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Mullis v. Welch

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

June 19, 2018

MULLIS
v.
WELCH et al.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          MERCIER, JUDGE.

         This case arises from a family dispute over the inheritance of real property. Vaudre Mullis was the mother of Rodney Mullis, Lora Welch, Loris Wendell ("Wendell") Mullis, Larry Mullis, and Rhonda Metts, and the grandmother of Allison Mullis and Krista Mullis Jones.[1] In 1999, Vaudre deeded certain real estate to herself as trustee of the Vaudre T. Mullis Revocable Trust Agreement (the "1999 trust"). On August 23, 2010, she revoked the 1999 trust and executed a deed from herself as trustee of the 1999 trust conveying property to herself individually. The same day, Vaudre executed an irrevocable trust agreement (the "2010 trust agreement") creating a new trust (the "2010 trust"), of which she is the sole settlor and Lora and Wendell are the trustees, and executed a deed transferring real property to the 2010 trust (the "2010 deed"). On August 24, 2010, Vaudre executed her Last Will and Testament (the "will"). She died on November 14, 2011.

         The 1999 trust agreement is not part of the record, but it is undisputed that under the agreement, Rodney stood to receive a 75-acre tract which was a portion of the corpus of the 1999 trust. The 2010 trust agreement provides instead that, following Vaudre's death, the 75-acre tract is to be transferred to Vaudre's granddaughters, Allison and Krista, and Rodney is to receive a different, 38.501-acre tract.

         In 2015, Rodney filed a complaint against the trustees in the Superior Court of Bacon County, alleging that Vaudre was without sufficient mental capacity to execute the 2010 trust agreement and was operating under the undue influence of the trustees "and others" in the execution of "the purported trust." The complaint seeks a temporary restraining order restraining and enjoining the trustees from executing and delivering or recording any deeds, and requests that "the [d]eeds . . . be set aside." The trustees moved for summary judgment and a hearing was held on the motion. The trustees argued that (among other things) Rodney's evidence did not give rise to triable issues of material fact as to the claims of mental incapacity and undue influence. Subsequently, the trial court requested that the parties submit briefs on the issue of mootness. The briefs were apparently submitted electronically and are not part of the appellate record.

         The trial court found that the issues for determination in this case were moot and granted summary judgment to the trustees. The court's holding was based on its finding that Rodney did not challenge in the instant case the revocation of the 1999 trust and did not challenge the 2012 probate of the will, which contains a clause providing that the residue of Vaudre's estate is bequeathed to the trustees to be held, administered and distributed as provided by the terms of the 2010 trust. Therefore, the trial court held, even if Rodney were successful in having the 2010 trust set aside, because he did not contest the revocation of the 1999 trust, title to the 75-acre tract would (as part of the residue of Vaudre's estate) pass pursuant to the terms of the will to the trustees of the 2010 trust for distribution as provided in the 2010 trust agreement, and the outcome would thus be no different than if summary judgment were granted to the trustees.

         Rodney appeals, contending that the trial court erred in holding that he did not contest the revocation of the 1999 trust and that conflicts in the evidence regarding undue influence and Vaudre's mental capacity to execute the trust-related documents[2] require resolution of the case by a fact finder. For the following reasons, the trial court's finding of mootness was erroneous, but the grant of summary judgment was nonetheless proper, and we affirm the judgment below.

         1. The trial court erred in finding that Rodney's claim was moot because he did not contest the revocation of the 1999 trust in this action.

[T]he Georgia Civil Practice Act requires only notice pleading and, under the Act, pleadings are to be construed liberally and reasonably to achieve substantial justice consistent with the statutory requirement of the Act. Pleadings serve only the purpose of giving notice to the opposing party of the general nature of the contentions of the pleader, and thus general allegations are sufficient to support a plaintiff's claim for relief.

Wright v. Waterberg Big Game Hunting Lodge Otjahewita (Pty), Ltd., 330 Ga.App. 508, 510 (1) (767 S.E.2d 513) (2014) (citation omitted). "[A] complaint is not required to set forth a cause of action, but need only set forth a claim for relief." One Bluff Drive, LLC v. K. A. P., Inc., 330 Ga.App. 45, 48 (1) (766 S.E.2d 508) (2014) (citation and punctuation omitted) (holding that the jury was properly charged on the issue of quantum meruit where the claim was not raised in the complaint, but was raised in other pleadings and the pretrial order, the jury was presented with evidence regarding that claim, and the law supported the claim based on the plaintiff's version of the facts).

         The requested relief in Rodney's complaint includes setting aside the deeds "called for in the [2010] trust." The 2010 trust agreement states in its preamble that Vaudre "desire[d] to enter into th[e] [2010] [t]rust" and was simultaneously revoking the 1999 trust, and that she had irrevocably transferred to the trustees certain assets. The trustees stated in their summary judgment pleadings that Rodney was contesting the validity of the 2010 revocation and the 2010 trust agreement. The trustees were therefore on notice that Rodney was challenging the change in the arrangement for the distribution of Vaudre's property, and the revocation of the 1999 trust is an inherent part of the change. See Wright, supra. Thus, the trial court erred in finding that Rodney's claim was moot because he did not explicitly challenge the revocation.

         Although the trial court's grant of summary judgment on the basis of mootness was erroneous, we uphold a grant of summary judgment if it is right for any reason, assuming that the reason was argued in the court below. Serchion v. Capstone Partners, Inc., 298 Ga.App. 73, 76 (2) (679 S.E.2d 40) (2009). "It is the grant itself that is to be reviewed for error, and not the analysis employed." Id. For the reasons described below, summary judgment was proper in this case.

         2. Rodney is incorrect that the evidence he presented regarding mental capacity and undue influence is sufficient for his claim to survive summary judgment.

Summary judgment is properly granted when the pleadings and evidence "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." OCGA ยง 9-11-56 (c). On appeal from the grant or denial of summary judgment, we conduct a de novo review, with all reasonable ...

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