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Ex parte Chmielewski

Supreme Court of Alabama

December 21, 2018

Ex parte Mary Chmielewski, as personal representative of the Estate of Yvonne Speer Hoover, deceased; Grace Ellis; and Roger Stone
v.
Grace Ellis and Roger Stone In re: Tere Mills

          Baldwin Circuit Court, CV-18-900261

          PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS

          SELLERS, Justice.

         Mary Chmielewski, as personal representative of the estate of Yvonne Speer Hoover, deceased; Grace Ellis; and Roger Stone petition this Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Baldwin Circuit Court ("the circuit court") to vacate an order purporting to set aside its earlier dismissal of a will contest. We grant the petition and issue the writ.

         Hoover executed a will in May 2017. Hoover's will designated Tere Mills as a beneficiary of Hoover's estate. A codicil to Hoover's will was executed shortly before Hoover died in July 2017. The codicil eliminated Mills as a beneficiary of Hoover's estate and added Ellis and Stone as beneficiaries. After Hoover died, her will, along with the codicil, was admitted to probate in the Baldwin Probate Court ("the probate court"), and letters testamentary were issued to Chmielewski. Thereafter, pursuant to § 43-8-199, Ala. Code 1975, Mills filed a petition in the circuit court contesting the validity of Hoover's will, as amended by the codicil.

         In support of her assertion that the codicil was invalid, Mills alleged in her petition that Stone and Ellis had unduly influenced Hoover to execute the codicil, that Hoover lacked the capacity to understand the effect of the codicil, that Hoover's signature on the codicil had been forged, that Stone and Ellis had committed a fraud on the probate court by testifying to the validity of the codicil, and that Ellis had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by allegedly drafting the codicil. Based on those averments, Mills requested the circuit court to "determine whether said document is the codicil of the decedent."

         The will-contest petition indicates that it was formally served only on Stone and Ellis. Nevertheless, on March 23, 2018, Chmielewski and Ellis filed a joint motion to dismiss Mills's petition.[1] In support of their motion to dismiss, Chmielewski and Ellis argued that Mills had failed to join all parties required by § 43-8-200, Ala. Code 1975, which provides, in part, that, in the event of a will contest, "all parties interested in the probate of the will, as devisees, legatees or otherwise, as well as those interested in the testator if he had died intestate, as heirs, distributees or next of kin, shall be made parties to the contest." Chmielewski and Ellis identified 22 individuals and organizations that, they asserted, should have been made parties. For his part, Stone submitted a separate filing adopting the arguments in Chmielewski and Ellis's motion to dismiss.

         Chmielewski and Ellis later filed an amendment to their motion to dismiss, in which they argued that the circuit court never acquired subject-matter jurisdiction over the will contest because Mills had failed to name Hoover's estate as a party to the contest within six months of the admission of Hoover's will to probate. In support, they pointed to a portion of § 43-8-199, Ala. Code 1975, which provides that a will contest may be filed "at any time within the six months after the admission of [the] will to probate."[2] In the amendment to their motion, Chmielewski and Ellis requested the circuit court "to dismiss the Petition of Mills in its entirety."[3]

         On May 22, 2018, the circuit court entered an order stating: "Motion to dismiss, or in the alternative summary judgment filed by Estate of Yvonne Speer Hoover, deceased is hereby granted." The order did not expressly mention Ellis. The same day, the circuit court entered an order stating: "Motion to dismiss, or in the alternative summary judgment filed by [Roger Stone] is hereby disposed by separate order." On June 12, 2018, however, the circuit court entered an additional order stating: "Motion to dismiss, or in the alternative summary judgment, filed by respondent Roger Stone is hereby granted."[4]

         On June 22, 2018, 31 days after entry of the May 22, 2018, orders, Mills filed a postjudgment motion. In that motion, Mills cited Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., and requested the circuit court to alter, amend, or vacate the May 22, 2018, order granting Chmielewski and Ellis's motion to dismiss. On July 6, 2018, Mills filed a second motion, which requested the circuit court to alter, amend, or vacate the June 12, 2018, order.

         In response to Mills's motions, Chmielewski, Ellis, and Stone argued that the circuit court had lost jurisdiction over the proceedings 30 days after entry of the May 22, 2018, orders and did not have the power to reinstate the action. See generally Rule 59(e), Ala. R. Civ. P. ("A motion to alter, amend, or vacate the judgment shall be filed not later than thirty (30) days after entry of the judgment."); George v. Sims, 888 So.2d 1224, 1227 (Ala. 2004) ("Generally, a trial court has no jurisdiction to modify or amend a final order more than 30 days after the judgment has been entered, except to correct clerical errors."). The circuit court rejected that argument and entered an order purporting to set aside the orders of May 22, 2018, and June 12, 2018. The circuit court also directed Mills to join all parties required under § 43-8-200. In support of its ruling, the circuit court reasoned that, "[b]ecause not all parties were disposed of in this Court's previous orders, this Court finds that those orders were not final judgments ...." This mandamus petition followed.

"A writ of mandamus is an extraordinary remedy, and is appropriate when the petitioner can show (1) a clear legal right to the order sought; (2) an imperative duty upon the respondent to perform, accompanied by a refusal to do so; (3) the lack of another adequate remedy; and (4) the properly invoked jurisdiction of the court."

Ex parte BOC Grp., Inc., 823 So.2d 1270, 1272 (Ala. 2001). Mills initially argues that a mandamus petition is not the proper mechanism for appellate review of the circuit court's order. The petitioners, on the other hand, point out that "the question of subject matter jurisdiction is reviewable by a petition for a writ of mandamus." Ex parte Johnson, 715 So.2d 783, 785 (Ala. 1998). In Ex parte Caremark Rx, LLC, 229 So.3d 751 (Ala. 2017), this Court held that the trial court in that case had "lost jurisdiction to amend or modify [a final] judgment 30 days after it was entered," and the Court issued a writ of mandamus directing the trial court to vacate an order purporting to do so. 229 So.3d at 760. We have also indicated that a mandamus petition is the appropriate means to review a trial court's order purporting to grant a postjudgment motion that has already been denied by operation of law. Ex parte Johnson, 715 So.2d at 785 (issuing a writ of mandamus after noting that, "[i]f the [postjudgment] motion was a Rule 59(e)[, Ala. R. Civ. P., ] motion, then it was denied by operation of law after 90 days [pursuant to Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ. P., ] and the trial court, at the end of the 90th day, lost jurisdiction to set aside the [final] judgment"). Our Court of Civil Appeals has indicated that a trial court's unauthorized extension of the 30-day deadline for filing a postjudgment motion under Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., is reviewable by a petition for a writ of mandamus. Ex parte Patterson, 853 So.2d 260, 262 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002). In the present case, it is alleged that the circuit court entered final orders disposing of the action and, no postjudgment motion having been filed within 30 days, lost jurisdiction over the matter. Thereafter, the circuit court, allegedly without jurisdiction, entered an order purporting to grant a postjudgment motion and to reinstate the proceedings. We hold that a mandamus petition is the appropriate means to review that order.

         Mills argues that no final judgment was entered on May 22, 2018, and that the will contest therefore remained pending. For that reason, she seeks to distinguish cases indicating that a trial court loses jurisdiction if no postjudgment motion is filed within 30 days of the entry of a final judgment. The Court disagrees. Rather, we conclude that a final judgment, which is one that "conclusively determines the issues before the court and ascertains and declares the rights of the parties," Palughi v. Dow, 659 So.2d 112, 113 (Ala. 1995), was entered on May 22, 2018, and that the proceedings were dismissed in their entirety on that day.

         Rule 58(b), Ala. R. Civ. P., provides in part that "[a] written order or a judgment will be sufficient if it ... indicates an intention to adjudicate, considering the whole record, and if it indicates the substance of the adjudication." ...


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