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In re Estate of Rogers

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

February 14, 2018

In re ESTATE OF JAMES KEMMLER ROGERS

          Session October 5, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Giles County No. P-1070-14 Stella Hargrove, Judge

         This probate action is before this Court on appeal for the second time. Following remand from this Court subsequent to the first appeal, the trial court determined that the petitioner did have standing to file her petition for probate as a "purported creditor" of the decedent. The trial court ultimately denied the petition, however, finding "no basis for either primary or ancillary probate in Tennessee." The trial court had also previously awarded sanctions against the petitioner and her counsel pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 11. The petitioner has appealed. Discerning no error in the trial court's denials of both primary and ancillary probate, we affirm such determinations. Although we also affirm the trial court's imposition of Rule 11 sanctions against the petitioner and her counsel generally, we vacate the specific award granted against the petitioner personally and remand such issue to the trial court for a determination of the proper amount of sanctions to be awarded against the petitioner solely pursuant to Rule 11.02(1). We affirm the trial court's judgment in all other respects.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed in Part, Vacated in Part; Case Remanded

          John A. Beam, III, and Irene R. Haude, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Patricia Porter Kryder.

          Andra J. Hedrick, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, James Schneider Rogers and Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The factual and procedural history of this case previous to the first appeal is explained as follows by this Court's opinion in In re Estate of Rogers, No. M2015-01439-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 6087662, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 17, 2016) ("Rogers I"):

James Kemmler Rogers ("Decedent") died on June 11, 2014 in Bakersfield, California. Decedent was survived by two adult children, James Schneider Rogers and Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry (together, "Appellees"). Decedent was employed in the cattle business, and he moved quite frequently. In approximately 2007, Decedent began residing on a small portion of Appellant Patricia Porter Kryder's farm in Tennessee. Ms. Kryder is an attorney, who is licensed in Tennessee. In lieu of rent, Decedent and Ms. Kryder agreed that Decedent would provide handymanlike duties.
On May 18, 2012, Decedent was injured in an automobile accident. It is alleged that, prior to the accident, Decedent had discussed, with family and friends, the possibility of moving back to California. Shortly after the accident, Decedent moved back to California to be near his family. There is dispute between the parties as to whether Decedent ever regained his mental faculties after the accident and whether his move to California was voluntary. There is evidence that Decedent was active after he moved to California, i.e., swimming, eating out, and carrying on business. After moving to California, Decedent did not maintain any cable or phone services in Tennessee, nor did he vote here. Decedent had no property in Tennessee at the time of his death. Decedent's estate was admitted to probate in Kern County, California on or about June 11, 2014. Ms. Rogers-Etcheverry was named the administrator of the estate.
On November 7, 2014, Appellant filed a petition to probate Decedent's estate in the Chancery Court for Giles County, wherein she alleged that she was a "creditor of the estate." On December 3, 2014, Appellant filed an amendment to the petition to include a copy of the Decedent's will, which was executed in Texas. On December 15, 2014, Appellees filed a "Notice of Filing, " with which they tendered certified copies of an order of probate and letters of special administration that had been issued in connection with the probate of Decedent's estate in Kern ounty, California. On December 18, 2014, Appellees filed a response as interested persons to the petition to probate, contesting probate in Tennessee.
The trial court heard the petition to probate on December 30, 2014 and January 15, 2015. On February 6, 2015, Appellees filed a motion for discretionary costs. On February 10, 2015, Ms. Kryder filed a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law. On February 10, 2015, the trial court entered a "Final Judgment and Order, " which denied Appellant's petition to probate. Specifically, the trial court found that, "at the time of his death . . ., James Kemmler Rogers . . . resided in and was domiciled in California." The court found that there was no basis for either primary or ancillary probate in Tennessee. On February 13, 2015, the trial court entered an order granting Appellees' motion for discretionary costs in the amount of $4, 777.41.
On March 9, 2015, Appellant filed a renewed petition for ancillary probate. As a ground for her petition, Ms. Kryder cited the 2012
"California Nonresident or Part-Year Resident Income Tax Return, " which Decedent allegedly executed and filed. The document, Ms. Kryder argued, evidenced Decedent's intent to remain domiciled in Tennessee, although he was a resident of California.
After notice and time to cure, on June 8, 2015, Appellees filed a motion for Rule 11 sanctions against Ms. Kryder or her firm. Therein, Appellees alleged, inter alia, that Ms. Kryder had failed to pay the discretionary costs as ordered by the trial court. In addition, Appellees alleged that Ms. Kryder had engaged in "delay tactic[s]" by filing extraneous motions and memoranda in support of ancillary probate after the trial court had orally ruled that its order of February 10, 2015 was correct.
On June 12, 2015, Appellees filed a reply and supplemental memorandum in response to Ms. Kryder's renewed motion for ancillary probate. In this response, Appellees specifically raised the issue of whether Ms. Kryder had standing to pursue ancillary probate of Decedent's estate in Tennessee, see discussion infra.
On July 1, 2015, Ms. Kryder filed a response to Appellees' request for Rule 11 sanctions and request for her attorney's fees and costs. In her response, Ms. Kryder argued that her post-judgment filings were filed to bring to the court's attention . . . that the [February 10, 2015] order failed to make findings on required elements of proof (overt acts of the decedent in furtherance of intent to abandon Tennessee and adopt California), failed to establish who had the burden of proof at trial, made findings of intent by negative inference that are clearly inconsistent with the written statements of the decedent found in [the Nonresident California tax return), and made findings inconsistent with the substantial weight of the evidence on the issue of the decedent's recovery from the car wreck.

         On July 7, 2015, Ms. Kryder filed a cross-petition for Rule 11 sanctions against Appellees.

The trial court heard Ms. Kryder's renewed petition for ancillary probate on June 12, 2015, see discussion infra. On July 14, 2015, the trial court entered an order denying Ms. Kryder's petition. Therein, the trial court found that Ms. Kryder had failed to present new evidence so as to necessitate rehearing; however, the trial court did not specifically rule on the standing argument that was raised by Appellees in their response to Ms. Kryder's petition for ancillary probate. On the same day, the trial court entered a separate order denying Ms. Kryder's request for the court to make additional findings of fact and conclusions of law. Ms. Kryder filed a notice of appeal on July 30, 2015.
On September 11, 2015, the trial court heard the cross-motions for Rule 11 sanctions. By order of September 21, 2015, the trial court denied Ms. Kryder's Rule 11 motion, but granted Appellees' [motion]. The court found "that all pleadings filed [on Ms. Kryder's behalf] after the hearing on February 13, 2015 . . . [were] improperly filed to harass, to cause unnecessary delay, and to increase the cost of litigation." In a "Final Judgment, " which was entered on October 30, 2015, the trial court awarded Appellees $5, 311.85 in discretionary costs and $34, 705.61 in damages under Rule 11. In its October 30, 2015 order, the trial court states: "This is a final judgment that resolves all claims and issues in this case and is a final order pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 54, from which an appeal may be taken." Following entry of this order, Ms. Kryder filed a supplemental notice of appeal on October 6, 2015. Thereafter, on November 24, 2015, Appellees filed a motion to alter or amend the final judgment. In their motion, Appellees asked the trial court to amend its judgment to reflect Ms. Kryder's alias, Patricia K. Gainer. By order of December 8, 2015, this Court remanded the case to the trial court (noting that this Court might not have attained jurisdiction under Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 3 in the absence of a ruling on Appellees' motion to alter or amend). On remand, the trial court entered an order on February 12, 2016, granting Appellees' motion and amending its judgment to also include Ms. Kryder's alias.

Id. at *1-2. Following a determination that no valid final judgment had been entered by the trial court because the standing issue had never been adjudicated, this Court dismissed the appeal and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings. Id. at *6.

         Following remand and additional briefing by the parties, the trial court determined by order dated December 9, 2016, that Ms. Kryder maintained standing to file her petition for probate as a "purported creditor" of Mr. Rogers ("Decedent"). As the trial court explained:

Ms. Kryder does meet the minimum requirements of constitutional standing in order to present a justiciable controversy under ACLU of Tenn. v. Darnell, 195 S.W.3d 612, 620 (Tenn. 2006) and City of Chattanooga v. Davis, 54 S.W.3d 248, 280 (Tenn. 2001). She claims a distinct injury caused by Decedent's conduct; her pleadings demonstrate a causal connection between an alleged injury and the alleged conduct of Decedent; and the alleged injury is capable of being redressed by a favorable decision of the district court.[1]

         The trial court ultimately denied the petition for probate, however, concluding that there was "no basis for either primary or ancillary probate in Tennessee." The court determined that Decedent had moved to California and was domiciled there at the time of his death. The court noted that there was no evidence that Decedent "carried on any business or pursued any activity whatsoever in Tennessee, social or otherwise." The court further noted that Decedent owned no property in Tennessee and that his estate was admitted to probate in California.

         This Court subsequently issued mandate as to the first appeal on January 12, 2017, and Ms. Kryder filed a motion seeking entry of a final, appealable order by the trial court. Decedent's two children (collectively, "the Heirs") thereafter sought an award of additional fees and expenses. The trial court entered an order on February 27, 2017, reaffirming its earlier ruling regarding standing. The court concomitantly entered an order denying the Heirs' request for supplemental fees and expenses.

         On March 8, 2017, Ms. Kryder filed a notice of appeal from the order denying her petition for probate. The trial court subsequently entered an order on March 10, 2017, awarding supplemental fees and expenses to the Heirs in the amount of $18, 860, for the period of October 3, 2015, to January 27, 2017.

         II. Issues Presented

         Ms. Kryder presents the following issues for our review, which we have restated slightly:

1. Whether the trial court erred by declining to find that Decedent's prior domicile in Tennessee created a presumption of domicile in Tennessee, which would have required the Heirs to prove that Decedent abandoned his Tennessee domicile when he moved to California.
A. Whether the Heirs failed to demonstrate that Decedent abandoned his Tennessee domicile because Decedent committed no overt act in furtherance of his intent to abandon Tennessee and adopt California as his domicile.
B. Whether Decedent's 2012 Nonresident California income tax return constitutes proof of his intent to maintain his Tennessee domicile.
C. Whether the trial court erred by finding that Decedent intended to make California his domicile simply because Decedent did not return to Tennessee.
2. Whether the trial court erred by impliedly finding that Decedent made a sufficient recovery following his automobile accident to allow him to form intent to change his domicile from Tennessee to California.
3. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in declining to exercise jurisdiction over the petition for ancillary probate based on the circumstances of this case.
4. Whether the trial court erred in granting the Heirs' motion for Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 11 sanctions against Ms. Kryder and her counsel.
5. Whether the trial court erred by finding that "safe harbor" notice had been provided to Ms. Haude, as co-counsel for Ms. Kryder, when she was not involved in drafting the allegedly frivolous pleadings.
6. Whether the trial court erred by denying Ms. Kryder's motion for Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 11 sanctions against the Heirs.

         The Heirs raise additional issues, which we have also restated slightly:

7. Whether the trial court erred in its determination that Ms. Kryder maintained standing to file her petition.
8. Whether this appeal is frivolous such that the Heirs should receive an award of attorney's fees and expenses.

         III. Standard of Review

         We review a non-jury case de novo upon the record, with a presumption of correctness as to the findings of fact unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. See Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d); Bowden v. Ward, 27 S.W.3d 913, 916 (Tenn. 2000). We review questions of law de novo with no presumption of correctness. Bowden, 27 S.W.3d at 916 (citing Myint v. Allstate Ins. Co., 970 S.W.2d 920, 924 (Tenn. 1998)); see also In re Estate of Haskins, 224 S.W.3d 675, 678 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006).

         With regard to discretionary decisions made by a trial court, our Supreme Court has explained:

The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court's decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. Beard v. Bd. of Prof'l Responsibility, 288 S.W.3d 838, 860 (Tenn. 2009); State ex rel. Jones v. Looper, 86 S.W.3d 189, 193 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000). It reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives. Overstreet v. Shoney's, Inc., 4 S.W.3d 694, 708 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999). Thus, it does not permit reviewing courts to second-guess the court below, White v. Vanderbilt Univ., 21 S.W.3d 215, 223 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999), or to substitute their discretion for the lower court's, Henry v. Goins, 104 S.W.3d 475, 479 (Tenn. 2003); Myint v. Allstate Ins. Co., 970 S.W.2d 920, 927 (Tenn. 1998). The abuse of discretion standard of review does not, however, immunize a lower court's decision from any meaningful appellate scrutiny. Boyd v. Comdata Network, Inc., 88 S.W.3d 203, 211 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002).
Discretionary decisions must take the applicable law and the relevant facts into account. Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d 346, 358 (Tenn. 2008); Ballard v. Herzke, 924 S.W.2d 652, 661 (Tenn. 1996). An abuse of discretion occurs when a court strays beyond the applicable legal standards or when it fails to properly consider the factors customarily used to guide the particular discretionary decision. State v. Lewis, 235 S.W.3d 136, 141 (Tenn. 2007). A court abuses its discretion when it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence. State v. Ostein, 293 S.W.3d 519, 526 (Tenn. 2009); Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d at 358; Doe 1 ex rel. Doe 1 v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville, 154 S.W.3d [22, ] 42 [(Tenn. 2005)].
To avoid result-oriented decisions or seemingly irreconcilable precedents, reviewing courts should review a lower court's discretionary decision to determine (1) whether the factual basis for the decision is properly supported by evidence in the record, (2) whether the lower court properly identified and applied the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision, and (3) whether the lower court's decision was within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions. Flautt & Mann v. Council of Memphis, 285 S.W.3d 856, 872-73 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting BIF, a Div. of Gen. Signal Controls, Inc. v. Service Constr. Co., No. 87-136-II, 1988 WL 72409, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 13, 1988) (No Tenn. R. App. P. 11 application filed)). When called upon to review a lower court's discretionary decision, the reviewing court should review the underlying factual findings using the preponderance of the evidence standard contained in Tenn. R. App. P. ...

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