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In re Estate of Yates

January 28, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (INT-64-05) (Hon. Eugene N. Hamilton, Trial Judge).

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

Submitted November 23, 2009

Before RUIZ, Associate Judge, and NEBEKER and SCHWELB, Senior Judges.

Appellant, Christina C. Forbes, appeals an order of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Probate Division, that denied her motion for leave to late file a petition for compensation for work done in her capacity as a court-appointed guardian. For the reasons discussed below, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I. Facts

Appellant was appointed as guardian for Ronnie Yates, an incapacitated individual without significant assets, on March 15, 2005. Mr. Yates died on May 30, 2006. Appellant filed her final guardianship report with the Superior Court's Probate Division on August 2, 2006, and the intervention proceeding for Mr. Yates closed that same day.

On May 15, 2008, appellant filed a motion for leave to late file her final petition for compensation, pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 6 (b), Superior Court Probate Rule 308, and D.C. Code § 21-2060 (2001). In her motion, appellant stated that she had "fail[ed] . . . to file her Petition for Compensation within the time period prescribed" in Superior Court Probate Rule 308 (c)(1). She asserted, however, that her "failure to file in a timely manner [was] excusable" because "[t]he press of business . . . has distracted [her] from finalizing this matter." Appellant averred that "[t]he only party who suffered prejudice from the delay in filing of the petition is the undersigned, whose failure to file simply means that [she] still has not received payment for her work" and that no party would be prejudiced as a result of the grant of her motion.*fn1

Appellant's motion for leave to late file was accompanied by her petition for compensation, in which appellant requested payment for work done after December 2005, when she had received her last court-ordered payment. The compensation petition includes a detailed list of the services provided to the ward and the time spent on each entry, which included various efforts to alleviate conditions during the last few months of life for a indigent mentally ill man dying of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease.*fn2 As required by Superior Court Administrative Order 04-06, appellant attached a list of her other, active cases to her petition for compensation.

Appellant's motion was denied in an order that states in full: "The only reason being stated for the failure to timely file the Petition for Compensation being 'distraction' by the Petitioner, the Court finds this to be inexcusable and unreasonable, so that the Motion to Late File is DENIED." Appellant filed a timely appeal.*fn3

II. Analysis

Rule 6 (b) of the Superior Court Civil Rules states, in relevant part, that a "Court for cause shown may at any time in its discretion" enlarge a deadline "upon motion made after the expiration of the specified period . . . where the failure to act was the result of excusable neglect . . ." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 6 (b)(2).*fn4 The Supreme Court has held that the phrase "excusable neglect" permits a court, "where appropriate, to accept late filings caused by inadvertence, mistake, or carelessness, as well as by intervening circumstances beyond the party's control." Pioneer Inv. Servs. Co. v. Brunswick Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 507 U.S. 380, 388 (1993) (interpreting "excusable neglect" as used in similar federal bankruptcy rule). Determining whether a party's neglect is excusable "is at bottom an equitable one, taking [into] account . . . all relevant circumstances surrounding the party's omission." Id. at 395. The factors a court considers include "the danger of prejudice [to other parties], the length of the delay and its potential impact on judicial proceedings, the reason for the delay, including whether it was within the reasonable control of the movant, and whether the movant acted in good faith." Id.

We review the Superior Court's denial of a motion to enlarge time for abuse of discretion. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 6 (b) (stating that a court may enlarge a deadline "in its discretion"); Nguyen v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 611 A.2d 541, 543 n.3 (D.C. 1992); Smith v. District of Columbia, 368 U.S. App. D.C. 361, 367, 430 F.3d 450, 456 (2005).*fn5 In doing so, we must examine whether the trial judge made "[a]n informed choice" in denying appellant's motion, and whether the judge's "determination [was] based upon and drawn from a firm factual foundation." Johnson v. United States, 398 A.2d 354, 364 (D.C. 1979). "Just as a trial court's action is an abuse of discretion if no valid reason is given or can be discerned for it, so also it is an abuse if the stated reasons do not rest upon a specific factual predicate." Id. (citation omitted).

Here, we are not able to discern the reasoning or factual justification for the trial court's denial of appellant's motion for late filing. Although appellant's stated explanation for late filing is, in appellant's own words, "skeletal at best," the motion specifically mentioned the "press of business" and attached a list of twenty-six pending cases to the petition for compensation. Appellant also included a list of sixteen additional cases that were inactive "but for filing petitions for compensation." The Superior Court's order, however, makes no mention of the "press of business" referred to in appellant's motion or the caseload represented by the lists of pending matters. Rather, it focuses solely on appellant's use of the word "distracted" and concludes, without taking its context into account or considering the obvious prejudice to appellant if she were not to be compensated, that appellant's request for additional time was "inexcusable and unreasonable."

Given that the Superior Court was presented with evidence of what appears to be a busy probate practice, which provided a factual basis supporting appellant's motion, it was incumbent upon the court to review and consider that information before ruling on appellant's motion. By focusing on a single word, "distracted," the order ...

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