Monday, November 18, 2019
Judgment Dismissing Suit Against University's Elder Law Clinic & Government Officials Affirmed by Louisiana Appellate Court (But There Is More to the History for Professors to Discuss)
Last week, the Louisiana Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit involving a will that was allegedly prepared by someone in the Southern University Elder Law Clinic. The complicated proceedings involve a challenge by an elderly decedent's only surviving child, who was not named as a beneficiary in the new plan. Instead the new will created a testamentary trust benefiting the decedent's great-grandchildren and great-niece. The daughter's first suit sought to annul her mother's will and remove the person nominated in the will to be executor and trustee. In addition, the Elder Law Clinic's Director was allegedly named in the will to serve as the estate's attorney. That suit was reportedly settled after a third person was named by the court as executor and trustee for the mother's estate, presumably also ending any role for the Clinic or the Clinic Director in the estate administration.
Less than a year later, the daughter initiated a second suit "for damages," naming the Director of the Elder Law Clinic and government officials as defendants and alleging, in essence, the defendants conspired to cause the decedent to believe immediate family members were stealing from her. In the most recent ruling, the core issue was whether the daughter had standing to bring such a cause of action, after dropping her challenge to the will itself. The Court of Appeals concluded the only party with standing to bring such a suit was the executor of the decedent's estate, explaining:
Furthermore, Ms. Antoine [the daughter] acknowledged she is not a named legatee in her mother’s will. Additionally, she is not a forced heir since she was over the age of twenty-three when her mother died, and she does not allege she was permanently incapable of caring for herself due to mental incapacity or physical infirmity.... Because Ms. Antoine is neither a forced heir nor a legatee named in Ms. Plummer’s will, she has no interest in her mother’s estate. Despite Ms. Antoine’s arguments to the contrary, any rights she may have had if her mother had died intestate are irrelevant since her mother died testate.... Accordingly, the trial court correctly found that Ms. Antoine had no right of action and sustained the exceptions of no right of action.
For more, see Antoine v. East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, et al, at 2019 WL 6044634 (Ct. App. First Cir., Louisiana, November 15, 2019).
As a former director of an elder law clinic, I can empathize with challenges that can arise in student-staffed clinics. We used to caution our law students that there is no such thing as a "simple will" that seeks to disinherit a close family member -- emotions run high in those cases, especially if there are significant assets -- and we recommended seasoned attorneys for such matters.
It turns out the Louisiana matter is even more of a cautionary tale than I first thought, and not one with a clear message.
While researching some of the history of the will contest, I learned there was a third suit, a civil rights claim, in which the Director of Southern University's Elder Law Clinic, a tenured professor, is the plaintiff, alleging she was wrongfully terminated by the University because of matters alleged in the Antoine suits.
In September 2019, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Louisiana dismissed the former faculty member's suit. For more on that, see Jackson v. Pierre, et al., 2019 WL 4739294 (U.S.D.C., N.D. Louisiana, September 27, 2019). Although the dismissal turns on fairly standard procedural issues, those who teach estate planning courses, or who supervise either law school clinic programs or law school-affiliated will-drafting programs, should find it worth reading and discussing.