Newcomb v. Sweeney, et al
ORDER remanding the Plaintiff's Count 1 Claim to the Connecticut Superior Court and Dismissing Count 2 Claim. See attached Order. The Clerk is directed to sever the Plaintiff's Count 1 claim and remand it to the Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Litchfield. The Clerk is also directed to dismiss the Plaintiff's remaining Count 2 claim and close the case. Signed by Judge Vanessa L. Bryant on 4/25/2013.(Fernandez, Melissa)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT
BRIAN THOMAS SWEENEY AND
BETH ANN GRAVES
: CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:11cv399(VLB)
: APRIL 25, 2013
ORDER REMANDING COUNT 1 CLAIM TO CONNECTICUT SUPERIOR COURT
AND DISMISSING COUNT 2 CLAIM
The Plaintiff, Robert Newcomb (“Newcomb”), brings this action pursuant to
Conn. Gen. Stat. 45a-98 to establish title to certain IRA accounts which are part of
the estate of Krystyna Jean Sweeney (the “Decedent”) against Defendants Brian
Thomas Sweeney (“Sweeney”) and Beth Ann Graves (“Graves”) who have
challenged the admission of the Decedent’s will to probate naming the Plaintiff as
beneficiary (Count 1). Additionally, the Plaintiff asserts a claim for slander of title
in connection with statements Defendants made in probate court which allegedly
derogated Plaintiff’s title to the IRA assets (Count 2). For the following reasons,
this Court remands the Plaintiff’s Count 1 claim seeking a determination of title to
the Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Litchfield, as the Court
lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the this claim on the basis of the probate
exception to diversity jurisdiction and dismisses Plaintiff’s Count 2 claim for
slander of title on the basis of absolute privilege.
On August 18, 2010, Deborah Scott, a friend of the Decedent, filed an
application to offer the Last Will and Testament of the Decedent dated June 20,
2008 for probate for the Decedent who died on July 7, 2010. [Dkt. #15, Amended
Compl., ¶2]. The will has been offered in the probate court of the District of
Westport, District No. 158, Case no. 10-10-121. Id. Newcomb is not a blood
relative of the Decedent but the grandson of the Decedent’s close friend. Id. at
¶4. At the time of her death, the Decedent was the owner of certain IRA accounts
worth approximately 1.1 million dollars. Id. at ¶5.
Newcomb alleges that he was
named as the sole beneficiary of each IRA account and was also named as one of
the primary beneficiaries of the Decedent’s Will. Id. at ¶¶8-9.
are the children of Thomas Sweeney, deceased, and Gloria Sweeney deceased.
Id. at ¶10. The Decedent married Thomas Sweeny after the demise of Gloria
Sweeny and was the surviving widow of Thomas Sweeney and the stepmother of
the Defendants. Id. at ¶11.
The Defendants have challenged the admission of the Decedent’s will to
probate, alleging that the testator lacked testamentary capacity, that the will was
the product of undue influence, not in proper form, and the result of mistake. Id.
at ¶13. The Defendants have also challenged the title to the IRA accounts in
accordance with Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98 based upon their claim that the will
should not be admitted. Id. at ¶14. On December 20, 2010, Newcomb filed an
affidavit with the Westport Probate Court notifying the court of his intention to
pursue a jury trial to establish title to the IRA accounts and right to receive the
proceeds to those accounts as permitted by Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98. Id. at ¶17.
In the First Count of the Amended Complaint, Newcomb seeks to establish
title to the IRA accounts and right to receive the proceeds of those accounts as
permitted by Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98. Id. Section 45a-98 sets forth the general
powers of the probate court in Connecticut:
Courts of probate in their respective districts shall have the power to …
admit wills to probate of persons who have died domiciled in their districts
or of nondomiciliaries whose wills may be proved in their districts as
provided in section 45a-287…[and] except as provided in section 45a-98a
or as limited by an applicable statute of limitations, determine title or rights
of possession and use in and to any real, tangible or intangible property
that constitutes, or may constitute, all or part of any trust, any decedent's
estate, or any estate under control of a guardian or conservator, which
trust or estate is otherwise subject to the jurisdiction of the Probate Court,
including the rights and obligations of any beneficiary of the trust or estate
and including the rights and obligations of any joint tenant with respect to
Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98(a).
Further, the statute provides that the “jurisdiction of courts of probate to
determine title or rights or to construe instruments or to apply the doctrine of cy
pres or approximation pursuant to subsection (a) of this section is concurrent
with the jurisdiction of the Superior Court and does not affect the power of the
Superior Court as a court of general jurisdiction.” Id. at §45a-98(b).
Pursuant to Section 45a-98a:
The Probate Court shall have jurisdiction under subdivision (3), (4) or (5) of
subsection (a) of section 45a-98 only if (1) the matter in dispute is not
pending in another court of competent jurisdiction and (2) the Probate
Court does not decline jurisdiction. Before the initial hearing on the merits
of a matter in dispute in which jurisdiction is based on subdivision (3), (4)
or (5) of subsection (a) of section 45a-98, the Probate Court may, on its own
motion, decline to take jurisdiction of the matter in dispute. Before the
initial hearing on the merits of such a matter, any interested person may
file an affidavit that such person is entitled and intends under section 52215 to claim a trial of the matter by jury. In that case, the Probate Court
shall allow the person filing the affidavit a period of sixty days within which
to bring an appropriate civil action in the Superior Court to resolve the
matter in dispute. If such an action is brought in the Superior Court, the
matter, after determination by the Superior Court, shall be returned to the
Probate Court for completion of the Probate Court proceedings.
Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98a. As Newcomb had filed an affidavit seeking to claim a
trial of the matter of his entitlement to the IRA accounts pursuant to Section 45a98a, the probate court permitted him to bring this civil action in Connecticut
superior court. Upon filing of the civil action in superior court, the Defendants
removed the action to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. See [Dkt.
In the Second Count of the Amended Complaint, Newcomb asserts that the
Defendants are liable for slander of title. Newcomb alleges that the statements of
the Defendants “as set forth in their challenge to title of the IRAs as filed in
probate court having been published in the probate court are a false statement
derogatory to plaintiff’s title.” [Dkt. #15, Amended Compl., ¶2].
This Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiff’s Count 1
claim under the probate exception to federal jurisdiction. Lefkowitz v. Bank of
New York, 528 F.3d 102, 105 (2d Cir. 2007). “The ‘probate exception’ is an
historical aspect of federal jurisdiction that holds ‘probate matters’ are excepted
from the scope of federal diversity jurisdiction.” Id. at 105 (citing Marshall v.
Marshall, 547 U.S. 298, 307 (2006)). “As the Supreme Court recently clarified, the
probate exception ‘reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a
will and the administration of a decedent's estate; it also precludes federal courts
from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate
court.’” Id. (quoting Marshall, 547 U.S. at 311). “The probate exception does not,
however, bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and
otherwise within federal jurisdiction.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation
The Second Circuit has explained that before the Supreme Court’s recent
decision in Marshall, “most federal courts, including ours, had interpreted the
probate exception more broadly than the Supreme Court has now defined it.” Id.
The Supreme Court in Marshall clarified that the probate exception will not apply
where a plaintiff neither seeks to administer an estate, probate a will, or do any
other purely probate matter nor seeks to “reach a res in the custody of a state
Court.” 547 U.S. at 312. Therefore the Second Circuit directs that “under the
clarified probate exception a federal court should decline subject-matter
jurisdiction only if a plaintiff seeks to achieve either of these ends in federal
court.” Lefkowitz, 528 F.3d at 106. “As now defined, that exception ensures that
certain matters are left to state courts to resolve and that no federal court will
interfere with state courts’ jurisdiction over those matters properly confided to
them. This limited application of the exception also ensures that where exercise
of federal jurisdiction will result in a judgment that does not dispose of property
in the custody of a state probate court, even though the judgment may be
intertwined with and binding on those state proceedings, the federal courts retain
their jurisdiction.” Id. Accordingly, the Second Circuit instructs that “[f]ollowing
Marshall we must now hold that so long as a plaintiff is not seeking to have the
federal court administer a probate matter or exercise control over a res in the
custody of a state court, if jurisdiction otherwise lies, then the federal court may,
indeed must, exercise it.” Id.
Here, Newcomb’s Count 1 claim seeks to have this Court both administer a
probate matter and exercise control over a res in the custody of the state, which
falls squarely within the scope of the clarified probate exception. In Count 1,
Newcomb seeks to have the Court determine that he has title to an asset of the
Decedent’s probate estate, namely the IRA accounts, and further seeks the a res
of the probate estate, namely the proceeds of the IRA accounts, which is a power
expressly conferred to probate courts under Connecticut’s probate statute. See
Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98(a) (“Courts of probate in their respective districts shall
have the power to….determine title or rights of possession and use in and to any
real, tangible or intangible property that constitutes, or may constitute, all or part
of any trust, any decedent's estate”).
Although the particular matter was removed from probate court to
Connecticut superior court pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98a before being
removed to this Court, the initial removal from probate court did not convert the
action into a non-probate matter. First, the probate statute expressly provides
that “jurisdiction of courts of probate to determine title or rights or to construe
instruments…is concurrent with the jurisdiction of the Superior Court.” Conn.
Gen. Stat. §45a-98(b). Second, the probate statute provides that a matter may be
removed to superior court where the probate court declines to take jurisdiction or
where a party seeks trial by jury (as the probate court does not have the power to
conduct jury trials). Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98a. After the matter is resolved in
superior court, it is returned to the probate court for completion of the probate
proceedings. Id. Connecticut’s probate statutory scheme indicates that the
superior court is exercising probate jurisdiction when it hears a matter which is
removed to it from the probate court pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. §45a-98a.
Newcomb’s Count 1 claim clearly involves a claim of probate jurisdiction
regardless of whether the probate court or the superior court pursuant to Conn.
Gen. Stat. §45a-98a considered the claim. Accordingly, the probate exception to
diversity jurisdiction applies to Newcomb’s Count 1 claim as Newcomb is seeking
to have this Court administer a purely probate matter and exercise control over a
res in the custody of the state probate court. The Court therefore does not have
subject matter jurisdiction over Newcomb’s Count 1 claim and therefore removal
of this claim was improper.
However, Newcomb’s Count 2 slander of title claim would not fall within the
scope of the clarified probate exception as he neither seeks the Court to
administer a purely probate matter nor to reach a res in the custody of the state
probate court. Nevertheless, Newcomb is barred from recovering damages under
his slander of title claim by the absolute privilege that applies to statements made
or published in the course of judicial proceedings in Connecticut. “It is well
settled that communications uttered or published in the course of judicial
proceedings are absolutely privileged [as] long as they are in some way pertinent
to the subject of the controversy.... The effect of an absolute privilege is that
damages cannot be recovered for the publication of the privileged statement even
if the statement is false and malicious.” Gallo v. Barile, 284 Conn. 459, 465-66
(2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Kelley v. Bonney, 221
Conn. 549, 565-66 (1992) (“The effect of an absolute privilege in a defamation
action is that damages cannot be recovered for a defamatory statement even if it
is published falsely and maliciously”). Newcomb predicates his slander of title
claim based on statements the Defendants allegedly made in a judicial
proceeding which were pertinent to the subject of the controversy in that
proceeding, namely whether the Decedent’s will was valid. Accordingly, the
doctrine of absolute privilege bars recovery of damages on Newcomb’s slander
of title claim and therefore the Court dismisses this claim as barred by absolute
Based upon the above reasoning, the Court severs Newcomb’s Count 1
claim for determination of title and remands it to the Superior Court of
Connecticut, Judicial District of Litchfield as the Court lacks subject-matter
jurisdiction over this claim based on the probate exception. The Court then
dismisses Newcomb’s remaining Court 2 claim for slander of title as barred by
the doctrine of absolute privilege.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Hon. Vanessa L. Bryant
United States District Judge
Dated at Hartford, Connecticut: April 25, 2013
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?