Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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Terry Weems, as the personal representative of the estate of Terry Sutherland ("Terry"), deceased, the proponent of what was purported to be the will of Terry's mother, Gladys Elizabeth Stidham Sutherland ("Elizabeth"), appealed a probate court judgment entered in favor of Terry's siblings, Angela Long and Gary Sutherland, who contested that purported will. Elizabeth died in 2016. Angela petitioned to admit to probate a will her mother executed in 2002 which divided Elizabeth's property equally among her three children. The 2002 will named Angela as the executor of the estate. Shortly thereafter, Terry petitioned the probate court to enter an order admitting a different will to probate that, he said, Elizabeth had executed in 2013 ("the 2013 will"); he also requested that the probate court issue letters testamentary to him as the executor of Elizabeth's estate. That will revoked "all prior wills and codicils" and named Terry as the executor of the estate. In August 2016, Angela petitioned the circuit court to remove the "administration" of Elizabeth's estate from probate court. In October 2017, after determining that its jurisdiction had not been properly invoked, the circuit court issued an order remanding the proceedings relating to Elizabeth's estate back to the probate court. Thereafter, the probate court entered an order acknowledging receipt of the proceedings from the circuit court. In September 2018, Terry died and Terry Weems was appointed to be the personal representative of his estate. At the time of Terry's death, neither the 2002 will nor the 2013 will had been admitted to probate and letters testamentary had not been issued. In 2019, the probate court received testimony and evidence from the parties, and issued an order finding that the procurement and execution of the 2013 will was unduly influenced by Terry. It also admitted the 2002 will to probate and issued letters testamentary to Angela. Thereafter, Weems appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, finding that the probate court was required to transfer the contest after a demand to transfer was made; without it, the court had no jurisdiction to hold a hearing or to issue its order. Because the probate court lacked jurisdiction in this case, its judgment was void. View "Weems v. Long et al." on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Dalton Teal, a defendant in a pending personal-injury action, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Jefferson Circuit Court to vacate its partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff Paul Thomas, pursuant to which it struck Teal's affirmative defenses of self-defense and statutory immunity. Thomas, accompanied by a friend, Brian Pallante, were at a Birmingham bar when an altercation between Pallante and Teal arose on the premises. Bar staff separated the two; Pallante and Thomas left through the front door, and Teal left through the back. Following his exit, Teal waited on a nearby bench for friends who had accompanied him. Within minutes of their exit from the bar, Pallante and Thomas again encountered Teal, and Pallante allegedly initiated another confrontation. Thomas confirmed that Teal was on his back on the ground with Pallante above him, and that Pallante was obviously "getting the better of" Teal in the struggle. Teal testified that, after having been choked for approximately 15 to 20 seconds, he realized that he was not going to be able to get up and became "afraid that they were going to kill [him]." At that point, Teal drew a pistol and fired a single shot in an effort "to get them off of [him]." Teal, who indicated that his ability to aim his weapon was affected by the fact that Pallante had "[Teal's] arm pinned down," missed Pallante, at whom Teal was apparently aiming, but the shot struck Thomas in the abdomen, seriously injuring him. The Jefferson County District Attorney declined to bring criminal charges against Teal based on the conclusion that Pallante's actions had "led to the shooting that injured [Thomas]." Thomas filed a personal-injury action against Teal and other defendants. The Alabama Supreme Court determined Teal presented substantial evidence demonstrating the existence of genuine issues of material fact regarding whether he was entitled to assert the affirmative defense of self-defense to Thomas's tort claims and whether he was entitled to statutory immunity. Therefore, the trial court erred in entering a partial summary judgment striking Teal's affirmative defenses premised on a theory of self-defense. Teal's petition was granted and a writ of mandamus issued to direct the trial court to vacate its order. View "Ex parte Dalton Teal." on Justia Law

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Meg Jamison ("Meg"), individually and as next friend of her husband, John W. Jamison III ("John"), sought a writ of mandamus to direct the Jefferson Probate Court to set aside its order automatically renewing temporary letters of guardianship and conservatorship regarding John. The Alabama Supreme Court recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted trials in all courts, including the probate court, and it appreciated the constraints the pandemic placed on all courts to process cases in a timely manner. "This does not, however, excuse the probate court from acting in accordance with the strictures of 26-2A-107(a). Moreover, the probate court issued automatically renewing temporary-guardianship and temporary-conservatorship orders even before the pandemic. Accordingly, the probate court's May 20, 2020, order violated 26-2A-107(a)." The mandamus petition was granted, and the probate court was directed to set aside its automatic renewal appointing a temporary guardian. View "Ex parte Meg Jamison." on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Alexandra Miller, a defendant in this personal-injury action, petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Madison Circuit Court to vacate its order purporting to grant plaintiff Ralph Mitchell's postjudgment motion seeking a new trial. Miller and Mitchell were involved in a motor-vehicle accident in May 2017. Mitchell sued Miller in the Madison Court, where the matter proceeded to a jury trial in January 2020. At the conclusion of the trial, the trial court granted Mitchell's motion for a judgment as a matter of law on the issue of liability; the jury subsequently returned a verdict awarding Mitchell damages totaling $22,368, the exact amount of medical expenses that Mitchell alleged at trial. The trial court entered a judgment on the jury's verdict on January 31, 2020. On February 10, 2020, Mitchell filed a timely postjudgment motion seeking a new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict allegedly erroneously failed to also include an award for "physical pain and suffering." The trial court scheduled Mitchell's motion for a hearing to be held on March 17, 2020. On March 13, 2020, the Alabama Supreme Court, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, issued an "Administrative Order Suspending All In-Person Court Proceedings for the Next Thirty Days," i.e., from March 16, 2020, through April 16, 2020. Additional orders further extended the deadline suspending in-person court proceedings. On June 11, 2020, Miller filed a response opposing Mitchell's postjudgment motion. Subsequent to the scheduled hearing, on June 18, 2020, the trial court entered an order purporting to grant Mitchell's postjudgment motion seeking a new trial. Miller moved to vacate Mitchell's motion, arguing the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to grant it. The trial court did not rule on Miller's motion, but set it for a hearing on August 11, 2020, which was more than 42 days after the entry of the June 18, 2020, order purporting to grant Mitchell's postjudgment motion. The Supreme Court concluded Miller demonstrated both that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the order purporting to grant Mitchell's postjudgment motion seeking a new trial, and a corresponding clear legal right to the requested relief. View "Ex parte Alexandra Grace Miller." on Justia Law

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Cadence Bank, N.A. ("Cadence"), sued Steven Dodd Robertson and Mary Garling-Robertson, seeking to recover a debt the Robertsons allegedly owed Cadence. The circuit court ruled that Cadence's claim was barred by the statute of limitations and, thus, granted the Robertsons' motion for a summary judgment. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding the Robertsons' summary-judgment motion did not establish that Cadence sought to recover only pursuant to an open-account theory subject to a three-year limitations period. The Robertsons did not assert any basis in support of their summary-judgment motion other than the statute of limitations. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Cadence Bank, N.A. v. Robertson" on Justia Law

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Z.W.E., the alleged father of a child ("the child") of L.B. (Mother), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the Court of Civil Appeals' decision in Z.W.E. v. L.B., [Ms. 2180796, June 5, 2020] ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2020), affirming the Jackson Juvenile Court's dismissal of the his petition to establish the paternity of the child. The Supreme Court granted certiorari review to consider, as an issue of first impression, whether the term "child," as used in section 26-17-204(a)(5), Ala. Code 1975, a part of the Alabama Uniform Parentage Act ("the AUPA"), § 26-17-101 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, included unborn children. Z.W.E. and Mother were in a dating relationship and cohabited from February 2018 until August 2018, during which time the child was conceived. However, according to Z.W.E., beginning in mid-November 2018, Mother "refused to have any contact with the [alleged father] or his family." Subsequently, on November 14, 2018, the mother married Z.A.F. S.W.E. petitioned seeking to establish paternity of the child, born December 26, 2018. Mother moved to dismiss, arguing that Z.A.F. was the presumed father under section 26-17-204(a)(1), Ala. Code 1975. Accordingly, the mother argued, the husband's presumption of paternity could not be challenged. The Supreme Court concluded the Court of Civil Appeals did not err in concluding that the plain language of the AUPA did not include unborn children within its definition of "child." Accordingly, Z.W.E. could not be considered a presumed father under section 26-17-204(a)(5) and, thus, did not have the capacity to challenge Z.A.F.'s status as a presumed father of the child. View "Ex parte Z.W.E." on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
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Cobbs, Allen & Hall, Inc. ("Cobbs Allen"), and CAH Holdings, Inc. ("CAH Holdings") (collectively,"CAH"), appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of EPIC Holdings, Inc. ("EPIC"), and EPIC employee Crawford E. McInnis, with respect to CAH's claims of breach of contract and tortious interference with a prospective employment relationship. Cobbs Allen was a regional insurance and risk-management firm specializing in traditional commercial insurance, surety services, employee-benefits services, personal-insurance services, and alternative-risk financing services. CAH Holdings was a family-run business. The families, the Rices and the Densons, controlled the majority, but pertinent here, owned less than 75% of the stock in CAH Holdings. Employees who were "producers" for CAH had the opportunity to own stock in CAH Holdings, provided they met certain sales thresholds; for CAH Holdings, the equity arrangement in the company was dictated by a "Restated Restrictive Stock Transfer Agreement." For several years, McInnis and other individuals who ended up being defendants in the first lawsuit in this case, were producers for CAH, and McInnis was also a shareholder in CAH Holdings. In the fall of 2014, a dispute arose between CAH and McInnis and those other producers concerning the management of CAH. CAH alleged that McInnis and the other producers had violated restrictive covenants in their employment agreements with the aim of helping EPIC. Because of the dispute, CAH fired McInnis, allegedly "for cause," and in November 2014 McInnis went to work for EPIC, becoming the local branch manager at EPIC's Birmingham office. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's judgment finding CAH's breach-of-contract claim against McInnis and EPIC failed because no duty not to disparage parties existed in the settlement agreement. EPIC was not vicariously liable for McInnis's alleged tortious interference because McInnis's conduct was not within the line and scope of his employment with EPIC. EPIC also was not directly liable for McInnis's alleged tortious interference because it did not ratify McInnis's conduct as it did not know about the conduct until well after it occurred. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the circuit court's conclusion that McInnis demonstrated that he was justified as a matter of law in interfering with CAH's prospective employment relationship with Michael Mercer. Based upon the admissible evidence, an issue of fact existed as to whether McInnis gave Mercer honest advice. Therefore, the judgment of the circuit court was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Cobbs, Allen & Hall, Inc., and CAH Holdings, Inc. v. EPIC Holdings, Inc., and McInnis." on Justia Law

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Tutt Real Estate, LLC, doing business as Tutt Land Company ("Tutt"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to direct the Hale Circuit Court to vacate its July 2020 order awarding Tutt a smaller commission than it claimed it was entitled to under a real-estate contract ("the exclusive-listing agreement") that Tutt executed with Ellen Berry-Pratt, the purported conservator for the estate of Harriet Cobbs Smith. The case was purportedly removed to the circuit court from the Hale Probate Court. However, the removal was not accomplished in accordance with section 26-2-2, Ala. Code 1975, and, thus, the circuit court never acquired subject-matter jurisdiction. Therefore, the Supreme Court granted the petition and issued the writ. View "Ex parte Tutt Real Estate, LLC, d/b/a Tutt Land Company." on Justia Law

Posted in: Civil Procedure
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Shirley Temple Carr Ralph ("Mrs. Ralph") executed a will naming Philip Kelsoe ("the proponent") the executor and sole beneficiary of her estate. estate. Mrs. Ralph's sister, Nel Brock, contested the will, arguing that Mrs. Ralph had lacked the mental capacity to execute the will and that the will was the product of undue influence on the part of the proponent. The Morgan Circuit Court entered a summary judgment in favor of the proponent, and Brock appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding the circumstances surrounding the timing of the execution of the will, the proponent's dominion over the will, and Dr. Campbell's testimony regarding Mrs. Ralph's deteriorating physical and mental state, a jury could have inferred the proponent was unduly active in the procurement of the will. Dr. Campbell testified that, around the time Mrs. Ralph executed the will, her health had deteriorated both mentally and physically, she was under the influence of "mind-altering" medications, and she was easily susceptible to being taken advantage of. Accordingly, Brock presented substantial evidence of all the elements necessary to submit her claim of undue influence to a jury. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Brock v. Kelsoe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Plaintiffs Barry Munza, Larry Lewis, and Debbie Mathis appealed a circuit court order dismissing their complaint seeking certain injunctive relief and challenging a proclamation issued by Governor Kay Ivey requiring the use of facial coverings in certain circumstances, as outlined in an order issued by Dr. Scott Harris, the State Health officer, to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their complaint seeking injunctive relief regarding the July 15 proclamation adopting the amended health order that, among other things, required masks or facial coverings to be worn in certain circumstances. Because the Supreme Court determined plaintiffs lacked standing, any discussion of remaining issues was pretermitted. View "Munza, et al. v. Ivey, et al." on Justia Law