If you know of a legal proceeding, but do not check in on it and then miss deadlines to appeal as the case progresses, can you wait until the end and bring suit against one of the parties? Consider this in the case of a guardianship proceeding. The probate court may have a number of hearings and enter various orders throughout the guardianship proceeding.
While you may be aware of the proceeding generally, how closely do you have to monitor it and do you actually have to be involved directly in the case to help protect the interests of the ward? The court addresses some of these issues in the Johnston v. Dexel, 373 F. Supp. 3d 764 (S.D. Tex. 2019) case.
Facts & Procedural History
The decedent in this case was an elderly woman who was admitted into a nursing home. Her daughter alleges that the nursing home was negligent and caused her mother’s death.
The daughter sued the nursing home, its staff, and others involved in her mother’s care. Most of the claims were dismissed by the court. The remaining claims were against the guardian who was appointed by the probate court and the probate court judge. The guardian had resigned as guardian, and another guardian was appointed prior to the decedent’s death.
The daughter did not contest the appointment or removal and appointment of another guardian during the guardianship proceedings. Instead, she filed suit after the decedent’s death. One of the questions the court had to consider is whether the claims were barred as they were not raised during the guardianship proceedings.
About Guardianship in Texas
In Texas, a guardianship is a legal proceeding in which a court gives one person or entity (the guardian) the authority and duty to care for another (the ward). The guardian is appointed by the probate court and given powers over either the ward’s person, their estate/property, or both.
A guardianship over the person allows the guardian to make decisions about the ward’s living arrangements, medical care, and other aspects of daily life. A guardianship over the estate gives the guardian control over the ward’s financial matters, such as paying bills and managing assets.
The probate court oversees the guardianship and must approve the guardian’s actions, such as selling the ward’s property or using the ward’s money to pay for care. The guardian must file annual reports with the court accounting for their management of the ward’s person and/or estate.
Interested parties in a guardianship case include the proposed ward, the ward’s spouse, parents, and siblings, the guardian ad litem appointed by the court, and any other person with an interest in the ward’s welfare or estate. Interested parties have the right to receive notice of court proceedings, appear in court, and contest matters like the guardian’s inventory, accounting, or fees. But they are not required to participate unless called by the court.
About Claim Preclusion
Claim preclusion bars parties or their privies from relitigating claims that were or could have been raised in an earlier suit that resulted in a final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction. The policy behind claim preclusion is to prevent vexatious litigation and promote judicial economy and consistency by requiring parties to bring all related claims together in one suit.
For claim preclusion to apply, the party asserting it must show: (1) a prior final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) identity of parties or their privies; and (3) a second action based on claims that were or could have been raised in the first action.
In this case, the guardian argued that claim preclusion bared the daughter’s breach of fiduciary duty claims because she could have raised them during the guardianship proceeding but failed to do so. The court found this raised novel issues of Texas law because interested parties in guardianships are not typical parties to litigation. The federal court declined to decide the state law issue on how to apply claim preclusion in this context and instead remanded the issues to state court.
This case highlights unsettled issues under Texas law about whether interested parties who do not actively participate in a guardianship proceeding can later bring claims that they could have raised in the guardianship court. The federal court declined to decide these novel state law issues, instead remanding them to state court.
This shows that parties should be cautious about relying on claim preclusion to bar claims in the guardianship context, given the unsettled nature of the law. Interested parties should also be aware that they may need to participate actively in guardianship proceedings to preserve their ability to raise certain claims later. The scope of claim preclusion in guardianship cases remains an evolving area under Texas law.