Alabama Appellate Opinions Released April 27, 2018
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Alabama Appellate Opinions Released 
April 27, 2018
Alabama Supreme Court
Writ of Mandamus Appropriate for Compelling Circuit Court to Exercise Discretion by Ruling on a Motion to Dismiss Based on Improper Venue

Ex parte International Paper Company et al.

International Paper Company and three employees (referred to collectively as “IPC”) sought a writ of mandamus directing the Wilcox County Circuit Court to rule upon a pending motion to dismiss a case against them for improper venue.

On September 23, 2016, Caterpillar Financial Services Corp. sued JRD Contracting, Inc., and John R. Dailey, Jr., in the Wilcox County Circuit Court alleging breach of various loan contracts, detinue, and breach of guaranty agreements. This immediate action stems from a third-party complaint filed by JRD Contracting and Dailey against IPC for breach of contract and other claims based on a waste-services agreement between IPC and JRD Contracting, Inc.

IPC filed a motion to dismiss without prejudice the third-party complaint based on improper venue, arguing that the waste-services agreement contained an outbound forum-selection clause providing Tennessee courts with exclusive jurisdiction over any disputes arising out of or relating to the waste-services agreement. IPC and Caterpillar subsequently filed a joint motion to continue the trial date pending a ruling on IPC’s motion to dismiss, arguing that additional discovery would be necessary if the circuit court denied the motion. This motion was denied, and IPC filed this petition for writ of mandamus along with a motion to stay all circuit court proceedings.

This Court ruled IPC’s request for this Court to issue a writ of mandamus compelling the circuit court to exercise its discretion by ruling on the motion to dismiss based on improper venue before proceeding further is appropriate as venue is a threshold issue. Further, the court mentioned IPC’s argument that requiring it to participate in the litigation process while failing to rule on the motion to dismiss requires that it either waive the right to conduct discovery or waive the right to enforce the outbound forum-selection clause.

The Court held the circuit court exceeded its discretion by failing to rule on the motion to dismiss the third-party complaint based on improper venue while allowing discovery to proceed. Therefore, the Court issued the writ and directed the circuit court to issue an order addressing the merits of IPC’s motion to dismiss based on improper venue. 
Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 60(a) Does Not Permit Substantive Modifications of Final Judgments or Orders

Homer L. Watson, as personal representative of the Estate of Mary Fejeran, deceased v. The University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C., and Graham C. Towns, M.D.

In March 2014, Homer Watson (“Watson”) petitioned the probate court for a final settlement of Fejeran’s estate, representing that he had discharged in full all legal claims against the estate, that he had made a final distribution of all the personal assets of the estate, and that he was requesting a final order discharging and releasing him and the surety on his bond from further liability as personal representative of the estate. On March 24, 2014, the probate court entered a judgment of final settlement, indicating that Watson and his surety were “discharged from all further liabilities.” On November 7, 2014, after being released as the personal representative of Fejeran’s estate, Watson filed a wrongful death action against the defendants.

On March 7, 2017, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that Watson lacked representative capacity to bring the wrongful-death action and argued the March 24, 2014, order from the probate court officially discharged Watson as personal representative of Fejeran’s estate. On March 23, 2017, Watson responded by moving the probate court to clarify it March 24, 2014, order or, alternatively, to correct a clerical error in the order pursuant to Ala. R. Civ. P. 60(a). Watson argued his petition for final settlement sought relief only for liability arising from estate-administration activities and that the petition did not seek closure of the estate. On that same day (March 23, 2017), the probate court entered an order purporting to clarify its March 24, 2014 order which stated Watson’s letters of administration were still in effect on November 7, 2014, when Watson filed the wrongful death action. Watson subsequently filed a motion in opposition to defendants’ motion for summary judgment, attaching this March 23, 2017 probate court order as support.

On September 5, 2017, the circuit court concluded that the March 24, 2104, order of final settlement was a final, unambiguous judgment that discharged and released Watson as personal representative of Fejeran’s estate for all purposes. Watson appealed.

This Court found the probate court’s March 23, 2017, order purporting to clarify its March 24, 2014, final judgment was void pursuant to Ala. Code § 12-13-3, which states a judgment entered by the probate court “may be set aside or amended and the case reopened within 30 days after the rendition thereof by the judge of the court in which the said decree was rendered.” Further, the Court held Ala. R. Civ. P. Rule 60(a) only applies to clerical errors in judgments and does not authorize the probate court to make substantive changes to the final settlement order. This Court agreed with the circuit court that the March 24, 2014, order is a final judgment, as the order states Watson and his surety are “discharged from all further liabilities.” Because Watson was legally discharged as personal representative of Fejeran’s estate and thus lacked representative capacity to bring the wrongful death action, the Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
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