Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama

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Albert Daniels petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus compelling the Barbour Circuit Court to vacate its order severing and staying Daniels's claims against defendants Joseph Morris, Tracy Cary, and Morris, Cary, Andrews, Talmadge & Driggers, LLC ("the Morris firm"), and also to compel the circuit court to enter a default judgment. Sherry Johnson and Daniels were the parents of Alquwon Johnson. On June 4, 2011, Alquwon committed suicide while he was an inmate in the Barbour County jail. Johnson engaged the Morris firm to pursue a wrongful-death claim related to Alquwon's death. Johnson, as the personal representative of Alquwon's estate, filed a wrongful-death action in the Barbour Circuit Court. Johnson was represented by the Morris defendants in the wrongful-death litigation. The case was removed to federal court. In 2015, the case was settled. The Morris defendants distributed the settlement funds to Johnson; none of the proceeds were paid to Daniels. Daniels telephoned the Morris firm to inquire about retaining the firm to file a wrongful-death suit related to Alquwon's death. After speaking with an employee of the firm, Daniels was told that the firm had a conflict of interest and could not represent him. He later received a letter from Cary stating that "a lawsuit brought on your behalf would not be economically feasible given the nature, facts and circumstances surrounding your case." The Morris firm did not inform Daniels about the prior lawsuit and that it had settled the case and paid the settlement proceeds to Johnson. On September 18, 2015, Daniels filed suit against Johnson alleging that, as Alquwon's father, Daniels was entitled to 50% of the net settlement proceeds but that Johnson had wrongfully retained the entire amount. He asserted against Johnson claims of breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. Two years later, Daniels added as defendants the Morris defendants and asserting two claims against them. Count three of Daniels's amended complaint asserted a claim of fraud against the Morris defendants. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act ("ALSLA") did not require that Daniels's claims against the Morris defendants be bifurcated and stayed pending resolution of his claims against Johnson. Accordingly, the circuit court was directed to vacate its order bifurcating and staying Daniels's claims against the Morris defendants. Daniels, however, did not establish a clear legal right to a default judgment against the Morris defendants. Thus, as to the request for a default judgment, the petition was denied. View "Ex parte Albert Daniels." on Justia Law

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Fred W. Suggs, Jr., as personal representative of the Estate of Frances W. Gray, deceased, appealed a circuit court order denying his Rule 60(b), Ala. R. Civ. P., motion for relief from judgments entered by the circuit court on the basis that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter those judgments. Frances ("the wife") died testate in September 2011, and the Probate Court issued letters testamentary to her husband, Floyd Gray ("husband"), establishing him as the personal representative of his wife's estate. The husband died testate in January 2012, and the probate court issued letters testamentary to Elizabeth Gray ("Gray"), establishing her as the personal representative of the husband's estate. The probate court then appointed Suggs as the successor personal representative of the wife's estate. Gray and Suggs thereafter sold the house in which the husband and the wife had lived. They had owned the house as tenants in common; there was no survivorship provision. Before the sale of the house, both Gray and Suggs agreed that the net proceeds from the sale would be held in a trust account the law firm representing both estates. At some point, Suggs sent the law firm a letter stating that the wife's estate had a "claim" against the husband's estate and instructing the law firm not to disburse any proceeds to the husband's estate until the "matter" was resolved. While the administration of both estates was pending in the probate court, Gray filed a declaratory-judgment action, asserting that a controversy existed between her and Suggs concerning the disbursement of the proceeds held in the law firm's trust account, specifically, asserting that Suggs was withholding consent to disburse that portion of the proceeds belonging to the husband's estate. Suggs moved to dismiss the declaratory-judgment action, arguing the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. The circuit court denied the motion. Suggs then filed an answer and a counterclaim, alleging fraud, conversion, embezzlement, breach of the duty of loyalty, and breach of fiduciary duty. Under the facts of this case, the circuit court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the declaratory-judgment action concerning disbursement of the proceeds held in the law firm's trust account. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a portion of the summary judgment entered in the declaratory-judgment action, which ordered one-half of the proceeds be disbursed to the husband's estate. Because Suggs filed a counterclaim concerning ownership of certain assets that were clearly within the probate court's jurisdiction, the probate court retained jurisdiction over those estate assets and because the administration of neither estate was removed to the circuit court pursuant to statute, the circuit court's judgments purporting to exercise jurisdiction over those assets were a nullity. That portion of the summary judgment concerning the proceeds from certain assets was vacated. View "Suggs v. Gray" on Justia Law

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In appeal no. 1161016, Margaret McGimsey, Cathy Cramer, Barbara McCollum, and Marilyn Busch (referred to collectively as "the nieces") appealed the grant of summary judgement entered in favor of Lynda Jeanette Gray, individually and as the personal representative of the estate of Thomas Leonard Pitts, deceased, in a will contest they initiated following Pitts's death; the nieces also challenged the trial court's order directing them to reimburse Gray $8,393 for court costs and certain litigation expenses. In appeal no. 1161055, Gray cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court exceeded its discretion by not also entering an award of attorney fees in her favor. The Alabama Supreme Court was satisfied the nieces identified evidence indicating: (1) Gray assisted Pitts in an initial attempt to revise his existing will sometime in 2010; (2) that Gray gave conflicting accounts regarding her presence in Pitts's meeting with hospice services that led to Howard contacting Pitts; (3) Gray helped with the scheduling of the meeting at which the November 2010 will was executed and arranged for the witnesses to be at that meeting; (4) that Gray was in the house both times Howard met with Pitts; and (5) that the nieces were not told about the November 2010 will when it was executed. This evidence was sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact with regard to whether there was undue activity on Gray's part in procuring the execution of the November 2010 will. Inasmuch as the nieces put forth substantial evidence of all three elements of an undue-influence claim, the trial court erred by entering a summary judgment in favor of Gray on that claim, and that judgment was reversed. Moreover, inasmuch as section 43-8-196 Ala. Code 1975 provides that a will contestant is liable for the costs of the contest only if the contest "fails," the trial court's judgment was also reversed to the extent it ordered the nieces to reimburse Gray $8,393. View "McGimsey v. Gray" on Justia Law

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In appeal no. 1161016, Margaret McGimsey, Cathy Cramer, Barbara McCollum, and Marilyn Busch (referred to collectively as "the nieces") appealed the grant of summary judgement entered in favor of Lynda Jeanette Gray, individually and as the personal representative of the estate of Thomas Leonard Pitts, deceased, in a will contest they initiated following Pitts's death; the nieces also challenged the trial court's order directing them to reimburse Gray $8,393 for court costs and certain litigation expenses. In appeal no. 1161055, Gray cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court exceeded its discretion by not also entering an award of attorney fees in her favor. The Alabama Supreme Court was satisfied the nieces identified evidence indicating: (1) Gray assisted Pitts in an initial attempt to revise his existing will sometime in 2010; (2) that Gray gave conflicting accounts regarding her presence in Pitts's meeting with hospice services that led to Howard contacting Pitts; (3) Gray helped with the scheduling of the meeting at which the November 2010 will was executed and arranged for the witnesses to be at that meeting; (4) that Gray was in the house both times Howard met with Pitts; and (5) that the nieces were not told about the November 2010 will when it was executed. This evidence was sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact with regard to whether there was undue activity on Gray's part in procuring the execution of the November 2010 will. Inasmuch as the nieces put forth substantial evidence of all three elements of an undue-influence claim, the trial court erred by entering a summary judgment in favor of Gray on that claim, and that judgment was reversed. Moreover, inasmuch as section 43-8-196 Ala. Code 1975 provides that a will contestant is liable for the costs of the contest only if the contest "fails," the trial court's judgment was also reversed to the extent it ordered the nieces to reimburse Gray $8,393. View "McGimsey v. Gray" on Justia Law

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Shellie G. Spencer III ("Shellie III") appealed a probate court order admitting a copy of his father's will to probate. After reviewing the record under the ore tenus standard of review and applying the prevailing substantive legal principles, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded the judgment of the probate court was supported by the evidence. The proponent met his burden of rebutting the presumption that the 2010 will had been revoked and establishing to the reasonable satisfaction of the probate court that the 2010 will had not been revoked. The probate court's notation in its order concerning Shellie III's failure to offer any evidence "in support of the application of [that] evidentiary presumption" did not amount to reversible error. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed the probate court's judgment. View "Spencer III v. Spencer" on Justia Law

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George Bates and David Joyner appealed a circuit court order approving a final judicial accounting of the administration of a trust pursuant to 19-3B-205, Ala. Code 1975. Because the trial court did not certify its order as final pursuant to Rule 54(b) and because its order contemplated further action on behalf of the trustee, the Alabama Supreme Court determined the order at issue here was not a final appealable order. Accordingly, the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Bates and Joyner's appeal. View "Bates v. Stewart" on Justia Law

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The Alabama Supreme Court granted Clifford Goodman Wright, the administrator of the estate of Mary Evelyn Wright, permission to appeal a circuit court interlocutory order. In that order, the trial court ruled that the $100,000 cap on damages set out in section 11-93-2, Ala. Code 1975, applied to Wright's claims against three nurses, Dawn Reid, Phyllis Harris, and Tuwanda Worrills, who were employees of the Cleburne County Hospital Board, Inc., d/b/a Cleburne County Nursing Home ("the Hospital Board"), at the times relevant to Wright's action. Section 11-93-2 governed "[t]he recovery of damages under any judgment against a [county or municipal] governmental entity." Because Wright sued the nurses seeking money damages in their individual capacities, the trial court erred in applying section 11-93-2 to Wright's claims. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Wright v. Cleburne County Hospital Board, Inc." on Justia Law

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Robert Wehle died in 2002. The will created a marital trust for Wehle's wife, Gatra Wehle, and a family trust for his daughters and Wehle's granddaughter, Debbie Kloppenberg. The personal representatives were named as cotrustees of both the marital trust and the family trust. In 2005, the personal representatives petitioned the probate court for final settlement of the estate. They also filed an accounting of their administration of the estate. The accounting indicated that the personal representatives had paid themselves total compensation of $1,964,367.82, which, they alleged was 5% of the value of Wehle's estate at the time the petition for final settlement was filed, and was consistent with the statutory allowance for such fees. Further, the personal representatives maintained the decedent intended for the fees to be approximately 5% of the value of his estate. The daughters filed an objection to the accounting, arguing, among other things, that, pursuant to 43-2-844(7), Ala. Code 1975, the personal representatives were required to obtain prior court approval before compensating themselves out of the assets of the estate. The daughters also argued that the amount of the compensation exceeded the "reasonable compensation" allowed by 43- 2-848(a), Ala. Code 1975. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded the representatives' payment without prior authorization was not expressly authorized by the will, and the circuit court erred in granting partial summary judgment with respect to the fees. On remand, the circuit court held the $1,964,367.82 was "reasonable compensation" under 43-2-848(a), Ala. Code 1975. This award was appealed, with the Supreme Court rejecting the daughters' challenges to the reasonableness of the fees awarded to the personal representatives and the circuit court's refusal to remove a trustee. However, the Court agreed the circuit court erred in denying their claim seeking to recover interest from the date of the premature compensation payments through the date those payments were finally approved by the circuit court. The Court also agreed the circuit court erred "insofar as it determined the amount of the attorney fees" due the personal representatives in connection with their defense of the daughters' claims. Further, the Court held the circuit court had, as the daughters alleged, violated its mandate in the first appeal to tax the costs of the appeal in that case against the personal representatives. Still aggrieved, the parties appealed and cross-appealed. The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that because the personal representatives failed to demonstrate that the circuit court erred in awarding only the fees the personal representatives demonstrated that they actually incurred, the Supreme Court affirmed that portion of the circuit court's judgment. View "Wehle v. Bradley" on Justia Law

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Appellants Tomeka and Marlon McElroy appealed a circuit court judgment denying their will contest. In 2010, Tracy McElroy filed a petition to probate the will of Clifton McElroy, Jr. Tracy was the executrix; the will was self-proving in accordance with the requirements of section 43-8-132, Ala. Code 1975. The probate court admitted the will to probate and issued letters testamentary to Tracy. Later that year, appellants filed a will contest in the probate court, alleging that Clifton's signature on the will was forged and that, therefore, the will was not properly executed. Appellants were both Clifton's heirs and beneficiaries under his will, and demanded that their will contest be transferred to the circuit court pursuant to 43-8-198, Ala. Code 1975. Tracy moved to dismiss the will contest, arguing that because the will had already been admitted to probate, the contest could not ben filed pursuant to 43-8-190, Ala. Code 1975. Generally, "[o]nce the administration and settlement of an estate are removed from the probate court, the probate court loses jurisdiction over the estate, and the circuit court obtains and maintains jurisdiction until the final settlement of the case." However, in this case, the administration of Clifton's estate was not properly removed from the probate court; therefore, the circuit court never obtained jurisdiction over the administration of Clifton's estate. Thus, the circuit court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to consider the will contest, and the judgment entered by the circuit court on the will contest was void. Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed. View "McElroy v. McElroy" on Justia Law

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Candy Parkhurst ("Parkhurst"), personal representative of the estate of her husband, Andrew P. Parkhurst ("Andrew"), deceased, file suit to compel Carter C. Norvell and Parkhurst & Norvell, an accounting firm Norvell had operated as a partnership with Andrew ("the partnership"), to arbitrate a dispute regarding the dissolution of the partnership. Pursuant to an arbitration provision in a dissolution agreement Norvell and Andrew had executed before Andrew's death, the trial court ultimately ordered arbitration and stayed further proceedings until arbitration was complete. Subsequently, however, Parkhurst moved the trial court to lift the stay and to enter a partial summary judgment resolving certain aspects of the dispute in her favor. After the trial court lifted the stay and scheduled a hearing on Parkhurst's motion, Norvell and the partnership appealed, arguing that the trial court was effectively failing to enforce the terms of a valid arbitration agreement in violation of the Federal Arbitration Act. The Alabama Supreme Court determined there was no evidence in the record indicating that Norvell made such an agreement and he, in fact, denied doing so. In the absence of any evidence that would establish such an agreement, as well as any other evidence that would conclusively establish that Norvell clearly and unequivocally expressed an intent to waive his right to have the arbitrator resolve this dispute. As such, Parkhurst failed to meet her burden of showing that the arbitration provision in the dissolution agreement should not have been enforced. Accordingly, the trial court erred by lifting the arbitral stay in order to consider Parkhurst's motion for a partial summary judgment, and its judgment doing so was reversed and remanded. View "Norvell v. Parkhurst" on Justia Law