SOL No Bar in an Egregious Undue Influence and Fraud Case

March 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

We talked here recently about the statute of limitations (SOL) applicable in an action to recover land procured by fraud. A 2002 MSSC case sheds further light on when that statute begins to run, and some other related aspects.

In 1979, 24-year-old Michael Cupit appeared uninvited at the home of Mary Lea Reid, a 78-year-old widow living in Liberty, MS. Cupit, who lived some 40-miles distant in Brookhaven, attributed the visit to his interest in antebellum homes and that some of his relatives had sharecropped on Reid’s land decades earlier. From that visit, Cupit contiinued to visit Reid, and he developed a strong relationship with her, despite his departure to commence law school that fall.

The relationship became intimate, according to witnesses and letters exchanged between the two, although Cupit contended that it was a mother-son relationship.

Cupit testified that he had had conversations with fellow law students about how to obtain Reid’s property.

In 1982, Cupit took Reid to a Brookhaven law firm with the intention of being adopted by Reid so as to cut off claims of any of her heirs. After the lawyer met with Reid, he suggested that an adoption was not necessary. Cupit then asked the lawyer to prepare a deed by which Reid conveyed her real property to Cupit reserving a life estate, which was done, and the deed was recorded.

The next day, Cupit assisted Reid in preparing a holographic will devising all of her property to him. As of the date when this was done, apparently, Cupit had been admitted to the bar. The chancellor found that Cupit, not Reid, was the client of the Brookhaven attorney, and that Reid was Cupit’s client.

In 1983, Reid again visited the Brookhaven law firm accompanied by Cupit, this time meeting with a different attorney. The attorney met separately with Reid and took steps to satisfy himself of her independent will and competence. The product of this meeting was a will essentially identical in substance to the holographic will.

In 1986, Reid adopted Cupit.

In 1995, Cupit had Reid’s power of attorney transferred to himself.

Through the years, Cupit alienated Reid from her family and friends, and restricted their access to her.

Reid died in 1997, and Thomas Pluskat filed for administration of the estate. He was appointed administrator, and initiated an action to set aside the will, the deed, adoption, and power of attorney.

At trial, the chancellor found that Cupit had exercised undue influence over Reid, and that the will, deed, adoption and power of attorney should all be set aside. His opinion stated:

The Court finds that the evidence regarding Michael Cupit’s efforts to exclude most, if not all of the family members and some long-time friends of Mary Reid from her, together with Mary Reid’s strong desire to have a child which she had never had, coupled with the engaging and unique personality  and tendencies of Michael Cupit, as observed by the court in the evidence as well as personal observations of Mr. Cupit throughout the course of the trial, combined so as to put Mr. Cupit in a position with Mary Reid that Mr. Cupit could and did over-reach and influence Mary Reid to his advantage and her ultimate disadvantage. Mr. Cupit’s influence, subtle and undetected by some of Mary Reid’s friends, was used in order to gain advantage of Mary Reid and to obtain her property consisting of approximately 205 acres of land, an antebellum home that had been in her family for about 140 or so years and substantial and unique family heirlooms located within the home as well as significant amounts of money from the time of Mr. Cupit’s law school days through the time of Mary Reid’s death. During a portion of this time, subsequent to Mr. Cupit’s beginning of the practice of law, he occupied a dual fiduciary role in that he was her attorney and counselor at law.

* * *

The Court finds as a matter of fact and law that the deed, will, adoption, and subsequent power of attorney granted by Mary Reid and /or pursued by Mary Reid and Michael Cupit were the direct result of Mr. Cupit’s efforts to obtain the property of Mary Reid to his own advantage and to her ultimate harm and disadvantage. Therefore, the Court finds that the deed and will were procured as a result of undue influence, overreaching, breach of a fiduciary relationship, breach of an attorney-client relationship, breach of a position of trust that Michael Cupit had gained with and over Mary Reid notwithstanding the fact that she was “strong-willed.”

Michael appealed.

His first issue on appeal was whether the administrator’s action to set aside the deed was barred  by the SOL. In its decision in the case of Estate of Mary L. Reid: Cupit v. Pluskat, handed down May 30, 2002, The MSSC addressed it this way:

¶17. This Court has held that statutes of limitation in actions to recover land begin to run as soon as a cause of action exists. Aultman v. Kelly, 236 Miss. 1, 5, 109 So.2d 344, 346 (1959). However, § 15-1-7 has been construed to require possession by the defendants claiming its protection. Greenlee v. Mitchell, 607 So.2d 97,110 (Miss. 1992); Bowen v. Bianchi, 359 So.2d 758, 760 (Miss.1978); Trigg v. Trigg, 233 Miss. 84, 99, 101 So.2d 507, 514 (1958).

¶18. In Greenlee this Court held that the ten-year statute of limitations on action to recover land did not commence to run as soon as a cause of action existed, upon execution of deed pursuant to undue influence, but only when plaintiffs, the grantor’s heirs, had notice of the existence of an attempted deed, where the defendants had not taken possession in the interim. 607 So.2d at 110.

¶19. Here Cupit did not gain possession with the recording of the 1982 deed. Reid retained a life estate and remained in possession until her death. The only person who could have contested the deed during this period was Reid herself, who was in possession. Therefore, the statute of limitations did not begin to run against Thomas Pluskat until 1997 when Reid died.

¶20. As this suit was commenced well within ten years after Reid died and the defendant was not in possession during her lifetime, Cupit’s claim that the statute had run is without merit.

Cupit also argued that Pluskat had no standing to challenge the adoption, but the MSSC rejected that argument on the basis that it was a fraud on the court, and was part of a long-term scheme by Cupit to take advantage of Reid by fraud and overreaching. The court did conclude, however, that its findings as to the adoption “are specific to the facts of this case.”

Both the will and the deed were found by the chancellor to have been products of undue influence. The MSSC affirmed, saying:

¶25. Cupit argues that the chancellor erred in finding that Reid’s will is void because Reid was competent to make a will and there was no confidential relationship between the two of them.

¶26. As previously discussed, the chancellor found that a confidential relationship and an attorney/client or fiduciary relationship existed between Reid and Cupit. This finding is based on substantial evidence.

¶27. Once a confidential relationship is found, the beneficiary must disprove the presumption of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence. In re Estate of Dabney, 740 So.2d at 921; In re Estate of Smith, 543 So.2d 1155, 1161 (Miss. 1989).

¶28. To overcome the presumption of undue influence, the proponents must show (a) good faith on the part of the beneficiary, (b) the grantor’s full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and (c) the grantor’s independent consent and action. Mullins [v. Ratcliff], 515 So.2d [1183,] at 1193.

¶29. For many of the same reasons he found that the deed was a product of undue influence, the chancellor also found that Reid’s will was a product of undue influence. The attested will was an almost exact copy of the holographic will which Cupit helped Reid prepare. As discussed previously, the chancellor found that Cupit did not act in good faith in any part of his dealings with Reid. The chancellor also found that Reid did not receive independent counsel in the making of her will. We find that the attorney who prepared the will acted as a mere scrivener and that Reid did not receive independent counsel concerning her will. In re Estate of Moses, 227 So. 2d 829, 833 (Miss. 1969). We affirm the chancellor’s decision to set aside the will.

I commend the decision to your reading both as an object lesson in unethical, dishonest and rapacious conduct by an attorney, and as an exposition on the particular points of law in this case.

An interesting sidelight: two of the attorneys in the case have judicial experience. Current District 14 Circuit Court Judge Mike Taylor was one of the attorneys representing Pluskat. Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice James Robertson was one of the attorneys representing Cupit.

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