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In re Estate of Brown

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 30, 2019

In re Estate of Elizabeth Brown, a/k/a Letizia I. Brown.

          Providence County Superior Court (PC 05-2723) Associate Justice Patricia A. Hurst

          For Appellant: Mary Ryan, Pro Se

          For Appellee: R. J. Connelly, III, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          PER CURIAM.

         The appellant, Mary Ryan, appeals pro se from an April 26, 2013 final judgment of the Providence County Superior Court and a June 5, 2013 order of the same court. The April 26, 2013 judgment denied and dismissed Ms. Ryan's probate appeal and prohibited Ms. Ryan, with significant exceptions, from "filing pleadings or other documents" in Superior Court unless they had been signed by a licensed attorney. The June 5, 2013 order denied Ms. Ryan's motions to vacate that were filed pursuant to either Rule 59 or Rule 60 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. Ms. Ryan also raises the issue of the attorneys' fees awarded to opposing counsel in an April 22, 2013 order of the Superior Court. Ms. Ryan makes numerous contentions of error on appeal. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After a close review of the record and careful consideration of the parties' arguments (both written and oral), we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that these appeals may be decided at this time.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we remand with directions to modify the April 22, 2013 attorneys' fees order in accordance with this opinion, we affirm in part and vacate in part the April 26, 2013 judgment, and we affirm the June 5, 2013 order of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         Given the fact that we reach the ultimate conclusion that Ms. Ryan's failure to provide this Court with the necessary transcripts dooms many of her appellate contentions, we shall provide only those minimal facts necessary to address Ms. Ryan's contentions.[1] In relating what transpired in the Burrillville Probate Court and in Ms. Ryan's probate appeal to the Superior Court, we rely primarily on the trial justice's August 2, 2012 bench decision.

         Ms. Ryan's case began some fourteen years ago in Probate Court, where there was a dispute with respect to a guardianship for Ms. Ryan's aunt, Elizabeth Brown, and, ultimately, a dispute over Ms. Brown's estate after she passed away. Ms. Ryan eventually appealed to Superior Court from an April 27, 2005 denial by the Probate Court of: (1) her motion for sanctions against opposing counsel;[2] and (2) her motion to waive the requirement of a filing of a corporate surety bond, which the court had imposed as a condition of her becoming administratrix of the estate. A bench trial on Ms. Ryan's probate appeal took place in Superior Court commencing on July 23, 2012 and ending on July 27, 2012. Ms. Ryan has opted not to provide us with the transcripts of that trial. On August 2, 2012, the trial justice issued a bench decision with respect to the probate appeal.

         In that bench decision, the trial justice stated that Ms. Ryan had requested the court to authorize William Rose, a family member of Ms. Ryan's and an intervenor in the Superior Court action, "to stand as surety for Ms. Ryan's conduct as administratrix and to eliminate the requirement of corporate surety as required by the Probate Court." In the words of the trial justice, Ms. Ryan was also appealing the Probate Court's "refusal to order sanctions against [opposing counsel] for allegedly bringing a frivolous guardianship proceeding" with respect to Ms. Brown before she passed away. The trial justice proceeded to make factual and credibility findings. The trial justice held, just as the Probate Court had held, that she would not sanction opposing counsel for his role in the guardianship proceedings involving Ms. Brown before her death. She also questioned Ms. Ryan's standing to bring such a motion for sanctions. The trial justice proceeded to expressly hold that "the evidence in this case clearly demonstrates that corporate surety not only is advisable but it is absolutely necessary." She further noted that G.L. 1956 § 33-17-1.2 gives the Probate Court the discretion to require corporate surety and that there are numerous factors to be considered in making such a determination. Finally, the trial justice noted that Ms. Ryan had "failed to prove by a fair preponderance of the evidence that her surety or that of Mr. Rose would be sufficient."

         At the conclusion of that bench decision, the trial justice noted that opposing counsel had orally moved at the end of the trial for sanctions. She found that opposing counsel's motion had merit. As such, she instructed Ms. Ryan and Mr. Rose to "show cause why they should not be sanctioned pursuant to Rule 11 [of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure] and General Laws [1956 §] 9-29-1" and why the trial justice "should not order them to pay the reasonable expense of [opposing counsel's] defense of himself and [his client]." An order memorializing the bench decision thereafter entered on August 3, 2012.

         On October 4, 2012, opposing counsel filed a "motion for approval of attorneys' fees and expenses" seeking attorneys' fees from Ms. Ryan and detailing in an affidavit and documentation attached thereto data as to his time spent working on the above-referenced defense, his hourly billing rate, and the like. Ms. Ryan objected to that motion.

         On October 18, 2012, Ms. Ryan filed a motion to vacate and correct the record (the first motion to vacate) seeking to vacate (presumably pursuant to Rule 60 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure) an order that had entered in the case on December 15, 2005. That December 15, 2005 order did the following: (1) it denied Ms. Ryan's motion for "[c]onditional [i]mmunity;" (2) it denied Ms. Ryan's motion to assign; (3) it denied Ms. Ryan's motion for sanctions; (4) it denied Ms. Ryan's motion to compel/enforce subpoena of the deposition of opposing counsel; (5) it denied Ms. Ryan's motion to amend and supplement reasons of appeal; (6) it denied opposing counsel's motion for a protective order; and (7) it denied opposing counsel's motion for sanctions. In her memorandum in support of her motion, she also sought relief with respect to an order from 2006 that she had presented for the signature of a justice of the Superior Court (who was not the trial justice) but which that justice never signed. On January 25, 2013, after hearing argument on Ms. Ryan's October 18, 2012 motion to vacate, the trial justice denied the motion in a bench decision. She stated that Ms. Ryan had failed to pursue her remedies with respect to those orders given that "[s]he had years; years to submit the[ ] orders and get * * * things straightened out." The trial justice further noted that trial had already taken place and a decision had been rendered so no useful purpose would be served in vacating a December 15, 2005 pre-trial order.

         In the meantime, on November 2, 2012, Ms. Ryan had filed a motion to vacate the Superior Court's order of August 3, 2012 denying her probate appeal (the second motion to vacate), which motion Ms. Ryan amended on November 5, 2012, on the grounds that: (1) there was new evidence; (2) the Superior Court "overlooked evidence and misconceived information;" and (3) the order was violative of her due process rights and was unjust.[3] It is unclear from the record whether Ms. Ryan intended that November 2, 2012 motion to be filed pursuant to Rule 59 or Rule 60 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, but that fact has no bearing on the disposition of this appeal. The trial justice conducted a hearing on that motion, along with the first motion to vacate, on January 25, 2013, and she rendered a bench decision denying the motion on January 28, 2013. An order entered on June 5, 2013, denying both of Ms. Ryan's motions to vacate. Ms. Ryan timely appealed from that order.

         While those motions were pending, on November 2, 2012, Ms. Ryan also filed a motion to disqualify the trial justice. The trial justice conducted hearings on that motion on November 14 and 21, 2012 and December 11, 2012. On January 4, 2013, the trial justice denied Ms. Ryan's motion in a bench decision.

         Subsequently, on April 22, 2013, an amended order entered (the original February 5, 2013 order previously having been vacated) approving opposing counsel's October 4, 2012 request for attorneys' fees and awarding him fees in the amount of $7, 875. In that amended order, it is represented that a hearing took place on the matter of attorneys' fees on February 1, 2013. Ms. Ryan has opted not to provide us with the complete transcript of that hearing.

         Subsequently, on March 4, 2013, Ms. Ryan filed her objection to Rule 11 sanctions, in response to the court's original August 3, 2012 order directing her to show cause why she should not be sanctioned and held liable for "reasonable costs" in the case. Ultimately, an order imposing sanctions entered against Ms. Ryan on April 26, 2013, prohibiting her "from filing pleadings or other documents in the State of Rhode Island Superior Court unless they have been signed, pursuant to Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, by a licensed attorney, admitted to practice in Rhode Island[.]" The order also provided significant exceptions to that prohibition, stating:

"a. Ms. Ryan may apply to Presiding Justice of the Superior Court, in writing and with notice to all interested parties, for leave to proceed in a self-represented capacity and to sign and file pleadings and other documents on her own behalf;
"b. Ms. Ryan is permitted to proceed in a self-represented capacity and to sign and file pleadings and other documents on her own behalf in connection with an appeal of any order or final judgment entered in this case;
"c. Ms. Ryan is permitted to proceed in a self-represented capacity and to sign and file pleadings and other documents on her own behalf in any legal action in which she is a named defendant or is permitted by the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court, upon written motion with notice to all parties and hearing, to intervene as a party defendant and to act in a self-represented capacity;
"d. Ms. Ryan is permitted to proceed in a self-represented capacity and to sign and file pleadings and other documents on her own behalf in any presently pending legal action in which she has, previous to the date of this Order, filed a written entry of her appearance ...

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