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Briggs v. Briggs

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

June 27, 2018

THOMAS BRIGGS, Plaintiff,
v.
JUDITH BRIGGS, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO CERTIFY AND GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTS TWO AND THREE

          KAREN E. SCHREIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Thomas Briggs, filed a complaint alleging tortious interference with inheritance or expectancy of inheritance, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligence against defendant, Judith Briggs. Docket 1. Judith moves to dismiss all counts of the complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or in the alternative, certify whether South Dakota law provides for a claim of tortious interference with inheritance to the South Dakota Supreme Court. Docket 10. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 201, Judith also moves the court to take judicial notice of the petition filed by Thomas in In re The Elizabeth A. Briggs Revocable Living Trust, South Dakota Circuit Court, Third Judicial Circuit. Docket 8. Thomas does not oppose this request, so the court takes judicial notice of the state court petition. Thomas opposes Judith's motion to dismiss, or alternatively, opposes Judith's motion to certify. Docket 15. For the reasons that follow, the court grants Judith's motion to certify the tortious interference with inheritance claim, grants Judith's motion to dismiss the breach of fiduciary duty claim, and grants Judith's motion to dismiss the negligence claim.

         BACKGROUND

         The facts alleged in the complaint, accepted as true, are as follows: Thomas Briggs, a resident of Indiana, and Judith Briggs, a resident of South Dakota, are the children of Elizabeth Briggs and Willard Briggs. Elizabeth and Willard owned land in Sanborn County, South Dakota, individually or through their trusts, and owned land in Illinois. Elizabeth and Willard deeded the Illinois land to Thomas and Judith in equal shares, but reserved a life estate for themselves. While Thomas settled in Indiana, Judith, with the help of Elizabeth and Willard, spent time farming or ranching in South Dakota since 1978. Elizabeth and Willard indicated their intent to distribute assets to Thomas and Judith equally. Specifically, they stated that if they deeded South Dakota land to Judith, they would distribute an amount equal to the value of that land to Thomas.

         In November 1995, Willard executed the Last Will and Testament of Willard T. Briggs (Docket 1-1) and the Willard T. Briggs Revocable Living Trust Agreement (Docket 1-2). The Willard Trust directed the trustee to distribute assets to Thomas and Judith after Elizabeth's death. Willard passed away in February 1997. Thomas did not receive any distribution, devise, or gift from Willard, the Willard Trust, or Willard's estate after Willard passed away. And while Elizabeth was named as the initial trustee of Willard's trust, Judith was named successor trustee.

         Like Willard, Elizabeth executed the Elizabeth A. Briggs Revocable Living Trust Agreement in November 1995. Elizabeth executed the Elizabeth A. Briggs Revocable Living Trust Agreement (Amended and Restated) (Restated Elizabeth Trust) on January 16, 2009, when she was 89 years old. Docket 1-3. The Restated Elizabeth Trust removed Thomas as a beneficiary and instead stated, in part, that Judith would receive all the assets in Elizabeth's trust upon Elizabeth's death. On January 3, 2012, Elizabeth again amended the Restated Elizabeth Trust (First Amendment), which purposely omitted Thomas's daughter, Elizabeth's granddaughter, as a beneficiary. Docket 1-4. The First Amendment directed real property to the Wildlife Preserve Trust, which was established by Judith. Thomas alleges Elizabeth was unable to read both the Restated Elizabeth Trust and First Amendment when she signed them at ages 89 and 92, respectively, because of her poor eyesight.

         Thomas and Judith were concerned about Elizabeth's capacity and competency as Elizabeth aged and her health deteriorated. Elizabeth suffered from poor eyesight, partial blindness, and possibly even complete blindness. Judith became the primary caretaker for Elizabeth after Willard passed away in 1997. Thomas alleges that Judith isolated Elizabeth from society, friends, and family members, including Thomas. Elizabeth relied on Judith for assistance, such as driving, attending doctor's appointments, paying bills, cleaning, responding to the mail, and purchasing groceries and prescriptions. Elizabeth also changed legal counsel to Judith's then-attorney sometime after Willard died. Judith managed Elizabeth's finances, had access to Elizabeth's bank accounts, and maintained a confidential relationship with Elizabeth. And while Elizabeth relied on Judith to maintain her relationships with friends and family members, including Thomas, those relationships changed and declined after Judith began caring for Elizabeth.

         In April 2006, Elizabeth called Thomas and asked him to deed the Illinois land back to her because she was in financial distress, even though Elizabeth indicated satisfaction with her finances a week earlier. Thomas heard Judith “coaching” Elizabeth on what to say. Docket 1 ¶ 61. Thomas declined to deed the land back to Elizabeth. In May 2006, he emailed Judith asking about Elizabeth's funds, but Judith never responded. About two weeks later, Thomas received a letter from Judith's attorney at the time, which directed Thomas not to ask any questions about the Willard Trust or financial situation of Elizabeth or Judith. Judith's attorney at the time told Thomas that he was “not entitled to receive any assets now or in the future from [his] father, [his] mother, or [his] sister.” Docket 1 ¶ 31.

         Thomas never saw Elizabeth after April 2006. He continued to reach out to her, but she became more distant and her contact with Thomas was supervised by Judith. After Elizabeth's death, Thomas learned that Judith had moved Elizabeth into a nursing home in Woonsocket, South Dakota. Elizabeth broke her hip and suffered from pneumonia in the weeks prior to her death, but Judith never told Thomas. Elizabeth passed away on July 16, 2013. Based on Judith's instruction, no obituary or notice of death was placed in the local newspaper. Thomas and his daughter, Elizabeth's only grandchild, were left out of Elizabeth's funeral program. In fact, no one told Thomas that Elizabeth had passed away so he did not attend her memorial service.

         Thomas learned of Elizabeth's death on or about August 15, 2013, when Elizabeth's former attorney sent Thomas a letter indicating that Elizabeth had died and disinherited him. Thomas alleges the letter disinheriting him was written in someone else's handwriting. Elizabeth's former attorney also provided Thomas with a Notice of Time for Commencing Judicial Proceedings, citing to SDCL § 55-4-57.

         Thomas filed a Notice of Objection to the Trust Instrument for Elizabeth A. Briggs with the Sanborn County Clerk of Courts on October 15, 2013. He also filed a Petition for Accounting, Privacy of Court File, Determination of Grantor's Capacity, and Request for Documentation (Petition) in Sanborn County on April 18, 2015. Judith moved to dismiss the Petition for failure to comply with SDCL § 55-4-57, which the state court granted. On appeal, the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. See In re Elizabeth A. Briggs Revocable Living Trust, 898 N.W.2d 465 (S.D. 2017). Under diversity jurisdiction, Thomas brings the present action against Judith in her individual capacity for tortious interference with inheritance or expectancy of inheritance, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligence.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A court may dismiss a complaint “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

         The court assesses plausibility by considering only the materials in the pleadings and exhibits attached to the complaint, drawing on experience and common sense, and reviewing the plaintiff's claim as a whole. Whitney v. Guys, Inc., 700 F.3d 1118, 1128 (8th Cir. 2012). Materials that are part of the public record may also be considered in ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999). Inferences are construed in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. at 1129 (citing Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 595 (8th Cir. 2009)). A well-pleaded complaint should survive a motion to dismiss “even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (internal quotations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         Count 1 of Thomas's complaint alleges Judith tortuously interfered with his inheritance or expectancy of inheritance, Count 2 alleges Judith breached her fiduciary duty, and Count 3 alleges negligence. Docket 1. Judith argues that all three counts in Thomas's complaint must be dismissed. Docket 11.

         I. Tortious Interference with Inheritance or Expectancy of Inheritance

         Judith argues Thomas's claim for tortious interference with inheritance must be dismissed because the doctrine of res judicata bars Thomas from relitigating this claim, and the South Dakota Supreme Court has not and would not recognize the tort. Docket 11. In response, Thomas argues res judicata does not bar him from pursuing the present action because the present action is between the parties in different capacities and seeks a different form of relief than what he sought in the state court trust contest, and the South Dakota Supreme Court indicated it would recognize this tort in In re Elizabeth A. Briggs Revocable Living Trust, 898 N.W.2d 465 (S.D. 2017). Docket 15. If this court is unsure whether South Dakota would recognize the claim of tortious interference with inheritance, however, Judith requests the court to certify the issue to the South Dakota Supreme Court. Docket 11. Thomas claims that certification is not necessary because a federal court may recognize a tort claim that was not recognized by the state previously. Docket 15 at 8 (citing DiRuggiero v. Rodgers, 743 F.2d 1009, 1018 (3d Cir. 1984)).

         While the South Dakota Supreme Court has not recognized the claim of tortious interference with inheritance, it has not provided any indication of rejecting the cause of action either. Based on the court's research, the tort has surfaced in only two cases that have reached the South Dakota Supreme Court-Niesche v. Wilkinson, 841 N.W.2d 250 (S.D. 2013) and Olson v. Olson Estate, 751 N.W.2d 706, 707-09 ...


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