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Estate of Brimer v. Hennessee

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

November 20, 2017

ESTATE OF BONNIE C. BRIMER
v.
BERNICE HENNESSEE ET AL.

          Session August 9, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Morgan County No. 14-08 Frank V. Williams, III, Chancellor

         Summary judgment was granted to the defendant in an action brought by the executrix of an estate to declare the rights of the parties to joint bank accounts created by the decedent. The executrix appeals the grant of summary judgment. We conclude that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the decedent was unduly influenced and accordingly reverse the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed and Remanded

          Harold C. Wimberly, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Judy F. Hutson. James W. Brooks, Wartburg, Tennessee, for the appellee, Bernice Hennessee.

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and John Wesley McClarty, J., joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Bonnie C. Brimer, a resident of Morgan County, died on January 30, 2013, at the age of 85. Her will, executed in August 2005, was admitted to probate, and letters testamentary were issued to her sister, Judy Hutson, on February 14, 2013.

         Several years prior to her death, Ms. Brimer created two accounts at Regions Bank that were titled in her name and in the name of her friend Bernice Hennessee; the accounts were established as joint accounts with the right of survivorship. Account 4071 was opened at the Wartburg, Tennessee, branch in 2007, and account 7379 was opened at the Amite, Louisiana, branch in 2009; at some point after Ms. Brimer's death, Ms. Hennessee closed the accounts.[1]

         On January 22, 2014, Ms. Hutson filed a petition for declaratory and injunctive relief, naming Bernice Hennessee and Geralynn Melancon as defendants, and seeking to have the court declare the rights of the parties with regard to the accounts and safe deposit boxes. The petition alleged that "the Deceased suffered from dementia and was under the influence of medications that impacted her competency with regard to the titling of" the bank accounts. The petition further alleged that "all of the funds in the above-referenced accounts originated from the Deceased, Bonnie C. Brimer, and that the Respondents did not contribute to any of the funds in the accounts. . ." and "that Respondents unduly influenced Decedent to add Respondents' names to the title of the above-referenced accounts, or that the Decedent lacked the requisite mental capacity to transfer title to the funds existing in the above-referenced accounts of the Deceased. . ."

         Ms. Hennessee moved for summary judgment, asserting that that the undisputed facts "show that there was no fraud, no undue influence or overreaching by [Ms. Hennessee] when the joint accounts were established." The motion was supported by a statement of eight undisputed material facts; the facts were supported by citations to the order admitting Ms. Brimer's will to probate, the letters testamentary, the signature card from the Wartburg account 4071, a document entitled "Account Package" from the Amite account, Ms. Hutson's answers to interrogatories and deposition, and the deposition of Ms. Hennessee. Ms. Hutson responded to the statement, disputing six of the statements, citing to her interrogatory answers and deposition.

         Following a hearing, the court entered an order granting the motion. The court held that "the Plaintiff has failed to produce any evidence to support her claim that the Defendant, Bernice Hennessee, unduly influenced Bonnie C. Brimer at the time these bank accounts at Regions Bank were established." The court also held that Tennessee Code Annotated sections 45-2-703(d)(1)(A) and (e)(1)[2] controlled, and because Ms. Brimer and Ms. Hennessee "held the accounts as joint tenants with right of survivorship which is conclusive evidence in this case of the intent to establish the bank accounts at Regions Bank such that title vested in the survivor."

         Ms. Hutson appeals, raising the following issues for our review:

1. Whether the trial court erred in finding that Appellant failed to produce any evidence to support her claim that Defendant/Appellee unduly influenced Bonnie C. Brimer at the time the Regions Bank accounts were established.
2. Whether the trial court erred in finding that there was not an issue of material fact as to whether the mortgage payments being paid to Ms. Brimer that were deposited into one or more of the Regions Bank accounts after Ms. Brimer's death on January 30, 2013 were part of Ms. Brimer's probate estate and were thus improperly converted by Defendant/Appellee for her use and benefit.

         Ms. Hennessee raises an additional issue as follows: "Can the Appellant raise a claim to post-death deposits of funds into a joint bank account of the decedent and Appellee for the first time on appeal?"

         II. Standard of Review

         A party is entitled to summary judgment only if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits…show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. When the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden of production either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish the nonmoving party's claim or defense. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 264 (Tenn. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 2452 (2016). Where the motion is properly supported, the nonmoving party must respond by showing specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Id. at 265. A fact is material if it must be decided in order to resolve the substantive claim or defense to which the motion is directed. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d at 251 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A "genuine issue" exists if a reasonable jury could resolve that fact in favor of one side or the other. Id.

         We review the trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo with no presumption of correctness, as the resolution of the motion is a matter of law. Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 250. We view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by resolving all reasonable inferences in its favor and discarding all countervailing evidence. Stovall v. Clarke, 113 S.W.3d 715, 721 (Tenn. 2003); Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002).

         III. Analysis

         Ms. Hutson's petition alleged that Ms. Brimer's mental capacity at the time she created the bank accounts was diminished because she "suffered from dementia and was under the influence of medications that impacted her competency." At the hearing on the motion, counsel for Ms. Hutson conceded that "we have not come forward with any proof about diminished capacity" but argued that "the genuine issue [. . . of] material fact definitely exists as to undue influence[.]" The trial court did not discuss the evidence relied upon by the parties in support of their respective contentions or make factual findings; the court held that there was no issue of material fact as ...


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