In re the Stephens Revocable Trust (CA2 7/31/20)

The Court of Appeals explains that you can’t throw out a Complaint before its filed.

Plaintiff believed that her stepmother financially exploited her father, who had suffered from dementia for some time before his death. Pursuant to the vulnerable-adult statute (45-456) she petitioned for leave to file a Complaint. Stepmother opposed it, arguing that the actions she took were authorized by the trust of which she was the trustee. The trial court agreed and denied the petition. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal Stepmother argued that Plaintiff lacked “standing.” The statute allows the vulnerable adult or his conservator to file a Complaint; if they don’t, any “interested person” may petition the court to do so. Plaintiff’s interest was obvious, especially since Stepmother’s machinations had cut the daughter out of the trust. “Standing,” therefore, “was not in dispute.”

It isn’t clear whether the trial court thought this was an  issue of standing or whether it was perhaps thinking of failure to state a claim; the opinion mentions the latter, though that has no more to do with this than does standing. The trial court’s lengthy order ruled in detail on the merits: Stepmother’s actions were allowed by the trust instrument and therefore, by the terms of the statute, she cannot be liable under it. The question is whether you can do that before the case is even filed.

For guidance on what a court should look for before granting a petition under this statute the court looks to a recent hornbook. The answer is: standing. For some reason the court seems reluctant to say that but that’s what it boils down to. There must have been no filing by the vulnerable adult or conservator and the petitioner must be an interested person. If there are more than one of those then the trial court can, as “gatekeeper,” pick the most appropriate. It must “accept the factual allegations of the proposed complaint as true.” The matters considered by the trial court in this case should have been addressed by motion filed after the Complaint.

Reversed and remanded.

There are various other times when leave must be sought before making an allegation. Though the issue might be novel in connection with this statute, Stepmother was hardly unique or original in confusing a right to file with a right to prevail. It is unfortunate that the probate judge did so as well; perhaps he considered himself to be acting in the interest of “judicial efficiency,” which is nowadays — as we have mentioned before — routinely an excuse for cutting corners. The question now is whether, having announced his views on the merits, he will presume to keep the case.

We’re not sure what the court’s style book says this month about “complaint.” Without a capital, its what you have when someone aggrieves or annoys you. With a capital, its what you file to do something about that. Treating “Complaint” as a name used to be understood. The opinion does not capitalize it, even though it uniformly capitalizes “Trust,” the abbreviation of the name of the thing Mr. Stephens established.

(Opinion: In re The Stephens Revocable Trust)