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Barnes v. Channel

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 19, 2018

BARNES et al.
CHANNEL et al.

          NAHMIAS, Justice.

         In this feud between siblings over their aunt's estate, the question presented is the propriety of the extensive relief granted by the trial court on a motion for an interlocutory injunction. Because most of the relief was not proper interlocutory relief, we vacate the disputed parts of the trial court's order and remand the case.

         1. The first seeds of the feud were sown on July 29, 2008, when

         Frances Huff gave Charles Barnes, Jr., her nephew, power of attorney over her affairs, which he then handled until her death. By 2014, Huff had moved from her house into a nursing home. In June 2014, she signed a quitclaim deed conveying the house to Barnes, and he and his girlfriend, Madeline Jackson, moved in. Huff died nine months later, on March 21, 2015, at the age of 95.

         Huff's will, which she executed in May 2009 - several years before conveying the house to Barnes - directed that her house should be sold and the sale proceeds, as well as the rest of her estate (with the exception of specific monetary bequests to a seminary and a church), divided per capita between Barnes and his siblings Bernard, Mary, and Geraldine (Appellees). The will named Barnes as the executor, but Appellees objected to his appointment on the grounds that he had not provided any accounting of his actions as Huff's fiduciary and had misappropriated her personal property and money. Appellees also alleged that Barnes had a conflict of interest because he was "the grantee of the decedent's home at a time when the decedent lacked the mental capacity to convey the title of the property to him." Barnes did not contest the objection to his appointment as executor, and Bernard was appointed instead. On February 2, 2016, Barnes filed a petition for declaratory judgment against Appellees in the Fulton County Superior Court, seeking to affirm the validity of the quitclaim deed.

         On April 14, 2016, Appellees, in their individual capacities and in Bernard's capacity as executor, filed a tort action against Barnes and Jackson (Appellants) in the same trial court, alleging breach of fiduciary duty; fraud; theft by taking, deception, and conversion, including while the estate was unrepresented; civil conspiracy to commit theft and misappropriation; and undue influence involving the quitclaim deed. Appellees requested an accounting, a constructive trust to hold funds misappropriated by Barnes, and an interlocutory and permanent injunction ordering Appellants to immediately turn over to the estate the money and property Barnes had allegedly misappropriated and ordering that Barnes had forfeited his rights as a beneficiary under Huff's will. Appellees further requested that Appellants be evicted from Huff's former residence and that a writ of possession for the property be issued to Huff's estate, and they also requested punitive damages and attorney fees.

         The next day, Appellees filed an emergency motion for "turn over of estate assets and interlocutory injunction." They alleged that the estate had "been attempting to determine what assets exist, get possession of the assets, and otherwise work with [Appellants]" to allow the will to be probated, but Appellants were being uncooperative. Therefore, Appellees filed the motion in "an attempt to marshal and secure the remaining available assets" of the estate while the tort action was pending. Appellees asked the court to require Appellants to turn over all property, including the house; to turn over or put into a constructive trust all money belonging to the estate; and to provide an accounting of all policies and annuities that were or had been in Huff's name. Appellees also requested expedited discovery in the form of "immediate videotaped depositions, as well as authority to serve subpoenas for [Appellants'] banking records and tax returns." On June 29, 2016, the trial court entered an order consolidating the declaratory judgment and tort actions and directing the parties to mediation. The order also stayed discovery until further order of the court. According to Appellants, Barnes was unable to attend mediation because of his poor health; he suffers from multiple myeloma and dementia and has been frequently hospitalized.

         On September 12, 2016, Appellants filed a motion to withhold ruling on the disposition of the real property until completion of discovery and a hearing on the merits. The trial court held a hearing on September 21, at which the court expressed concern about Barnes's apparent theft from Huff and said that the court wanted Barnes, who was not at the hearing because he was in a rehabilitation center, to appear and answer under oath questions about transfers from Huff's bank account. Appellants' attorney said that he wanted to produce evidence to explain the transfers and to prove that Huff had the capacity to convey the residence to Barnes when she signed the quitclaim deed. The court appeared to reopen discovery, and the next hearing was scheduled for October 11, 2016.[1]

         At that hearing, Appellants introduced affidavits of the notary and the two witnesses who signed the quitclaim deed conveying the property to Barnes. All three affidavits said that Huff was "aware and very alert" when she signed the deed. Appellees introduced three bank statements from Barnes that he had provided to them, but noted that he had not provided all of the statements they requested. Appellees called a record keeper to authenticate documents showing Huff's mental state; a nurse practitioner and a doctor, both of whom had cared for Huff; and Barnes. One of the medical records showed that Huff had been diagnosed with dementia by the time the quitclaim deed was executed. The nurse testified that Huff did not have the mental capacity to know what she was signing when she signed the quitclaim deed, and the doctor testified that Huff's short-term memory was so bad at that time it was questionable whether she knew what was actually going on. In his testimony, Barnes had difficulty remembering who made most of the transfers from Huff's account or where they went, but he claimed to remember that Huff was of sound mind when she signed the quitclaim deed and that she had been planning to give him the house for many years.

         Appellees' final witness was Bernard's wife, who had summarized the estate's accounts. When Appellees sought to introduce that summary, Appellants objected. The judge then asked Appellees what relief they were seeking, to which their counsel answered, "an injunction whereby the house and everything that belong[s] to the estate comes back to the estate." The judge then said to Barnes:

Your conduct is reprehensi[ble] and this is one of the most disturbing cases I've seen [in] 20 years on the bench. You robbed from this woman and you stole from her and you changed her life insurance and your conduct is despicable. So I [am] hereby going to enter an order striking the quitclaim deed and then I'm going to order the house be sold in accordance with the will, and he has until November 11th at 5 p.m. to vacate the premises. Submit me an order.

         Appellants' attorney asked to be heard, to which the judge responded:

I didn't believe a word your client had to say, by the way. I have been doing this 20 years, and he's got selective memory and he stole from this woman and he just profited and it's just despicable. She was 90-something years old and he wants to come in here and selectively remember things. . . . There's nothing else I need to hear. There's nothing you can tell me. Okay? So submit me an order. I have been very patient.

         The judge concluded that Huff did not have capacity to enter the quitclaim deed, that Barnes took advantage of her, and that it was a violation of the power of attorney agreement for Barnes to take the property.[2] When Appellants' attorney objected that Huff's capacity was a jury question, the judge said: "You can appeal it. You can appeal it. Because I'm using the equitable powers of this Court because - you can just appeal it." Appellants' attorney then began to argue that the court had not considered the proper standards for interlocutory ...

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