Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama

by
Mark Robert Engel and Daniel Michael Engel appealed a probate court’s order disqualifying them as co-executors of their mother's estate and appointing a third party to administer the estate. Some of their siblings alleged Mark and Michael had been selling some of their mothers’ personal property without express permission to do so. Mark and Daniel argued the probate court stated that it was disqualifying them because the heirs, which included them, did not get along and for "efficiency of administration," which they claimed were not proper grounds for disqualifying them from serving as co-executors. The Alabama Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the probate court. View "Engel v. Amonett" on Justia Law

by
This action concerned a piece of real property located in Calhoun County, Alabama. Lynda Newman, individually and as personal representative of the estate of Oscar Newman, deceased, appealed the summary judgment entered in favor of Michael and Rhonda Howard. The Howards owned the property in 2003 and in April 2003 mortgaged the property to secure a note. In 2007, the Howards conveyed the property by general warranty deed to Lynda and Oscar Newman; Oscar, Lynda's husband, subsequently died. It was undisputed that, unbeknownst to the Newmans, the 2003 mortgage was not satisfied by the Howards before the conveyance and remained an encumbrance on the property. The Newmans and the Howards were involved in litigation concerning numerous claims against one another, as well as others, involving deeds, financing agreements, mortgages, and contracts between the various parties concerning several pieces of real property, including the property at issue in this case. Before a final judgment was reached in that litigation, in December 2014 the parties dismissed the lawsuit and entered into a "settlement agreement and mutual release agreement." Also in December 2014, shortly after Lynda signed the agreement, she attempted to sell the property at issue here. During the process of closing on the sale of the property, Lynda's attorney conducted a title search of the property and discovered that the property was encumbered by the 2003 mortgage. Lynda requested that the Howards satisfy the mortgage pursuant to the terms of the May 16, 2007, warranty deed. The Howards refused. Following a hearing, the circuit court granted the Howards' summary-judgment motion on the sole basis that Lynda had released any claims she may have had against the Howards. Lynda appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding Lynda timely objected to the Howards' reliance on the affirmative defense of settlement and release in their summary-judgment motion and equally clear that an amendment to specially plead that affirmative defense was not made by the Howards. The circuit court erred in granting the Howards' summary-judgment motion based on an unpleaded affirmative defense of release. View "Newman v. Howard" on Justia Law

by
In 2008, Kimberly Bond sued her former attorney, James McLaughlin, alleging legal malpractice. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of McLaughlin. In February 2006, Bond hired McLaughlin to provide legal services involving the estate of her husband, Kenneth Pylant II, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005. McLaughlin allegedly failed to properly contest a copy of Pylant's will that was admitted to probate on November 29, 2005, and, as a proximate result of McLaughlin's breach of duty, Bond was injured and suffered damage. The Supreme Court found that Bond did not contest the will before probate, and, because of McLaughlin's negligence, she did not properly contest the will within six months after probate by filing a complaint with the circuit court. The Supreme Court determined that Bond presented evidence sufficient to overcome summary judgment, and accordingly reversed the circuit court’s order. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Bond v. McLaughlin" on Justia Law

by
Charles Breland was a developer of real property, with properties in Alabama and Florida. In 2002, Breland hired David Hudgens to provide legal services for him and his companies. According to Hudgens, Breland informed him early during their professional relationship that he "was suffering significant cash flow problems." As a result, Hudgens says, the various law firms with which Hudgens worked while providing Breland and his companies with legal services delayed billing "a significant portion of the attorneys' fees and costs" for those services. Breland disputed that, claiming that he and/or his companies paid Hudgens more than $2.7 million for Hudgens's legal services between 2004 and 2010. In 2009, Breland filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. Breland filed the required schedules, required disclosure statement, and a proposed plan of reorganization that identified Hudgens & Associates, LLC ("H&A") as an unsecured creditor holding a $1 million claim and identified ETC as an unsecured creditor holding a $390,000 claim. Hudgens filed a proof of claim in the Breland bankruptcy on behalf of H&A for "legal fees" in the amount of $2,334,987.08 and filed proofs of claim on behalf of ETC for "guaranty of note" in the amounts of $879,929.55. Breland did not make payments according to the bankruptcy reorganization plan. Breland conveyed property to Gulf Beach Investment Company of Perdido, LLC which Hudgens alleged was in violation of the reorganization plan. Hudgens filed suit against Breland and Gulf Beach seeking enforcement of the plan, monies owed under the plan, and to void transfer of the property to Gulf Beach. The trial court entered a judgment on the parties' motions for a partial summary judgment, noting that it was not addressing the plaintiffs' "mortgage claim" because it had denied that claim in a September 2015 order. After setting forth extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, the trial court awarded the plaintiffs $2,189,342.96 (consisting of $1.5 million in principal, plus interest); "denied and dismissed" the defendants' fraud, breach-of-contract, and slander-of-title claims; and certified the judgment as final pursuant to Rule 54(b). The trial court denied the defendants' postjudgment motion, and the defendants appealed. That case was assigned case no. 1150876, and the Alabama Supreme Court consolidated case nos. 1150302 and 1150876 for the purpose of writing one opinion. After review, the Court dismissed both appeals, finding the trial court exceeded its discretion in certifying as final the underlying appeals. View "Equity Trust Co. v. Breland" on Justia Law

by
Melissa Bain, in her capacity as the personal representative of the estate of her deceased husband Christopher Heath ("Heath"), appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Colbert County Northwest Alabama Health Care Authority d/b/a Helen Keller Hospital ("HKH"). Dr. Preston Wigfall was the emergency-room physician working at the hospital on the night Heath was taken to the emergency room. Dr. Wigfall ordered certain tests to be run, but he was unable to determine from the results of those tests the cause of Heath's symptoms. Heath was discharged approximately six hours after his arrival with an "unspecified" diagnosis with instructions to follow up with his primary-care physician. Approximately 20 days after his visit to the emergency room at the hospital, Heath died when a 45-millimeter ascending aortic aneurysm dissected. Bain, in her capacity as the personal representative of Heath's estate, filed a medical-malpractice action against HKH and several other defendants, arguing that that the emergency-department nurses at the hospital and Dr. Wigfall breached the applicable standards of care when they treated Heath; that Dr. Wigfall, at all relevant times, was acting within the line and scope of his duties and employment as an actual or apparent agent or employee of HKH; and that HKH was vicariously liable for the actions of its nurses and Dr. Wigfall. After review, the Supreme Court concluded Bain failed to demonstrate that the trial court erred in entering a summary judgment in favor of HKH as to all of Bain's claims and affirmed the circuit court's judgment. View "Bain v. Colbert County Northwest Alabama Health Care Authority" on Justia Law

by
Sherri Hurst and Brenda Ray had been friends and neighbors for approximately 20 years before the incident that is the basis of the underlying action. One day in 2013, Ray telephoned Hurst and asked her to accompany her to a Wal-Mart. Ray was taking Nona Williams, her elderly aunt, to purchase Williams's medication and other merchandise that day, in preparation for Williams's move to Ohio. Williams testified that Ray asked Hurst to accompany them to the Wal-Mart because "both [Ray] and I had limited mobility, and [Ray] wanted [Hurst] to come along in case either of us needed help moving around." When they arrived at the Wal-Mart, Ray pulled her vehicle along the curb in front of the store to allow Williams to get out of the vehicle at the entrance. After Williams got out of the vehicle, Ray asked Hurst to stand with Williams on the curb while she parked the car. Hurst then began to get out of the vehicle, but, before she had completely exited the vehicle, Ray pulled the vehicle forward, causing Hurst to fall to the ground. Hurst sustained injuries when the back tire of the vehicle ran over her leg. Hurst sued Ray's estate ("the estate"), alleging negligence and seeking to recover damages for her injuries. The estate answered the complaint, raising as a defense, among other things, the Alabama Guest Statute. The estate moved for a summary judgment, arguing that Hurst's negligence claim was barred by the Guest Statute. The trial court entered an order granting the estate’s motion and denying Hurst’s cross-motion for a summary judgment. The Alabama Supreme Court found that the Guest Statute did not apply in this matter, reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Hurst v. Sneed" on Justia Law

by
FMR Corp. n/k/a FMR LLC, Fidelity Management Trust Company, and Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC (collectively, "Fidelity") appealed a circuit court order denying their motion asking the court to compel Elizabeth Howard n/k/a Elizabeth Hart ("Hart") to arbitrate Fidelity's dispute with her regarding her responsibility to indemnify Fidelity for losses it might suffer if Hart's stepchildren prevailed on claims they asserted against Fidelity that were the subject of a separate pending arbitration proceeding. In 2006, Hart's husband, Frederick Howard, opened an individual retirement account with Fidelity ("the Fidelity IRA"), funding it with money previously been held in a retirement account administered by Howard's former employer. Although Howard had previously designated his three children from a prior marriage as beneficiaries of the employer's retirement account, he did not designate any beneficiary for the Fidelity IRA at the time it was opened or at anytime thereafter. Howard died in 2011. His will left all his personal property to the children, explaining that Hart "has a sizeable separate estate of her own." However, because Howard never designated a beneficiary for the Fidelity IRA, Fidelity distributed the money held in that account to Hart in accordance with the terms of the Fidelity IRA, which provided that any assets in the account would become the property of a surviving spouse when the account holder died if no beneficiary had been named. The Howard children unsuccessfully challenged that distribution in Probate Court. Then the Howard children sued Fidelity and Hart, asserting claims of undue influence, fraud, and conversion against Hart and a claim of negligence against Fidelity, contending their father was incompetent at the time the Fidelity IRA was opened and that Hart was the impetus behind the opening of the Fidelity IRA, Fidelity was negligent for failing to implement adequate procedures governing its online-account-opening process that would prevent either fraudulent activity or invalid actions by incompetent individuals. Fidelity moved the Circuit Court to compel arbitration, noting in its motion that Howard, Hart, and the Howard children had all executed documents related to accounts with Fidelity that contained arbitration provisions. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the circuit court denied Fidelity's motion notwithstanding the submission of competent evidence establishing Fidelity had a right to arbitrate these claims. View "FMR Corp. n/k/a FMR LLC, et al. v. Howard n/k/a Hart" on Justia Law

by
Dolores Aderholt, as administrator of the estate of her deceased son Bobby Wayne Aderholt, appealed appeals the summary judgment entered by the Walker Circuit Court in favor of Sandra Aderholt McDonald, Bobby's ex-wife, holding that Sandra was entitled to the proceeds of a $150,000 life-insurance policy Bobby held at the time of his December 2014 death. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Aderholt v. McDonald" on Justia Law

by
Todd Hill, Roy Hill, Brian Hill, and Debra Hill Stewart were the children of Leroy Hill, who died testate in 2009. Deborah D. Hill, Leroy’s second wife, offered Leroy's will for probate. The Hill children hired attorneys Vincent Kilborn III and David McDonald to bring a breach-of-contract action against the estate and Deborah, alleging breach of an agreement between Leroy and the Hills' mother at the time Leroy divorced the Hills' mother in 1984 to make a will leaving the Hills a coffee company and a family ranch. The Hills and the attorneys entered into a retainer agreement, which required the Hills to pay the attorneys "40% of any recovery, in the event there is a recovery, with or without suit." According to the agreement, "recovery" included cash, real or personal property, stock in the Leroy Hill Coffee Company, and all or part ownership in the family ranch. After a trial, a judgment was entered for the Hills ordering specific performance of the contract, which required the conveyance of the coffee company and the ranch to the Hills. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment, without an opinion. At issue before the Supreme Court involved the attorney fee. The Supreme Court found that the circuit court exceeded the scope of its discretion when it failed to order the payment of the attorney fee in accordance with the retainer agreement. The Hills petitioned for a writ of mandamus to direct the circuit court to vacate two order for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Specifically, they argued that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to determine the 40% contingency fee owed the attorneys was an administrative expense of the estate and, consequently, that the circuit court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction when any subsequent order at issue in this case. The Supreme Court concluded the circuit court had jurisdiction over the administration of the estate, so the petition for a writ of mandamus (case no. 1150162) was denied; the orders pertaining to payment of the retainer were reversed (case no. 1150148) and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Hill v. Kruse" on Justia Law

by
Brian Ray appealed a circuit court judgment in a will contest transferred to the circuit court from the Tallapoosa Probate Court. The will contest in this case was transferred to the circuit court pursuant to 43-8-198, Ala. Code 1975. The Alabama Supreme Court held previously that the jurisdiction conferred on the circuit court by this section was statutory and limited. A circuit court, however, was not limited to the issues presented to the probate court prior to the transfer, and a circuit court could, in accordance with the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure, allow additional issues in the will contest, "provided those issues can properly be raised in a will contest." In this case, it appeared that the only issues raised by the contestants were those issues set forth in their complaint contesting Huett's will, and the only ones properly before the trial court. The Supreme Court concluded after Ray's arguments on appeal, that the circuit court should have decided the case on the issues actually raised in the contest -- i.e., testamentary capacity, valid execution, and undue influence. Because it did not stick to the issues raised, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court and remanded the case for the circuit court to decide the specific will contest issues before it, and to enter a judgment either upholding or denying the contest. View "Ray v. Huett" on Justia Law