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Suggs v. Gray

Supreme Court of Alabama

May 4, 2018

Fred W. Suggs, Jr., as personal representative of the Estate of Frances W. Gray, deceased
v.
Elizabeth R. Gray, as personal representative of the Estate of Floyd H. Gray, deceased

          Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-12-901308)

          SELLERS, Justice.

         Fred W. Suggs, Jr., as personal representative of the Estate of Frances W. Gray, deceased, appeals from a order of the Montgomery Circuit Court denying his Rule 60(b), Ala. R. Civ. P., motion for relief from judgments entered by the circuit court on the basis that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter those judgments. We affirm in part and vacate the judgments in part.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Frances W. Gray ("the wife") died testate in September 2011, and the Montgomery County Probate Court issued letters testamentary to her husband, Floyd H. Gray ("the husband"), establishing him as the personal representative of the wife's estate. The husband died testate in January 2012, and the probate court issued letters testamentary to Elizabeth R. Gray ("Gray"), establishing her as the personal representative of the husband's estate. The probate court then appointed Suggs as the successor personal representative of the wife's estate. Gray and Suggs thereafter sold the house in which the husband and the wife had lived. They had owned the house as tenants in common; there was no survivorship provision.[1] Before the sale of the house, both Gray and Suggs agreed that the net proceeds from the sale would be held in a trust account at Capell & Howard, P.C., the law firm representing both estates (hereinafter "the law firm"). At some point thereafter, Suggs delivered a letter to the law firm stating that the wife's estate had a "claim" against the husband's estate and instructing the law firm not to disburse any proceeds to the husband's estate until the "matter" was resolved.

         On October 5, 2012, while the administration of both estates was pending in the probate court, Gray filed a declaratory-judgment action in the circuit court, asserting that a controversy existed between her and Suggs concerning the disbursement of the proceeds held in the law firm's trust account and, more specifically, asserting that Suggs was withholding consent to disburse that portion of the proceeds belonging to the husband's estate.

         On October 16, 2012, Suggs filed a motion to dismiss the declaratory-judgment action, asserting that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the controversy stated in the action; the circuit court denied the motion. Suggs then filed an answer and a counterclaim, alleging fraud, conversion, embezzlement, breach of the duty of loyalty, and breach of fiduciary duty. The allegations asserted in the counterclaim were not related to the controversy concerning the proceeds being held in the law firm's trust account. Rather, the counterclaim was based on allegations (1) that the wife's estate was entitled to a portion of the proceeds from two certificates of deposit that Suggs alleged had been improperly transferred into the husband's bank account and (2) that the husband's estate was in possession of a diamond necklace that Suggs alleged belonged to the wife's estate.

         On August 5, 2013, Gray filed a motion for a summary judgment in the declaratory-judgment action asserting, among other things, that a specific amount of money was being held by the law firm in its trust account; that Gray had authorized the law firm to release from the trust account that portion of the proceeds belonging to the husband's estate; that Suggs had instructed the law firm not to disburse any proceeds to the husband's estate because, according to Suggs, the wife's estate had a "claim" against the husband's estate; that the wife's estate had not filed a claim against the husband's estate in accordance with § 43-2-350, Ala. Code 1975, and any alleged "claim" against the husband's estate would be barred as untimely;[2] and that the husband's estate was due to be paid its portion of the proceeds being held in the trust account. On December 5, 2013, following a hearing, the circuit court entered a summary judgment in favor of the husband's estate, ordering the law firm to disburse to the husband's estate one-half of the proceeds being held in trust. The court further concluded that, upon the death of the wife, the husband had acquired ownership of the certificates of deposit at issue. Gray thereafter filed a "second motion for summary judgment, " asserting that the December 5, 2013, summary judgment in favor of the husband's estate disposed of all issues in the action except the issue concerning ownership of the diamond necklace Suggs alleged belonged to the wife's estate; Gray asserted in the motion that the necklace had been delivered to the wife's estate.

         On April 18, 2014, the circuit court granted Gray's summary-judgment motion concerning ownership of the diamond necklace; the court certified its judgment as final as to all issues in the action. See Rule 54(b), Ala. R. Civ. P. Suggs did not file a postjudgment motion pursuant to Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., nor did he file an appeal challenging the merits of the final judgment. Rather, on June 19, 2014, Suggs filed, pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4), Ala. R. Civ. P., a motion seeking relief from both the circuit court's judgments on the basis that those judgments were void. Suggs claimed that the judgments were void because the probate court, and not the circuit court, had jurisdiction over the administration of the estates and, specifically, the allocation and distribution of assets of each estate.

         On August 2, 2017, the circuit court, after conducting a hearing, entered an order concluding that Suggs's Rule 60(b) motion was in actuality a Rule 59.1 motion for postjudgment relief that had been denied by operation of law.[3] This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

"The standard of review on appeal from the denial of relief under Rule 60(b)(4)[, Ala. R. Civ.P., ] is not whether there has been an abuse of discretion. When the grant or denial of relief turns on the validity of the judgment, as under Rule 60(b)(4), discretion has no place. If the judgment is valid, it must stand; if it is void, it must be set aside. A judgment is void only if the court rendering it lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter or of the parties, or if it acted in a manner inconsistent with due process."

Insurance Mgmt. & Admin., Inc. v. Palomar Ins. Corp., 590 So.2d 209, 212 (Ala. 1991).

         III. Discussion

         A. Timely Filing

         As a preliminary matter, Gray asserts that this Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the appeal because, she says, it was untimely filed; she says that the Rule 60(b)(4) motion was filed 62 days after the circuit court entered a final judgment in the action disposing of all issues. We disagree. On December 5, 2013, the circuit court entered a summary judgment in the declaratory-judgment action concluding that the husband's estate was entitled to one-half of the proceeds being held in the law firm's trust account and further concluding that, upon the wife's death, the husband had acquired ownership of the certificates of deposit. On April 18, 2014, the circuit court entered a second summary judgment concerning ownership of the diamond necklace; the court made that judgment final as to all issues in the action. Suggs did not move the circuit court to vacate the judgment pursuant to Rule 59, nor did he file an appeal challenging the merits of the final judgment. Rather, on June 19, 2014, Suggs filed a Rule 60(b)(4) motion seeking relief from both the circuit court's judgments on the basis that those judgments were void. According to Suggs, because the administration of both estates had not been removed to the circuit court, the probate court retained jurisdiction over all controversies concerning the administration of the estates and, specifically, which assets belonged to which estate. The circuit court treated the Rule 60(b)(4) motion as a Rule 59.1 motion that had been denied by operation of law because, it reasoned, Suggs had already raised the issue of jurisdiction in a motion to dismiss filed on October 16, 2012, which was denied. Rule 60(b), however, specifically states that, "[o]n motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party ... from a final judgment, order, or proceeding." Rule 60(b) therefore contemplates relief from a final judgment. The fact that Suggs challenged the circuit court's jurisdiction to hear the declaratory-judgment action in a motion to dismiss is irrelevant insofar as Suggs filed a Rule 60(b) motion after the final judgment had been entered in the action. See Ex parte Vaughan, 539 So.2d 1060, 1061 (Ala. 1989)(noting that, although the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure do not preclude the filing of alternative motions for relief from judgment, "the better practice is to file a Rule 60(b) motion only when there is a final judgment in the case"). Accordingly, Suggs's Rule 60(b) motion, filed 62 days after the entry of a final judgment, was timely. See Ex parte Full Circle Distribution L.L.C., 883 So.2d 638, 643 (Ala. 2003)(holding that "a motion for relief from a void judgment [filed pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4)] is not governed by the reasonable-time requirement of Rule 60(b)").

         B. Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         Suggs contends that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over Gray's declaratory-judgment action because, he says, the administration of both estates remained pending in the probate court when that action was filed in the circuit court and the probate court retained jurisdiction over all controversies concerning the administration of the husband's and the wife's estates and, specifically, which assets belonged to which estate. Gray, on the other hand, contends that the there is no statutory authority granting the probate court jurisdiction to decide a dispute between two separate estates ...


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