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In re Estate of Johnson

March 27, 2003

IN RE: ESTATE OF MARGRETE I. JOHNSON OLIVER WILSON, APPELLANT,
v.
JAMES WILSON, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM-676-00) (Hon. Jose M. Lopez, Trial Judge)

Before Ruiz, Glickman and Washington, Associate Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge

Argued January 7, 2003

In this case, we are asked to decide whether under either the U.S. Constitution or the D.C. Code there is a right to a jury trial in a will contest. The trial court concluded that there was not, and we agree.

I.

This case involves a dispute between two brothers, Mr. Oliver Wilson and Mr. James Wilson, over the administration of the estate of their aunt, Ms. Margrete Johnson. Following Ms. Johnson's death, James Wilson and his wife, Carolyn Wilson, were appointed co-personal representatives of the Johnson estate. Shortly after their appointment, James and Carolyn filed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate against Oliver. James and Carolyn sought to recover $87,000 that had been transferred from a joint account held in both Oliver and Ms. Johnson's names shortly before Ms. Johnson's death. Oliver counterclaimed, challenging the validity of Ms. Johnson's will by alleging fraud, undue influence, and fraudulent inducement. In his counterclaim, Oliver demanded a jury trial.

Prior to trial, summary judgment was entered in favor of James and Carolyn on their claim. Thus, the only issue to be decided during the trial was the validity of the will. On September 21, 2001, the Honorable Jose Lopez concluded that there was no right to a jury trial in a will contest and proceeded to conduct a bench trial. At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Lopez ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, concluding that the will was valid. Oliver now appeals. On appeal, the only question before this court is whether the trial judge properly denied the appellant a trial by jury on his claims.

II.

Under Rule 38 (a) of the District of Columbia Rules of Civil Procedure, *fn1 "[t]he right to a trial by jury as declared by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution or as given by an applicable statute shall be preserved to the parties inviolate." *fn2 Thus, for the appellant to prevail, we must find that either the Seventh Amendment provides a Constitutional right to a jury trial in will contests or the D.C. Code explicitly provides for a jury trial. We look first to the D.C. Code and then the Constitution.

A. D.C. Code

As already discussed, the right to a jury trial in a will contest must either be guaranteed under the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution or given by statute. D.C. Code § 20-305 (2001) provides the process for challenging the validity of a will and is the statute governing whether or not there is a statutory right to a jury trial in a will contest.

Except as provided in section 20-353 (b), any person may file a verified complaint to contest the validity of a will within 6 months following notice by publication of the appointment or reappointment of a personal representative under section 20-704. The person filing the complaint shall give notice to all interested parties. D.C. Code § 20-305 (2001).

Appellant concedes that the current version of the Code is silent as to whether the determination of a will lies with the court or a jury. However, the appellant alleges that when examining the legislative history, it is clear that the D.C. Council intended to preserve the right to a jury trial in a will contest.

"As a threshold matter, we acknowledge the often stated axiom that 'the words of [a] statute should be construed according to their ordinary sense and with the meaning commonly attributed to them.'" E.R.B. v. J.H.F., 496 A.2d 607, 609 (1985) (quoting Davis v. United States, 397 A.2d 951, 956 (D.C. 1979)). "When the plain meaning of the statutory language is unambiguous, the intent of the legislature is clear, and judicial inquiry need go no further." District of Columbia v. Gallagher, 734 A.2d 1087, 1091 (D.C. 1999). However, "the literal meaning of a statute will not be followed when it produces absurd results" and "whenever possible, the words of a statute are to ...


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