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Ross v. Blackwell

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 22, 2016

DAVID ROSS, et al., Appellants,
BETTY J. BLACKWELL, et al. Appellees.

          Argued March 22, 2016

         Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Probate Division (LIT-35-09 and ADM-1191-08) (Hon. John M. Campbell, Trial Judge)

          Ferguson Evans with whom Oliver D. Long was on the brief, for appellants.

          Robert Bunn for appellees.

          BEFORE: Washington, Chief Judge; Thompson, Associate Judge; and Ferren, Senior Judge.


         This case was submitted to the court on the transcript of record and the briefs filed, and without presentation of oral argument. On consideration whereof, and for the reasons set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.


         After a bench trial in a probate proceeding, the Superior Court (the Honorable John Campbell) ruled that the August 25, 2003, and September 9, 2008, wills executed by decedent Elsie Hamilton, [1] in which Hamilton named appellants David Ross and his wife Daphne Arrindell as sole beneficiaries of her estate, are "void as being the product of undue influence." In a separate order in a related estate-administration proceeding, Judge Campbell approved the Auditor Master's Report and ruled that appellants are liable for the balance (plus interest, penalties, and costs) due on a $127, 000 mortgage loan they took out in September 2005 using Hamilton's home as collateral. In these consolidated appeals, appellants argue that Judge Campbell (1) applied an erroneous legal standard and erred in invalidating the 2003 and 2008 wills; and (2) erred in holding appellants liable for the outstanding balance of the mortgage loan amount without giving them credit for the "provable expenditures" they incurred to renovate Hamilton's house. We affirm.


         When reviewing a trial court's ruling after a bench trial, this court "may review both as to the facts and the law, but the judgment may not be set aside except for errors of law unless it appears that the judgment is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." D.C. § 17-305 (a) (2012 Repl.). Under this standard of review, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, see Real Estate Escrow, Inc. v. Fitzgerald, 846 A.2d 289, 290 (D.C. 2004), and "[w]e defer to the trial court's credibility determinations unless they are clearly erroneous." In re Estate of Bates, 948 A.2d 518, 527 (D.C. 2008). The "plainly wrong" standard "means that if the trial court's determination is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, we will not disturb it whether or not we might have viewed the evidence differently ourselves." Hildreth Consulting Engineers, P.C. v. Larry E. Knight, Inc., 801 A.2d 967, 971-72 (D.C. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Where the facts admit of more than one interpretation, [we] must defer to the trial court's judgment." Id. at 972 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Undue influence is a mixed question of fact and law, and our review of the legal issues is de novo" In re Ingersoll Trust, 950 A.2d 672, 692 (D.C. 2008).

         We review the trial court's approval of an auditor master's recommendations for abuse of discretion. See Rosendorf v. Toomey, 349 A.2d 694, 702 (D.C. 1975) ("It was within the trial court's discretion to approve the Auditor-Master's recommendations as long as they were prepared with the requisite criteria in mind and were reasonable.").


         Appellants contend that Judge Campbell erred in invalidating the 2003 and 2008 wills as the product of undue influence because the evidence showed that Hamilton was mentally sound at the time she asked her court-appointed conservator (attorney Philip Zipin) to prepare the will; and because the will is "entirely consistent with [her] history of testamentary planning, " specifically her history of wanting, at the outset of a caregiving relationship, to leave her assets to her caregiver(s), out of gratitude.[2] Appellants also argue that Judge Campbell erred in applying the principle (accepted in some jurisdictions, but allegedly not in ours) that "a presumption of undue influence arises solely by the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship [of the type that existed between Hamilton and appellants] between the donor and donee[.]" Citing Ingersoll, 950 A.2d at 692-93, appellants assert that Judge Campbell failed to apply this jurisdiction's rule that "undue influence must always be proven." They contend that he "looked to 'suspicious' circumstances" rather than to "any hard proof of wrongdoing" and relied on inadmissible hearsay and "extraordinarily weak evidence" in reaching his findings.

         We are not persuaded by these arguments. First, Judge Campbell recognized explicitly that "[i]t is not enough that there is a possibility or suspicion of undue influence." Second, although Judge Campbell stated that a "special circumstance applies . . . when a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists between the donor and beneficiary" and noted that "it has . . . been held" that a recipient has the burden of proving that a gift was not the product of undue influence, he concluded that the will-contestants (appellees Betty Blackwell et al.) had met their burden "even if [the burden] rests completely with the [appellees] to prove undue influence by clear and ...

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