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Estate of Hudson v. Tibble

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

February 16, 2018

ESTATE OF SCOTT G. HUDSON, Deceased, By MATTHEW CARUSO, Its Successor Administrator, and KYLE HUDSON, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
DOUGLAS C. TIBBLE and BROOKS, ADAMS & TARULIS, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 15 L 12518 Honorable William Gomolinski, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE CONNORS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Cunningham and Delort concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Plaintiff, the Estate of Scott G. Hudson, by Matthew Caruso, its successor administrator (the Estate), appeals the trial court's orders that granted the motion for summary judgment brought by defendants, Douglas C. Tibble and Brooks, Adams & Tarulis, and denied the Estate's motion to reconsider. Defendants' motion asserted that the Estate could not maintain a cause of action for legal malpractice because defendants were hired by and represented the former administrator of the Estate, and were never the attorney for the successor administrator of the Estate. We find that the trial court improperly granted summary judgment where defendants owed a duty to the Estate and a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether defendants breached their duty. Therefore, we reverse the decision of the trial court and remand for further proceedings.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Scott G. Hudson (decedent) died intestate on February 17, 2005, with only two heirs: Alma Leticia Hudson (Letty), his wife, and Kyle Hudson (Kyle), his son from a previous marriage. When the decedent passed away, he left an estate consisting of various assets located in a number of countries, totaling multiple millions of dollars. A probate case was opened in Du Page County, and Letty was appointed the administrator of the decedent's estate on February 28, 2005. Letty subsequently retained defendants as counsel in April 2005, and they filed their appearance in the probate case on May 10, 2005. Specifically, defendants' appearance stated that they were appearing as substitute counsel[1] for Letty, and that they were "Attorney for: Administrator."

         ¶ 4 The primary disputed asset in the probate case was Chicago Minibus Travel, Inc. (bus company), a lucrative business that Kyle claimed was part of the Estate, which would provide him with 50% ownership as one of only two heirs, and that Letty asserted was hers individually, which would provide her with 100% ownership. Kyle, through his mother and guardian, Joann Hudson, filed petitions for discovery citations alleging, inter alia, that Letty was dissipating the Estate's assets, withholding assets from Kyle, and attempting to destroy computer files related to her malfeasance. Further, the decedent's brother, Stephen J. Hudson, and Kyle, through Joann Hudson, filed numerous petitions to remove Letty as the administrator of the Estate, alleging many of the same arguments made in Kyle's previous petitions, including mismanagement, waste, and conversion. The record on appeal does not contain the complete record from the probate case but it contains some filings from that case. At some point during the numerous petitions to remove Letty as administrator, defendants filed a motion to strike and dismiss one of the petitions to remove Letty and a reply in support thereof. The motion and reply were brought by "The Estate of Scott G. Hudson, by its Administrator Alma Leticia Hudson ('Estate') through its attorney Douglas C. Tibble of Brooks, Adams and Tarulis." Similarly, defendants also wrote on at least one order that they were the "Attorney for: Estate of Scott Hudson."

         ¶ 5 Eventually, on July 26, 2007, Letty agreed to resign as administrator, and Matthew Caruso was appointed the successor administrator for the Estate. Defendants continued to represent Letty in her individual capacity, and after their motion to withdraw as counsel was repeatedly continued, defendants were finally granted leave to withdraw on July 22, 2008.

¶ 6 On May 28, 2009, Kyle and the Estate (collectively, plaintiffs) filed the lawsuit underlying this appeal in the circuit court of Cook County as case No. 09-L-6267, alleging defendants committed legal malpractice by mismanaging the Estate and placing themselves in a conflict of interest with the Estate through their representation of Letty, both as administrator and in her individual capacity as an heir. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants also represented the bus company, which was a highly disputed asset. On June 18, 2009, Letty filed her own legal malpractice complaint against defendants as case No. 09-L-7149, which was consolidated with plaintiffs' earlier-filed case. According to the parties' briefs and an allegation in plaintiffs' third amended complaint, the probate case was resolved in February 2009, with November 4, 2008, as the effective date of settlement. The record on appeal does not contain a copy of the parties' settlement agreement.

         ¶ 7 Plaintiffs filed various iterations of their complaint until their third amended complaint (filed in September 2013 in case No. 09-L-6267) became the operative pleading against which defendants would eventually file the summary judgment motion that led to this appeal. Plaintiffs' third amended complaint was brought by "Matthew Caruso, as Successor Executor of the Estate of Scott G. Hudson and Kyle Hudson" against defendants, and contained three counts. The first count was brought by the Estate against defendants and alleged legal malpractice. Counts II and III, which were pled in the alternative, were brought on behalf of Kyle for breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice, respectively. Plaintiffs' complaint alleged that, "In or about April of 2005, Defendants were retained to represent, administer, and probate the Estate by the then-administrator and additional beneficiary (as wife of the decedent at the time of his death) of the Estate, Alma Leticia Hudson ***." The complaint further alleged that, "[u]pon being retained to represent, administer, and probate the Estate, Defendants owed the Estate the duty to exercise that degree of skill, learning and diligence as would be ordinarily employed by reasonably well-qualified attorneys specializing in similar matters." The complaint asserted that defendants breached their duty by "(a) failing to act in a timely manner to determine all Estate assets and the value of said assets; and (b) failing to conduct a proper investigation to determine all assets of the Estate." More specifically, the complaint alleged that in addition to representing the Estate, defendants also agreed to represent Letty's individual interests as a beneficiary, which created a conflict of interest due to the conflict over the bus company's ownership, and that defendants advanced Letty's interests as a beneficiary over that of the Estate. The complaint also alleged that defendants failed to timely pay certain taxes and that defendants failed to sell the decedent's home in a timely manner, which caused the property to be sold for less than it would otherwise be worth.

         ¶ 8 Subsequently, Letty filed a petition for bankruptcy, and as a result, the consolidated cases were placed on the bankruptcy stay calendar. On December 11, 2015, the consolidated matters were removed from the stay calendar and administratively renumbered as case No. 15-L-12518.

¶ 9 On January 25, 2016, the trustee for Letty's bankruptcy estate and defendants entered into a stipulation to dismiss Letty's claim with prejudice and on February 1, 2016, an order dismissing Letty's case with prejudice was entered.

         ¶ 10 Defendants filed their answer to plaintiffs' third amended complaint on June 27, 2016. In response to plaintiffs' duty allegations, defendants' answer stated: "The Defendants admit that they owed the Estate a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship but deny that Paragraph 9 of Count I of Plaintiffs' Third Amended Complaint fully and/or accurately sets forth that duty." Defendants denied most other allegations related to the Estate's legal malpractice count.

         ¶ 11 On February 29, 2016, defendants filed their motion for summary judgment, and on March 14, 2016, they filed a memorandum in support thereof. Defendants' motion argued that both the Estate's claim for legal malpractice and Kyle's claims for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty should be summarily dismissed, but because Kyle has not filed an appellant's brief and has not moved to join in the Estate's brief, we need not address the bases upon which defendants' motion was directed at Kyle. As to the Estate, defendants' motion argued that an attorney-client relationship did not exist between defendants and the Estate and defendants, therefore, never owed a duty to the Estate because their client was Letty, the person who retained defendants. Specifically, defendants asserted that the Estate was an intangible legal fiction incapable of acting and thus incapable of being the client. Defendants argued that their client was Letty and her "administration, " not the successor administration. Defendants also stressed that there was not a single case in which a legal malpractice case was brought with an estate as ...

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