Jasser v. Saadeh, 97 So.3d 241 (Fla. 4th DCA July 18, 2012)

Karim Saadeh, now in his eighties, emigrated from Jordan with his wife and lived the American dream: he raised a family of three children and became a very successful businessman. Saadeh and his wife were wealthy at the time of his wife’s death in 2007. After his wife’s death, Saadeh met a younger woman through one of his wife’s relatives. Apparently, his children weren’t happy about the new girlfriend. When they found out he was loaning her money, they took matters into their own hands, admittedly transferring “over a million dollars” from his bank accounts (they had co-signing authority) to accounts they controlled alone. And according to their father, that’s not all they did:

Saadeh was upset when he discovered that his children had drained his accounts. Around the same time, he discovered that substantial money and jewelry located in a safe were missing. Because his children had the combination to his safe, he suspected that they had likewise taken these assets. He called the police, who then made a report of the theft. In the report, the children denied taking the money and jewelry from the safe; however, they admitted transferring the monies from the bank accounts. The police report states that the officer found that Saadeh appeared in control of his faculties. Still angry about what he considered his children’s deceit, Saadeh removed his remaining funds from the bank to prevent his children from acquiring more of his money.

If you’re wealthy, old, your memory is failing (whose isn’t?), and your children are worried about your new girlfriend getting her hands on “their” inheritance, here are the facts of life:

  1. At some point one or all of your children will probably sue to have you adjudicated mentally incapacitated (which means you lose control of your money); and
  2. No matter what you’ve heard about how totally screwed up a guardianship proceeding can get if there’s enough money at stake . . . real life can be far worse. This dog’s breakfast of a case is a prime example.

When Saadeh’s lawyer sent his children a letter demanding they return their father’s money and presumably also threatening an “or else” (and yes, there is an “or else,” click here, here), they fought back by (surprise!) filing a petition to have dad adjudicated incapacitated.

For reasons not important to the ultimate outcome of this case, the judge authorized two separate rounds of examining committee evaluations. That’s six separate examiners. One died before he could submit his report (again, how/why is not important to the case). Here’s the important part: the other five examining committee members were unanimous . . . Saadeh was legally competent. Unfortunately, dad was put through the ringer before exiting a free man at the other end of this case.

The “prisoner’s dilemma” as metaphor for settlement agreements in guardianship litigation:

In trusts and estates litigation parties are eventually confronted with the following stark reality: it doesn’t matter how “right” you are, the costs, heartache, and uncertainties inherent to actually litigating your case through to trial can be worse than simply paying the other side to make it all go away. That’s the choice Saadeh was presented with by his children: agree to our terms and get your life back. The way the deal was structured was that Saadeh would sign a trust agreement and other documents transferring all of his earthly belongings to an irrevocable trust controlled by a third party trustee. Under the trust agreement Saadeh was the sole lifetime beneficiary and his children were the remainder beneficiaries. In other words, to get his life back, dad had to agree to an immediate irrevocable gift of a remainder interest in all he owned to his children and he had to agree to give up control of his own money for the rest of his life.

Here’s how the standard settlement logic breaks down in guardianship litigation. As a matter of law, while dad is subject to a guardianship he lacks the legal right to contract (the guardianship strips him of that right). Because dad can’t sign a contract, his children have no legal certainty he’ll live up to his side of the bargain until after they’ve agreed to terminate the guardianship. In other words, all sides have to trust each other. The “dilemma” faced by the parties is that, whatever the other does, each is theoretically better off reneging on its side of their non-legally-binding bargain (dad can take 100% of his property back once the case is dropped; children can be 100% sure dad can never take his property back by keeping the guardianship in place indefinitely after dad signs trust). However, assuming a fair deal, the outcome obtained if both sides renege is worse for everyone (no one’s guaranteed to get what they want; litigation continues) than the outcome obtained if both sides honor their bargain (both sides guaranteed to get some of what they want; end of litigation). This is a classic example of the “prisoner’s dilemma.” This kind of deal is based on trust (not a binding contract), so it won’t work if one side believes it wasn’t treated fairly or was pressured into something it never really wanted. Unfortunately, that’s what happened in this case.

According to the 4th DCA, when the trial court entered an order authorizing the trust “it was not informed of catastrophic gift tax consequences if the trust was created, nor was it informed that the trust could not be revoked by Saadeh himself.” Also, although the facts surrounding creation of the trust were “disputed,” Saadeh:

. . . continually testified that he was misled as to the terms of the trust and that his execution was not voluntary. He was told that the execution of the trust was the only way he could end the guardianship proceedings and get his life back to normal. . . .

[Saadeh’s] court-appointed attorney . . . admitted that he told him that if he signed the trust, the proceedings would be over.

After Saadeh’s legal rights were reinstated he, not surprisingly, attacked the trust he’d signed prior to termination of the guardianship proceeding. Again not surprisingly, the trial court ruled in his favor. According to the trial judge the trust was void because at the time Saadeh signed the trust agreement he lacked the legal right to pretty much do anything . . . including signing a contract. Here’s how the 4th DCA connected the legal dots:

We agree with the trial court that when the court conferred the ward’s rights on the ETG, it removed them from the ward; both cannot simultaneously exercise those rights. Section 744.3031(1) provides that the court shall specify the rights to be exercised by the ETG. In this case, the order delegated to the ETG all legal rights, reserving only the right to vote to the ward. Thus, the court removed the ward’s right to contract. The fact that the court removed his right to contract was specifically discussed not only in the original hearing appointing the ETG but in almost every other hearing thereafter.

. . .

As found by the trial court in granting summary judgment, at the time of the execution of the trust, the right to contract had been removed from Saadeh, as the parties acknowledged to the court the day that the trust was signed. Section 736.0402(1), Florida Statute (2008), provides that “[a]trust is created only if: (a) the settler has capacity to create a trust.” § 736.0402(1)(a), Fla. Stat. (2008) (emphasis added). Thus, because Saadeh had no legal right to execute the trust, the trust was invalid and void. The trial court’s ruling was correct.

Jasser v. Saadeh, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 6601383 (Fla. 4th DCA December 19, 2012)

I’m guessing Saadeh’s children were caught flat footed by their father’s success in unwinding a “deal” they probably believed was final. If dad were a regular litigant, they’d be right: settling parties are bound by the deals they agree to. But dad wasn’t a regular litigant; he was the “ward” of the court-appointed ETG. You can’t have it both ways in guardianship litigation. Either the ward is incapacitated or he’s not. He can’t be incapacitated for purposes of the threat of ongoing litigation, but NOT incapacitated for purpose of your settlement agreement. Anyway, not willing to leave well enough alone, the children filed a separate declaratory judgment action seeking to force dad to live by the trust agreement the judge had just set aside in the guardianship proceeding. Again the trial judge ruled against them, this time on res judicata grounds. In a separate opinion linked-to above, the 4th DCA again sided with the trial judge. Here’s why:

This Court has explained that “[f]our identities are required for res judicata to be applicable to a case: ‘(1) identity of the thing sued for; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of the persons and parties to the actions; and (4) identity of the quality or capacity of the persons for or against whom the claim is made.”’ Tyson v. Viacom, Inc., 890 So.2d 1205, 1209 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (quoting Freehling v. MGIC Fin. Corp., 437 So.2d 191, 193 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983)).

In this action all four identities are present. As to identity of the thing sued for, the children sued to establish the validity of a trust over the assets of their father in both the prior proceeding and this proceeding. As to identity of the cause of action, they sought a declaratory judgment to determine the validity of the trust executed by Saadeh and the management of the trust assets. At the least, the claims they raise in the second suit could have been brought in the first suit and could have been properly litigated in that suit.

As to the identity of the persons and parties to the action, in the first case, they sued individually, and in this case they sued in their capacity as trustees. “The term ‘parties’ has frequently been given a much broader coverage than merely embracing parties to the record of an action[.]” Seaboard Coast Line R.R. Co. v. Indus. Contracting Co., 260 So.2d 860, 863 (Fla. 4th DCA 1972). As the supreme court explained later, “[f]or one to be in privity with one who is a party to a lawsuit or for one to have been virtually represented by one who is party to a lawsuit, one must have an interest in the action such that she will be bound by the final judgment as if she were a party.” Stogniew v. McQueen, 656 So.2d 917, 920 (Fla.1995) (citing Se. Fid. Ins. Co. v. Rice, 515 So.2d 240 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987)). The children, as trustees, fit within that broad definition. While the children also added their father’s corporation as a defendant because it was an asset of the void trust, it too can be considered a party for res judicata purposes.

Finally, the quality and capacity of the persons for and against whom the claim is made remain the same. In this case, the “real party in interest” on each side remained the same. We conclude that the court did not err in dismissing on the ground of res judicata.