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Lawson v. Collins

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

September 20, 2017

Alice Lawson and Jeanie Dell Collins Carr, Appellants
v.
Ernest Boyd Collins and Ella Elizabeth Collins, Appellees

         FROM TRAVIS COUNTY PROBATE COURT NO. 1 NO. C-1-PB-14-002129, HONORABLE GUY S. HERMAN, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SCOTT K. FIELD, JUSTICE

         In this consolidated appeal Alice Lawson (Alice) challenges the probate court's judgment confirming an arbitration award resolving her will contest, and Jeanie Dell Collins Carr (Jeanie) challenges the court's adverse summary judgment in her separate will contest.[1] See Tex. Est. Code § 32.001(c) (final order issued by probate court is appealable to court of appeals). As urged by Ernest Boyd Collins (Boyd) and Ella Elizabeth Collins (Elizabeth), we will affirm both the judgment confirming the arbitration award and the probate court's summary judgment order.

         BACKGROUND

         Ella Lee Myers Collins (Ella) and Talferd Gabriel Collins (Talferd Gabriel) were the parents of eleven children: Silas Turner Collins (Silas), Talferd Myers Collins (Talferd Myers), Alice, Boyd, Elizabeth, Phyllis Elaine Davis (Phyllis), Ronald Martin Collins (Ronald), Edwin Charles Collins (Edwin), Jeanie, Cecelia Jo James (Cecelia), and Lambert Elliot Collins (Lambert). When Talferd Gabriel died in 1997, his estate was transferred into a testamentary trust created by his 1997 will (the Collins Family Trust). Ella died in 2014 leaving a will dated May 14, 2012 (the 2012 Will), which named Boyd, Elizabeth, and Ronald as independent executors. Boyd and Elizabeth filed an application to admit the 2012 Will to probate. Ronald also filed a separate application for probate of the 2012 Will. Shortly thereafter, Alice filed a petition asserting that (1) the 2012 Will was not valid because Ella lacked legal or testamentary capacity to execute that will and (2) the 2012 Will was executed due to the fraud or undue influence of Boyd or Elizabeth. Alice also objected to the appointment of Boyd and Elizabeth as co-executors under the 2012 Will and later amended her petition to include a request to admit a "lost will" of Ella's to probate.[2]

         In October 2015, Boyd, Elizabeth, Ronald, Silas, and Alice, at that time the only parties to the probate proceedings, participated in a mediation that resulted in a Rule 11 Mediated Settlement Agreement (the MSA). The MSA was signed by each participant in the mediation as well as the mediator and the attorneys representing Alice, Ronald, and Boyd and Elizabeth. The terms of the MSA provided that Alice would withdraw her contest to the probate of the 2012 Will and agree to the appointment of Boyd and Elizabeth as independent executors. The MSA also provided for some modifications to the terms of the 2012 Will, including (1) deeding Ronald title to the "Homestead 'Gert' 29 acres, " (2) the parties' agreement to waive any individual residuary interest greater than 1/10 and directing the executors to divide such residuary interest equally among Ella's ten surviving children, and (3) conveying Boyd's one-half undivided interest in a 30-acre parcel of land to the children of Talferd Myers, who had predeceased Ella. Additionally, Ronald agreed to decline to serve as a co-independent executor. The parties agreed that all other terms of the 2012 Will would be probated. The MSA also provided that Elizabeth would pay attorneys' fees of $10, 000 to Ronald and attorneys' fees of $20, 000 to Alice. In an addendum to the MSA, the parties agreed that Alice would receive "$50, 000 as her cash distribution from the [Collins Family Trust] (in accordance with the terms of Talferd [Gabriel] Collins's will)" and that the trustees of the Collins Family Trust would wind up the trust and make final distributions no later than March 2016. The parties to the MSA consented to settlement documents (to be prepared after the mediation) that would include full releases of all claims and the nonsuit of Alice's claims.

         The MSA also included the following:

H. Any disputes as to the wording of settlement documents or performance hereof shall be submitted to the Mediator, Claude Ducloux, for binding arbitration.

Disputes Arising from This Agreement. If any dispute arises with regard to the interpretation or performance of this Mediated Settlement Agreement or any of its provisions, including the necessity and form of closing documents, the parties agree to try to resolve the dispute by telephone conference with Claude Ducloux, the mediator who facilitated this settlement. If the parties are unable to agree, the parties agree that Claude Ducloux shall serve as the sole arbitrator of disputes regarding the interpretation or performance of this Mediated Settlement Agreement or any of its provisions. In addition, the parties agree that Claude Ducloux shall serve as the sole arbitrator of disputes concerning the form of the Release or pleading. The parties agree that, at the sole discretion of the arbitrator, the arbitration of disputes may be by written submissions without a hearing. The parties agree that the arbitration shall be binding arbitration.

         Counsel for Boyd and Elizabeth and counsel for Alice then began exchanging drafts of the settlement documents contemplated by the MSA, which included the agreed upon terms and releases. According to Boyd and Elizabeth, after the attorneys had agreed to the form of the settlement documents, Alice expressed to Ella's heirs who were not parties to the probate proceedings that she did not intend to sign the proposed settlement documents and that Boyd and Elizabeth were unfit to serve as co-executors because of their alleged theft from Ella before her death. Also according to Boyd and Elizabeth, Alice encouraged her non-party siblings to file will contests and to oppose the appointment of Boyd and Elizabeth as co-executors of Ella's estate. Ronald's counsel did not respond to communications regarding the form of the settlement documents.

         After Alice and Ronald refused to sign the settlement documents and Alice failed to withdraw her will contest, Boyd and Elizabeth filed a motion to enforce the MSA and to enter judgment in accordance with its terms. After a hearing, the court ordered the parties to the MSA to submit their disputes about the form of the settlement documents to Claude Ducloux for binding arbitration. On the day before the hearing, Jeanie had appeared in the probate proceedings and filed a pleading titled "Original Answer of Interested Person" in which she questioned the validity of the 2012 Will[3] and objected to the appointment of Boyd and Elizabeth as executors. At the hearing, Jeanie also objected to enforcement of the MSA and stated that she should be allowed to participate in the arbitration. The court instructed Jeanie that she could file her own pleadings challenging the 2012 Will and the appointment of executors and making any other claims regarding Ella's estate, but that (1) her claims did not preclude other heirs from entering a settlement agreement and (2) because she was not a party to the MSA, she had no standing to participate in the arbitration proceeding.

         The arbitration hearing was held on April 20, 2016, and after the hearing the arbitrator exchanged emails with counsel for the parties addressing their proposals and objections to specific language in the proposed settlement documents. The arbitrator signed an Arbitrator's Award on April 22, 2016. Exhibit A to the Award was the final form of the settlement documents contemplated by the MSA as determined by the arbitrator. The following week, Jeanie filed a pleading titled "Opposition to Probate of Will and to Issuance of Letters Testamentary" in which she again challenged the validity of the 2012 Will on the alternative grounds that (1) Ella lacked testamentary capacity to make that will, (2) the 2012 Will was executed as a result of undue influence exerted on Ella by Boyd and Elizabeth, or (3) the 2012 Will was a forgery. Jeanie also opposed the appointment of Boyd or Elizabeth as co-independent executors.

         Although Boyd, Elizabeth, and Jeanie had exchanged written discovery requests, including request for disclosures, beginning in March 2016, by June of that year Jeanie had not designated any testifying experts and had produced no documents to support her claim that the 2012 Will was not valid. Boyd and Elizabeth then filed a no-evidence motion for partial summary judgment on Jeanie's will-contest claims. In July, Jeanie filed a motion seeking to release the original 2012 Will to a forensic handwriting expert, identified as Dale Stobaugh, but did not set that motion for hearing. The court held a hearing on Boyd and Elizabeth's no-evidence summary judgment motion in November 2016, after which it sustained objections to certain evidence proffered by Jeanie and granted summary judgment against her as to her will-contest claims. The court also denied Jeanie's request to have the 2012 Will examined by a forensic handwriting expert. Jeanie then voluntarily non-suited the remainder of her claims in the probate proceeding and filed a notice of appeal from the order granting summary judgment.

         Beginning in July 2016, Alice opposed confirmation of the Award and entry of judgment in accordance with its terms. She filed numerous pleadings seeking to vacate or set aside both the MSA and the Award. Despite not having been a party to the MSA or to the arbitration, Jeanie also filed pleadings asserting that the Award should be vacated or set aside. After granting summary judgment on Jeanie's will-contest claims, the court held a bench trial to address Boyd and Elizabeth's motions for confirmation of the Award and to address Alice's motions seeking to vacate or set aside the Award and the MSA. After conducting a hearing, the court signed an order confirming the Award and ordering that it be enforced according to its terms. The court also rendered judgment dismissing Alice's claims. Alice then filed a notice of appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         Alice's ...


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