382 F.3d 348 (3rd Cir. 2004), 03-2184, Golden ex rel. Golden v. Golden

Docket Nº:03-2184.
Citation:382 F.3d 348
Party Name:Robert GOLDEN, Attorney-in-Fact for Leah Golden; Donald Earwood, Executor of the Estate of Helen Earwood, Appellants v. David S. GOLDEN; Darlene Koposko.
Case Date:September 03, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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382 F.3d 348 (3rd Cir. 2004)

Robert GOLDEN, Attorney-in-Fact for Leah Golden; Donald Earwood, Executor of the Estate of Helen Earwood, Appellants


David S. GOLDEN; Darlene Koposko.

No. 03-2184.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 3, 2004

Argued Jan. 22, 2004.

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Julia Morrow (Argued), Joel W. Todd, Dolchin, Slotkin & Todd, Philadelphia, for Appellants.

Christopher M. Tretta (Argued), Yost & Tretta, Philadelphia, James T. Davis, Melinda K. Dellarose, Davis & Davis, Uniontown, for Appellees.

Before ALITO and CHERTOFF, Circuit Judges, and DEBEVOISE, [*] District Judge.


CHERTOFF, Circuit Judge.

Robert Golden, attorney-in-fact for Leah Golden, and Donald Earwood, executor of the estate of Helen Earwood, appeal a final order of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania dismissing their action for lack of jurisdiction. Appellants' action sought, through various means, to challenge the distribution of assets from the estate of Irene I. King. In addition to asserting a number of familiar torts, including fraud and slander, the complaint asserted several grounds for relief that relate to probate law, including undue influence and breach of fiduciary duty as the executor of a will. Appellants also sought punitive damages. The District Court dismissed the action as falling within the probate exception to federal diversity jurisdiction. This case, therefore, requires us to explore the contours of the probate exception. We will affirm in part and reverse in part.

Appellant Robert Golden is a citizen of the state of New York and holds general power of attorney for Leah Golden, also a citizen of the state of New York. Appellant Donald Earwood is the personal representative of the estate of Helen Earwood, a citizen of the state of Georgia prior to her death. 1 Appellees David S. Golden and Darlene Koposko are both adult citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

On September 1, 1999, Irene I. King executed a Last Will and Testament (the "Will") and an inter vivos trust (the

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"Trust"). Pursuant to her testamentary scheme, all of her property was transferred to the Trust, under which she named herself the sole trustee. In the event of her incapacity or death, Appellee David Golden was to become the sole trustee. As a redundancy, her Will also contained a "pour over" provision, transferring all of her property to the Trust upon her death. Under the terms of the original Trust, the Trust corpus was, upon her death, to be distributed in equal one-third shares among Leah Golden, Ms. King's sister-in-law, Helen Earwood, Ms. King's sister, and Appellee David Golden, Ms. King's brother. 2 The original Trust, Will, and other attendant paperwork were prepared by Nicholas J. Cook, Esq., and his office.

As set forth in the complaint, Ms. King's health deteriorated over the months that followed. Concurrently, Appellee David Golden began exercising increasing control over both Ms. King's finances and, allegedly, over Ms. King herself. At some point during the fall of 1999, Appellee David Golden terminated Ms. King's professional home care services in favor of those provided by Appellee Darlene Koposko and Koposko's mother and daughter. During this time, Appellants allege, several of their attempts to visit Ms. King were either directly rebuffed by Appellee David Golden or met with so much hostility that they were soon terminated.

By June 14, 2000, Ms. King was bedridden, experiencing excruciating pain and unable to maintain bodily functions. She was being medicated for her pain and was prescribed hospice care. That morning, however, she purportedly summoned Appellee Koposko to her side and dictated the preparation of a document altering the distributive scheme enumerated in her Trust. Ms. Koposko then purportedly prepared a handwritten instrument memorializing those changes (the "Addendum"), propped Ms. King up in bed, watched her sign the instrument and then, along with one of Ms. Koposko's long-time friends, witnessed it. Appellee Koposko then allegedly placed the Addendum in a dresser drawer where it remained until June 27, 2000, when she delivered it to the offices of Nicholas Cook.

The Addendum reduced the amount of the legacy granted to Leah Golden from one-third of Ms. King's estate to "the sum of [$5,000]." J.A. at 48. In a similar manner, the Addendum reduced the amount of the legacy granted to Helen Earwood from one-third of Ms. King's estate to "the sum of [$10,000]." Id. The remainder of the estate, according to the Addendum, was to pass to Appellee David Golden.

On July 26, 2000, Ms. King died. On September 19, 2000, Ms. King's Will was probated and letters testamentary thereafter issued. At some point thereafter, Appellee David Golden, through Nicholas Cook, filed a Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax Return (the "tax return") with the Fayette County Register of Wills listing the net value of Ms. King's estate as $188,946.00. Distribution of the legacies has not occurred due to the pendency of the instant litigation.

Appellants brought this action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania on March 28, 2001. Appellants alleged jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship and an amount in controversy in excess of $75,000. In addition to seeking punitive damages, Appellants asserted six causes of action: (1) undue influence; (2) fraud; (3) forgery;

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(4) slander (asserted by Appellant Earwood only); (5) tortious interference with inheritance; and (6) breach of fiduciary duty as executor of a will (asserted against Appellee David Golden only). Appellants essentially alleged that their shares under Ms. King's Trust were reduced either as a result of Appellees' outright forgery, or as a result of Appellees' wrongful influence on, or slanderous statements to, Ms. King.

On June 20, 2002, after discovery was complete, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. 3 On November 18, 2002, the District Court conducted a pretrial conference but, on March 23, 2003, sua sponte dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Appellants timely appealed.

Appellees present two arguments against subject matter jurisdiction. First, they claim that Appellants have failed to satisfy the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). Second, they urge that Appellants' action falls under the probate exception to federal diversity jurisdiction. See, e.g., Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 66 S.Ct. 296, 90 L.Ed. 256 (1946); Waterman v. Canal-Louisiana Bank & Trust Co., 215 U.S. 33, 45, 30 S.Ct. 10, 54 L.Ed. 80 (1909); Moore v. Graybeal, 843 F.2d 706, 709 (3d Cir. 1988). We exercise plenary review over a district court's dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Bakhtriger v. Elwood, 360 F.3d 414, 417 (3d Cir. 2004).



Appellees contend that the amount in controversy has not been adequately pled. The amount in controversy is a statutory limit on the subject matter over which the federal courts have jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). 4 As with all issues of subject matter jurisdiction, defects in the pleading of the amount in controversy cannot be waived and, as a consequence, may be raised by any party at any time during litigation of the dispute. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h) (3); see also, e.g., Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 124 S.Ct. 906, 915, 157 L.Ed.2d 867 (2004). The federal courts themselves, of course, have a continuing obligation to investigate their jurisdiction over the matters before them. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 364 F.3d 102, 104 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Desi's Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 420 (3d Cir. 2003)); Meritcare Inc. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 166 F.3d 214, 217 (3d Cir. 1999). Even if no party reaches the issue, therefore, the courts may take the initiative and probe the sufficiency with which the amount in controversy has been pled. See Meritcare, 166 F.3d at 217.

Where a federal cause of action is based on diversity jurisdiction, the complaint must allege an amount in controversy between the parties in excess of the statutory minimum. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). The amount need not be proven; rather, the amount is judged from the face of the complaint and is generally established by a good faith allegation. See Horton v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 367 U.S. 348, 353, 81 S.Ct. 1570, 6 L.Ed.2d 890 (1961) (measuring "good faith" by whether it appears "to a legal certainty the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount") (internal quotations and citations omitted); St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 288, 58 S.Ct. 586, 82 L.Ed. 845 (1938);

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see also Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873, 877 (3d Cir. 1995). Each plaintiff must meet the amount in controversy requirement-claims may not be aggregated among plaintiffs to meet the statutory minimum. See Meritcare, 166 F.3d at 218 (citing 14B Wright, Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure 3d § 3704 at 134 (1994)). On the other hand, courts do not separately evaluate each of the causes of action asserted by any one plaintiff against any one defendant. 5 Snyder v. Harris, 394 U.S. 332, 335, 89 S.Ct. 1053, 22 L.Ed.2d 319 (1969); Suber, 104 F.3d at 588 (3d Cir. 1997); see also 14B Wright, Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure 3d § 3704 at 134 (1994).

Claims for punitive damages may be aggregated with claims for compensatory damages unless the former are " 'patently frivolous and without foundation.' " Packard, 994 F.2d at 1046 (quoting Gray v....

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