Fassnacht v. Moler

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
Citation855 S.E.2d 692,358 Ga.App. 463
Docket NumberA20A1583
Decision Date22 February 2021

358 Ga.App. 463
855 S.E.2d 692



Court of Appeals of Georgia.

February 22, 2021

855 S.E.2d 697

Frederick Newman Sager Jr., Gary J. Toman, Jason T. Vuchinich, Atlanta, for Appellant.

Robert D. James Jr., Daniel Shim, Atlanta, Jordan Tyler Davis, Norcross, for Appellee.

Barnes, Presiding Judge.

This case arises out of a dispute over a family partnership and lake house that led to arbitration and then culminated in Matthew A. Fassnacht physically attacking his father, Eric Lee Moler. After the attack, Moler filed the present action against Fassnacht for assault and battery and punitive damages. A trial ensued, and the jury found in favor of Moler and awarded him $30,000 in compensatory damages and $375,000 in punitive damages. The trial court denied Fassnacht's motion for a new trial, leading to this appeal. Fassnacht contends on appeal that the trial court erred in its jury charge on punitive damages by misstating the burden of proof and legal standard for awarding such damages and by instructing the jury on matters relating to the statutory cap on punitive damages during the first phase of the bifurcated trial. Fassnacht also argues that the trial court erred in admitting testimony by Moler regarding the validity of the arbitration award issued in the parties’ underlying family partnership dispute. Lastly, Fassnacht maintains that the punitive damages award was grossly excessive and disproportionate under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under Georgia law. For the reasons discussed more fully below, we reject Fassnacht's arguments and affirm.

Following a jury trial, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict. Lindsey v. Turner , 279 Ga. App. 595, 596 (1), 631 S.E.2d 789 (2006). So viewed, the evidence presented at trial showed that Moler has five children, including Fassnacht, the oldest child.1 At the time of the physical attack at issue in this case, Moler was 59 years old and disabled, having previously undergone multiple back surgeries resulting in the placement of four rods to stabilize his spine. Fassnacht, his adult son, was a former college football defensive back and linebacker.

The Family Partnership. The physical attack arose out of a dispute between Moler and Fassnacht over a family partnership and lake house. In 1999, Moler and his former wife established the family partnership for estate planning purposes, and limited and general partnership interests were conveyed to Fassnacht and the other four children (the "Partnership"). The Partnership was funded almost entirely with United Parcel Service stock, worth approximately $20 million, that was acquired by Moler during his career there before he retired as a result of his disability.

In 2004, the Partnership purchased a lake house at Lake Keowee, South Carolina (the "Lake House"). Moler placed the deed to the Lake House in his own name in an effort to obtain certain tax benefits. Moler lived at the Lake House for about a year and thereafter stayed there sporadically.

The Arbitration Award. The Partnership agreement included a provision requiring the arbitration of certain disputes arising between the parties. Fassnacht, a certified public accountant who managed a registered investment advisory firm, increasingly opposed Moler's activities associated with the Partnership. Ultimately, in 2011, Fassnacht filed an arbitration action, contending that Moler had breached his fiduciary duties as a partner through mismanagement and misuse of the Partnership's assets. Among other things, Fassnacht alleged that Moler had improperly titled the Lake House in his own name and had not reimbursed the Partnership for rent or operating expenses when he stayed there. Fassnacht asked the arbitration panel to order dissolution of the Partnership.

855 S.E.2d 698

On July 31, 2012, the arbitration panel issued its award requiring the dissolution of the Partnership and the division of the Partnership's assets (the "Arbitration Award"). As part of the Arbitration Award, Moler was required to "immediately convey to the Partnership all of his right, title and interest" in the Lake House and was given 30 days to pay $50,000 to the Partnership for unpaid rent, other expenses, and interest. Additionally, the Arbitration Award appointed Fassnacht as the sole managing partner for purposes of carrying out the Award and dissolving and winding up the Partnership, stated that he "shall take whatever action is necessary or appropriate to cause fee simple insurable and marketable title" of the Lake House to be held by the Partnership, and provided that the Partnership "shall be dissolved within 45 days of this Award."

The Restraining Order. During the dispute over the family partnership, Moler and his other four adult children sought a temporary restraining order against Fassnacht in the Superior Court of Fulton County. In April 2012, the superior court entered a restraining order requiring Fassnacht to stay at least 200 yards away from his four siblings and from Moler, and requiring them to stay that same distance away from Fassnacht (the "Restraining Order").

The Lake House Attack. On August 5, 2012, a few days after issuance of the Arbitration Award and while the Restraining Order remained in effect, Moler went to the Lake House with his girlfriend and members of her family. While there, Moler planned to meet with a real estate attorney to convey title of the Lake House to the Partnership. Over the next several days, Moler packed up his personal belongings at the Lake House and made preparations to transfer the property to the Partnership.

On the evening of August 8, 2012, Moler and his girlfriend were babysitting his girlfriend's one-year-old granddaughter at the Lake House. After dinner, Fassnacht arrived there unannounced. When Fassnacht drove up to the Lake House, it was still daylight, the garage doors were open, such that the two vehicles in the garage were visible, and Moler's dog was running around outside. Fassnacht, armed with a taser, approached the front door.

Moler's girlfriend saw Fassnacht drive up to the Lake House and warned Moler. Moler went to the front door, cracked it open, and warned Fassnacht that he should not be there in light of the Restraining Order. Before Moler finished speaking, Fassnacht forced the front door open and pushed Moler backwards, causing him to hit his head on the steel banister railing and fall to the floor on his back. As he pushed Moler, Fassnacht screamed, "F*ck you. You're the one that can't be here. F*ck you. Why did you fight the arbitration? F*ck you. Why did you spend all of this money on lawyers?" After Moler fell to the floor, Fassnacht jumped on top of him, and while straddling him, struck him in the face, chest, and chin with his fists. Fassnacht then grabbed Moler's head and began smashing it up and down on the wooden floor until Moler felt like he was about to lose consciousness. Fassnacht pulled the taser out of his pocket and said, "I am going to f*cking kill you," but he fumbled with the taser and dropped it on the floor.

Moler yelled for his girlfriend to call the police and told Fassnacht that his girlfriend and her one-year-old grandchild were also in the house. Fassnacht accused Moler of lying and began searching the Lake House for the others. However, by that point, Moler's girlfriend had fled from the Lake House with the one-year-old child. Because she left her cell phone at the Lake House, Moler's girlfriend ran to another house and asked the occupants to call the police, and they did so.

While Fassnacht was searching the Lake House, Moler retrieved a .22 rifle stored in a closet. After Fassnacht finished his search and returned through the foyer area, Moler, with the rifle in hand and pointed downward, told Fassnacht to leave. Fassnacht responded by charging at Moler and grabbing the barrel of the rifle. Fassnacht swung Moler around as Moler held onto the rifle, causing Moler to fall into a chair, and Fassnacht then bit Moler in the hand, head-butted him several times in the forehead, and used the taser on his leg and at the base of his spine. As they struggled over the rifle, Moler was able to load a round into the chamber of the

855 S.E.2d 699

weapon, but Fassnacht yanked off the brass ammunition tube on the underside of the barrel, causing the remaining ammunition to spill to the floor. Fassnacht also tased Moler in the arm, which caused Moler to involuntarily pull the trigger of the rifle, discharging the chambered round into the floor.

The two men eventually separated and retreated to different areas of the room. Fassnacht was furious, cursed at Moler, and complained to Moler about how much money Fassnacht had spent on the arbitration. While berating Moler about the arbitration, Fassnacht twice approached Moler and struck him on the head with the brass ammunition tube from the rifle.

The police subsequently arrived at the scene, but Moler declined to press criminal charges against Fassnacht. Moler had lacerations on his scalp and face, swelling in his cheek, and abrasions on his back and ankle. Moler was bleeding badly from his head and from his bitten hand, and he had blood coming out of his ear. Moler's elbow also was swollen from the fall to the floor, he had...

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    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • February 22, 2021
    ...of Scriven's mental state at the time of the statement, Scriven has failed to show that he was prejudiced in any way by the failure of 855 S.E.2d 692 his counsel to do so. See Valentine v. State , 293 Ga. 533, 537 (3), 748 S.E.2d 437 (2013). To establish prejudice, Scriven "must offer more ......
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    ...we review an allegedly erroneous jury charge, we apply a plain legal error standard of review." (Citation omitted.) Fassnacht v. Moler, 358 Ga.App. 463, 467 (1) (855 S.E.2d 692) (2021). Regarding a trial court's refusal to give a requested charge, it is well settled that [a] request to char......

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