Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Annice M. Wagner, Trial Judge
Belson and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Reilly, Senior Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell
In this appeal from a summary judgment order entered in an action to determine the lawful heirs of a decedent's estate, appellants argue that the trial Judge's grant of appellees' motion for summary judgment was improper because a genuine issue regarding a material fact remained in dispute. After considering the materials arrayed in support of summary judgment in the light most favorable to appellants, we conclude that there is no remaining fact in issue that requires a trial for resolution. We therefore sustain the order of the trial Judge.
James Guion *fn1 died in 1987 without a will while domiciled in the District of Columbia. He left no wife or lineal relatives; nor was he survived by brothers or sisters, or children of deceased brothers or sisters. To determine Guion's heirs, the personal representative of his estate filed an action in the Probate Division of the Superior Court. The trial Judge granted summary judgment in favor of appellees Malissa Cratch White and Belva Cratch Blackwell, finding that they had demonstrated "all links to establish the relationship between defendants White and Blackwell and the decedent as first cousins once removed." *fn2
Appellants Bertha Hill, Maxton Tuton, Florence Green, Wiley Rodman, Willie L. Hamilton, Ethel Gardner, Patricia Harvey, Aquilla Greene, and David Godley, each claim to be second cousins to the decedent, *fn3 and dispute White and Blackwell's status as the decedent's first cousins once removed. First cousins once removed are closer in degree of relationship to a decedent than are second cousins. See J. RITCHIE, (supra) note 2. Accordingly, in entering the summary judgment order, the trial Judge also ruled that appellees "are the only collateral relations entitled to share in decedent's estate" because, as District of Columbia law provides: "After children, descendants, parents, brothers, and sisters of the deceased and their descendants, all collateral relations in equal degree share, and representation among the collaterals is not allowed." D.C. Code § 19-311 (1989).
Appellants brought this appeal of the trial Judge's ruling, contending that summary judgment is inappropriate because a genuine and material issue of fact has not been resolved. Appellants argue that contrary to the claim made by appellees, Charles Cratch, appellees' father, and Jane Cratch Guion, the decedent's paternal grandmother, were not brother and sister, *fn4 so that appellees are not first cousins once removed to the decedent - indeed, have proved no family relationship to him at all. Appellants point to the 1880 Census submitted as an exhibit, which lists an "Eliza J." among the children of Easter Cratch and John F. Cratch, *fn5 along with a "Charles," but does not include a "Jane." Furthermore, the same census document states that Eliza J. Cratch was three years old in 1880 (indicating that Eliza J. Cratch was born in 1877), but the 1900 Census lists Jane Cratch Guion as twenty years old, with an 1880 date of birth. Appellants contend that the discrepancy in birthdates reflected in these two official government records *fn6 presents concrete evidence - and a triable issue - that Jane Cratch Guion, the grandmother of the decedent, cannot be the same person as Eliza Jane Cratch.
In support of their motion for summary judgment appellees offered, along with the government documents stipulated to be authentic, an affidavit from Kenneth Minor, a second cousin of the decedent, stating that Guion had told him that "his [Guion's] closest relatives were his first cousins Melissa White and Belva Blackwell." Appellees also provided an affidavit from Anna Bailey. Bailey identifies herself as the daughter of Jesse Cratch, *fn7 who was the son of Charles and Mary Cratch and the brother of appellees, and states that appellees, the daughters of Charles and Mary Cratch, are her aunts. Bailey asserts that Jane Cratch Guion was her aunt and that Jane Cratch Guion told her that she had been given the name "Eliza Jane" at birth. Bailey also states that "it was common family knowledge that Jane Cratch was the aunt of Melissa Cratch White and Belva Blackwell."
Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 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." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c). This court will uphold a summary judgment order "if (1) taking all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, (2) a reasonable juror, acting reasonably, could not find for the nonmoving party, (3) under the appropriate burden of proof." Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1979) (emphasis in original; footnote omitted), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078, 100 S. Ct. 1028, 62 L. Ed. 2d 761 (1980).
In reviewing the grant of summary judgment, we examine the record independently, employing the same standard of review as the trial Judge. Spellman v. American Security Bank, N.A., 504 A.2d 1119, 1122 (D.C. 1986). The focus of our inquiry is twofold: first, we look to see if the moving party has met its burden of proving that no material fact remains in dispute, and then we also must determine whether the party opposing the motion has offered "competent evidence admissible at trial showing that there is a genuine issue as to a material fact." Nader, 408 A.2d at 48. The burden on the nonmoving party is "that sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or Judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." Id. (quoting First National Bank of Arizona v. Cities Service Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288-89, 88 S. Ct. 1575, 20 L. Ed. 2d 569 (1968)). *fn8
Reviewing all of the evidentiary materials presented to the trial Judge - the pleadings, the admissions of appellants, the exhibits, and the affidavits - and drawing all inferences that reasonably can be derived from these materials in the light most favorable to appellants, we agree with the trial Judge that appellees have sustained their burden of proving the absence of a material factual dispute, while, at the same time, appellants have not adequately demonstrated the presence of a material contested fact. We reach this Conclusion because we are not persuaded that the evidence offered by appellants in support of their contention is the "competent" or "sufficient" evidence required by this court to establish that a fact remains in dispute. Our touchstone here is the threshold determination that a Judge ruling on a motion for summary judgment must employ: "whether there is the need for a trial - whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.
Appellants claim that the issue of whether appellees are the first cousins once removed of the decedent has not yet been settled. *fn9 They contend that the woman identified as the decedent's paternal grandmother, Jane Cratch Guion, is not the same person as the woman identified as appellees' aunt, Eliza Jane Cratch. As their sole proof of this point, however, they refer to the inconsistency in name and age on the census records and marriage license that were submitted as exhibits. The decedent's grandmother is entered as "Jane" on the 1900 Census record; her date of birth is listed as "April 1880." Also, a marriage license was issued to "Jane Cratch" and the decedent's grandfather, Duffy Guion, in July 1896. Appellees' aunt, however, is listed as "Eliza J. Cratch," age three, on the 1880 ...