More on Judicial Estoppel

February 11, 2020 § Leave a comment

Yesterday we looked at the majority opinion in the COA’s November, 2019, 5-4 decision in Carpenter v. Conway, which affirmed a chancellor’s dismissal of a complaint to set aside land conveyances based on judicial estoppel.

Today we turn our attention to Chief Judge Barnes’s dissent, in which she was joined by Westbrooks, McCarty, and J. Wilson:

¶20. I dissent from the majority’s conclusion that Guy Carpenter is judicially estopped from contesting the conveyances at issue. First, any representations Guy made as administrator of Terry’s estate are not binding on his and Terry’s minor son, Cole. Second, because the real property at issue descended to Terry’s heirs by operation of law, Guy did not benefit from his prior position in the probate proceedings. Accordingly, I would reverse the court’s judgment dismissing the complaint and remand for further proceedings.

¶21. “The purpose of judicial estoppel is to prevent parties from knowingly taking a position in one court that is contrary to a position that party has asserted in, and that has been accepted by, another court.” Clark v. Neese, 131 So. 3d 556, 562 (¶21) (Miss. 2013) (emphasis added). Guy instituted the probate proceeding as administrator of Terry’s estate, not as next friend of his minor son, Cole. While I find no Mississippi cases addressing this specific issue, other jurisdictions have determined that actions filed in an individual capacity and actions filed on behalf of a minor are legally separate and distinct, even if founded on the same action. In Lambdin v. Travelers Ins. Co., 150 So. 2d 636 (La. Ct. App. 1963), a
mother filed suit after her minor child sustained injuries from a soda bottle that shattered. The mother sued individually to recover for medical expenses, as well as in her capacity as tutrix of her child’s estate to recover for the child’s personal injuries. Id. at 637. Judgment was entered in favor of the mother on her individual claim, but the defendant prevailed on the mother’s claim on behalf of the child. Id. In considering whether the judgment awarded to the mother was “a conclusive determination of fault binding upon the defendant,” the Louisiana Court of Appeals held that the claim asserted by the mother individually, “although founded on the same cause of action, is in the eyes of the law separate and distinct from the claim asserted by the mother in her capacity as tutrix of the minor child.” Id. at 638. For a judgment on one judicial demand to be a conclusive determination of the same question involved in the determination of another judicial demand, not only must the demands be the same and founded upon the same cause of action—the demands must also be asserted between the same parties, [e]ach acting in the same capacity. Id.

¶22. In Chance v. Gibson, 99 S.W.3d 108, 109 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002), an adult daughter and her mother sought to establish paternity and recover child support from Carl Gibson, who they alleged was the adult daughter’s birth father. The trial court dismissed the claim on the basis of judicial estoppel because the mother, in a prior divorce proceeding, sought and was awarded child support from her ex-husband, James Chance. Id. at 110. The Tennessee Court of Appeals held that the daughter was not precluded by judicial estoppel from pursuing her claims because she was not a party to the prior child-support action and “was a minor at the time the pleadings were filed.” Id. at 111.

¶23. Because Cole was a minor and not a party to the probate proceedings, any representations made by Guy in those proceedings cannot be imputed to Cole. Therefore, I find that Guy, as parent and next friend of Cole, is not judicially estopped from pursuing the current action against the Conways.

¶24. Furthermore, Guy did not derive any benefit from his prior position in the probate proceedings. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “[w]hen the party asserting the prior inconsistent position has not benefitted by the assertion, the doctrine [of judicial estoppel] should not be applied.” Gibson v. Williams, Williams &Montgomery P.A., 186 So. 3d 836, 846 (¶25) (Miss. 2016) (emphasis omitted); see also Donaldson v. Ovella, 228 So. 3d 820, 829 (¶24) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017) (finding that because the appellants had “not benefitted from their prior position, . . . their claims are not barred by judicial estoppel”). The majority addresses the “benefit” requirement for judicial estoppel by stating that Guy benefitted “when the chancellor closed the estate and he and his son received ownership of [Parcel 3].”

¶25. Terry died intestate; so any interest she had in real property descended to Guy, her husband, as an heir by operation of law. See Miss. Code Ann. § 91-1-7 (Rev. 2018). This Court has recognized:

[R]eal property descends directly to, and title vests in, the heirs at law to enjoy until the contingency arises when it may be needed to pay debts. Administration then covers only the decedent’s personalty and the realty is in no way involved unless and until the personalty becomes insufficient to pay the debts and expenses.

Prout v. Williams, 55 So. 3d 195, 204 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Robert Weems, Miss. Practice Series: Wills & Admin. of Estates in Miss. § 2:13 (3d ed. 2003)); see also Barnes v. Rogers, 206 Miss. 887, 892, 41 So. 2d 58, 60 (1949) (holding that administration of the estate “covers only the personal property belonging to the estate[,] and the real property is no[t] . . . involved in the administration unless and until the personal property becomes insufficient to pay the debts and it becomes necessary to resort to the land for the payment of the debts of the estate”); Estate of Mace v. Gardner, 66 So. 3d 1265, 1268 n.1 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (noting that “by operation of law, in the absence of a will, title of real
property vests immediately in the heirs at law upon the owner’s death”) (citing In re Will of Wilcher v. Wilcher, 994 So. 2d 170, 176 (¶12) (Miss. 2008)).

¶26. The majority does cite Johnson v. Herron, 33 So. 3d 1160, 1166-68 (¶¶19-25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009), which affirmed a chancery court’s finding of judicial estoppel because Johnson, the decedent’s son and co-administrator of his father’s estate, failed to include real property as an asset when his father’s estate was closed. In Johnson, this Court cited portions of Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-7-47(1) (Supp. 2008):

When an administrator or executor undertakes to close an estate:

he shall take all proper steps to acquire possession of any part [of the estate] that may be withheld from him, and shall manage the same for the best interest of those concerned, consistently with the will, and according to law. He shall have the proper appraisements made, return true and complete inventories except as otherwise provided by law, shall collect all debts due the estate as speedily as may be, pay all debts that may be due from it which are properly probated and registered, so far as the means in his hands will allow, shall settle his accounts as often as the law may require, pay all the legacies and bequests as far as the estate may be sufficient, and shall well and truly execute the will if the law permit. He shall also have a right to the possession of the real estate so far as may be necessary to execute the will, and may have proper remedy therefor.

Id. at 1167 (¶23) (brackets in original). We found that “Johnson had a duty to discover all of the assets of his father’s estate before he agreed to close the estate.” Id. The majority relies on Johnson and Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-7-47(1) (Rev. 2018) to conclude that Guy, as administrator of Terry’s estate, “had an affirmative duty to ‘take all proper steps to acquire possession of any part of . . . [the estate] that may be withheld from him . . . .” (Emphasis added) (ellipses and brackets in original).

¶27. However, looking at the omitted and edited portions of section 91-7-47(1) as cited in Johnson and the majority’s opinion, two crucial distinctions are revealed. First, the statute addresses the duty of the executor or administrator “with the will annexed.” Terry died intestate; therefore, this statute does not apply. Second, the statute provides that the executor or administrator cum testamento annexo [Fn 3] “shall have the right to the possession of all the personal estate of the deceased, unless otherwise directed in the will; and he shall take all proper steps to acquire possession of any part thereof that may be withheld from him.” Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-47(1) (emphasis added). Any right to possession of the real estate is only “so far as may be necessary to execute the will, and may have proper remedy therefor.” [Fn 4] Id.

[Fn 3] Cum testamento annexo is a Latin term meaning “with the will annexed.” Black’s Law Dictionary 52 (10th ed. 2014).

[Fn 4] The full text of the statute reads:

Every executor or administrator with the will annexed, who has qualified, shall have the right to the possession of all the personal estate of the deceased, unless otherwise directed in the will; and he shall take all proper steps to acquire possession of any part thereof that may be withheld from him, and shall manage the same for the best interest of those concerned, consistently with the will, and according to law. He shall have the proper appraisements made, return true and complete inventories except as otherwise provided by law, shall collect all debts due the estate as speedily as may be, pay all debts that may be due from it which are properly probated and registered, so far as the means in his hands will allow,shall settle his accounts as often as the law may require, pay all the legacies and bequests as far as the estate may be sufficient, and shall well and truly execute the will if the law permit. He shall also have a right to the possession of the real estate so far as may be necessary to execute the will, and may have proper remedy therefor.

Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-47(1) (italicized language not quoted by Johnson or majority opinion).

¶28. It is unknown whether the citation to section 91-7-47(1) was critical to the holding in Johnson, as the Court concluded that the co-administrator had benefitted from a negotiated estate settlement agreement, [Fn 5] or if either party in that case raised the fact that real property descends by operation of law. But here, appellant’s counsel did raise the issue during the motions hearing, arguing:

There was no litigation of who owned certain property in the estate proceeding. The estate proceeding is commenced to cut off the claims of creditors and if there’s property to be devised or property to be dealt with, sometimes it’s listed in the inventory. Sometimes the inventories [are] improper or incorrect, but it doesn’t matter. As a matter of law, when someone dies, the land descends to where it goes if they die intestate.

(Emphasis added). This is a correct and pivotal statement of the law, and it cannot be ignored. Guy had no affirmative duty to identify the real property of the decedent unless the real property was required to pay the estate’s debts after the personalty was exhausted.

[Fn 5] Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Johnson received sixty-percent of the estate. A will was later discovered that left only fifty-percent of the estate to Johnson.

¶29. The majority contends that as administrator, Guy had the duty to ascertain the ownership of the real estate so that the ownership could properly be reported on the estate’s tax return. Supra at (¶13). However, there is no indication in the record that the estate was valued above $5,000,000 so as to require an estate tax return. Compare Miss. Code Ann. § 27-9-11 (Rev. 2017) (tying estate tax deduction to federal tax exclusion amount as codified in Section 2010 of Title 26 of the United States Code); and Miss. Code Ann. § 27-9-21 (Rev. 2017) (requiring executor to give notice to commissioner within sixty days where gross estate value exceeds exemption provided in section 27-9-11); and Miss. Code Ann. § 27-9-23 (Rev. 2017) (requiring executor to file estate tax return where gross estate exceeds amount of specified exemption in section 27-9-11) with 26 U.S.C. § 2010(c)(3)(A) (2018) (establishing the basic exclusion amount for a person dying in 2011 at $5,000,000). The fact that the estate (dealing only with the personalty) was “closed in a more timely fashion, and Guy’s ownership right to Parcel 3 was completely and definitively established” is hardly a benefit sufficient to apply judicial estoppel, considering there is no indication that there was ever any question as to his right to Parcel 3. The majority is, with respect, trying too hard to make the doctrine of judicial estoppel apply where it clearly does not.

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