It’s not that often we see a multi-count seemingly detailed breach of fiduciary duty and undue influence complaint get tossed on a motion to dismiss, but that’s what happened in Kaiden v. Zimonja (unpublished).
In affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts helps us understand what’s at the core of undue influence claims.
Sonja Busi created an inter vivos trust that provided, upon her death, the trust assets be sold and equal distributions be made to four groups of beneficiaries: the Christ Lutheran Church, Lutheran Social Services, the Salvation Army, and her two nieces.
Frederick Zimonja was the executor of Busi’s estate and successor trustee of the trust. He was an elder at the church, an attorney, and notarized the will, trust, and deed tranferring Busi’s real property to the trust.
The nieces filed a multi-count complaint against Zimonja claiming that he (1) breached his fiduciary duty to Busi; (2) breached his confidential relationship with Busi; (3) unduly influenced Busi to gain control of her assets and financial affairs; (4) breached his promise to care for Busi and enable her to keep her home; (5) tortiously interfered with the nieces’ expectancy; and (6) committed legal malpractice. The complaint, however, was dismissed on the grounds that it failed to allege sufficient facts to suggest an entitlement to relief beyond the speculative level.
The complaint seemed fairly detailed, so let’s see what the nieces did allege, which was not enough:
- Busi’s estate plan was inconsistent with her representations to the nieces that they would receive most everything;
- Busi lacked the capacity to understand the nature of the documents she executed;
- Busi felt uncomfortable with the church’s requests for money;
- Acting pursuant to a power of attorney and health care proxy, Zimonja admitted Busi to hospitals and nursing homes as needed, without informing the nieces, even though Busi wanted the nieces informed of her health and whereabouts; and
- Zimonja promised Busi she could retain ownership of her house, but at the same time explored opportunities to sell or lease the house.
Now, let’s see what the appellate court pointed out was not alleged, which apparently may have made a difference:
- There was no allegation that Zimonja drafted any of the documents;
- There was no allegation that Zimonja advised Busi regarding her estate plan;
- There were no allegations regarding Zimonja’s relationship with Busi (whether he visited her regularly, if at all, or whether he was even in a position to influence her decisions);
- There was no allegation that Zimonja stood to personally profit by engaging a developer to solicit offers for Busi’s property or that the property was sold during Busi’s lifetime; and
- While Zimonja charged Busi a fee for managing her finances, there was no allegation that the fee was excessive or otherwise improper.
For some reason the nieces only named Zimonja as a defendant in his individual capacity and did not name the church as a defendant when it was the church that allegedly benefited from any of the allegedly improper actions of Zimonja. There were no allegations that connected Zimonja to the church in such a way that the court could infer that he was responsible for the church’s actions or inactions.
In the end, we’re most carefully reminded of two things:
- just because a decedent’s estate plan differs from what the decedent was telling people she was going to do doesn’t mean there’s a cause of action; and
- mere opportunity to exercise undue influence is not enough (though, according to the court, the nieces didn’t even allege opportunity to influence).