IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF RENEE HALPECKA a/k/a IRENE HALPECKA, Deceased, BRENDA HEDRICK and ANDREA PRICE, Plaintiffs-Respondents/ Cross-Appellants,
ROSEMARY WALSH, individually and as Attorney-in-Fact for Renee Halpecka and as Executrix of the Estate of Renee Halpecka and JOHN WALSH, Defendants-Appellants/ Cross-Respondents.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued December 5, 2012
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Probate Part, Burlington County, Docket No. P-2005-0758.
Anthony Scordo III argued the cause for appellants/cross-respondents (Law Offices of Stueben & Scordo, attorneys; Mr. Scordo, on the brief).
Brenda Lee Eutsler argued the cause for respondents/cross-appellants (Asbell & Eutsler, attorneys; Ms. Eutsler, of counsel and on the brief; Francine W. Kaplan, on the brief).
Before Judges Grall, Koblitz and Accurso.
When Renee Halpecka died in March 2005, she was eighty-four years old and had been suffering for years from macular degeneration, cataracts, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Halpecka's husband was her caretaker until October 2001, when he died as a consequence of a car accident. At that time, Rosemary Walsh, a neighbor, became her caretaker and obtained authority to serve as Halpecka's attorney-in-fact and medical attorney-in-fact. Walsh assisted Halpecka with matters ranging from grocery shopping and arranging for a house-cleaning service to managing Halpecka's financial affairs and attending her appointments with doctors and meetings with an attorney and bank staff. In fact, regular statements from several of Halpecka's accounts were sent directly to Walsh's home.
Halpecka died on March 18, 2005, leaving the remainder of her estate after payment of funeral expenses and taxes, in equal shares, to three "friends" — Rosemary Walsh, executrix, Andrea Price, alternate executrix, and Brenda Hedrick. Her assets included funds received after Walsh had become her attorney-in-fact — a settlement she obtained as a consequence of her husband's fatal accident and a brokerage account she received as her sister's sole heir.
In February 2006, Hedrick and Price commenced this litigation against Walsh and her husband, John. Judge Hogan determined that Walsh had a confidential relationship with Halpecka and exercised undue influence to convert probate assets into non-probate assets, which she accomplished through a series of inter vivos gifts and transactions that left nearly all of Halpecka's assets, other than her real estate, payable to Walsh on Halpecka's death. With respect to John, the judge found that he was complicit in and unjustly enriched by Walsh's course of conduct. Consequently, a judgment in excess of $500, 000 plus counsel fees was entered against defendants and in favor of the estate. Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages, however, was denied.
Defendants appeal contending that the judge erred in: 1) granting their attorney leave to withdraw; 2) resolving the question of a confidential relationship on summary judgment; 3) concluding that defendants failed to overcome the presumption of undue influence; 4) assigning responsibility for undue influence to John; and 5) awarding counsel fees. Plaintiffs cross-appeal the denial of their claim for punitive damages. Substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Hogan, we affirm.
Contrary to defendants' claim, the evidential materials submitted on the motion for summary judgment were so one-sided as to permit a determination that plaintiffs were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the question of a confidential relationship. See Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). In addition, the judgment entered following trial "is based on findings of fact that are adequately supported by the record." R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A). We add the brief comments that follow to address arguments the parties present on appeal concerning the award of counsel fees and the denial of punitive damages. Otherwise, the arguments lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion beyond that provided by Judge Hogan. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
Defendants argue that the exception to the American Rule recognized in In re Niles, 176 N.J. 282 (2003), has no application here because there was "no clear and convincing proof in the form of direct testimony of acts constituting undue influence" and only an "artificial presumption establishing same, " and that "a finding of undue influence does not necessarily equate to a finding of fraud."
Fraud includes truthful representations that the maker knows or believes are "materially misleading" without "additional or qualifying" information. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 529 (1997); see also id. at § 551 (liability for nondisclosure). In addressing undue influence, the judge determined that Halpecka lacked understanding of the legal consequences and Walsh took advantage of the situation to unduly enrich herself to Halpecka's detriment. The judge elaborated when addressing counsel fees, explaining that Halpecka did not understand the nullifying effects the ...