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The Law Offices of John S. Young, P.C. v. Deadman

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

September 13, 2017

The Law Offices of John S. Young, P.C., Appellant
v.
Michael Deadman, Temporary Administrator of The Estate of John Edward Sullivan, Deceased, Appellee

         FROM THE COUNTY COURT AT LAW OF TOM GREEN COUNTY, NO. 14P252-L-A, HONORABLE MARTIN (BROCK) JONES, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Puryear, Field, and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Scott K. Field, Justice

         The Law Offices of John S. Young, P.C.[1] appeals from the trial court's final summary judgment dismissing its claims against Michael Deadman, temporary administrator of the estate of John Edward Sullivan. In four issues, the Law Office contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in Deadman's favor. We will affirm the trial court's summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         In April 2014, the State of Texas brought a civil forfeiture proceeding against John Sullivan. In connection with a criminal proceeding against Sullivan, the State seized a bank account of Sullivan's worth several million dollars. Sullivan hired the Law Office to represent him in the proceeding, and the two signed an "Attorney Contingent Fee Contract." This agreement provided that the Law Office would receive a fee of 27.5% "of all sums recovered." The contract also stated, "Attorneys agree not to settle or compromise the case without the Client's approval of the terms and form of the settlement . . . ." Finally, the paragraph stating that "Client gives Attorneys a Power of Attorney to execute (sign) all documents connected to this representation" was crossed out and initialed.

         On June 3 or 4, 2014, Sullivan died.[2] On June 5, Young filed an application for probate of will as muniment of title in the trial court. Young presented a document purporting to be a holographic will signed by Sullivan on June 2. This document named Young as the sole beneficiary of Sullivan's estate. On June 16, the court signed an "Order Admitting Holographic Will to Probate as Muniment of Title." This order found "that there is no necessity for administration of [Sullivan's] estate" and decreed "that ALL right, title, and interest in ANY property or interest, whether listed herein or not, belonging to the Estate of [Sullivan], Deceased . . . shall be and is hereby vested in [Young], only, as the sole beneficiary in and under the herein described Will admitted to probate." After obtaining this order, Young had the funds from Sullivan's account transferred to another account in Young's name.

         On July 2, 2014, a district court in the civil forfeiture proceeding signed an "Agreed Final Judgment of Forfeiture, " resolving the forfeiture proceeding against the account that had previously belonged to Sullivan and was now under Young's name. In this judgment, the court found that Young "is now the possessor/owner of the property subject of this forfeiture proceeding." The court further found that $500, 000 of the account was contraband and subject to forfeiture to the State and that the remainder of the account was not contraband and was not subject to forfeiture. The court therefore ordered that $500, 000 be turned over to the State and that "the remaining balance" of the account "shall be released, without encumbrance, to its possessor/owner." The judgment was signed by the district court, the assistant district attorney, and Christianson Hartman, who represented "the interests of [Young], Defendant, " and was referred to as "Attorney for Defendant."[3]

         Later, a relative of Sullivan challenged the holographic will, and Deadman was appointed Temporary Administrator of Sullivan's estate. The Law Office sought to recover an attorney's fee from Deadman and Sullivan's estate pursuant to the contingent-fee agreement it made with Sullivan, but Deadman denied the claim. The Law Office then sued Deadman and Sullivan's estate, seeking $919, 197.67, or 27.5% of the amount the Law Office claimed to have recovered in the forfeiture proceeding.

         Deadman filed a motion for summary judgment, which contained three parts. In the first part, Deadman argued that the trial court should grant summary judgment against the Law Office's claims against Sullivan's estate because an estate is not a legal entity and cannot be sued.[4]In the second part, Deadman moved for no-evidence summary judgment as to the Law Office's claims against Deadman as temporary administrator of Sullivan's estate. Deadman argued that "there is no evidence that [Sullivan], 'the Client' in the contingent fee contract, approved of the terms and form of the settlement in [the forfeiture proceeding], as required by paragraph 4 of the [contingent-fee] contract." In the third part, Deadman moved for traditional summary judgment as to the Law Office's claims against him. Deadman argued that the evidence showed: (1) that Sullivan never approved the settlement in the forfeiture proceeding, (2) that Sullivan's death terminated the attorney-client relationship between the Law Office and Sullivan, (3) that the Law Office subsequently had no authority to represent Sullivan's estate in the forfeiture proceeding, (4) that the Law Office waived any right to recover attorney's fees by failing to take "the appropriate action to ensure that [Sullivan's] estate was properly represented in the final disposition of the forfeiture proceeding" and by transferring all the assets of the account at issue in the forfeiture proceeding to Young's personal account prior to the rendition of the final agreed judgment in the forfeiture proceeding, and (5) that there was no recovery in the forfeiture proceeding within the meaning of the fee agreement because $500, 000 of the account was forfeited to the State and the remainder was released without encumbrance to Young-none went to Sullivan's estate.

         The trial court granted Deadman's motion for summary judgment without indicating the grounds for its decision, and this appeal followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Rincones, 520 S.W.3d 572, 579 (Tex. 2017) (citing Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005)). Traditional summary judgment is proper only if the movant establishes that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c). No-evidence summary judgment is proper "unless the respondent produces summary judgment evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact." Id. R. 166a(i). We may affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment on ...


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