Thursday, May 30, 2019

Unclean Hands: Beware The Bloomingdales Cosmetics Counter

The Maryland Court of Appeals applied the doctrine of "unclean hands" in rejecting the claims of the decedent's third spouse to estate benefits

Robert F. Watkins, Jr. (“the Decedent”) died on August 30, 2014 at the age of 82. He was survived by his third wife of less than two years, Emeline Wilson Watkins (“Emeline”), the appellant; his adult daughter from his second marriage and the personal representative of his estate, Shannon Watkins (“Shannon”), the appellee; and his adult daughter from his first marriage, Hannah Ink (“Hannah”). The Decedent’s second wife of 52 years, Jasmine Watkins (“Jasmine”) predeceased him in 2012.

Mr. Watkins' family had played a role in the development of College Park Maryland

The Decedent’s family owned and managed numerous apartment buildings in College Park, which he inherited. During his marriage to Jasmine, she managed the rental properties by collecting payments, advertising vacancies, paying taxes, and arranging repairs. The Decedent and Jasmine also owned thoroughbred racehorses and maintained an account with Maryland Thoroughbred Purse Account, Inc., in Laurel (“Purse Account”). Their income was derived from these business assets.

The tale turned sad

The Decedent and Jasmine were “snowbirds” who routinely traveled to Hollywood, Florida during the winter months, from December through March, to stay in a house at 937 Adams Street that Jasmine owned (“the Florida Property”). They made their last trip to the Florida Property together in early 2012, shortly before Jasmine died.

During his marriage to Jasmine, the Decedent was physically active and social. He played golf several times each week. He and Jasmine went to the racetrack together multiple times each week, went out to dinner, went to the movies, and hosted family for cookouts and celebrations. Shannon and Jeffrey have two children, and the Decedent was extremely close to them, spending time with them on a weekly basis.

In 2009, Jasmine was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The Decedent was her primary caregiver during her illness, taking her to all her medical appointments. By the end of 2011, Jasmine’s cancer had metastasized and she was terminally ill.

In early 2012, shortly before Jasmine died, the Decedent took her to Bloomingdales in Chevy Chase to buy makeup. Emeline worked at the cosmetics counter and assisted them. Emeline learned during that encounter that Jasmine was sick. Emeline also learned that the Decedent owned racehorses and she expressed interest in seeing his horses race. Emeline and the Decedent later arranged to meet for lunch at a P.F. Chang’s restaurant. Emeline denied that the Decedent disclosed that Jasmine was dying of cancer during their lunch.

Jasmine died on March 17, 2012. According to the Decedent’s longtime friend and lawyer, Mr. Green, the Decedent was “absolutely devastated.” Shannon described him as “despondent” and a “mess.” Jeffrey characterized him as “very depressed.” The Decedent told Jeffrey that there was “no need for [him] to be around anymore.” The day after Jasmine’s funeral, the Decedent drove to Florida alone. He stayed for just a day or two and then drove back. He later told Shannon that he drove “erratically and terribly” because he did not care if he lived or died.

Within weeks of Jasmine’s death, the Decedent was spending most of his time with Emeline. Emeline soon quit her job at Bloomingdales, where she had earned an annual salary of $45,000. Upon being questioned about their relationship, the Decedent told Shannon, Hannah, and other family and friends that he had no intention of marrying Emeline.

But he did

In mid-September 2012, the Decedent took a trip to Florida with Emeline. He stayed for about a week. On September 24, 2012, Emeline and the Decedent were married at the Broward County courthouse. None of their family or friends were present and no one knew about the marriage in advance. The Decedent did not tell Shannon that he had married Emeline for more than a month after they returned. At some point, Emeline called Hannah and told her about their marriage. Emeline was “kind of  laughing” during the phone call. Hannah spoke to the Decedent and he seemed “very matter of fact” about the news.

In late November 2012, the Decedent and Emeline met with Mr. Green, who as mentioned was the Decedent’s close friend and his attorney, at Mr. Green’s law office to discuss matters relative to closing out Jasmine’s estate. During that meeting, Emeline became irate and began screaming and calling Jasmine a “whore” and an “adulteress.” According to Mr. Green, the Decedent “just sat there and did nothing” looking like “a deer in the headlights.” Shannon was in the waiting room during part of the meeting. Mr. Green’s secretary asked Emeline to leave the office. Within days after that meeting, Emeline and the Decedent left for Florida.

The finding in the trial court

Applying Maryland law with respect to the elements of undue influence, the Orphans’ Court found that Emeline took undue advantage of the Decedent’s vulnerability in the immediate aftermath of Jasmine’s death and “physically and emotionally dominated [him]” to induce him to marry her. It concluded, based upon a Florida statute, that Emeline’s conduct deprived her of any entitlement to a share of the Estate.

Emaline did not appeal the undue influence finding but attacked subject matter jurisdiction

While the Florida statute is inapplicable, we may nevertheless affirm the Orphans’ Court’s ruling on any ground adequately shown by the record and which was raised below. The Florida statute, by barring a surviving spouse from receiving a benefit from the estate of a deceased spouse if he or she procured the marriage to the spouse through inequitable conduct, essentially codifies the well-established common law doctrine of unclean hands, recognized by Maryland. The doctrine of unclean hands was argued
before the Orphans’ Court. That doctrine “‘refuses recognition and relief from the court to those guilty of unlawful or inequitable conduct pertaining to the matter in which relief is sought.’” Hicks v. Gilbert, 135 Md. App. 394, 400 (2000) (quoting Manown v. Adams, 89 Md. App. 503, 511 (1991)). The doctrine “is not applied for the protection of the parties nor as a punishment to the wrongdoer; rather, the doctrine is intended to protect the courts from having to endorse or reward inequitable conduct.” Adams v. Manown, 328 Md. 463, 474-75 (1992). For that reason, “an important element of the clean hands doctrine is that the alleged misconduct must be connected with the transaction upon which the claimant seeks relief.” Id. at 475. In other words, “[i]t is only when [a party’s] improper conduct is the source, or part of the source, of his equitable claim, that he is to be barred because of this conduct. ‘What is material is not that the [party’s] hands are dirty, but that he dirties them in acquiring the right he now asserts.’” Id. at 476 (quoting D. Dobbs, Remedies § 2.4 at 46 (1973) (footnote omitted))

While our research reveals no Maryland cases applying the doctrine of unclean hands under similar facts to those before us, at least one sister court has held that a person who “procured [a] marriage . . . through overreaching and undue influence” “forfeited any rights that would flow from the marital relationship, including the statutory right she would otherwise have to an elective share of [her deceased spouse’s] estate.” Campbell v. Thomas, 897 N.Y.S.2d 460, 471 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010)

(Mike Frisch)

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