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Williamson v. Farrell

Court of Appeals of Utah

July 18, 2019

Thomas Williamson and Jennifer Williamson, Appellants,
Anne Farrell, Dave Farrell, and Laura Black, Appellees.

          Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Patrick Corum No. 170902215

          Erik A. Olson and Kevin M. Paulsen, Attorneys for Appellants

          J. Mark Gibb, Matthew J. Orme, and John R. Loftus, Attorneys for Appellees

          Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judge Kate Appleby concurred. Judge Gregory K. Orme concurred, with opinion.

          HARRIS, JUDGE

         ¶1 Having been publicly accused by his siblings of abusing and stealing from their elderly mother, Thomas Williamson and his wife Jennifer (collectively, Plaintiffs) filed suit seeking a judicial declaration that they had not committed elder abuse or violated any fiduciary duties toward Thomas's mother. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs' claim, on the ground that litigation between the parties was ongoing elsewhere and that their dispute could be more efficiently handled there. Plaintiffs appeal, and we reverse.


         ¶2 Ruth Williamson (Mother) passed away in November 2016 at the age of ninety-one. At the time of her death, Mother had been residing with Thomas[1] and Jennifer in Utah County, Utah. Prior to her death, Mother had accumulated significant assets, and had executed multiple estate planning documents naming her six children (including Thomas) as beneficiaries of her estate.

         ¶3 Shortly after Mother's death, Thomas filed a petition in Utah's Fourth District Court (the Probate Action) seeking to formally probate Mother's estate and have himself appointed as personal representative. Two of Thomas's sisters-Anne Farrell (Anne) and Laura Black (Laura), both of whom reside in California-appeared in the Probate Action and filed an objection to Thomas's petition, alleging, among other things, that Thomas had abused Mother during the time Mother resided with him, and that he had engaged in various acts of self-dealing with regard to estate-related matters. In their objection, they made no mention of Jennifer. Their allegations of elder abuse were initially vague, but Anne and Laura stated in their objection that they were "compiling further evidence that [Thomas] engaged in elder abuse" and that they were "addressing that issue with California counsel toward the end of pursuing a formal action in that regard." A few weeks later, Anne's husband Dave Farrell (Dave) filed an affidavit in the Probate Action; the district court in this case described that affidavit as containing "numerous" and "specific" elder abuse allegations against Thomas, but noted that Dave's affidavit mentioned Jennifer only "in passing in a single paragraph" as Thomas's "wife."[2]

         ¶4 A few weeks later, on April 10, 2017, while the Probate Action was pending, Anne and Laura-along with other complainants-filed a lawsuit in California (the California Action) against Thomas, Jennifer, and eleven other defendants. The fifty-four-page complaint describes a litany of grievances involving the entire Williamson family, only a part of which involves allegations that Thomas and Jennifer engaged in elder abuse against Mother. The complaint contains specific allegations against Thomas, accusing him of stealing money from Mother and mistreating her while she was in his care, but contains only passing references to Jennifer, accusing her of acting "jointly" with Thomas in some of the actions complained of. Jennifer asked the California court to dismiss her from the California Action for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the California court agreed, dismissing all claims against Jennifer, without prejudice to refiling elsewhere. The California Action remains pending against Thomas; that court has not yet determined whether Thomas breached any duties toward Mother or her estate, or whether he abused her.

         ¶5 Given the pendency of the California Action, Anne and Laura asked Utah's Fourth District Court, acting as the probate court, to dismiss or stay the Probate Action pending the outcome of the California Action. The probate court refused to dismiss the Probate Action, but did enter an order staying proceedings in the Probate Action until the relevant issues in the California Action were adjudicated. It reasoned that "having these matters adjudicated in California would avoid inconsistent results and best serve judicial efficiency and the rights of the parties." The probate court's determination to stay the Probate Action is not at issue in this appeal and, as far as the present record reveals, the Probate Action remains stayed, and no determination has yet been made in that court regarding any abuse or breach of duty on the part of Thomas or Jennifer.

         ¶6 On April 5, 2017, five days before the California Action was initiated, Plaintiffs filed the instant lawsuit, a declaratory judgment action seeking a judicial declaration that they "did not commit elder abuse" against Mother or "violate any statutory or common law duties owed" to her. Plaintiffs named as defendants Anne, Laura, and Dave (collectively, Defendants). A few months later, Defendants filed a motion asking the district court to dismiss[3] or stay the case, in light of the fact that the issues at the center of this declaratory judgment action were being litigated in the California Action.

         ¶7 After an initial round of briefing and oral argument, the district court scheduled a telephonic hearing for the purpose of announcing a ruling, and during that telephonic hearing the court announced that, after oral argument, it had located a case-McRae & DeLand v. Feltch, 669 P.2d 404 (Utah 1983)-not cited by the parties in their initial briefing, upon which it wanted supplemental briefing. After the parties each filed supplemental briefs addressing McRae, the district court issued a written ruling granting ...

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