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Estate of Johnson

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

August 27, 2019

THE ESTATE OF CLAUD L. JOHNSON, DECEASED:
v.
THE KITCHENS LAW FIRM, P.A. APPELLEE MICHAEL JOHNSON, EXECUTOR APPELLANT

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/15/2018

          COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: COPIAH COUNTY CHANCERY COURT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. WILLIAM R. BARNETT

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: ALAN M. PURDIE CHRISTOPHER H. CORKERN

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: ROBERT W. LAWRENCE

          BEFORE BARNES, C.J., McDONALD AND C. WILSON, JJ.

          C. WILSON, J.

         ¶1. Claud L. Johnson passed away on June 30, 2015. In a sense, however, the disputes in this case arise more because of Claud's father, legendary blues singer Robert L. Johnson, who passed away on August 16, 1938. During Claud's lifetime, and after years of litigation handled by his attorneys, the appellee here, Claud was adjudicated to be the now world-renowned bluesman's son. After Claud's death, his last will and testament was admitted to probate in the Chancery Court of Copiah County, Mississippi. On October 20, 2016, the Kitchens Law Firm P.A. filed a "Motion to Authorize and Direct Executor to Turn Over Monies and Render an Accounting and Order Turn Over of Future Monies" in the probate matter. Claud's estate responded to the law firm's motion and asserted affirmative defenses. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Special chancellor William Barnett granted Kitchens's motion and denied the estate's motion. The estate now appeals the special chancellor's judgment granting Kitchens's motion. Finding no error, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Robert died on August 16, 1938, at the age of twenty-seven. Although he received little public recognition during his lifetime, following his death, Robert became known as one of the most influential blues singers ever to live. Not surprisingly, as Robert gained more acclaim, the royalty payments deriving from his music grew.

         ¶3. On June 1, 1989, fifty-one years after his death, Robert's estate was opened in the Chancery Court of Leflore County, Mississippi. Claud, Robert's alleged son, was excluded from receiving any revenue or other benefit related to his late father's music because he had not been deemed Robert's heir.

         ¶4. In 1991, Claud hired the Kitchens & Ellis Law Firm (Kitchens & Ellis) to represent him in an effort to establish him as Robert's heir. The parties entered a contingency fee contract (contract), wherein Claud agreed to

set over and assign unto said firm of Kitchens & Ellis, causes of action or rights in the amount of forty percent (40%) of any and all sums of money or other benefits which they may recover or obtain for me by virtue of, or arising from, my biological relationship to the late Robert Johnson, as aforesaid, including, but not limited to, past, present, and future royalties, commissions, profits, and other benefits and/or revenues of every kind and character which have been derived, or may in the future be derived, from the sale, lease, rental or other marketing of sound or video recordings, sheet music, books, pictures, musical instruments, or devices, live or recorded performances and/or other productions and reproductions of the music and other works of Robert Johnson, including any and all use of the name Robert Johnson, whether such performances, products or productions, if any, were made by Robert Johnson or by others, or by Robert Johnson and others.

         In return, Kitchens & Ellis agreed to

represent [Claud] in any and all matters of every kind and character which in anywise pertain to any and all claims, causes of actions or rights which [he] now ha[s], or may hereafter have, whether known or unknown to [Claud], on account of [his] being the son of the late Robert Johnson, a musician who died in approximately 1938, whether such claims may be pursued in the State of Mississippi or elsewhere.

         The contract did not provide a specific or definitive time period for performance.

         ¶5. Following several years of litigation, the Leflore County Chancery Court found that Claud was Robert's biological son. Unlike many other paternity matters, this case was not as simple as providing and testing DNA evidence.[1] As stated by the Mississippi Supreme Court, "[s]uch evidence would be nigh impossible to obtain since [Robert]'s grave site is unknown. As far as we know, [Robert] is buried 'down by the highway side, so [his] old evil spirit c[ould] get a Greyhound bus and ride.'" In re Estate of Johnson, 767 So.2d at 184 (¶12) (quoting Robert Johnson, Me and the Devil Blues (1937)). Nonetheless, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that substantial, credible evidence supported the chancellor's finding that Claud was Robert's biological son. Id. at 187 (¶20). Accordingly, the supreme court affirmed the chancery court on appeal. Id.

         ¶6. After being determined Robert's heir, Claud began receiving substantial revenue through royalty agreements and the like. And pursuant to the contract, Kitchens & Ellis collected 40% of all monies Claud received "by virtue of . . . [his] biological relationship to the late Robert Johnson." On December 31, 2008, Kitchens & Ellis assigned its rights under the contract to Daniel W. Kitchens and John W. Kitchens, doing business as the Kitchens Law Firm P.A. (Kitchens).[2] Thereafter, Claud paid the 40% contingency fee to Kitchens until he died on June 30, 2015.

         ¶7. Following Claud's death, his last will and testament was admitted to probate in the Chancery Court of Copiah County, Mississippi. The court appointed Michael Johnson, Claud's son, ("Michael" or "executor") as executor. Although Claud's estate continued to receive revenue as a result of Claud's relationship to Robert, it made no payments to Kitchens following Claud's death. On October 20, 2016, Kitchens filed a "Motion to Authorize and Direct Executor to Turn Over Monies and Render an Accounting and Order Turn Over of Future Monies" (motion to authorize and direct executor) in the probate matter. Specifically, Kitchens requested the special chancellor order the estate to (1) provide current and future accountings and (2) pay Kitchens its 40% assignment of all monies Claud's estate received "by virtue of . . . [Claud's] biological relationship to the late Robert Johnson" since Claude's death, pursuant to the contract. Kitchens did not file any separate document to probate its claim.

         ¶8. Claud's estate responded to Kitchens's motion, asserting affirmative defenses and contending that the motion should be denied. Kitchens and the estate filed motions for summary judgment.[3] Kitchens contended that its motion to authorize and direct executor should be granted as a matter of law because the contingency fee contract was not ambiguous and that Kitchens owned 40% of all revenue the estate received by virtue of Claud's relationship to Robert. In other words, Kitchens contended that 40% of the revenue the estate received by virtue of Claud's relationship to Robert was not actually the estate's property. Claud's estate raised a number of reasons that Kitchens's motion to authorize and direct executor should be denied: (1) Kitchens failed to probate its claim pursuant to statutory requirements, leaving its claim time-barred; (2) the chancery court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the contract-based claim asserted by Kitchens; (3) Kitchens did not have an enforceable contract against the estate; and (4) the contract was unconscionable. In support of its enforceability argument, the estate asserted: (a) there was no privity of contract between Kitchens and the estate/heirs; (b) the estate was not bound by the contract because the contract did not survive Claud's death; and (c) the contract was not enforceable because it could be terminated at will by Claud's estate.

         ¶9. On September 18, 2017, following a hearing on both parties' motions for summary judgment, Special Chancellor Barnett entered a written opinion in Kitchens's favor. Special Chancellor Barnett found that the only significant question was whether the contract survived Claud's death. The court concluded, based on Mississippi law, that it did. Special Chancellor Barnett further held that "[t]he other allegations of the [e]xecutor concerning failure to probate a claim, unconscionability of a 26 year old contract, lack of jurisdiction, lack of privity of contract, indefiniteness, violation of the rule against perpetuities[4] or any other allegations, [were] groundless, both as a matter of fact and law."

         ¶10. Claud's estate filed a notice of appeal. On appeal, the estate asserts (1) the chancery court should have dismissed Kitchens's claim because it was not properly probated pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-7-149 (Rev. 2013) and is now time-barred under Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-7-151 (Rev. 2013); (2) the chancery court erred in granting Kitchens's motion for summary judgment because the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over Kitchens's claim; (3) the chancery court erred in granting Kitchens's motion for summary judgment because Kitchens does not have an enforceable contract against the estate; and (4) the chancery court erred in granting Kitchens's motion for summary judgment due to the presence of genuine issues of material fact. We address these issues in turn; ultimately, we find no error and affirm.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶11. "When parties appeal a grant or denial of summary judgment, this Court employs a de novo standard of review." Waltman v. Eng'g Plus Inc., 264 So.3d 758, 760 (¶7) (Miss. 2019) (emphasis omitted). We view all evidence "in the light most favorable to the party against whom the summary-judgment motion has been made." Hyde v. Martin, 264 So.3d 730, 734 (¶14) (Miss. 2019) (citing Miss. Baptist Med. Ctr., Inc. v. Phelps, 254 So.3d 843, 844-45 (¶5) (Miss. 2018)). Summary judgment is properly granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." M.R.C.P. 56(c).

         ¶12. Like the review of the grant or denial of summary judgment, "[j]urisdiction is a question of law which this Court reviews de novo." Trustmark Nat'l Bank v. Johnson, 865 So.2d 1148, 1150 (¶8) (Miss. 2004). Standing is also a jurisdictional issue, and "[t]his Court reviews questions of standing de novo." Hall v. City of Ridgeland, 37 So.3d 25, 33 (¶23) (Miss. 2010).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the chancery court should have dismissed Kitchens's claim because it was not probated in accordance with section 91-7-149 and is now time-barred under section 91-7-151.

         ¶13. Claud's estate first contends that the chancery court should have dismissed Kitchens's motion to authorize and direct executor because Kitchens's claim is time-barred. Pursuant to section 91-7-151:

All claims against the estate of deceased persons, whether due or not, shall be registered, probated and allowed in the court in which the letters testamentary or of administration were granted within ninety (90) days after the first publication of notice to creditors to present their claim. Otherwise, the same shall be barred and a suit shall not be maintained thereon in any court, even though the existence of the claim may have been known to the executor or administrator.

         (Emphasis added). Section 91-7-149 provides the requisite procedures for probating a claim against a decedent's estate. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-149; In re Estate of Lingle, 822 So.2d 320, 322 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).

         ¶14. It is undisputed that Kitchens did not register and probate any claim against Claud's estate in accordance with the procedural requirements of section 91-7-149. It is also undisputed that Kitchens did not probate any claim against Claud's estate within ninety days of the first publication of notice to creditors, which occurred on September 2, 2015. But Kitchens contends that it "was not required to probate a claim because the funds due [to] it, now and in the future, are not now, nor have they ever been, part of [Claud]'s estate." We agree.

         ¶15. "Section 91-7-151 has no application to a suit for possession of property by virtue of ownership." Maxwell v. Yuncker, 419 So.2d 580, 583 (Miss. 1982). When Claud entered the contract in 1991, he agreed to

[s]et over and assign unto said firm of Kitchens & Ellis, causes of action or rights in the amount of forty percent (40%) of any and all sums of money or other benefits which they may recover or obtain for me by virtue of, or arising from, my biological relationship to the late Robert Johnson . . . .

         (Emphasis added). "A valid assignment in Mississippi is a transfer of rights or property from one party (the 'assignor') to another (the 'assignee'), in which the assignor intends to vest in the assignee a present right in the thing assigned." 1 Donald Campbell, Jeffrey Jackson & Mary Miller, Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 7:1 (2018). Thus, pursuant to the contract, Kitchens is the rightful owner to the funds that it claims. In other words, the funds are not, and never were, part of Claud's estate-they are merely being wrongfully withheld, contrary to the assignment, by the estate. Because the funds are not a part of Claud's estate, Kitchens was not required to probate its claim. See Maxwell, 419 So.2d at 583 (holding sections 91-7-149 and 91-7-151 have no application where appellant's claim was not for a specific money demand due or to become due but rather was an inchoate and contingent claim involving the ownership of specific property). The special chancellor therefore did not err by declining to dismiss Kitchens's claim as time-barred under section 9-71-151. This assignment of error lacks merit.

         II. Whether the chancery court erred in granting Kitchens's motion for summary judgment because the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.

         ¶16. Claud's estate next contends that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction to hear Kitchens's claim. To begin, the estate asserts that the chancery court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over Kitchens's claim because Kitchens did not properly probate its claim. As discussed supra, however, Kitchens was not required to probate its claim. The estate goes on to assert that the chancery court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate Kitchens's law-based claim because the chancery court is a court of limited jurisdiction. Although the estate correctly contends that chancery jurisdiction is limited, the chancery court had jurisdiction over this matter.

         ¶17. Under Article 6, Section 159 of the Mississippi Constitution, the chancery court has full jurisdiction over "all matters in equity" and "matters testamentary and of administration." Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159(a), (c). When a will is probated, the chancery court also has jurisdiction to hear all demands against the estate. See Miss. Code Ann. § 9-5-83 (Rev. 2002).[5] Kitchens's claim is a demand against Claud's estate-an estate that is being probated in the Copiah County Chancery Court. Accordingly, the chancery court had authority to adjudicate Kitchens's claim.[6]

         ¶18. Relatedly, Claud's estate asserts that Kitchens lacked standing to bring its claim. The estate contends Kitchens lacked standing because Kitchens & Ellis assigned the contract to Daniel W. Kitchens and John W. Kitchens, not specifically to Kitchens. In response, Kitchens contends this argument is baseless for two reasons: (1) the assignment specifically references Kitchens at least eight times, and (2) Claud paid post-assignment amounts due under the contract to Kitchens, not to Daniel and John individually, since 2009. We agree with Kitchens.

         ¶19. Mississippi has liberal standing requirements. Hall, 37 So.3d at 33 (¶24). "[P]arties have standing to sue 'when they assert a colorable interest in the subject matter of the litigation or experience an adverse effect from the conduct of the defendant, or as otherwise provided by law.'" Id. (quoting Burgess v. City of ...


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