filed prior to payment of the fee and was not filed until nearly eight years after the contract was executed." The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed, and Warren appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that (1) the district court possessed jurisdiction to adjudicate a guardianship proceeding a motion seeking court approval of a lawyer's contingent fee contract; (2) the guardian's failure to obtain court approval of a contingent fee agreement prior to payment pursuant to that agreement is not, by itself, a legally sufficient reason for a court to deny a motion to approve the agreement; and (3) the mere passage of time between creation of a contingent fee agreement and when it is presented to a court for approval in an open and continuing guardianship proceeding is not a legally sufficient reason to deny approval of that agreement. View "In the matter of the Guardianship of Stanfield" on Justia Law
Owen v. Bishop
Patricia Shelton filed suit alleging breach of contract a legal malpractice against her former attorneys Defendants-Appellants R. Bruce Owens, Jeffrey Crandall, and Owens and Crandall, PLLC (Owens). During the pendency of her action, Ms. Shelton passed away. Plaintiff-Appellee Lois Bishop sought to assert Ms. Shelton's claims as her personal representative. Owens unsuccessfully argued that the legal malpractice claim abated upon Ms. Shelton's death, and that her breach of contract claim did not state a claim. Owens appealed. Because Patricia Shelton’s legal malpractice claim sounds in tort and abated upon her death, and her breach of contract claim fails to state a claim, the Supreme Court concluded the district court erred in denying Owens’s motion for summary judgment and in granting Bishop’s motion to substitute as plaintiff. View "Owen v. Bishop" on Justia Law
White v. Harris
Plaintiff Terrance White appealed a superior court's order in his wrongful death action that granted summary judgment to Defendant Fletcher Allen Health Care, Inc. This case arose from the suicide of Plaintiff's fourteen-year-old daughter. Plaintiff sued Defendant, which employed a psychiatrist who was briefly involved with the decedent's case through a telepsychiatry research study. Plaintiff argued that summary judgment was improperly granted on the issue of the duty owed to decedent by the psychiatrist. Ultimately, the trial court found that the psychiatrist's contact with decedent was "so minimal as to not establish a physician-patient relationship," and consequently found that no duty existed at the time of decedent's death. Even assuming that a doctor-patient relationship was established, the court concluded that it was terminated following the video-conference and, thus, any duty was extinguished by termination of the relationship and no duty existed at the time of decedent's death. The court thus granted defendant's summary judgment motion. Plaintiff argued that the court erred in finding that the doctor owed no duty to decedent. They maintained that the doctor had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect decedent from the danger she posed to herself, and that the doctor did not effectively terminate the doctor-patient relationship prior to decedent's death. Upon review, the Supreme Court agreed with Plaintiff and thus reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case for additional proceedings. View "White v. Harris" on Justia Law
Spence v. Wingate
Respondent Deborah Spence alleged that attorney Kenneth Wingate breached a fiduciary duty to her as a former client in its handling of her late husband's life insurance policy. Mr. Spence was a member of United States House of Representatives, and he held a life insurance policy. Mr. Spence named Mrs. Spence and his four sons from a prior marriage as the beneficiaries of the policy, with all five to receive equal shares of the proceeds. Wingate undertook representation of Mrs. Spence with regards to the assets of her husband, her inheritance rights, and her rights in his estate. Wingate advised Mrs. Spence that she was entitled to nothing from her husband's estate and that she was barred from receiving an elective share by a prenuptial agreement. Wingate advised Mrs. Spence to enter into an agreement with the four adult sons of Mr. Spence to create a trust to provide her with a lifetime income stream. The trust was to be created and funded from one-third of the value of Mr. Spence's probate estate. Mrs. Spence thereafter came to believe that the amount she received under the agreement negotiated by Wingate was much less than what she was entitled to under the will and its codicil or if she had opted for an elective share. Mrs. Spence thereafter brought a lawsuit to set aside the agreement creating the trust. The agreement was eventually set aside. The circuit court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Wingate and found that, "[b]y statute, [Wingate] owed no duty or obligation to [Mrs. Spence] in connection with the congressional life insurance policy or the manner in which it was paid." The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment to Wingate and remanded the matter for trial. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded Wingate owed a fiduciary duty to Mrs. Spence: "[t]his duty included, among other obligations, the obligation not to act in a manner adverse to her interests in matters substantially related to the prior representation. … we uphold the decision of the Court of Appeals to reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand this matter for trial. To the extent the Court of Appeals indicated whether a duty was owed was a question of fact for the jury, the decision is modified to recognize that whether a fiduciary relationship exists between two classes of persons is a matter to be determined by a court." View "Spence v. Wingate" on Justia Law
Hill v. Davis, Etc.
This case arose when respondent, a resident of New York, filed a petition for administration asserting that he was entitled to be appointed personal representative of the estate of the decedent because he was the decedent's stepson and was nominated as personal representative in the will. At issue was whether an objection to the qualifications of a personal representative of an estate was barred by the three-month filing deadline set forth in section 733.212(3), Florida Statutes, a provision of the Florida Probate Code, when the objection was not filed within the statutory time frame. The court held that section 733.212(3) barred an objection to the qualifications of a personal representative, including an objection that the personal representative was never qualified to serve, if the objection filed under this statute, except where fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct with regard to the qualifications was not apparent on the face of the petition or discovered within the statutory time frame. Accordingly, because fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct was not alleged in relation to the objection to the personal representative in this case, the court approved the decision of the First District Court. The court also held that, to the extent that the decision of the Third District Court in Angelus v. Pass involved allegations of fraud or misrepresentation not revealed in the petition for administration, the court approved the result in Angelus. However, the court disapproved Angelus to the extent that it held section 733.212(3) did not bar objections that a personal representative was never qualified to serve. View "Hill v. Davis, Etc." on Justia Law
The Irrevocable Asset Protection Trust of Henry C. Rohlf
This matter involved a supposed "asset protection trust" (Henry's trust) settled by and for the benefit of respondent where petitioner, BNY Mellon Trust of Delaware (BNY), held a demand note representing a several hundred thousand dollar loan BNY had made to respondent, secured by the assets of his mother's estate and trust. At issue was whether BNY was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of breach of fiduciary duty in its management of Henry's trust. The court held that respondents failed to articulate a theory, and have failed to allege any specific facts, which would indicate that BNY acted in bad faith. The court also held that because respondent had failed to allege facts indicating that BNY's decision to pledge trust assets, and to liquidate and hold trust assets in cash, were taken in bad faith, summary judgment on the remaining fiduciary claims was appropriate. View "The Irrevocable Asset Protection Trust of Henry C. Rohlf" on Justia Law
United States v. MacKay, et al.
Petitioners appealed from a Memorandum and Order and Final Order of Forfeiture entered by the district court dismissing their petition for an ancillary hearing and rejecting their claim as beneficiaries of a putative constructive trust in defendant's forfeiture assets. At issue was whether the remission provision of 21 U.S.C. 853(i) precluded the imposition of a constructive trust in petitioners' favor and whether imposing a constructive trust would be consistent with a forfeiture statutory scheme provided by section 853. Because the court concluded that section 853(i) did not preclude, as a matter of law, recognizing a constructive trust and because a constructive trust was not inconsistent with the forfeiture statute, the court vacated the Final Order of Forfeiture and remanded the case to the district court to consider whether, pursuant to Vermont law, a constructive trust should be recognized in favor of petitioners. View "United States v. MacKay, et al." on Justia Law
Soignier v. Fletcher
Plaintiff-Appellant Mary Soignier appealed a district court's decision that granted summary judgment to her former attorney, W. Kent Fletcher. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Plaintiff asserted that Attorney Fletcher negligently drafted a will that failed to "adequately effectuate the testator's intent." After reviewing the record and the applicable legal authority, the Supreme Court found that the district court correctly granted summary judgment to Mr. Fletcher. The Court affirmed the district court's judgment.