Texas Fiduciary Litigator

Texas Fiduciary Litigator

The Intersection of Texas Courts and the Fiduciary field

Independent Executor Had Authority To Sell Estate Real Property Despite Nothing In Will Giving Him That Authority

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In Graff v. 2920 Park Grove Venture, Ltd., an executor was sued after selling estate real estate because the executor allegedly sold the property for less than fair market value. No. 05-16-01411-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 4266 (Tex. App—Dallas June 13, 2018, no pet. history). Among other claims and arguments, the plaintiff alleged that the executor had no authority to sell the property because the will was silent regarding the authority to sell real property. The court of appeals held that the executor had that authority:

It is undisputed that the will did not expressly state the executor had the authority to sell the estate’s real property. However, under Texas law, independent executors like Hayden have authority to do any act which an ordinary executor may do under an order of the probate court without the need for an order. Where the will contains no restrictive terms upon his authority, an independent executor may incur reasonable expenses in the management of the estate, adjust and pay debts against the estate and for that purpose may sell property of the estate, although the will does not expressly grant that power.

The existence of debts against the estate is sufficient to authorize the independent executor to sell real property. Stanley does not dispute that the estate had certain outstanding debts at the time of the sale. In fact, the summary judgment record reveals at the time Hayden decided to sell the apartment complex, the estate had limited cash and several outstanding debts, including federal estate taxes of over $3 million, a mortgage on the apartment complex, executor’s fees of about $800,000, as well as outstanding attorney’s fees incurred in the administration of the estate. Accordingly, Hayden had authority to sell real property to satisfy the outstanding debts of the estate.

As for his contention with respect to probate court authorization, Stanley argues that because the record does not conclusively establish that Hayden needed to sell the property in order to satisfy the estate’s outstanding debts, Park Grove has not shown the probate court would have authorized the sale. According to Stanley, because he put forth evidence of an alternative way to satisfy the outstanding debt without the sale, Park Grove was not entitled to summary judgment on this rescission claim for lack of authority. However, Stanley cites no cases to support his position. To the contrary, the cases upon which he relies suggest that all that is required to authorize a sale is to show the existence of such facts as would authorize the probate court to order a sale, such as outstanding estate debts.

Id. The court of appeals affirmed a summary judgment for the executor on this claim.

Court Rules On Lost Profits, Lost Good Will, Disgorgement, and Forfeiture Remedies Against A Former Employee For Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In Samuel D. Orbison & Am. Piping Inspection v. Ma-Tex Rope Co., a jury found that a former employee breached fiduciary duties by working for a competitor while being employed by the plaintiff. No. 06-17-00112-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 4381 (Tex. App.—Texarkana June 15, 2018, no pet. history). The jury awarded lost profits, lost good will, and the court awarded other disgorgement and forfeiture relief. The defendant appealed.

The court of appeals first reversed the award of $2,000 in lost profits because there was not sufficient evidence to show how such an award was calculated. The court stated:

Matthews testified that Ma-Tex had lost profits of $2,321.00 based on the total amount API charged Halliburton Pinnacle and Arklatex. He provided no explanation of how these lost profits were determined, and Ma-Tex points to no other evidence in the record that provided an explanation of how the lost profits were determined.… [H]is testimony … does not provide this Court with the objective facts, figures, or data from which the amount of lost profits were calculated, nor the method he used to calculate them. Consequently, the evidence is legally insufficient to support the finding of $2,321.00 in lost profits.

Id. The court also reversed the award of damages due to lost good will because the evidence was simply too conclusory:

Matthews merely testified that the damage to Ma-Tex’s good will would be $10,000.00 a month for twelve months, totaling $120,000.00. Matthews never testified how he determined these estimates. Ma-Tex does not point to any testimony, and we have found none, that provides any objective facts, figures, or data in support of his opinion. Consequently, we find the evidence is legally insufficient to support the trial court’s finding of $120,000.00 in good will damages.

Id. The court then turned to the disgorgement damages and affirmed. The court discussed the concept of an employee breaching fiduciary duties:

Generally, the term fiduciary “applies to any person who occupies a position of peculiar confidence towards another” and “contemplates fair dealing and good faith.” It is well established in Texas that an employee may be in a fiduciary relationship with his or her employer. An employee may not, without breaching his fiduciary duties, “(1) appropriate the company’s trade secrets, (2) solicit the former employer’s customers while still working for his employer, (3) solicit the departure of other employees while still working for his employer; or (4) carry away confidential information.” In an unchallenged conclusion of law, which is supported by the evidence, the trial court found Orbison breached his fiduciary duties in each of these ways.

Id. The court then discussed the legal standards for forfeiture/disgorgement relief:

When the court finds a breach of fiduciary duty, it may fashion an appropriate equitable remedy, including forfeiture of fees and disgorgement of any profit made at the expense of the employer. As the Texas Supreme Court noted, when an agent breaches his fiduciary duty, he is entitled to no compensation for conduct related to the breach, and if his breach is willful, “he is not entitled to compensation even for properly performed services.” The main purpose of these equitable remedies “is not to compensate an injured principal,” but rather “to protect relationships of trust by discouraging agents’ disloyalty.” Thus, a court “may disgorge all ill-gotten profits from a fiduciary when a fiduciary . . . usurps an opportunity properly belonging to a principal, or competes with a principal.” It may also require the fiduciary to forfeit any compensation for his work paid by the principal.

Id. Regarding the application of these standards to the fact, the court sustained the trial court’s award of a forfeiture of the compensation that the defendant was paid by the plaintiff and also a disgorgement of the compensation paid by the new employer to the defendant:

Since the trial court found that Orbison breached his fiduciary duties to Ma-Tex, it had discretion to impose appropriate equitable remedies for the breach. Here, it elected to require forfeiture of a portion of the compensation paid by Ma-Tex to Orbison during the period of time that Orbison was assisting API to set up its recertification shop and was soliciting two of Ma-Tex’s employee’s to work for API. In addition, the trial court required disgorgement of an amount equal to the compensation paid by API to Orbison during the time that Orbison was actively competing with Ma-Tex by using Ma-Tex’s confidential information to solicit its customers. Under Swinnea and the cases cited therein, we see no essential distinction between forfeiting a fee paid to an attorney or trustee who breaches his fiduciary duty and forfeiting the salary paid to an employee who does the same. In each instance the breaching fiduciary received compensation from the principal while breaching his trust. Neither do we see an essential distinction between disgorging a fee paid to, or the profit made by, an agent who usurps his principal’s business opportunity and disgorging an amount equal to the salary paid to a former employee by his new employer when the former employee uses confidential information and trade secrets to solicit the customers of his former employer. In each instance, the breaching fiduciary profited by, or received compensation for, breaching the trust of his principal. The same principles apply to each of these circumstances, and the remedies of forfeiture and disgorgement are “necessary to prevent such abuses of trust.” Consequently, we find that, under the circumstances of this case, Orbison was subject to the forfeiture of his salary paid by Ma-Tex and to the disgorgement of the salary paid to him by API while he was actively using Ma-Tex’s confidential information to solicit its customers.

Id.

Court Holds That Administrator Is Not Bound By Arbitration Clause In A Will

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In Ali v. Smith, a successor administrator of an estate sued the former executor for breach of fiduciary duties arising from his management of the finances of the estate, converting assets of the estate, and using estate funds. No. 14-18-00003-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5129 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] July 10, 2018, no pet. history). The defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration based on an arbitration provision contained in the will. The will provided:

If a dispute arises between or among any of the beneficiaries of my estate, the beneficiaries of a trust created under my Will, the Executor of my estate, or the Trustee of a trust created hereunder, or any combination thereof, such dispute shall be resolved by submitting the dispute to binding arbitration. It is my desire that all disputes between such parties be resolved amicably and without the necessity of litigation.

Id. The trial court denied the motion, and the defendant appealed.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by not enforcing the will’s arbitration clause because the arbitration clause was enforceable under the doctrine of direct-benefits estoppel as the plaintiff had (1) “enforced the will” and brought claims against defendant “for failing to comply with the will” and (2) “received appointee fees.”

The court of appeals held that the party asserting a right to arbitration has to prove a binding arbitration agreement. “Typically, a party manifests its asset by signing an agreement.” The parties agreed that they were not signatories to the will. “But the Texas Supreme Court has ‘found assent by nonsignatories to arbitration provisions when a party has obtained or is seeking substantial benefits under an agreement under the doctrine of direct benefits estoppel.’” Id. (citing Rachal v. Reitz, 403 S.W.3d 840, 843 (Tex. 2013)). The court describe direct-benefits estoppel thusly:

This doctrine precludes a plaintiff from seeking to hold a defendant liable based on the terms of an agreement that contains an arbitration provision while simultaneously asserting the provision lacks force because the plaintiff or defendant is a non-signatory. “When a claim depends on the contract’s existence and cannot stand independently—that is, the alleged liability arises solely from the contract or must be determined by reference to it—equity prevents a person from avoiding the arbitration clause that was part of that agreement.” On the other hand, “when the substance of the claim arises from general obligations imposed by state law, including statutes, torts and other common law duties, or federal law, direct-benefits estoppel is not implicated even if the claim refers to or relates to the contract or would not have arisen but for the contract’s existence.” Additionally, a non-signatory may be compelled to arbitrate if they deliberately seek or obtain substantial benefits from the contract by a means other than the lawsuit itself. This analysis focuses on the non-signatory’s “conduct during the performance of the contract.” This doctrine will not apply if the benefits are either insubstantial or indirect.

Id. (internal citations omitted).

The court held that the plaintiff was not seeking any relief under the will, but was seeking relief under Texas statutes and common law and thus direct-benefits estoppel did not apply:

Smith alleges in the petition that Ali (1) “Failed to responsibly handle the finances of the estate”; (2) “Converted assets of the Estate to his own personal use”; and (3) “Used estate funds in violation and dereliction of his fiduciary duties.” Unlike the beneficiary in Rachal who alleged violations of the trust terms, Smith does not allege in the petition that Ali violated any terms of the will. Rather, Smith contends that her claims are based on common law and statutory provisions such as Sections 351.001 and 351.101 of the Estates Code: “The rights, powers, and duties of executors and administrators are governed by common law principles to the extent that those principles do not conflict with the statutes of this state. An executor or administrator of an estate shall take care of estate property as a prudent person would take of that person’s own property . . . .” An executor such as Ali also has a statutory duty to deliver the property of the estate to a successor representative such as Smith. And, Smith alleges in the petition that this action was brought pursuant to Section 361.153, which provides that a successor representative is “entitled to any order or remedy that the court has the power to give to enforce the delivery of the estate property” to the successor representative.

The plain language of the statutes impose duties on both executors and administrators, but executors and administrators are not the same. An executor is named in a will, while an administrator with will annexed is not. The source of the executor’s power to act is the will. The source of an administrator’s power to act is the statutes and the court. Nothing in Smith’s petition indicates that Ali’s liability need be determined by reference to the will, even though he would not have been an executor “but for” the will. The substance of the claims arise from general duties imposed by statutes and the common law. Smith has not alleged that Ali violated any terms of the will, so this theory of direct-benefits estoppel is inapplicable.

Under the second avenue for proving direct-benefits estoppel, Ali contends that Smith has obtained a benefit from the will by collecting “appointee fees” from the estate. Smith contends that she was entitled to the fees by statute, not the will. We agree with Smith. The trial court’s order authorizing Smith to collect appointee fees does not state that Smith collected a benefit under the will. And, the authorizing statute does not make a distinction based on the existence of a will. Because the trial court awarded fees and expenses to Smith without reference to the will, Ali has not shown that Smith deliberately sought or obtained substantial benefits from the will by a means other than the lawsuit.

Id. (internal citations omitted). The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s order denying the motion to compel arbitration.

There was a dissenting justice who would have reversed the order and compelled the case to arbitration. That justice would hold that both parties agreed to the arbitration clause by accepting an appointment to administer the estate:

It is self-evident that neither Ali nor Smith physically signed Sultan’s will at the time it was executed. However, it can hardly be said that they are strangers to the will. Their acceptance of appointments to serve as executors of the will (and all its provisions) constitutes the assent required to form an enforceable agreement to arbitrate under the Texas Arbitration Act. Texas jurisprudence regarding non-signatories to an arbitration agreement, therefore, should not be applied to this dispute. Because the majority has done so, I respectfully dissent.

Id. (Jamison, J. dissenting). The dissenting justice continued: “Smith agreed to her appointment, which was to carry out Sultan’s clearly expressed intent in his will, including the intention for disputes to be arbitrated. As Smith’s counsel stated in oral argument, ‘[The administrator] does not get to re-write the will.’ Exactly.” Id.

Court Denied Mandamus Relief To Review Order Denying Trustee’s Request To Pay His Attorney’s Fees In The Interim

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In In re Cousins, a trustee filed a mandamus proceeding to challenge a trial court’s order denying his motion to pay his attorney’s fees from the trust. No. 12-18-00104-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 3930 (Tex. App.—Tyler May 31, 2018, original proceeding). A co-trustee sued the other co-trustee for a number of causes of action related to alleged breaches of fiduciary duty. The plaintiff filed a motion for court ordered payment of his legal fees and litigation expenses from the trust based on Texas Property Code Section 114.063. At the hearing, the plaintiff argued that the statute and the trust agreement authorized reimbursement for his attorney’s fees: “We’re not asking you to award us attorney fees we’re asking for access to the trust to pay our ongoing legal expenses.” Id. He incurred fees totaled just over $650,000 and argued that “[i]t’s not our burden today when seeking interim attorney’s fees to do any proof to show what’s reasonable and necessary at this stage in the game.” Id. The trial court denied the request, and the plaintiff filed a petition for writ of mandamus seeking an order from the court of appeals to order the trial court to grant the motion.

The plaintiff argued that the trial court’s order denied him “this statutory right to ongoing reimbursement.” Id. The court of appeals stated:

Section 114.063 provides, in pertinent part, that a trustee may discharge or reimburse himself from trust principal or income or partly from both for expenses incurred while administering or protecting the trust or because of the trustee’s holding or owning any of the trust property. Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 114.063(a)(2) (West 2014). The trustee has a lien against trust property to secure reimbursement. Id. § 114.063(b). In any proceeding under the Texas Trust Code, “the court may make such award of costs and reasonable and necessary attorney’s fees as may seem equitable and just.” Id. § 114.064(a) (West 2014).

Id. According to the plaintiff, Section 114.063 applied to reimbursement during the lawsuit and Section 114.064, but not Section 114.063, applies at the end of the litigation. He argued that absent mandamus review, Section 114.063’s application evaded appellate review and he would be forced to pursue litigation with his personal funds, which was “particularly egregious here when the trial court has already found a breach of fiduciary duty and thus validated some of [his] claims.” Id.

Without ruling on the underlying merits of the argument, the court of appeals disagreed that mandamus relief was appropriate. The court stated:

According to Cousins, “[p]roceeding forward with the litigation without mandamus relief jeopardizes Cousins’s ability to diligently pursue his breach-of-fiduciary-duty lawsuit against [James], as Cousins is obligated by statute to do.” However, the denial of Cousins’ motion does not deprive him of a reasonable opportunity to develop the merits of his case, such that the proceedings would be a waste of judicial resources. An example of one such case arises “when a trial court imposes discovery sanctions which have the effect of precluding a decision on the merits of a party’s claims—such as by striking pleadings, dismissing an action, or rendering default judgment—a party’s remedy by eventual appeal is inadequate, unless the sanctions are imposed simultaneously with the rendition of a final, appealable judgment.” Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 843 (Tex. 1992).

Id. The court of appeals held that the trial court’s denial of the motion is not the type of ruling that has the effect of precluding a decision on the merits. “Cousins may still pursue his claims against James, including a claim for reimbursement under Section 114.063, and the eventual outcome has not been pre-determined by Respondent’s ruling.” Id. The court also held that mandamus review was not so essential to give needed and helpful direction regarding Section 114.063 that would otherwise prove elusive in an appeal from a final judgment. The court stated:

Section 114.063 was added in 1983 and amended in 1993, and few appellate courts have cited to or substantially analyzed that section. See Act of May 27, 1983, 68th Leg., R.S., ch. 567, art. 2, § 2, 1983 Tex. Gen. Laws 3269, 3376; see also Act of May 28, 1993, 73rd Leg., R.S., ch. 846, § 31, 1993 Tex. Gen. Laws. 3337, 3350. Additionally, the Texas Trust Code expressly authorizes a court to “make such award of costs and reasonable and necessary attorney’s fees as may seem equitable and just.” Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 114.064(a). We see no reason why a trial court’s authority to award costs and attorney’s fees would not encompass claims to reimbursement under Section 114.063. Thus, although Cousins’ petition may present a question of first impression, we cannot conclude that the petition involves a legal issue that is likely to recur such that mandamus review, as opposed to a direct appeal from a final judgment, is necessary. Should Cousins find the verdict on his reimbursement claim to be unsatisfactory, he may appeal from the final judgment on that claim and nothing prevents him from relying on Section 114.063 in a direct appeal.

Id.

The plaintiff also argued that making him utilize personal funds to pursue litigation made the proceeding more costly and inconvenient. The court held that this fact, standing alone, did not warrant mandamus review. “This is particularly true given that, as previously discussed, the denial does not preclude Cousins from presenting a claim for reimbursement at trial and, consequently, Respondent’s failure to grant the motion does not result in an irreversible waste of resources.” Id. The court of appeals denied the petition for writ of mandamus, concluding that an ordinary appeal of the order denying the motion served as a plain, adequate, and complete remedy.

Fiduciary Duties Meet Jerry Springer: Court Holds That Participants To An Extra-Marital Affair Do Not Owe Each Other Fiduciary Duties

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In Markl v. Leake, a husband started a long-time extramarital relationship with his girlfriend in 2004. No. 05-17-00174-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 3384 (Tex. App.—Dallas May 14, 2018, no pet. history). The husband gave her money, placed her on the payroll of his business, provided her a credit card, and maintained her vehicle and real property. The husband invested approximately $50,000 in his girlfriend’s real properties. The relationship ended when the girlfriend caused the husband to be indicted for four felony charges related to an “altercation” and obtained a protective order prohibiting his entry upon her real property. Apparently, the giflfriend had initiated a relationship with the husband’s nephew, which upset the husband. Two months after the breakup, the husband and his wife sued the girlfriend for breach of fiduciary duty, arguing that her breach deprived them of the community funds invested in the property. They also alleged fraud, conversion, and promissory estoppel. The trial court granted the girlfriend’s motion for directed verdict as to the breach of fiduciary duty claim, and the jury found against the husband and wife on their other claims. They appealed the trial court’s directed verdict on their breach of fiduciary duty claim.

In the appellate court, the husband solely relied on a theory that his confidential relationship with his girlfriend created fiduciary duties. The court of appeals stated:

Informal relationships, termed “confidential relationships,” may arise “where one person trusts in and relies upon another, whether the relation is a moral, social, domestic, or merely personal one.” A confidential relationship exists in those cases in which influence has been acquired and abused and confidence has been extended and betrayed. Whether a fiduciary relationship exists depends on the circumstances and is “determined from the actualities of the relationship between the parties.” The mere fact that one party to a relationship subjectively trusts the other does not indicate the existence of a fiduciary relationship…

But a fiduciary relationship is an extraordinary one and will not be created lightly. Not every relationship involving a high degree of trust and confidence rises to the stature of a fiduciary relationship. The law simply does not protect just any relationship between people:

Fiduciary law protects only those important social and economic interactions of high trust and confidence that create an implicit dependency and peculiar vulnerability of the beneficiary to the fiduciary. While placing ordinary trust and confidence in others may create contractual or tortious obligations, only high trust and confidence reposed within the context of the types of important social and economic relations contemplated above will give rise to fiduciary obligations. . . . Relationships, not individuals, are the prime concern of fiduciary law.

The fiduciary character of a relationship is determined by looking at both the degree of dependence and vulnerability that exists within it, and the value of the interaction to the society at large. Although we recognize the existence of a confidential relationship is ordinarily a question of fact, when the issue is one of no evidence, it becomes a question of law.

In this case, the Markls want to use fiduciary law to recoup money John spent on making repairs to the property of a woman with whom he had a ten-year clandestine relationship. The Markls argue there is no Texas case precluding as a matter of law an extramarital affair from rising to the level of a fiduciary relationship. At the same time, they direct us to no cases where such a relationship has been recognized as fiduciary in nature.

Id. (internal citations omitted). The court then discussed a case that held that having an illicit relationship does not create a fiduciary relationship. Id. (citing In re R.O., No. 03-04-00506-CV, 2005 Tex. App. LEXIS 2990, 2005 WL 910231 (Tex. App.—Austin Apr. 21, 2005, no pet.)). The court also cited to one of its prior opinions holding that a long term girlfriend/boyfriend relationship does not create a fiduciary relationship. Id. (citing  Smith v. Deneve, 285 S.W.3d 904, 911 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2009, no pet.)). The court held that no evidence showed  that the husband was accustomed to being guided by the girlfriend’s judgment or advice or that she ever gave him financial advice or assumed the role of a fiduciary toward him. The court noted:

Even though Ethel testified John could trust her and believe what she told him, that evidence does not elevate the status of their relationship into a fiduciary one. Moreover, as in R.O., although John argues their relationship was “based upon trust,” he described the stalemate dating “clear back to early in the relationship.” If John wanted out of the relationship, Ethel would tell his wife and he would lose both women; if Ethel wanted out of the relationship, she had to “settle up on the property.” Thus, the evidence shows each was acting in his or her own interest. Whether John and Ethel’s relationship contained aspects similar to a marriage is unavailing because, in this case, John was married—to Debra. Recognizing John and Ethel’s relationship as fiduciary in character, under the circumstances here, would make light of the very notion of the concepts of trust and confidence. Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the Markls, we conclude this case does not present any evidence of justifiable trust and confidence as will create an informal fiduciary relationship. We overrule the sole issue.

Id. The court affirmed the trial court’s directed verdict order for the girlfriend.

Don’t Try It Yourself, Hire A Lawyer! Court Dismisses Pro Se Party’s Appeal Due To Procedural Errors

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In In re Newman, a woman appealed a trial court’s order regarding admitting her husband’s will and the conduct of her step-son as executor. No. 04-17-00209-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 4249 (Tex. App.—San Antonio June 13, 2018, no pet. history). She made the mistake of representing herself in the appeal. The court of appeals dismissed her appeal due to her failure to follow appellate procedural rules:

Leta was required to file a brief that “contain[s] a clear and concise argument for the contentions made, with appropriate citations to authorities and to the record.” See Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(i); ERI Consulting Eng’rs, Inc. v. Swinnea, 318 S.W.3d 867, 880 (Tex. 2010). Construing her brief reasonably yet liberally, we nevertheless necessarily conclude that she did not.

We recognize that Leta is not an attorney and is representing herself in this appeal. However, except in some circumstances not applicable here, a pro se litigant must comply with the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure. “There cannot be two sets of procedural rules, one for litigants with counsel and the other for litigants representing themselves. Litigants who represent themselves must comply with the applicable procedural rules, or else they would be given an unfair advantage over litigants represented by counsel.” [Her] brief was required to identify the trial court’s alleged errors and present a “clear and concise argument for the contentions made, with appropriate citations to authorities and to the record.” Because her brief does not provide appropriate citations to the record and does not provide clear and concise arguments to support the issues she attempts to raise, her brief does not present anything for appellate review.

Id.

 

A. A Fractured Texas Supreme Court Holds That There Is No Tortious Interference With Inheritance Claim In Texas

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Supreme Court

In Archer v. Anderson, Jack, who had no children, executed a will leaving his estate to his brother and his brother’s children, the Archers. No. 16-0256, 2018 Tex. LEXIS 611 (Tex. June 22, 2018). Later, Jack had a stroke and was mentally incompetent. Jack’s friend Anderson, an attorney, drafted durable and medical powers of attorney appointing himself as Jack’s attorney-in-fact. Jack signed the documents, but his medical records showed that the day he signed them he was delusional and appeared confused. Anderson also tried to have Jack change his estate plan. Anderson proposed that Jack sell his ranch and transfer the proceeds into a charitable remainder trust with the 12 charities as beneficiaries so that Jack’s entire estate would go to the charities and the Archers would be disinherited. At Anderson’s request, Jack sign new wills and trust documents, all disinheriting the Archers and leaving Jack’s entire estate to the charities. With Jack still alive, the Archers sued for a declaratory judgment that Jack had lacked the mental capacity to execute the wills and trust documents. The charities were defendants, and the parties settled with the Archers agreeing to give the charities Jack’s coin collection and pay their attorney fees, which totaled $588,054.

After Jack’s death, the Archers sued Anderson’s estate, who had also died, for intentional interference with their inheritance. Anderson never profited personally from his efforts, and the Archers received all that Jack left them in his earlier will, but they claimed the $588,054 they gave the charities in settlement, plus $2,865,928 in attorney fees and litigation expenses they incurred avoiding Jack’s post-1991 wills and trusts. The jury found in favor of the Archers, and the trial court rendered judgment for them for well over $2 million dollars. Anderson’s estate appealed. The court of appeals reversed and rendered for Anderson’s estate, holding that there was no tortious interference with inheritance claim in Texas.

The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals’s holding. The Court noted that there was a split in the courts of appeals regarding whether such a claim existed and noted its recent opinion in Kinsel v. Lindsey, 526 S.W.3d 411, 423 (Tex. 2017), where the Court held that the it and the Texas Legislature had never expressly recognized such a claim. The Court stated:

A tort of intentional interference with inheritance is needed, it is argued, as a gap-filler when probate and other law do not provide an adequate remedy. Texas law thoroughly governs inheritance through probate and restitution and, as we noted in Kinsel, provides remedies for unfairness, such as a constructive trust. If these remedies are inadequate, it is because of legislative choice or inaction, and filling them is work better suited for further legislation than judicial adventurism.

Id. at *17-18. Ultimately, the Court held that a new tort is not needed in Texas even if other remedies would not be complete. The Court concluded: “The fundamental question is why tort law should provide a remedy in disregard of the limits of statutory probate law. We think here it should not. The tort of intentional interference with inheritance is not recognized in Texas. The decisions of the courts of appeals to the contrary are overruled.” Id. at *25-26.

The majority of the court affirmed the court of appeals and held that there was never going to be a claim for tortious interference with inheritance, at least not until the Texas Legislature created such a cause of action. There were four justices of the nine member Court, however, that only agreed in the result in this case. They would hold that the Court should not have held that such a claim could never be recognized in Texas. The dissenting justices stated:

The Court concludes that the Archers had an adequate remedy because they ultimately received their inheritance, albeit minus attorney’s fees and a settlement with the charities. But rather than leaving open the issue of whether to recognize the cause of action as we did in Kinsel, the Court changes course and closes that door. It does so even though that door might, in some instances, provide the only avenue to relief for parties who suffer loss at the hands of actors who intentionally—not merely negligently—caused the loss.

The Court says that a judicially recognized gap-filler cause of action is unnecessary because statutory probate law provides adequate remedies. My overriding concern is that neither we nor the courts of appeals have considered a sufficient spectrum of factual circumstances for us to confidently conclude that foreclosing the cause of action will not leave parties without any avenue of relief against those whose actions intentionally and wrongfully divest an elderly person with diminished capacity of assets and thus interfere with that person’s last-expressed true intentions about the disposition of his or her property.

The Court recognizes that a constructive trust can provide a remedy for unfairness. But the typical remedy of imposing a constructive trust resulting from a successful restitution action is not always available or may not provide an adequate remedy, as this Court has recognized. While we have stated that “[t]he specific instances in which equity impresses a constructive trust are numberless,” we have also acknowledged that “the reach of a constructive trust is not unlimited.” The imposition of a constructive trust generally requires the requesting party to establish (1) a breach of a special trust or fiduciary relationship or actual or constructive fraud, (2) unjust enrichment of the wrongdoer, and (3) an identifiable res that can be traced back to the original property. As applied in the inheritance context, the would-be beneficiary must trace the fraudulently obtained property to funds received by the wrongdoer. However, if the property has been dissipated or traceable funds have been depleted, there will be nothing remaining upon which to impose a constructive trust. A judgment obtained from a tort action, on the other hand, would provide the expectant beneficiary with at least potential redress.

Id. *42-44. In the end, the majority of the Court abdicated its role as a common-law court and placed all responsibility on the Legislature to create causes of action. The concurring and dissenting justices would have held that a tortious interference with inheritance rights claim may be permissible under the right circumstances (where a constructive trust claim is not a remedy because the ill-gotten gains have been dissipated) and would not have closed the door at this time.

So, at this point, plaintiffs will have to rely on other causes of action to vindicate their rights when the elderly and infirm are taken advantage of by bad people. It appears that the Court believes that a constructive trust is the principal claim in this situation. For example, in Kinsel v. Lindsey, 526 S.W.3d 411, 423 (Tex. 2017), family members and an attorney convinced an elderly woman, who did not have mental capacity, to execute new estate planning documents and sell a ranch. The ranch would have gone to other family members, but since the ranch was sold, its proceeds (cash) went to the bad individuals. The Court held that a constructive trust, based on a mental incapacity finding, provided an adequate remedy and there was no need to recognize the tort of tortious interference with inheritance rights. Id.

Regarding a constructive trust, the defendants had several arguments for why the trial court abused its discretion in creating a constructive trust in this case. Id. at *31-35. The Court disagreed and held that there does not have to be a breach of a fiduciary duty by the defendants owed to the plaintiffs. Id. There was no duty owed by the defendants to the plaintiff. Id. Citing to an earlier opinion, the Court held: “It is true that we recently recognized that a ‘breach of a special trust or fiduciary relationship or actual or constructive fraud’ is ‘generally’ necessary to support a constructive trust. But in that same case we reaffirmed our statement in Pope that ‘[t]he specific instances in which equity impresses a constructive trust are numberless—as numberless as the modes by which property may be obtained through bad faith and unconscientious acts.’” Id. Even though the defendants did not breach any duty owed to the plaintiffs, the Court concluded that the trial court acted within its discretion in imposing a constructive trust: “We hold the mental-incapacity finding, coupled with the undue-influence finding, provided a more than adequate basis for the trial court to impose a constructive trust.” Id.

But, the issue remains, what if the ranch proceeds had been dissipated? How would the plaintiffs recover what was due to them?

The Court’s opinion in Archer is good news for parties who regularly deal with the elderly and infirm. Trusted advisors have been at risk for tortious interference claims. Attorneys that draft wills and trusts, financial advisors, financial institutions, broker/dealers, insurance agents, accountants, and others who provide advice have been at risk for tortious interference claims. For example, the Archers sued Anderson, who was an attorney. The Kinsels sued Jackson Walker, who were attorneys, for tortious interference. The risk of such a claim is now gone. Of course, creative plaintiffs may think of other claims and theories to bring trusted advisors into litigation against the “bad guy” that influenced an elderly or infirm person. Claims such as conspiracy, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, and knowing participation in breach of fiduciary duty, may be raised under the correct circumstances.

Court Held That Real Estate Broker Did Not Owe Fiduciary Duties To Other Parties In A Transaction

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In Van Duren v. Chife, the buyers of a home sued the sellers as well as the sellers’ real estate broker and his company regarding water penetration that damaged the home. No. 01-17-00607-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 3494 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] May 17, 2018, no pet. history). The trial court dismissed the buyers’ breach of fiduciary duty claim against the sellers’ agent. The court of appeals affirmed on that issue and held:

The existence of a fiduciary duty is an element of a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. First United Pentecostal Church of Beaumont v. Parker, 514 S.W.3d 214, 220 (Tex. 2017). Real estate brokers owe a fiduciary duty to their clients. See Birnbaum, 2015 Tex. App. LEXIS 8775, 2015 WL 4967057, at *10 (citing 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 531.1). While brokers also must treat other parties to a transaction fairly, this obligation does not make the broker a fiduciary of these other parties whom he does not represent. See Kubinsky v. Van Zandt Realtors, 811 S.W.2d 711, 715 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1991, writ denied) (realtors’ fiduciary duties ran to sellers they represented in transaction). The evidence establishes that Mathews was the Chifes’ real estate broker with respect to the Royal Lakes home sale and that another broker, Lofton, represented the Van Durens. The Royal Lakes contract identifies Mathews and Lofton as the brokers for the sellers and buyers respectively. Gesare testified that Mathews represented her and her husband in connection with the sale of the Royal Lakes home. Sonya likewise testified that Mathews represented the Chifes in this transaction. There is no contrary evidence in the record. Mathews met his burden to conclusively negate the existence of a fiduciary duty, a necessary element of the Van Durens’ claim for breach of fiduciary duty against him with respect to the Royal Lakes home sale. We therefore hold that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Mathews and his company on this claim.

Id.

Court Rejects Claim That Ex-Spouses Owed Each Other Fiduciary Duties

Posted in Cases Decided, Texas Court of Appeals

In Robins v. Robins, an ex-wife sued her ex-husband for breaching fiduciary duties regarding the sale of their former marital residence. No. 02-16-00285-CV, 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 3534 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth May 17, 2018). The trial court entered a judgment finding that the ex-husband breached a fiduciary duty to his former wife and awarded her all the net proceeds from the sale and awarded her attorney’s fees. The ex-husband appealed, and the court of appeals reversed and rendered. The court stated:

Generally, to prove a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a fiduciary duty to the plaintiff, breached it, and thereby caused damages to the plaintiff. First United Pentecostal Church of Beaumont v. Parker, 514 S.W.3d 214, 220 (Tex. 2017). While spouses owe fiduciary duties to one another, ex-spouses generally do not. See Solares v. Solares, 232 S.W.3d 873, 881 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2007, no pet.) (holding that “in a contested divorce where each spouse is independently represented by counsel, the fiduciary relationship terminates”); In re Marriage of Notash, 118 S.W.3d 868, 872 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2003, no pet.) (noting that any fiduciary duty between spouses terminates upon divorce); Bass v. Bass, 790 S.W.2d 113, 119 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1990, no writ) (“Although marriage may bring about a fiduciary relationship, such a relationship clearly does not continue when a husband and wife hire numerous independent professional counsel to represent them respectively in a contested divorce proceeding.”) (citation omitted). Jerry therefore had no formal fiduciary duty to Rhonda as a matter of law. Rhonda contends that “[a] moral and social relationship was created when [she and Jerry] decided post-divorce not to sell the home and [to] maintain it while the children finished high school” and that “[a] fiduciary duty existed for each party to not harm the other’s fifty percent interest in the [P]roperty.” While it is true that an informal fiduciary duty may arise from a moral, social, domestic or purely personal relationship of trust and confidence, Collins v. Kappa Sigma Fraternity, No. 02-14-00294-CV, 2017 WL 218286, at *10-12 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Jan. 19, 2017, pet. denied), no evidence in the record before us indicates that Rhonda and Jerry had that sort of relationship after their divorce; Jerry therefore also had no informal fiduciary duty to Rhonda. See Higgins v. Higgins, 514 S.W.3d 382, 389-90 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2017, pet. denied). We sustain Jerry’s first issue.

Id. The court also held that as attorney’s fees are not available for a breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim, the trial court erred in awarding the ex-wife her fees.

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