United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division
WILLIAM G. HATCHER, JR., as Executor of the Estate of William G. Hatcher, Sr., and Individually, Plaintiff,
PAMELA HATCHER STUART, Individually and as Trustee of the Pamela H. Stuart GST Trust, Defendant.
J.RANDAL HALL CHIEF JUDGE
the Court is Plaintiff William G. Hatcher, Jr. ' s
("Plaintiff") motion to remand this case to the
Superior Court of Columbia County, Georgia. (Doc. 24.)
Defendant Pamela Hatcher Stuart ("Defendant"), and
their brother, non-party Randall Hatcher, are the children of
William G. Hatcher, Sr. ("Decedent"}. (Doc. 1-1,
¶ 7.) On April 3, 2013, Decedent executed a last will
and testament (the "Will") and an agreement
establishing the William G. Hatcher Sr.
Trust (the "Trust"). (Id. ¶ 6; see
also Doc. 24-2, at 74-79 (the Will); Doc. 24-2, at
80-102 (the Trust agreement).) Decedent passed away on July
13, 2013. (Doc. 1-1, ¶ 7.) Decedent was survived by his
wife, Jo Ann Hatcher, and his aforementioned children.
(Id.) Decedent's estate (the "Estate")
is the subject of still-pending proceedings in the Probate
Court of Richmond County, Georgia (the "Probate
Court"), namely Case No. 2013-RCGP-482 (the
"Probate Case"), wherein Plaintiff has been
qualified as executor of the Estate. (Id. ¶ 8.)
Decedent's death, Plaintiff and Defendant have engaged in
various disputes regarding the administration of the Estate.
In June 2016, Defendant filed a petition in the Probate Case
requesting that Plaintiff, as executor, "be required to
account for all assets, liabilities and transactions of the
Estate." (See Doc. 31, at 1-2; see
also Doc. 24-2, Countercl. ¶ 1.) Defendant
subsequently filed a second petition for accounting in the
Superior Court of Columbia County, Georgia, this time in the
matter of Stuart v. Hatcher, Case No. 2016-ECV-0038.
(See Doc. 24-2, Countercl. ¶ 1.)
November 3, 2017, Plaintiff initiated the instant action in
the Superior Court of Columbia County, Georgia, Hatcher
v. Stuart, Case No. 2017-CV-0614. (See Doc.
1-1.) In his operative complaint, Plaintiff asserts: (i) two
claims for declaratory judgment seeking declarations that his
plans as executor to dissolve two corporations - in which the
Estate holds controlling interests - are fair and equitable
to the Estate's beneficiaries and the shareholders of the
aforementioned corporations; (ii) a claim for money had and
received against Defendant to recover funds belonging to
Plaintiff, in his individual capacity, that he mistakenly
contributed to the Estate and then distributed as executor to
Defendant; and (iii) a claim for litigation expenses pursuant
to O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. (Id. ¶¶
December 15, 2017, Defendant filed her answer and
counterclaim in this action while it was still in the
Superior Court of Columbia County. (See Doc. 24-2.)
In her counterclaim, Defendant alleges that Plaintiff, in his
capacity as executor of the Estate, has breached his
fiduciary duties by mismanaging the Estate. (Id.,
Countercl. ¶¶ 40-54.) In addition to monetary
damages for Defendant's breaches, Defendant also seeks an
award of punitive damages as well as her litigation expenses
pursuant to O.C.G.A. §§ 13-6-11 & 53-12-302.
(Id., Countercl. ¶¶ 55-57, 61-62.)
Defendant also seeks the imposition of a constructive trust
over all property that Plaintiff or anyone else has
"improperly received" from the Estate or Trust, as
well as injunctive relief barring Plaintiff from utilizing
Estate assets to satisfy any attorney's fees incurred in
defending himself against claims relating to his alleged
misconduct as executor. (Id., Countercl.
¶¶ 58-60, 63-65.) The same day that she filed her
answer and counterclaim in state court, Defendant also filed
a notice of removal in this Court, asserting original
jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. §
1332(a)(1). (Doc. 1, ¶ 6.)
January 16, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant motion to
remand this action. (Doc. 24.) Defendant filed a response in
opposition to Plaintiff's motion to remand on January 30,
2018 (doc. 31), and Plaintiff filed a reply in support of its
motion on February 13, 2018 (doc. 34). Accordingly,
Plaintiff's motion to remand has been fully briefed and
is ripe for the Court's review.
courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Kokkonen v.
Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994).
Federal courts "possess only that power authorized by
Constitution and statute . . . which is not to be expanded by
judicial decree." Id. (citations omitted). The
right to remove a case from state court to federal court
derives from 28 U.S.C. § 1441, which provides that
[e]xcept as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress,
any civil action brought in a State court of which the
district courts of the United States have original
jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant ... to the
district court of the United States for the district and
division embracing the place where such action is
pending." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The party seeking to
remove a case from state court to federal court bears the
burden of demonstrating that jurisdiction is proper at the
time the petition for removal is filed. Caterpillar Inc.
v. Lewis, 519 U.S. 61, 73 (1996); Conn. State Dental
Ass'n v. Anthem Health Plans, Inc., 591 F.3d 1337,
1343 (11th Cir. 2009). Removal jurisdiction is construed
narrowly, and any doubts regarding the existence of federal
jurisdiction are resolved in favor of the non-removing party.
Pacheco de Perez v. AT&T Co., 139 F.3d 1368,
1373 (11th Cir. 1998) (citing Diaz v. Sheppard, 85
F.3d 1502, 1505 (11th Cir. 1996)); see also City of
Vestavia Hills v. Gen. Fid. Ins. Co., 676 F.3d 1310,
1313 (11th Cir. 2012) (" [A] 11 doubts about
jurisdiction should be resolved in favor of remand to state
court.") (citing Univ. of S. Ala, v. Am. Tobacco
Co., 168 F.3d 405, 411 (11th Cir. 1999)).
longstanding limitations on federal jurisdiction otherwise
properly exercised are the so-called 'domestic
relations' and 'probate' exceptions."
Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 299 (2006)
("Neither [of these exceptions] is compelled by the text
of the Constitution or federal statute. Both are judicially
created doctrines stemming in large measure from misty
understandings of English legal
history.").''[T]he probate exception reserves to
state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and
the administration of a decedent's estate; it also
precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of
property that is in the custody of a state probate
court." Id. at 311-12. "But it does not
bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those
confines and otherwise within federal
jurisdiction." Id. at 312. Policy justifications
for the probate exception include: (i) probate proceedings
"are fights over a thing of value that is in the [state]
court's control - and another court should not try to
elbow its way into the fight"; and (ii) "state
courts are assumed to have developed a proficiency in these
matters, to have procedures tailored to them, and to work
closely with and even employ specialized staff not found in
federal courts." See Jones v. Brennan, 465 F.3d
304, 307 (7th Cir. 2006) (citations omitted).
determining whether the probate exception applies, federal
courts "must examine the substance of the relief that
[the parties] are seeking, and not the labels they have
used." Mercer v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon, N.A., 609
Fed.Appx. 677, 679 (2d Cir. 2015) (citing Lefkowitz v.
Bank of N.Y., 528 F.3d 102, 107 (2d Cir. 2007)). In the
Eleventh Circuit, regardless of how an issue is couched, a
federal action seeking "a valuation of estate assets or
... an actual transfer of property under probate ... is
precluded by the probate exception." Mich. Tech Fund
v. Century Nat. Bank of Broward, 680 F.2d 736, 741 (11th
Cir. 1982) (citing Turton v. Turton, 644 F.2d 344,
347 (5th Cir. 1981)). Similarly, the probate exception
applies to claims requiring a premature accounting of an
estate still in probate. See Turton, 644 F.2d at 348
("The feature that controls federal jurisdiction in such
cases is the effect a judgment would have on the jurisdiction
of the probate court. Hence, for example, a suit against an
executor personally for malfeasance is beyond federal
jurisdiction, if it requires a premature accounting of an
estate still in probate." (citations omitted)).
Nevertheless, a district court, was a court of
equity, can fashion the relief granted so that the relief
would be within th[e] [district c]ourt's jurisdiction and
would not interfere with the jurisdiction of the probate
court." Hudson v. Abercrombie, 682 F.Supp.
1218, 1220 (N.D.Ga. 1987) (citing Waterman v. Canal-La.
Bank & Tr. Co., 215 U.S. 33, 45-47 (1909)) .
Defendant's fundamental counterclaim is that Plaintiff,
by mismanaging the Estate during probate, has breached his
fiduciary duties as executor of the Estate. (See
Doc. 24-2, Countercl. ¶¶ 40-54; see also
n.2, supra.)In addition to seeking compensatory and
punitive damages for these breaches, Defendant seeks the
imposition of a constructive trust over any property
''improperly received by [Plaintiff or anyone else]
from the Estate or Trust'' as well as an injunction
restraining Plaintiff from using "Estate assets to pay
his attorney's fees to defend his maladministration"
of the Estate. (See Doc. 24-2, ¶¶ 55-65.)
Thus, while Defendant's counterclaims do not directly
concern the probate or annulment of the Will and purport to
be based upon in personam jurisdiction, their
resolution would require this Court to: (i) interfere with
the administration of the Estate; (ii) dispose of ...