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Jackson v. Drury

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 6, 2019

MARGARET JACKSON ET AL.
v.
LAUREN K. DRURY ET AL.

          Argued March 4, 2019

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the order and decree of the Probate Court for the district of New London, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New London, where the court, Bates, J., granted the motion to dismiss the appeal filed by the defendant The Washington Trust Company and rendered judgment thereon, and the plaintiffs appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          Nancy Burton, self-represented, with whom, on the brief, were Margaret Jackson and Miarden Jackson, self-represented, the appellants (plaintiffs).

          Kenneth J. McDonnell, for the appellee (defendant The Washington Trust Company).

          Lavine, Bright and Bear, Js.

          OPINION

          LAVINE, J.

         The self-represented plaintiffs Nancy Burton (Burton), and Margaret Jackson and Miarden Jackson (Jackson plaintiffs), appeal from the judgment of dismissal rendered by the Superior Court in favor of the defendants, The Washington Trust Company (trust company) and Lauren K. Drury, vice president and senior fiduciary officer of the trust company.[1] The plaintiffs had appealed to the Superior Court from a decision of the Probate Court for the district of New London. On appeal, the plaintiffs have asserted numerous claims as to why the court erred in dismissing their probate appeal[2] but principally argue that the court improperly dismissed their appeal as untimely. In its brief to this court, the trust company claims that Burton[3] is not aggrieved by the Probate Court's decision and, therefore, her appeal should be dismissed. We agree that Burton is not aggrieved by the Probate Court's decision. We also conclude that the Superior Court properly dismissed the plaintiffs' probate appeal because it was not timely filed. We, therefore, affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         We begin with a summary of the underlying facts and procedural history, which we have gleaned from our review of the record in the present case and the file in Burton v. Burton, Superior Court, judicial district of New London, Docket No. CV-15-5014962-S (May 10, 2017) (2015 appeal).[4] The issues in both cases are related to the June K. Burton Revocable Trust (trust) that was created by June K. Burton (settlor) on February 19, 1998. Burton and Margaret Jackson are two of the settlor's children, and Miarden Jackson is the settlor's grandson. When the settlor died on March 23, 2003, the trust company succeeded her as trustee. The settlor's will directed that her residuary estate was to be placed in the trust and distributed, pursuant to a formula, to the settlor's children, i.e., Margaret Jackson, Burton, and John Burton; to her grandchildren; and to one other person. The trust company distributed the trust property in accordance with the trust instrument in 2008. John Burton died on December 26, 2013, and subtrusts were created for the benefit of his children.[5]

         Circa 2012, Burton learned that the treasurer of the state of Connecticut was holding unclaimed property (funds) of the settlor. The Probate Court appointed Burton as temporary administrator of the settlor's estate for the purpose of filing a claim for the funds. Due to a delay in the release of the funds, Burton's temporary appointment expired, and the Probate Court appointed Attorney Patrick L. Poeschl as temporary administrator of the settlor's estate to claim the funds. Upon receipt of the funds, Poeschl placed the funds in an escrow account and applied to the Probate Court to allow the amended final accounting and an order of distribution of the settlor's estate. He also petitioned the Probate Court to terminate the subtrusts, allowing him to distribute the funds directly to the beneficiaries of the subtrusts. Burton opposed Poeschl's proposed distribution, claiming that it was at odds with the distribution directed by the trust instrument. The Probate Court approved Poeschl's proposal and, on June 30, 2015, issued an order and decree granting Poeschl's application and petition.[6]

         On September 2, 2015, Burton commenced the 2015 appeal from the June 30, 2015 order and decree and filed a complaint against Orsolya Burton as guardian of the minor Julia Burton and as executrix on the estate of John Burton, and against the trust company.[7] In the 2015 appeal, Burton alleged, among other things, that Poeschl's distribution awarded John Burton's lapsed one-sixth share of the trust to Orsolya Burton, as executrix of his estate, thereby divesting John Burton's ‘‘three children'' of their rightful shares pursuant to the trust instrument. She also alleged that, as a named beneficiary of the trust, she is entitled to a one-sixth share of any and all trust property and that termination of the trust in accordance with the terms proposed by Poeschl diminished the monetary value of the trust property to which she is lawfully entitled. She claimed that she was aggrieved by the order of the Probate Court because she will suffer an economic loss directly attributable to the decree unless it is set aside.

         Orsolya Burton filed a motion to dismiss the appeal claiming that Burton was not aggrieved by the June 30, 2015 order and decree. The trust company joined the motion to dismiss. The trial court, Vacchelli, J., granted the motion to dismiss in a memorandum of decision dated January 29, 2016. The court concluded that Burton was not aggrieved by the order and decree of the Probate Court, which permitted the bypass of certain trusts and allowed the settlor's funds to be distributed to the settlor's beneficiaries.[8]

         On July 15, 2016, the Jackson plaintiffs wrote a letter to the Probate Court, stating, in part, that the trust company ‘‘has breached its fiduciary duties and misappropriated $6670 of our subtrust funds by imposing its litigation costs from [the 2015 appeal] onto our undisputed and completely separate inheritance. We ask Your Honor to order [the trust company] to restore our accounts in full and release the balance of our subtrusts immediately.''[9] In response to their request, the Probate Court held a hearing on August 23, 2016, and, thereafter, on August 26, 2016, mailed a document titled ‘‘decree'' to the plaintiffs, Kaplan, and the trust company. In the document, the Probate Court stated that it found that the trust company ‘‘acted in good faith pursuant to [its] fiduciary duty in obtaining counsel for the [2015] appeal [and the] . . . attorney's fees incurred for the time spent and hourly rate are reasonable.''[10] Consequently, the Probate Court issued a decree stating: ‘‘the Court takes no action at this time.''[11] On August 29, 2016, the Jackson plaintiffs apparently resolved their dispute with the trust company, and each of them signed a Receipt, Release, and Indemnification Agreement.[12]

         On October 3, 2016, Burton sent an e-mail to Drury stating that she was notifying Drury ‘‘in advance of [her] intended filing this week of a probate appeal as well as a separate action seeking monetary damages for [the trust company's] bad faith and mismanagement of the . . . trust.''[13] The probate appeal to which Burton was referring concerned the proceedings in the Probate Court on August 23, 2016. Thereafter, Drury sent an e-mail to the Jackson plaintiffs informing them that if Burton ‘‘proceeds as she has indicated, you will be held personally responsible for the legal fees incurred [by the trust company] due to the Receipt, Release and Indemnity Agreements you previously signed.''

         On October 11, 2016, the plaintiffs filed the present probate appeal. In their complaint, they alleged that on August 23, 2016, the Probate Court issued a decree that was mailed to them on August 26, 2016. On November 10, 2016, Kaplan, on behalf of Drury and the trust company, filed a motion to dismiss the probate appeal on the ground that it was not filed within thirty days of the date the decree was mailed as required by General Statutes § 45-186 (a), and, therefore, the Superior Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Burton filed an objection to the motion to dismiss.[14] The court, Bates, J., granted the motionto dismiss and issued a memorandum of decision on May 10, 2017.

         In his memorandum of decision, Judge Bates found that the Probate Court decree was mailed on August 26, 2016, that the appeal was filed on October 11, 2016, and that the plaintiffs conceded that the appeal was commenced after the limitation period of § 45a-186 (a), which provides in relevant part that probate appeals are to be taken ‘‘not later than thirty days after the mailing of an order, denial or decree. . . .'' The court found that the plaintiffs' appeal was taken well after the thirty day period. Although the plaintiffs made many arguments regarding the fairness of the Probate Court's decision regarding the distribution of assets, they never established a basis for ignoring the applicable appeal period. ‘‘[T]he meaning of the statute is plain and unambiguous. A party appealing to the Superior Court from probate is required to commence the appeal by filing the complaint with the court within thirty days of the mailing of the challenged action.'' Gates v. Gates, 51 Conn. Supp. 148, 152-53, 975 A.2d 147 (2008), aff'd, 115 Conn.App. 293, 971 A.2d 852, cert. denied, 293 Conn. 924, 980 A.2d 910 (2009). Judge Bates, therefore, stated that the appeal deadline was jurisdictional and concluded that, without compliance with the deadline, the decision of the Probate Court must stand. The court dismissed the plaintiffs' appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

         Thereafter, on May 26, 2017, Burton filed a motion for reargument, which the court denied on June 6, 2017.[15]Burton then filed two motions for articulation in the trial court on June 12, 2017, on matters not directly related to the dismissal of the probate appeal.[16] The plaintiffs appealed to this court on June 27, 2017.

         We now turn to the two issues before us: (1) whether Burton was aggrieved by the Probate Court's decree and, therefore, lacked standing to appeal, and (2) whether the Superior Court properly dismissed the plaintiffs' appeal from the Probate Court's decree mailed on August 26, 2016, because it was untimely.

         I

         The trust company claims that Burton was not aggrieved by the Probate Court's decree and, therefore, she lacked standing to appeal. We agree that Burton lacked standing to appeal.

         The following facts are relevant to the trust company's claim. In its brief on appeal, the trust company stated in a footnote that Burton was not aggrieved by the Probate Court's decree that was mailed on August 26, 2016, and, therefore, she lacked standing to argue the appeal. The trust company also noted that the plaintiffs sought to have the court order the trust company to restore the attorney's fees approved by the Probate Court to the Jackson subtrusts. The trust company, however, did not file a motion to dismiss Burton's appeal, and this court did not issue an order directing the parties to be prepared at oral argument to address the question of Burton's standing. At oral argument, we asked Burton to explain the basis of her allegation that she was aggrieved by the Probate Court's decree.[17] Burton objected to the inquiry on the ground that she had no notice that she would be expected to address the question of her standing and requested an opportunity to brief the issue. We granted her request to file a memorandum of law with respect to whether she was aggrieved and permitted the trust company to file a response.

         Burton filed successive memoranda of law and stated that the bases of her ‘‘aggrievement are manifest in the record and relate in part to the fact that the release[s] which [the Probate Court] directed the Jacksons to sign had hidden, unexpressed potential negative consequences for [her]. . . . That is . . . [what] Drury stated in her October 5, 2016 email to the Jacksons . . . sent ten days after the expiration of the appeal period on September 26, 2016.''[18] In response to Burton, the trust company argued, in part, that Burton had no legally protected interest in the Estate of June K. Burton that was adversely affected by the Probate Court's decree of August 23, 2016, approving the charge of attorney's fees to the Jackson plaintiffs.

         ‘‘The question of whether an order from probate aggrieves a party concerns a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction.'' In re Probate Appeal of Red Knot Acquisitions, LLC, 147 Conn.App. 39, 42, 80 A.3d 594 (2013). Subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law and, therefore, our review is plenary. See Isaacs v. Ottaviano, 65 Conn.App. 418, 421, 783 A.2d 485 (2001).

         ‘‘[S]tanding is the legal right to set judicial machinery in motion. One cannot rightfully invoke the jurisdiction of the court unless he [or she] has, in an individual or representative capacity, some real interest in the cause of action, or a legal or equitable right, title or interest in the subject matter of the controversy. . . . Nevertheless, [s]tanding is not a technical rule intended to keep aggrieved parties out of court; nor is it a test of substantive rights. Rather it is a practical concept designed to ensure that courts and parties are not vexed by suits brought to vindicate nonjusticiable interests and that judicial decisions which may affect the rights of others are forged in hot controversy, with each view fairly and vigorously represented. . . . These two objectives are ordinarily held to have been met when a complainant makes a colorable claim of direct injury he [or she] has suffered or is likely to suffer, in an individual or representative ...


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