Assigned on Briefs February 23, 2015
Appeal from the Chancery Court for Rhea County, Probate Division No. 12PR2111 Ben H. Cantrell, Senior Judge.
James D.R. Roberts, Jr., and Janet L. Layman, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Estate of Harold Curtis Morrison, by and through its administrator, Leonard Morrison, and Leonard Morrison, individually.
Howard L. Upchurch, Pikeville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Ronnie Jordan.
THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., C.J., and D. MICHAEL SwiNEY, J., joined.
THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
The decedent, Harold Curtis Morrison ("Decedent"), died on May 25, 2012, at age seventy. Decedent never married and had no children. At the time of his death, Decedent was in possession of two large tracts of real property, one of which was given to him by his parents before their deaths, and the other purchased by Decedent with personal funds. Decedent also possessed a significant amount of personalty, including tractors and other farm equipment. On May 29, 2012, Decedent's brother, Leonard Morrison, filed a petition in the Chancery Court for Rhea County, Probate Division, seeking to be appointed as administrator of Decedent's estate and stating that he was Decedent's only next of kin. The trial court entered an order appointing Mr. Morrison administrator of Decedent's estate later that day. Also on that day, Ronnie H. Jordan, Sr., recorded two quitclaim deeds that had been executed by Decedent on August 8, 2011. These deeds transferred title regarding all of Decedent's real property to Mr. Jordan, with Decedent retaining a life estate. Mr. Jordan also recorded an assignment of a deed of trust held by Decedent.
On May 30, 2012, Mr. Jordan filed a claim against Decedent's estate. Mr. Jordan asserted that he was also in possession of a bill of sale that transferred all of Decedent's personal property to Mr. Jordan. On May 31, 2012, Mr. Morrison, acting in his capacity as administrator of Decedent's estate, filed the present action against Mr. Jordan, asserting that the transfers of real and personal property were the result of Mr. Jordan's undue influence upon Decedent. Mr. Morrison sought and was granted an injunction to enjoin Mr. Jordan from selling or conveying the property at issue.
On October 5, 2012, the trial court entered an order sua sponte, recusing all judges of the Twelfth Judicial District from adjudicating the case at bar. The Tennessee Supreme Court entered an order appointing Senior Judge Ben H. Cantrell to hear the matter. Mr. Morrison subsequently filed a motion seeking Judge Cantrell's recusal, based on Judge Cantrell's involvement in a prior unrelated matter involving Mr. Morrison's counsel. The motion to recuse was denied.
The trial court conducted a hearing on the merits on November 18 and 19, 2013. At the outset of trial, the court permitted Mr. Morrison to be added as a party plaintiff in his individual capacity. The trial court then considered testimony from numerous witnesses, including Mr. Morrison, several of Decedent's friends and neighbors, and Decedent's former attorney, who had prepared the deeds, assignment, and bill of sale in question. Decedent's treating physician and another of Decedent's former attorneys provided proof via depositions.
The witnesses all testified that Decedent had labored on the farm for most of his life and that he continued to do so until his physical health began to decline a few years preceding his death. Decedent was described as independent and industrious, single-handedly maintaining both the farm he acquired from his parents and the farm he purchased. Decedent's health began to decline six to seven years before his death when Decedent noticeably suffered from leg and knee problems and experienced trouble with his heart. Mr. Jordan moved into a small residence on Decedent's property in approximately 2005. Mr. Jordan assisted Decedent on the farm, also assuming the role of personal caretaker for Decedent during the months prior to Decedent's death. Despite Decedent's failing health, the witnesses appeared to generally agree that his mental status showed no deterioration. The only exceptions included: (1) the testimony of one witness who related that Decedent had difficulty in August 2010 operating an electronic voting machine, although Decedent knew for whom he wished to vote; and (2) the testimony of another witness who described Decedent as seeming overmedicated during a visit in February 2012, three months before Decedent's death. Mr. Morrison also testified that on a few occasions when he spoke to Decedent by telephone in the months preceding his death, Decedent mumbled and sounded overmedicated.
All of the witnesses, however, agreed that Decedent was stubborn, headstrong, and opinionated. They further indicated that although Decedent came to depend upon Mr. Jordan's help in the months before his death, the two men maintained a good relationship. They also explained that Decedent never complained that Mr. Jordan was trying to influence him in any way. Mr. Morrison admitted during his testimony that "if [Decedent] didn't want to do it, he wasn't going to do it." Mr. Morrison claimed that he and his brother enjoyed a good relationship, but he acknowledged that Decedent had once paid a tax bill on Mr. Morrison's behalf in the amount of $16, 000, which Mr. Morrison asserted he repaid with cash and cattle. Mr. Morrison also admitted that he did not personally provide care for Decedent, run errands for him, or take him to the doctor, leaving those responsibilities instead to Mr. Jordan.
Decedent's treating physician, Dr. Christopher Horton, testified that Decedent became his patient about six years prior to Decedent's death. According to Dr. Horton, while Decedent's physical health deteriorated during that time, his mental status did not. Dr. Horton reported that although Decedent was prescribed narcotic medication in later years for chronic leg pain, he did not believe that Decedent abused this medication. According to Dr. Horton, when he saw Decedent in the office on August 3 and 9, 2011, there was nothing concerning Decedent's mental state that would suggest change or deterioration. Dr. Horton also testified that Decedent never appeared under someone else's influence, adding that Decedent demonstrated nothing to cause Dr. Horton to conclude that Decedent was susceptible to the influence of others.
Decedent's former attorney, Arnold Fitzgerald, testified at trial, explaining that he had known Decedent and Mr. Morrison since 1954. Mr. Fitzgerald stated that Decedent initially came alone to his office in 2011, seeking preparation of the documents transferring all of his real and personal property to Mr. Jordan. According to Mr. Fitzgerald, Decedent wished to transfer his real property by deed because he did not want to have a will that Mr. Morrison could contest. Mr. Fitzgerald further related that Decedent indicated that "he didn't want to leave even his last pair of dirty socks for Leonard Morrison." Concerning the matter, Mr. Fitzgerald testified that he prepared the documents according to Decedent's directions. Decedent traveled to Mr. Fitzgerald's office a second occasion to discuss further the documents before appearing on a third occasion to sign them. Mr. Fitzgerald related that he met with Decedent alone for a total of approximately two hours during the first two visits, at which times Decedent informed Mr. Fitzgerald that he did not desire to leave anything to Mr. Morrison because Mr. Morrison only came around when he wanted money. Decedent also reported to Mr. Fitzgerald that Mr. Morrison had borrowed money from him and never repaid it.
Mr. Fitzgerald opined that during their conferences, Decedent was lucid, clear-thinking, and knew exactly how he wished to dispose of his property. As Mr. Fitzgerald explained, although the three meetings spanned a period of several weeks, Decedent's mental status and his expressed wishes never changed. According to Mr. Fitzgerald, Decedent was strong-willed and seemed very cognizant of the nature of the meetings. Mr. Fitzgerald reported that he never observed anything leading him to believe that Decedent was incompetent or being influenced by anyone.
Two of Decedent's close friends, Henry and Janet Pickett, corroborated Mr. Fitzgerald's testimony regarding Decedent's intentions. The Picketts testified that Decedent was upset because Mr. Morrison owed him money that had never been repaid and only came around if he wanted something. The Picketts further related that Decedent did not wish to leave any of his property to his brother. As further explained by the Picketts, Mr. Jordan transported Decedent anywhere he desired, including numerous doctors' appointments. The two men appeared to be good friends. According to the Picketts, Mr. Jordan seemed to provide excellent care for Decedent. The Picketts also testified that while they saw Decedent regularly during the last ...