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Audette v. Poulin

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 9, 2015

Richard Audette
Donald Poulin et al.

Providence County Superior Court (PB10-7589) Associate Justice Stephen P. Nugent

For Plaintiff: Andrew J. Tine, Esq.

For Defendant: David A. Grossbaum, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


Associate Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia

The plaintiff, Richard Audette (plaintiff or Audette), appeals from the dismissal of his claims for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty against the defendant, David J. Correira, an attorney (defendant or Correira). This matter came before the Supreme Court on November 4, 2015, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised should not be summarily decided. After hearing the arguments of counsel and reviewing the memoranda submitted on behalf of the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown. Accordingly, we shall decide the matters at this time without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


Facts and Travel

Audette is a beneficiary of the Claire B. Martel Trust (the trust), a charitable trust that was established in 1993. Included within the trust was a provision allowing Audette to live rent-free in a property located at 30 Anthony Way in Tiverton, Rhode Island (the property), though Audette was required to pay for utilities while he lived there. The trust further provided for Audette's well-being through the use of trust income in the discretion of the trustee.

From 1999 through 2005, Donald Poulin (Poulin) served as trustee of the trust. Sometime in 2000, Audette exercised his right to occupy the property, even though Poulin allegedly objected to him doing so. Audette also wanted his elderly parents to live with him, but Poulin apparently objected to this as well. Poulin sought Correira's advice on the issue; and, according to Audette, Correira advised Poulin that the terms of the trust did not permit Audette's parents to live at the property with him, although it appears they moved in anyway.

Sometime thereafter, Poulin instituted legal action to evict Audette and his parents. In his complaint in the present case, Audette claimed that the eviction was motivated by "personal animus" and "not in furtherance of the overall intention of the [trust]." Correira represented Poulin in that matter until it was dismissed in 2005 by agreement between the parties. In 2006, Jerry Ims (Ims) took over as successor trustee of the trust.

On December 31, 2010, Audette filed a six-count complaint against Poulin, Ims, and the trust, which he was granted leave to amend on December 1, 2011 to add Correira as a defendant.[1] The claims against Correira, which are the only ones relevant to this appeal, sounded in negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.[2] The complaint first alleged that Correira's advice to Poulin concerning Audette's right to allow his elderly parents to live with him at the property was not in furtherance of the trust and was not undertaken with due care, diligence, or prudence. Second, Audette alleged that Correira's legal advice to Poulin with respect to administration of the trust as a charitable remainder trust, tax advice for the trust, and tax filings for the trust led to Poulin's failure to properly administer the trust and maintain its tax status as a charitable remainder trust. Third, the complaint alleged that Correira negligently prepared at least one tax return for the trust by failing to file, prepare, and/or distribute the return and various other required documents to the IRS and the beneficiaries. Fourth, the complaint asserted that Correira failed to seek reformation of the trust, distribute proper tax and accounting information to the beneficiaries, make proper monetary disbursements to the beneficiaries, and rely on a spendthrift clause to pay utilities at the property. Last, the complaint alleged that Correira, as well as the trustees, wasted the trust income and assets in "effectuating a crusade based upon personal animus towards [Audette]."

On December 30, 2011, Correira filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, in which he argued that he did not owe Audette a duty of care while he represented Poulin as trustee. Correira also argued that Audette's claims were barred by the statute of limitations.

The hearing justice ruled on Correira's motion to dismiss on March 5, 2012. He noted that this Court has not addressed the issue of whether an attorney representing a trustee owes a duty of care to the beneficiaries of the trust, but he sought guidance from other jurisdictions that have ruled on the issue as well as from our Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct. The hearing justice concluded that it "seem[ed] clear that there is a potential for conflicts between a trustee and the * * * beneficiaries and between the beneficiaries themselves that can negatively [affect] an attorney's ability to zealously represent his client." He further noted that this conflict was especially apparent in the present case given that Poulin hired Correira to advise and represent him with regard to matters that were directly adverse to ...

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