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Dennis v. Edwards

September 18, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-721-01) (Hon. Gregory E. Mize, Trial Judge)

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, Terry and Steadman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wagner, Chief Judge

Argued December 11, 2002

Appellant, James Dennis, as personal representative of the estate of Margaret B. Williams, deceased, commenced this action in the trial court against appellees, Linda Edwards and Georgia Mae Chirp Young, seeking, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that funds on deposit at First Union National Bank in the District of Columbia at the time of decedent's death belonged solely to her estate. *fn1 The complaint alleged that appellees had removed the funds after decedent's death and improperly converted them to their own use. The trial court granted appellees' motion to dismiss the case on the ground of forum non conveniens (fnc). The personal representative argues that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the motion. We agree with the personal representative that the applicable considerations strongly favor his choice of forum in this jurisdiction for a suit filed on behalf of a decedent's estate being administered in the District to determine the decedent's interest in funds jointly held at the time of her death with one of the legatees under her Will. In this case, the personal representative sued in his representative capacity, as a court appointed fiduciary, standing in the shoes of the decedent. Therefore, in determining the fnc motion, the trial court should not have given controlling consideration to the personal representative's personal residence without regard to his representative status. Under the circumstances of this case, the appellees did not meet their burden of establishing that the personal representative's choice of forum should not be honored. Therefore, we reverse the trial court's order and remand the case for reinstatement and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Factual Background

The decedent, Margaret B. Williams, a resident of the District of Columbia, died testate in the District of Columbia on November 22, 2000. The Probate Division of the Superior Court admitted the decedent's Will to probate and appointed James Dennis, a resident of South Carolina, as personal representative of her estate. Appellee Georgia Mae Chirp Young is one of three surviving legatees under the decedent's Will. At the time of her death, decedent had cash on deposit in three accounts at the First Union National Bank in the District of Columbia. Some time prior to her death, decedent had placed Ms. Young's name on the accounts, which were held in b oth names at the time of decedent's death.

On January 26, 2001, Mr. Dennis, as personal representative of the decedent's estate, filed, on behalf of the decedent's estate, a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief against the First Union National Bank and Ms. Young alleging that the funds in the accounts were the sole property of the decedent. On February 1, 2001, the trial court issued a Temporary Restraining Order prohibiting the bank and Ms. Young from transferring the cash on deposit in the accounts pending a determination of their ownership. In the meantime, alerted that the personal representative was attempting to take control of the accounts, Ms. Young withdrew the funds from the bank in the District of Columbia. In an amended answer to the personal representative's complaint, Ms. Young contended that "the Bank did turn over the balances of the accounts to [her] in South Carolina on January 22, 2001." The parties reached an agreement that Ms. Young would not dispose of the sum of $19,849.93 of the funds remaining under her control, and the trial court entered a consent order on February 16, 2001 directing and enjoining Ms. Young from disposing of that amount until further order of the court. The personal representative filed an amended complaint for declaratory judgment, conversion and to establish a constructive or resulting trust against Ms. Young and appellee, Linda Edwards, of the total amount removed from the decedent's accounts of $256,182.82. The complaint alleges that $232,000.00 of those funds were placed under the control of appellee Edwards in accounts at the First Reliance Bank and the Wachovia Bank in Florence, South Carolina. In her answer to the amended complaint, Ms. Young claimed that she had the right of survivorship to decedent's accounts. Ms. Edwards filed a similar answer and claimed that the money belonged to Ms. Young, who could dispose of it any way she wanted.

Appellees filed a motion to dismiss the action on the ground of forum non conveniens. They contended that dismissal was warranted because: (1) the m oney was removed to South Carolina four days after the action was filed in the District of Columbia; (2) it was inconvenient for them to travel to the D istrict of Colum bia for the trial; and (3) the personal representative had filed a similar action against them in South Carolina. In opposition to the motion, the personal representative asserted that the factors relevant to the determination of the motion favored jurisdiction in the District of Columbia and that the public interest factors outweighed any private interests. More specifically, he contended that: (1) decedent, a domiciliary and lifelong resident of the District, died owning the disputed assets, as well as real and other personal property, in the District; (2) that his appointment as personal representative and his fiduciary responsibility related to the estate were pursuant to the laws of the District of C olumbia; (3) that the District has a substantial interest in ensuring the proper accounting of decedent's assets and distribution of her estate; (4) that under local law, the funds improperly converted by appellees presumptively belonged to the decedent; (5) that appellees had submitted to the jurisdiction of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; and (6) that, with the exception of appellees, none of the witnesses to be called at trial resided in South Carolina. As to the suit in South Carolina, counsel for the estate explained at argument that they had hired an attorney in South Carolina who had filed suit prematurely and that they had asked counsel there to dismiss the case after appellees submitted to the jurisdiction of the Superior Court and remained willing to do so.

The trial court granted the motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens, stating as its reasons that the parties, including the personal representative, resided in South Carolina, that the funds sought were now in South Carolina, and that the personal representative had filed a suit against them there. The personal representative argues that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the motion.

II. Legal Standards

In this jurisdiction, a statutory provision establishes the grounds for the dismissal of a case when there is a more suitable forum. See D.C. Code § 13-425 (2001). Section 13-425 provides that:

[w]hen any District of Columbia court finds that in the interest of substantial justice the action should be heard in another forum, the court may stay or dismiss such civil action in whole or in part on any conditions that may be just.

Although the authority to dismiss because of an inconvenient forum is statutorily based, this court has adopted the forum non conveniens analysis set forth by the Supreme Court in Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501 (1947). Blake v. Professional Travel Corp., 768 A.2d 568, 572 (D.C. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1115 (2002) (citing Coulibaly v. Malaquias, 728 A.2d 595, 600 (D.C. 1999)). The Gulf Oil analysis includes consideration of factors related to the private interest of the litigants and the public interest of the forum, which we describe in further detail infra. See id. While our review of the trial court's decision granting or denying such a motion is deferential, it includes, nevertheless, "an independent evaluation of the 'private' and 'public' factors enumerated in Gulf Oil." Jimmerson v. Kaiser Found., 663 A.2d 540, 542 (D.C. 1995) (quoting Jenkins v. Smith, 535 A.2d 1367, 1369 (D.C. 1987) (en banc)). In further explaining this standard of review, we have said that

first we apply "close scrutiny" to the specific factors identified and evaluated by the trial court; once we are satisfied that the trial court took the proper factors into account, we adopt a deferential approach in determining whether the trial ...

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