McMonigle v. McMonigle, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 2d DCA Feb 17, 2006)

Note: on its own motion the Second DCA withdrew its February 17, 2006, opinion and substituted the following in its place: McMonigle v. McMonigle, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 2d DCA Mar 29, 2006)

POP QUIZ: What do you do if you’re the beneficiary of an estate and you think the personal representative owes the estate a debt he’s not paying up on?

[A.] File a statement of claim in the estate.

[B.] File a separate cause of action seeking declaratory relief in the form of a determination of what interests the estate has in the funds allegedly owed by the personal representative to the estate.

[C.] File a petition seeking removal of the personal representative on conflict of interest grounds and appointment of a successor personal representative to file an action to recover the alleged debt.

[D.] All of the above.

If you picked any answer other than [C.], not only would you be wrong, but according to Pasco County Judge Stanley R. Mills, you’d be liable for the other side’s attorney’s fees under 2005->Ch0057->Section%20105#0057.105″>F.S. § 57.105. The grounds for such sanctions would be that because claims pursued under options [A.] and [B.] were dismissed on lack-of-standing grounds, they lacked “justiciable issues of law or fact.”

Not so says the Second DCA, which reversed the trial court’s sanctions order. The beneficiary in this case was legitimately attempting to protect the interests of the estate. The fact that he initially went about it the wrong way doesn’t mean his actions rise to the level of warranting attorneys-fees sanctions.

The Second DCA explained its ruling as follows:

Although [Tiedeman v. City of Miami, 529 So.2d 1266 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988)] does suggest that the lack of standing may be the basis of an award of section 57.105 fees, it does not require that the fees be awarded. Clearly, Robert did not have standing to bring the separate civil action. However, the factual issues raised in the civil action were the same factual issues litigated in the probate action seeking the removal of Ronald as Personal Representative. To award fees under section 57.105, the trial court must conclude there is a total absence of a justiciable issue of either fact or law. Haas v. Roe, 696 So.2d 1254 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997); Fernandez v. Chiro Risk Mgmt., Inc., 700 So.2d 65 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997). Since the factual issues here were actionable, the trial court abused its discretion by finding a total lack of justiciable issue of fact. Because we conclude there was a justiciable issue of fact, fees should not have been awarded under section 57.105.

Furthermore, we find the facts of this case to be similar to those in O’Brien v. Sarka, 613 So.2d 47 (Fla. 2d DCA 1993). In O’Brien, Sarka, who was serving as the guardian of the deceased at the time of the deceased’s death, filed an independent action against the estate to collect guardianship fees allegedly owed by the estate. O’Brien was a beneficiary of the estate and concluded that the personal representative had a conflict due to her business relationship with the guardian. Accordingly, O’Brien moved to intervene in the independent action, and the motion was granted. The guardian, Sarka, then moved for a judgment on the pleadings, which was granted. She then moved for section 57.105 fees against O’Brien, arguing that O’Brien should not have been allowed to intervene in the action as the estate already was represented and O’Brien’s interest was but a claim under the estate. The trial court awarded the fees, but this court reversed. “As a beneficiary, [O’Brien] was attempting to protect the assets of the estate. Although her intervention was invalid, the action was not so frivolous as to require that she and her attorney be punished for attempting it.” Id. at 48.