Contingent trust beneficiary. A contingent trust beneficiary is one who does not have the right to receive benefits under a specific trust until the occurrence of a future event.  Typically, a contingent beneficiary’s right to receive benefits under the trust would vest upon the death of one or more named beneficiaries. The question often arises as to what rights a contingent beneficiary has to protect his or her contingent rights.

Rights against trustee. In the recent case of Mayfield v. Peek, 446 S.W.3d 253 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2017, no pet. h.), the court held that the contingent beneficiary had standing to sue the Trustee of the trust.

Facts of case. This case arose out of a sister and brother—Mayfield and Bruce—fighting over an inheritance from their parents. The parents had created and placed several real properties and other assets into a revocable trust. Apparently, the parents became the vested beneficiaries of the trust upon its creation. Upon their death, the trust became irrevocable and Mayfield and Bruce would become the vested beneficiaries.  Ten years after the creation of the trust, Bruce became the Trustee.

After the parents died, Mayfield sued Bruce sued one another. Mayfield sued Bruce for breaching his fiduciary duties as Trustee.  The factual allegations included that, prior to the death of their parents, Mayfield and her brother Bruce had not spoken for 30 years. Bruce had managed to restrict his father’s access to Mayfield and others. Further, Bruce convinced the mentally impaired parents to transfer assets out of the trust for Bruce’s benefit and to terminate the trust.

Breach of fiduciary duty. Mayfield sued Bruce for breaching his fiduciary duties as Trustee by unduly influencing their mentally impaired parents into:

a. Wrongfully transferring assets out of the trust for Bruce’s benefit; and

b. Terminating the trust.

This apparently resulted in Mayfield receiving nothing from the trust after her parents died.

Jurisdictional issue. Bruce contended that Mayfield was only a contingent beneficiary of the revocable trust and as a contingent beneficiary she did not have standing to sue him. Thus, her claim should be dismissed.

Court’s holding. The appellate court held that under the Texas Trust Code both vested and contingent beneficiaries may have the right to sue a Trustee.  Under the facts of this case, the contingent beneficiary—Mayfield—had standing to sue the Trustee—Bruce—and was allowed to go forward with her claim.

The Texas legislature made numerous changes to state laws in the estate planning area including to statutory provisions that govern wills, trusts, probate, and financial powers of attorney. One substantive change to the Durable Power of Attorney Act limits the scope of the fiduciary duties owed by the appointed agent to his principal (person granting the power) under a financial power of attorney.

Continue Reading Texas Durable Power of Attorney Act Amended to Limit Agency Liability

In 2011, the Texas legislature passed a bill that provides an expedited dismissal remedy to citizens who are wrongfully sued for speaking out about matters of public concern regarding the government or a business. Testimony in support of the bill showed that SLAPP suits — strategic lawsuits against public participation — were often filed against these citizens to chill public debate. Apparently, this was becoming more pervasive in the age of the internet. The bill that was passed is now Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Chapter 27, known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act. Defendants who are successful under the Act are not only entitled to a dismissal of the claim for defamation but they are also entitled to recover costs and attorney fees.

Continue Reading Texas Supreme Court Dismisses Libel Claim Filed Against Citizen for Facebook Posting

On May 26, 2017, the Texas Supreme Court refused to recognize the existence of a cause of action for tortious interference with inheritance rights.  Kinsel v Lindsey, 15-0403, 2017 WL 2324392 (Tex. May 26, 2017).  Many  Texas courts have long considered this to be a viable cause of action since the 1987 decision of King v. Acker, 725 S.W.2d 750 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1987, no writ).   In that case, the decedent’s widow forged a power of attorney to transfer stock from decedent to her while the decedent was still alive and in a coma. After the death of decedent, a temporary administrator was appointed to recover the stock for the benefit of decedent’s estate.  This caused the estate to incur additional expenses.  The decedent’s children and mother who were beneficiaries of the estate sued the decedent’s widow for tortious interference with their inheritance rights. The King court upheld the jury’s verdict for actual and punitive damages based upon the widow’s tortious interference with the inheritance rights of decedent’s children and mother.

Now, 30 years later, the Texas Supreme Court in Kinsel v. Lindsey, supra, determined that there is no cause of action in Texas for tortious interference with inheritance rights.  Does this mean that heirs who have been wrongfully cheated out of their inheritance no longer have a remedy? No, it just means that they will have to resort to more traditional causes of action like a will contest asking a court to set aside a will that has been procured by undue influence or fraud. However, even the Kinsel court seems to accept that, absent a cause of action for tortious interference with inheritance, there may be times when the heirs will not have a remedy to recover all the damages caused by someone who wrongfully interferes with inheritance rights.

New Insurance Bill – Storm Loss Claims

On May 19, 2017, a bill was sent by the Texas legislature to the Governor for signature relating to claims for storm loss property damage. This bill was passed to curb alleged lawsuit abuses for property damages caused by severe storms. According to House Research Organization Bill Analysis, the supporters of the bill state that the frequency of these types of lawsuits has increased 1400 percent since 2012, are motivated by profit rather than actual damages, and should be discouraged. The proponents of the bill contend that the bill will obstruct the rights of property insurance policyholders to relief by restricting their rights to sue insurance carriers that wrongfully deny or underpay claims.

The bill will require an insured consumer who has suffered a storm loss to their home or real property to provide 61 days advance written notice to their insurance carrier before filing a lawsuit. The notice must specify the acts of the carrier giving rise to the claim, the amount owed, and the amount incurred in attorney fees. The carrier will be allowed to perform a pre-suit inspection of the property. The bill also provides a mechanism for protecting an insurance carrier’s agents and claims adjusters from personal liability. The bill, amongst other things, places limitations upon the rights of the insured consumer to recover attorney fees and interest. Obviously, only time will tell if the bill achieves its purpose.

Modern technology is making it much more difficult for businesses to protect their trade secrets. Long gone are the days when an unscrupulous company officer or employee would have to spend hours late at night at the copy machine to copy and steal valuable trade secrets like customer lists, plans or specifications. In the digital age, this can be accomplished in a matter of minutes by downloading the data to a flash drive that fits on a key chain. Texas is doing its best to pass laws to protect businesses from trade secret theft. As discussed in one of my previous articles, the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act was passed in 2013, making it easier for businesses to protect their trade secrets.

This act has now been amended. On May 19, 2017, the Texas Governor signed the bill into law clarifying the meaning of the act and expanding the definition of trade secrets that are protected. The act as amended, effective as of Sept. 1, 2017, provides that “”trade secret” means all forms and types of information, including business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information, and any formula, design, prototype, pattern, plan, compilation, program device, program, code, device, method, technique, process, procedure, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers, whether tangible or intangible and whether or how stored, compiled, or memorialized physically, electronically, graphically, photographically, or in writing if…..”

The italicized language is the language that was added by the amendment. As you can see, the amendment expands the definition of a trade secret so that a wider net is cast to make additional types of company information protectable as a trade secret. So for example, if you own an engineering firm and engineering information or plans are stolen, the act includes this information as a protectable trade secret. Keep in mind, if your business has suffered a trade secret loss, time is of the essence and you should take immediate action.

One area in Texas commercial litigation that continues to evolve is the cause of action for theft of trade secrets. State and federal statutes have recently been enacted making it easier for businesses to protect their trade secrets. This is becoming increasingly important in the digital age when large amounts of information including protected trade secrets can be downloaded in seconds or minutes.

The Texas Supreme Court seems to be following the trend. In its recent June 2016 opinion of Southwestern Energy Production Co. v. Hefland, Opinion No. 13-0986, the court decides whether to uphold a verdict for trade secret theft of over $30 million. The underlying allegations involve the alleged misappropriation of data identifying highly productive oil and gas formations. Although, the court remands the case for a new trial on the grounds the plaintiff proved up some but not all of the damages, the court cites legal precedent stating, “A “flexible and imaginative” approach is applied to the calculation of damages in misappropriation-of-trade secrets.”

The court discusses multiple ways to measure damages for trade secret theft leaving the door open for Plaintiff’s to be creative in developing their damages models. However, in reading the opinion one gets the impression that the Plaintiff may have been a little too creative and would have been better off taking more of a rifle rather than a shotgun approach to proving up damages. For example, the court finds that the Plaintiff’s expert provided no basis for valuing certain elements of the damages claimed and overstated other damages calculations. The result is that at the end of the day the court remands the case to the trial court for a new trial.

Lessons learned from this case are that Texas courts may take a liberal view on damages in trade secret theft cases. Even so, plaintiffs must meet the technical requirements in offering probative expert testimony to support damages. Otherwise, plaintiffs may find themselves retrying their cases after years of hard work, or, even worse, being completely reversed on appeal.

Just when it looked like all was lost for minority shareholders of closely held Texas corporations after the Texas Supreme Court eliminated shareholder oppression as a cause of action, along came the Court’s decision of Sneed v. Webre, 465 S.W.3d 169 (Tex. 2015). In this fascinating decision, the Court found that shareholders of TX closely held corporations do not have to first make a formal written demand upon the board of directors as a prerequisite to filing a derivative lawsuit. (A closely held corporation is one with fewer than 35 shareholders).

A derivative lawsuit is a proceeding instituted by shareholders on behalf of the corporation when the board of directors fails to initiate the lawsuit. This typically arises when one or more interested directors or officers has allegedly breached fiduciary duties owed to the corporation. Naturally, in these situations, even those directors who have done nothing wrong may be reluctant to file a lawsuit on behalf of the corporation against one of their fellow board members or officers. Thus, if the directors fail to act, the law provides a mechanism for the shareholders to file a derivative action on behalf of the corporation.

Generally, before the shareholders of a corporation may file a derivative action, they must first make a formal written demand upon the board of directors to institute the lawsuit. Only after the directors refuse to do so or fail to timely respond to the demand may the shareholders institute the lawsuit. However, the Texas Supreme Court held that the shareholders of Texas closely held corporations do not have to meet this demand requirement. They may simply file the lawsuit. This saves time and money for the complaining shareholders.

One other interesting fact in this case was that the shareholders of the parent corporation were instituting the derivative action on behalf of the parent corporation’s wholly owned subsidiary. The court held that they were equitable shareholders of the subsidiary and therefore had standing to also bring the action on behalf of it.

A recent court of appeals discussed the significance of the fiduciary relationship created when someone signs a power of attorney authorizing another to act as their agent.  (Jordan v. Lyles, 485 S.W.3d 785 (Tex. App. – Tyler 2015)).  In this case, Bud executed a durable power of attorney appointing his stepdaughter as his agent. Subsequently, Bud, with the help of his stepdaughter, completed some forms making his stepdaughter the sole beneficiary of Bud’s bank and annuity accounts.  As a result, when Bud died these accounts vested in the stepdaughter and did not become part of Bud’s probated estate.

After Bud’s death, the stepdaughter withdrew the money from the accounts and liquidated the annuities.  Bud’s heirs sued the stepdaughter for breach of fiduciary duty.  The court held that the power of attorney created a fiduciary relationship between Bud and his stepdaughter as a matter of law. Even in the case of a gift between parties with a fiduciary relationship, the law presumes the gift to be unfair and invalid.  The recipient of the gift must prove that the transaction was fair and reasonable.

The jury found that Bud’s stepdaughter breached her fiduciary duty, under the circumstances of this case, and awarded damages to the heirs. The court of appeals upheld the jury award.

The Texas Supreme Court has made it clear in a recent opinion that majority shareholders do not owe formal fiduciary duties to minority shareholders, even in closely held corporations. Cardiac Perfusion Services, Inc. v. Hughes, 436 S.W.3d 790 (Tex. 2014). However, a recent Texas appellate court held that managing members of a limited liability company (LLC) may owe a fiduciary duty to the non-managing member when the company agreement vests sole control of the company in the managing members.  Guevara v. Lackner, 447 S.W.3d 566 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2014), reh’g overruled (Dec. 11, 2014).

The moral of the story is that in forming an LLC, careful attention should be paid to drafting the company agreement that governs the operation of the LLC.