THE ESTATE OF CLAUD L. JOHNSON, DECEASED:
THE KITCHENS LAW FIRM, P.A. APPELLEE MICHAEL JOHNSON, EXECUTOR APPELLANT
OF JUDGMENT: 02/15/2018
FROM WHICH APPEALED: COPIAH COUNTY CHANCERY COURT TRIAL
JUDGE: HON. WILLIAM R. BARNETT
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: ALAN M. PURDIE CHRISTOPHER H.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: ROBERT W. LAWRENCE
BARNES, C.J., McDONALD AND C. WILSON, JJ.
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.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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.
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.
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.
contract did not provide a specific or definitive time period
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. 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.
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). Thereafter, Claud paid the 40% contingency
fee to Kitchens until he died on June 30, 2015.
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.
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. 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.
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 or any other allegations, [were]
groundless, both as a matter of fact and law."
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.
"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).
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
"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 . . . .
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.
Whether the chancery court erred in granting
Kitchens's motion for summary judgment
because the court lacked subject-matter
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.
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). 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
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.
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