Bradford v. Smith, 011921 MDSCA, 1718-2019

Docket Nº:1718-2019
Opinion Judge:Salmon, J.
Party Name:EDGAR C. BRADFORD v. HELEN SMITH, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTINE BRADFORD, et al.
Judge Panel:Arthur, Beachley, Salmon, James P. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.
Case Date:January 19, 2021
Court:Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

EDGAR C. BRADFORD

v.

HELEN SMITH, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTINE BRADFORD, et al.

No. 1718-2019

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

January 19, 2021

Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Sitting as the Orphans' Court Case No. W81613

Arthur, Beachley, Salmon, James P. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION [*]

Salmon, J.

This case has a long and somewhat complicated history. There are two appellees: Helen Smith ("Ms. Smith"), Personal Representative of the Estate of Christine Bradford, and Fedder and Garten Professional Association ("Fedder and Garten"). Helen Smith is also a member of the Fedder and Garten law firm. The appellant is Edgar C. Bradford, the sole legatee, and the former personal representative of the Christine Bradford Estate ("the Estate").

In 2017, Ms. Smith and Fedder and Garten, were retained by the Estate's largest creditor, Brooke Grove Foundation, Inc., d/b/a Brooke Grove Rehabilitation & Nursing Center ("Brooke Grove") to remove Mr. Bradford as the personal representative of the Estate. In that lawsuit, Brooke Grove proved that Mr. Bradford, while serving as personal representative, took various actions that seriously damaged the Estate. As a result of that lawsuit, the damages caused to the Estate1 by Mr. Bradford's actions were remedied.

The Circuit Court for Montgomery County, sitting as the Orphans' Court for Montgomery County ("the Orphans' Court"), appointed Ms. Smith to serve as Mr. Bradford's replacement as personal representative of the Estate. Both prior to her appointment and afterwards, Ms. Smith and Fedder and Garten performed legal services that benefitted Brooke Grove but also benefited the Estate.

Ms. Smith and her firm filed a petition in the Orphans' Court in which they sought attorney's fees for the work that Fedder and Garten had done prior to her appointment that benefitted both Brooke Grove and the Estate. She and Fedder and Garten also sought attorney's fees for legal services performed in administrating the Estate and by filing and prosecuting actions against Mr. Bradford after her appointment. Mr. Bradford opposed the petition for attorney's fees. His two main objections were based on the contentions that: 1) no attorney's fees should be awarded for work done that benefitted Brooke Grove even if the legal services also benefitted the Estate; and 2) the petition for attorney's fees should be denied because the petition did not separate the fees that were charged for services rendered that benefitted Brooke Grove from those that were charged for Ms. Smith's administration of the Estate.

The Orphans' Court granted 70% of the fees requested for services rendered by the petitioners prior to Ms. Smith's appointment as personal representative and 100% of the fees requested for the period between Ms. Smith's appointment and the date of the petition.

Mr. Bradford filed this timely appeal. Two issues are presented: 1) Whether the Orphans' Court erred in awarding Fedder and Garten attorneys' fees, to be paid out of the Estate, for legal services incurred in representing Brooke Grove?

2) Whether Fedder and Garten may recover its attorney's fees, out of the Estate's assets, for defending against Mr. Bradford's challenges to Fedder and Garten's attorney's fees?

I.

BACKROUND FACTS2

Christine Bradford died on October 14, 2014, while a patient at Brooke Grove. In her will, she named Mr. Bradford, her son, as her personal representative. The beneficiaries named in the will were Mr. Bradford and his sister, Loyce Bradford, who later renounced her rights as a beneficiary.

On October 27, 2014, Mr. Bradford filed a petition for administration of the Estate in which he listed only two assets. One was a house located at 1413 Morningside Drive, in Silver Spring, Maryland ("the Property"), which he listed as being worth $315, 000. The other asset was a checking account with a $5, 000 balance. The Orphans' Court granted Mr. Bradford's petition.

In November 2014, Brooke Grove filed an $84, 798.31 claim in the Orphans' Court against the Estate for medical care and services provided to the decedent prior to her death. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of Brooke Grove by the law firm of Bodie, Dolina, Hobbs, Friddell & Grenzer, P.C. (the "Bodie Firm").

The Bodie Firm engaged in negotiations with Mr. Bradford in an effort to settle the debt action. In May 2016, Mr. Bradford, as personal representative of the Estate, executed a settlement agreement whereby the Estate agreed to repay the monies owed to Brooke Grove pursuant to a schedule that required it to pay off the indebtedness at the rate of $500 per month. No monies were paid pursuant to that agreement. On November 7, 2016, Brooke Grove entered into a revised settlement agreement with Mr. Bradford, as personal representative of the Estate, in which Brooke Grove agreed to settle all claims against the Estate in exchange for the Estate paying Brooke Grove $60, 000 within 30 days. The Estate breached the revised agreement by failing to make any payment. Accordingly, Brooke Grove rescinded the agreement.

Because Mr. Bradford, in his capacity as personal representative, had breached two settlement agreements and because Mr. Bradford steadfastly refused to sell the Property to pay off the Estate's debts, Brooke Grove filed, in the Orphans' Court, a "Petition to Remove Personal Representative or Compel Sale of Real Property." The petition was filed on February 16, 2017 by two law firms: Fedder and Garten, and the Bodie Firm.

On June 9, 2017, the Orphans' Court held a hearing on the pending petition. The judge orally ruled that Brooke Grove's claim in the amount of $84, 798.31 was allowed in full and that Mr. Bradford would be given 45 days to obtain financing to pay the allowed amount or to enter into a listing agreement to sell the Property.

Five days later, on June 14, 2017, Mr. Bradford executed a deed on behalf of the Estate that transferred the Property to himself for no consideration. On June 19, 2017, the Orphans' Court issued an order memorializing the oral ruling it had made at the conclusion of the June 9, 2017 hearing. Three days later, on June 22, 2017, the Orphans' Court entered an order allowing Brooke Grove's claim of $84, 798.31 and granting attorney's fees to the law firm representing Mr. Bradford (as personal representative of the Estate) in the amount of $19, 493.30.

Mr. Bradford, on July 14, 2017, recorded in the land records of Montgomery County, the deed transferring the Property to himself.

On July 25, 2017, Brooke Grove, by its counsel, Fedder and Garten, and the Bodie Firm, filed an emergency petition in the Orphans' Court seeking to enforce the June 19, 2017 court's order, for declaratory relief and to remove Mr. Bradford as personal representative. The emergency petition alleged that Mr. Bradford was not authorized to transfer the Property to himself, the conveyance of the Property was fraudulent, and that the transfer of the Property violated the Court's prior order to the detriment of the Estate's creditors.3 Brooke Grove also requested, among other things, that a successor personal representative be appointed.

On September 20, 2017, Mr. Bradford filed a "Statement of Resignation" with the Orphans' Court in which he resigned as personal representative. The following day he filed a motion seeking the appointment of his sister, Loyce Bradford, as successor personal representative, or if she was not able or eligible to serve, to have the attorney that he had hired to represent the Estate to be substituted as personal representative. The Orphans' Court held a hearing on September 21, 2017, after which it removed Mr. Bradford as personal representative and appointed Ms. Smith as the successor personal representative. She was eligible to be appointed because she represented the Estate's largest creditor. After removing him as personal representative, the Court admonished Mr. Bradford as follows: You have caused all these problems. And it's -- your family is going to suffer because of that. I hope you're aware of that. Because the only [thing] I can think now is the new personal representative is going to be paid and they're going to be paid out of the assets of the estate, thus reducing even more by what will go to your family.

And they, there's a whole procedure they're going to have to undertake to resolve this, which is going to cause more expense. So, you sitting there jiggling, trying to get your attorney's attention right now to try to convince me to do something you want to do, isn't going to happen today. . . .

After Mr. Bradford transferred the Property to himself, it was discovered that there was a preexisting federal tax lien against Mr. Bradford of over $91, 000 and a Maryland tax lien of approximately $31, 000. Fearing that the tax liens had attached to the Property and that the liens would remain attached even if Mr. Bradford were to re-convey the Property to the Estate, Brooke Grove and Ms. Smith, on behalf of the Estate, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County against Mr. Bradford and others, including the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") and the State of Maryland, seeking to have the transfer from the Estate to Mr. Bradford declared void and the Estate declared to be the Property owner.

Because the IRS was a party-defendant, the suit, at the request of the IRS, was removed to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.

On December 4, 2018, United States District Court Judge Paul W. Grimm granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. Judge Grimm voided the conveyance from the Estate to Mr. Bradford and ruled that the tax liens no longer were attached to the Property. Both Mr. Bradford...

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