Littell v. Law Firm Of Trinkle, Moody, Swanson, Byrd and Colton, 2009 WL 2749666 (11th Cir.(Fla.) Sep 01, 2009)

The linked-to opinion is the culmination of litigation involving a "Joint Trust" created by a husband and wife in 1992 that has played itself out in two different courts for over 8 years.

Stage One: Probate Court Trust-Construction Action: Littell Loses

Stage one of the litigation was a trust-construction action before a probate judge in which the court ruled that the Joint Trust was NOT "amendable" after the first spouse died. This issue isn’t as simple as it sounds, as demonstrated in another joint-trust revocation case I wrote about earlier this year [click here].

In the trust-construction action the drafting estate planning attorney (Byrd) testified that he had been instructed to draft the Joint Trust in a way that would allow it to be amended after the first spouse’s death. In other words, based on the probate court’s ruling, he apparently admitted to a drafting mistake. The second estate planning attorney involved in the matter (Stuart) testified that she thought the Joint Trust was amendable, and advised her client accordingly. In other words, again based on the probate court’s ruling, she apparently admitted to having mistakenly interpreted the trust agreement. Both admissions are significant in light of the results of the second action.

Stage Two: Malpractice Action v. Estate Planning Attorneys: Littell Loses Again:

The linked-to opinion involves this second stage of the litigation. In this action Plaintiff Littell argued that if the Joint Trust agreement was NOT amendable, then he should be able to sue the estate planning attorneys for malpractice. The trial court judge ruled against him, dismissing his claims against both of the estate planning attorneys.

[1] Lack of Standing = No Claim v. Byrd:

The ruling that will probably be of most interest to Florida estate planners is this one. Here the court ruled that an heir that is NOT mentioned in the operative will or trust agreement (a "disinherited" heir), does NOT have standing as a third-party beneficiary to sue the estate planning attorney for malpractice.

Whether any heir ever has standing as a third-party beneficiary to sue an estate planning attorney for malpractice was unclear under Florida law, until the 4th DCA’s 2007 ruling in the Gunster case [click here]. But what if the heir is NOT a named beneficiary of the operative will or trust agreement, does he still have standing to sue? Earlier this year I wrote about a California appellate opinion that ruled there was NO standing in those cases [click here]. The 11th Circuit ruled the same way in this case, concluding that under Florida law a plaintiff that is NOT a named beneficiary of the operative will or trust agreement, does NOT have standing as a third-party beneficiary to sue the estate planning attorney for malpractice.

Applying [Florida] law to the case at hand, we conclude that Littell does not have third-party beneficiary standing to bring a malpractice action against Byrd and Trinkle Moody. Florida’s narrowly defined exception to the privity requirement limits an attorney’s professional liability to foreseeable plaintiffs, namely, to clients and to those persons that the client apparently intended to be third party beneficiaries of the attorney’s services. See Rosenstone, 560 So.2d at 1230 (limiting privity exception to “one who [the attorney] knows is the intended beneficiary of his services”) (emphasis added); Angel, Cohen & Rogovin, 512 So.2d at 193 (noting that attorney’s professional liability is limited to clients and to those who can demonstrate that the apparent intent of the client in engaging the services of the lawyer was to benefit that third-party); see also Machata v. Seidman & Seidman, 644 So.2d 114 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1994), rev. denied, 654 So.2d 919 (Fla .1995) (liability of an accountant for negligence is expanded beyond persons in privity to include those persons the accountant knows intend to rely on the accountant’s opinion for a specific purpose).  .  .  .  In this case, Littell points to no evidence indicating that he was an apparent intended beneficiary of the services Byrd provided to the Hermans or that the Hermans engaged Byrd intending to benefit Littell. At best, Littell was only an incidental third-party beneficiary of Byrd’s services and the “Florida courts have refused to expand [the privity] exception to include incidental third-party beneficiaries.” Angel, Cohen & Rogovin, 512 So.2d at 194. [Because Littell was not named in the documents drafted by Byrd], Littell was not an apparent third-party beneficiary of Byrd’s services. For this reason, the district court properly found that Littell has no standing to bring a malpractice action against Byrd and Trinkle Moody.

[2] Do Over Ruling = No Claim v. Stuart: "Heads I win, tails you lose"

This is the leg of the case that must have driven the plaintiff (and his attorney) crazy. With respect to the malpractice claim against the second estate planning attorney (Stuart), the court ruled there was no claim because this court interpreted the Joint Trust exactly opposite to the way the same instrument had been interpreted by the probate court. In the probate court the plaintiff had lost because the judge concluded the Joint Trust was NOT amendable after the first spouse’s death. This time around the plaintiff lost – AGAIN – because the court concluded the Joint Trust WAS amendable after the first spouse’s death, so the estate planning attorney (Stuart) did nothing wrong; ergo: malpractice action dismissed.

Littell also asserts that the district court erred in finding that the Trust was amendable by the sole surviving settlor and that therefore Stuart and Gray Robinson were not negligent in executing amendments to the Trust.FN2

FN2. Although the probate court reached the opposite conclusion, the district court properly found that because Stuart and Gray Robinson were not parties in the probate case, the probate court’s decision has no preclusive effect in this case. See Albrecht v. State, 444 So.2d 8 (Fla.1984) (noting that issue preclusion applies only when the identical parties wish to relitigate issues that were actually litigated as necessary and material issues in a prior action).

Lesson learned? THINK "JOINDER OF PARTIES"

It’s unfair to second guess anyone after 8 years of litigation. Viewed in retrospect, no one is perfect; and perfection isn’t the standard we’re supposed to be judged by. However, looking forward, what lessons can trusts and estates litigators draw from this case? I was especially struck by the "heads I lose, tails you win" nature of this case. It’s OK for a judge to rule against you; smart, reasonable minds can disagree on how to interpret a trust agreement. It happens every day. But it’s not OK if two different judges rule in exactly opposite ways on the same trust agreement: and you lose no matter what.

One way to avoid the risk of inconsistent results among different judges adjudicating the same trust agreement is to make sure all related claims are tried in one lawsuit before the same judge. That way, no matter how the judge rules, everyone has to live with that ruling for all purposes. How do you do that? Florida’s joinder-of-parties rule. Under Fl. Civ. Pro. Rule 1.210(a), any person can be made a defendant who has or claims an interest adverse to the plaintiff and any person can, at any time, be made a party if that person’s presence is necessary or proper to a complete determination of the cause. If the same judge had adjudicated both the trust-construction action and the malpractice action, each side would have won one and lost one, but no one would have been stuck with the "heads I lose, tails you win" outcome the plaintiff walked away with in this case.