Claim Forfeited? California Appeals Court Upholds Exclusion of Estate Benefits for Non-Compliance with Court-Ordered Mediation

By Mylene Chan

A recently filed petition for review pending before the California Supreme Court raises a controversial issue regarding the fairness of court actions related to non-compliance with court-ordered mediation.

Breslin v. Breslin, 62 Cal.App.5th 801 (Jan. 26) (available at https://bit.ly/3xI7ige), is a probate case for which a cert petition was filed at California’s top Court on May 6.

The case involves a probate dispute regarding interests in a trust, with potential beneficiaries including 24 charities. The court ordered mediation, but most of the nonprofit groups did not attend. The attending parties reached an agreement.

The opinion notes, “The settlement agreement awarded specific amounts to various parties, including the appearing charities, and attorney fees with the residue to the intestate heirs.” Other non-attending parties were not included.

The probate court approved the settlement and explained that appellants lost their interests in the trust by failing to file responses and objections to the initial trustee’s petition and failing to participate or appear in the court-ordered mediation.

The appellate court upheld the probate court’s decision on the ground that the California Probate Code gives courts discretion to order mediation. “A party receiving notice under the circumstances here, who fails to participate in court-ordered mediation, is bound by the result,” the opinion states.  

The appellants argued that the court’s decision conflicts with existing California laws that are designed to honor a decedent’s testamentary intent, protect beneficiaries, avoid forfeitures, and encourage charitable giving. “Under the label of ‘forfeiture,’ the majority opinion has established what amounts to a terminating sanction for beneficiaries who fail to attend private mediation,” the petition states.

In a reply to the cert petition, Kevin G. Staker and Brandon P. Johnson, of Camarillo, Calif.’s StakerLaw Tax and Estate Planning Law Corp., on behalf of respondent David Breslin, who is the estate’s trustee, argued that the appellants were never vested beneficiaries and lost their alleged rights in the trust because they failed to participate in the court-ordered mediation.

Mark A. Lester, Katherine H. Becker, and Eric A. Hirschberg, attorneys at Jones, Lester, Schuck, Becker & Dehesa in Camarillo, Calif., who filed a brief on behalf of intestate respondents Paul G. Breslin and Kathleen Breslin LaForgia, took a similar position, and also noted that affirming the lower court decisions benefits the trust and estate practice. Respondent counsel Lester indicated in an email with the blog’s author that using mediation early in trust and estate disputes means that the vast balance of the estate gets to the beneficiaries rather than the attorneys. 

The California attorney general submitted a six-page amicus curiae letter in support of the appellants’ request that the state Supreme Court grant review of Breslin. The attorney general argued that the case raises important questions concerning whether a court has discretion to waive a beneficiary’s objections to a petition for approval of a settlement agreement and presents significant policy ramifications.

It is uncertain what trends Breslin would set nationally because Breslin raises several challenging issues, such as forfeiture, due process, cost burdens, and bad faith. For now, it does not appear that New York, for example, would endorse a similarly harsh sanction for non-compliance with court-ordered mediation.

In the past five years, in New York state and federal courts, a court has sanctioned parties for non-compliance only in rare cases. For example, in Workneh v. Super Shuttle Int’l, Inc., 2020 WL 3492000 (S.D.N.Y. June 8, 2020), the court dismissed the case; in Kantor v. Air Atl. Med., P.C., 2020 WL 7130732 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2020), the court issued default judgments and recommended monetary sanctions, and in Rice v. NBCUniversal Media, LLC, 2019 WL 3000808, (S.D.N.Y. July 10, 2019), the court imposed a monetary sanction.

These three cases involved egregious behavior–such as repeated violations of court orders in a variety of contexts over the course of two years (responses to discovery requests, refusal to provide authorization, failure to appear as directed), and failure to communicate with the court and opposing counsel for almost a year–warranting serious sanctions. It appears, however, that New York judges might not quickly divest parties of rights for non-appearance as did the California court in Breslin.

If the California Supreme Court accepts Breslin and affirms the lower court rulings, it could signal a shift in the impact and effects of court-ordered mediation. The mediation community, as suggested by the cert petition, is watching closely.  Practitioners will want to monitor the case because of its potential to change the standards applied to parties in court-ordered mediation.

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The author, an LLM candidate, at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2021 CPR Summer Intern.

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