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Onge v. USAA Federal Savings Bank

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

November 21, 2019

Edward F. St. Onge
USAA Federal Savings Bank et al.

          Providence County Superior Court (PC 16-4227) Associate Justice Melissa A. Long

          For Plaintiff: Edward St. Onge, Pro Se

          For Defendants: Kristin B. Petty, Esq. Dana M. Horton, Esq. William M. Daley, Esq.

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


          Gilbert V. Indeglia Associate Justice.

         The plaintiff, Edward St. Onge, appeals pro se from the dismissal of his claims against the defendants, USAA Federal Savings Bank (USAA) and Charles Baird (Baird), for lack of personal jurisdiction. This case came before the Supreme Court on November 6, 2019, 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 considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the orders of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         This dispute arose from an alleged oral agreement between plaintiff and Baird, with whom plaintiff was a long-time friend. The plaintiff is a resident of Rhode Island, and Baird is a resident of Florida. According to the complaint, Baird sought plaintiff's help resolving a will dispute in Florida. In the disputed will, which was handwritten, Baird was named sole beneficiary. The plaintiff alleged that, after Baird's repeated requests for his assistance, he finally contracted with Baird on or about April 15, 2015, to perform certain consulting and other services regarding the will dispute.[1] In return for his services, plaintiff alleged, he would be reimbursed by Baird for expenses that plaintiff advanced and the fair market value of his services, should Baird prevail; plaintiff would earn nothing if Baird did not prevail.

         From mid-April 2015 until May 31, 2016, plaintiff alleged, he performed "numerous services" for Baird, which included traveling to and from Florida, at plaintiff's own expense. The plaintiff asserts that he assisted Baird in "interview[ing], select[ing], secur[ing, ] and oversee[ing] legal services from a Florida attorney." After assisting Baird in securing an attorney, plaintiff continued to work with Baird, he alleged, "to help him successfully prevail in the [w]ill contest as well as inventorying and evaluating claims of alleged creditors and negotiating favorable settlement of numerous outstanding debts of the [inherited] Estate." The plaintiff alleged that he performed the work for Baird in both Rhode Island and Florida, always traveling at plaintiff's own expense.

         After prevailing in the will dispute, and after the creditors' window of time to file claims against the estate had expired, Baird transferred $40, 000 from the estate to his personal checking account at USAA. USAA is a bank that is incorporated in Texas and based in San Antonio. The plaintiff alleges that the bulk of that money, by agreement of Baird, was to be paid to plaintiff for his services and, at Baird's direction, plaintiff was authorized to pay an agreed-upon total of $25, 355.67 from Baird's USAA account to plaintiff's credit-card accounts directly. Thereafter, the funds were paid to five different national credit-card accounts belonging to plaintiff. However, on June 28, 2016, USAA rescinded all the credit-card payments, without notice to plaintiff. Additionally, plaintiff alleges that Baird executed a check from his USAA account to plaintiff in the amount of $9, 644.33 and that the check was returned and marked "Not Authorized."

         The plaintiff filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court on September 7, 2016, against both Baird and USAA, seeking to recover the rescinded funds plus interest, costs, and consequential damages. Baird filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. An order granting the motion was entered on January 28, 2017.[2] A default judgment was entered against USAA for failing to defend against the action but was later vacated on the ground that the Superior Court lacked personal jurisdiction over USAA. USAA then moved to dismiss the claim against it for lack of personal jurisdiction, which was granted. That order was entered on June 29, 2018. The plaintiff filed a notice of appeal on July 17, 2018.[3]


         Standard of Review

         When reviewing a challenge to personal jurisdiction, "[w]e examine the pleadings, accept the facts alleged by the plaintiff as true, and view disputed facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Cassidy v. Lonquist Management Co., LLC, 920 A.2d 228, 232 (R.I. 2007). The question of personal jurisdiction presents a "mixed question[] of law and fact[.]" Hawes v. Reilly, 184 A.3d 661, 665 (R.I. 2018) (quoting Cassidy, 920 A.2d at 232). While mixed questions of law and fact usually require more deferential treatment to the trial justice's findings of fact, "when deciding mixed questions of law and fact that involve constitutional issues, our review is de novo." Id. (quoting Cassidy, 920 A.2d at 232). We therefore review a challenge to personal jurisdiction de novo. See, e.g., id.



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