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Law Digest — Md. Court of Special Appeals — June 6, 2019

Court of Special Appeals

Criminal Procedure; Sentencing: Where the defendant’s sentence was legal at the time that he filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence, the circuit court erred in granting the motion. State v. Bratt, No. 874, Sept. Term, 2018.

Negligence; Duty of property owner: Where two neighboring landowners filed suit against a property owner for damages resulting from a fire caused by a lit cigarette thrown onto the property owner’s mulched property, the trial court did not err in denying the property owner’s motion for summary judgment because a property owner owes a duty of reasonable care to the owners and occupants of neighboring properties to use and maintain his or her property in a reasonably safe manner so as to avoid harm to the neighboring property and the issue of whether the duty of reasonable care was breached by the property owner’s failure to prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring properties was a question of fact for the jury. Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Insurance Exchange, No. 1168, Sept. Term, 2017; Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, No. 1142, Sept. Term 2017.

Trusts & Estates; Estate administration: Although a Florida statute barring a surviving spouse from receiving a benefit from the estate of a deceased spouse if he or she procured the marriage to the spouse through inequitable conduct did not apply where the decedent was domiciled in Maryland at the time of his death, the Orphans’ Court did not err in finding that the decedent’s wife was barred from receiving a benefit from the estate where the wife had procured the marriage by undue influence, and, therefore, the judgment of the Orphans’ Court was affirmed on the ground that the wife was barred from receiving a benefit from the estate by the doctrine of unclean hands. In the matter of Robert H. Watkins, Jr., No. 2171, Sept. Term, 2017.

Criminal Procedure

Sentencing

BOTTOM LINE: Where the defendant’s sentence was legal at the time that he filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence, the circuit court erred in granting the motion.

CASE: State v. Bratt, No. 874, Sept. Term, 2018 (filed May 30, 2019) (Judges FADER, Meredith & Raker (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned)).

FACTS: Following a trial in the circuit court in August 1983, a jury found Larry Bratt guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. That same day, the court sentenced Bratt to two life sentences to be served consecutively. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the conviction.

In 1992, Bratt wrote a letter to the trial judge in which he requested credit for pretrial incarceration for ten months served at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center and for three months served at the Dekalb County Jail in Georgia. Bratt claimed to have been “locked up on July 16, 1982,” but provided no supporting documentation. He further asked the court to modify his two life sentences from consecutive to concurrent terms. The court denied his request.

In 1995, the Maryland Division of Corrections sent a letter to the trial judge stating that Bratt had been detained at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center before his conviction, beginning on October 26, 1982, and asking whether the court intended his sentence to be imposed beginning on that date, rather than on the date of sentencing. In response, the court issued an order stating that Bratt was entitled to credit for time served in custody prior to the conviction and that his sentence would run from the time of incarceration in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center on October 26, 1982. On September 13, 1995, a new commitment record was entered reflecting the commencement date of October 26, 1982.

Over the ensuing years, Bratt raised multiple challenges to his sentence, including a request that the circuit court change the start date for his first sentence from October 26, 1982, to July 16, 1982. In October 2017, Bratt filed a Petition for Pre-Trial Incarceration Credit and Correction of Commitment Record, asserting that he was incarcerated for 102 days in Georgia before being transferred to Anne Arundel County and requesting that the court award him credit against his sentence. In the motion, Bratt requested a hearing pursuant to Rule 4-345(f).

The State did not oppose the relief requested in the 2017 Petition for Credit, but asked the court to grant it without a hearing. On November 3, 2017, without a hearing, the court granted the petition. The clerk issued an amended commitment record indicating that Bratt’s sentence commence as of July 16, 1982 (the “2017 Amendment”).

In January 2018, Bratt filed a Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence. In the 2018 Motion to Correct, Bratt recited that he had requested a hearing in the 2017 Petition for Credit but did not receive one. As a result of that failure, he claimed, the 2017 Amendment was “of no legal force or effect,” and, therefore, his original sentence, which had been imposed without affording him full credit for time served, was still in effect and illegal. The court held a hearing on the motion, during which the State and Bratt agreed that he was entitled to 102 days’ credit for time served in Georgia and that the proper start date of his sentence was July 16, 1982. The State, however, argued that Bratt had received all the relief he was entitled to in 2017 and, therefore, that his then-current sentence was lawful.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court granted Bratt’s 2018 Motion to Correct. In its order, the circuit court agreed with Bratt that the 2017 Amendment “was not sufficient to correct the illegal sentence as a hearing in open court was required” and concluded, therefore, that Bratt’s sentence was then illegal because he was “currently serving two consecutive life sentences plus 102 days for two counts of first degree murder, when the maximum sentence allowed by law would be two consecutive life sentences. As a result, in open court, the court struck the existing sentence and resentenced Bratt to “life in prison” on the first count, to begin on July 16, 1982, and a consecutive life sentence on the second count. The court then informed Bratt that he had “90 days to file a modification of sentence,” which Bratt subsequently did.

The State appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. Bratt filed a motion to dismiss the appeal. The Court of Special Appeals denied Bratt’s motion to dismiss and reversed the judgment of the circuit court.

LAW: The State argued that the circuit court erred when it granted Bratt’s 2018 motion to correct an illegal sentence, struck Bratt’s then-existing sentence, and resentenced him. Bratt conceded that the 2017 Amendment gave him all the credit to which he was entitled, but contended that the amendment was of no force or effect because it was accomplished without first providing him a hearing. The State argued that the 2017 amendment was valid, that no hearing was required to accomplish it, and, therefore, that Bratt’s sentence was legal at the time he filed his motion in 2018 and so could not be “corrected.”

Notably, both parties agreed that Bratt’s current sentence, which was identical to the sentence that was on the books following the 2017 Amendment, was legal and correct. The terms of Bratt’s current sentence thus did not hinge on the outcome of the State’s appeal. Instead, the real consequence of the appellate court’s decision was whether Bratt would receive a new opportunity to seek a modification of that sentence.

Rule 4-345(e) allows a defendant to file a motion seeking modification of a sentence “within 90 days after imposition of a sentence.” Bratt filed such a motion within 90 days of the court resentencing him. If Bratt was correct that his sentence at the time that he filed his 2018 motion was illegal, that meant that the court was correct to strike it and impose a new sentence, his motion for modification was timely, and the court could consider it. If the State was correct that the sentence as it stood in 2018 was legal, then there was no basis for striking it and the motion for modification must be denied as untimely. Either way, Bratt’s current sentence, for all practical purposes, would stay the same.

Under §6-218(b) of the Criminal Procedure Article, a defendant is entitled to credit against and a reduction of the term of a definite or life sentence for all time spent in custody of a correctional facility. Md. Code Ann., Crim. Pro. §6-218(b)(1) (Repl. 2018). Because the parties agreed as to the amount of time Bratt spent incarcerated before trial, they also agreed that the correct start date for his sentence was July 16, 1982. The parties disagreed, however, as to whether a motion to correct an illegal sentence can be premised on the failure to provide proper credit for time served. Bratt relied primarily on Smith v. State, 31 Md. App. 310, 320 (1976).

Notably, however, as the Court observed in Smith, although a failure to provide proper credit against a sentence has the effect of unlawfully increasing the amount of time an inmate may remain incarcerated, it does not call into question the term of the sentence imposed. Id.

The critical issue on appeal was the state of Bratt’s sentence when he filed the 2018 Motion to Correct. Bratt asserted that his sentence at that time was two consecutive life terms of imprisonment, with credit only for the time he spent detained in Anne Arundel County and no credit for his time served in Georgia beginning on July 16, 1982. Bratt reached this conclusion by reasoning that the 2017 Amendment should be disregarded on the basis that, under Rule 4-345(f), a court is not permitted to modify or correct a sentence without holding a hearing. In making this assertion, he relied in part on Mateen v. Saar, 376 Md. 385, 399 (2003), in which the Court of Appeals stated that a modification of a sentence that is made without a hearing is “of no legal force or effect.” Mateen v. Saar, 376 Md. 385, 399 (2003). He argued, therefore, that the 2017 Amendment, which was made without a hearing, was void.

As the State pointed out, however, commitment records may be corrected pursuant to Rule 4-351 without a resentencing or a hearing. See Scott v. State, 379 Md. 170, 190-91 (2004). While Bratt did not argue that a hearing is required before a commitment record may be corrected under Rule 4-351, he insisted that the court’s 2017 action was not accomplished under Rule 4-351 because he expressly made his request pursuant to Rule 4-345 and he expressly sought a hearing under Rule 4-345(f). However, it is the substance of a motion, not its label, that governs. See Davis v. Bd. of Educ. for Prince George’s County, 222 Md. App. 246, 271 (2015).

Although the circuit court could have held a hearing on Bratt’s request in November 2017, it was not required to do so. The action the court took instead at that time was perfectly valid and appropriate to accomplish the necessary task of amending the commitment record to reflect the correct start date for Bratt’s sentence. Thus, there was no basis for voiding or disregarding the 2017 Amendment.

In sum, Bratt’s sentence, since it was initially imposed in 1983, had been two life terms of imprisonment to be served consecutively. Bratt’s statutory entitlement to credit for time served was recognized by the court in 1995. In November 2017, the court ordered that an amendment be made to the commitment record to correct an erroneous calculation of that credit that had apparently been based on incomplete information. No hearing was required before that amendment, because the change could be accomplished pursuant to Rule 4-351(a). As a result of the 2017 Amendment, there was no illegality in either the term of his sentence or the amount of credit he had been afforded at the time he filed his 2018 Motion to Correct. As such, the circuit court erred in granting Bratt’s motion to correct an illegal sentence, striking his then-existing sentence, and resentencing him.

Accordingly, the judgment of the circuit court was reversed.

COMMENTARY: As a preliminary matter, Bratt moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the State had no right of appeal pursuant to §12-302 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. He contended that the circuit court did not actually impose or modify Bratt’s sentence but, instead, recognized an illegal sentence and corrected it. This argument was without merit.

Pursuant to §12-302(c), the State may appeal from a final judgment if the State alleges that the trial judge imposed or modified a sentence in violation of the Maryland Rules. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. §12-302(c)(3)(ii) (Repl. 2013; Supp. 2018). Here, after concluding that Bratt’s existing sentence was illegal, the circuit court expressly struck that sentence and imposed a new one. The State contended that the circuit court did so in violation of the Maryland Rules. Specifically, the State argued that Bratt’s prior sentence was not illegal and, therefore, that the circuit court had no valid basis to strike it and impose a new sentence. The State’s appeal was therefore authorized by §12-302(c)(3)(ii).

PRACTICE TIPS: Rule 4-351 identifies the content of a commitment record that must be entered whenever a person is convicted of an offense and sentenced to imprisonment.  The Rule also provides that an omission or error in the commitment record does not invalidate imprisonment after conviction.

Negligence

Duty of property owner

BOTTOM LINE: Where two neighboring landowners filed suit against a property owner for damages resulting from a fire caused by a lit cigarette thrown onto the property owner’s mulched property, the trial court did not err in denying the property owner’s motion for summary judgment because a property owner owes a duty of reasonable care to the owners and occupants of neighboring properties to use and maintain his or her property in a reasonably safe manner so as to avoid harm to the neighboring property and the issue of whether the duty of reasonable care was breached by the property owner’s failure to prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring properties was a question of fact for the jury.

CASE: Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Erie Insurance Exchange, No. 1168, Sept. Term, 2017; Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, No. 1142, Sept. Term 2017 (filed May 30, 2019) (Judges Berger, Friedman & EYLER, J. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned)).

FACTS: Gordon Contractors, Inc., was the owner of a storage yard in Capitol Heights, Maryland, which it used to store materials for its construction business. Falco Industries, Inc., occupied a commercial warehouse adjacent to one side of Gordon’s property, and Steamfitters Local Union No. 602 owned property adjacent to the other side. Steamfitters’ property was separated from Falco’s property by a chain link fence. On Steamfitters’ side of the fence was a strip of land covered with mulch, a parking lot, and a building used as a union hall.

In April 2015, a fire on Steamfitters’ land caused damage to the neighboring properties owned by Falco and Gordon.                 In December 2015, Gordon and its insurers, Erie Insurance Exchange and Continental Casualty Company filed a complaint in the circuit court against Steamfitters. Gordon, Erie, and Continental alleged that on or about April 6, 2015, the fire on Steamfitters’ property caused damage to real and personal property on Gordon’s adjacent storage yard. A second action was commenced in March 2016, when Cincinnati Insurance Company filed a complaint in the circuit court, as the subrogee of Falco Industries, Inc., C&M Properties, LLC, C&M Properties Delaware, LLC, and Garage Center, LLC (collectively “Falco”), alleging that the April 2015 fire that started in the mulched strip of land on Steamfitters’ property spread to Falco’s property and caused substantial damage to real and personal property.

Gordon and Falco alleged that the April 2015 fire started when an unknown person discarded a lit cigarette into the mulch bed on Steamfitters’ side of the fence. They did not allege that Steamfitters was vicariously liable or that it had a duty to control the unknown person, but proceeded instead on the theory that Steamfitters, as the property owner, failed to use reasonable care to prevent the foreseeable risk of fire spreading to neighboring properties. Steamfitters filed a third-party complaint against the Heating, Piping and Refrigeration Training Fund, seeking contractual indemnification pursuant to an agreement for the use of space, common law indemnification, and contribution.

In April 2016, the two cases were consolidated. Steamfitters and the Training Fund filed motions for summary judgment. The court denied Steamfitters’ motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment in favor of the Training Fund. The cases against Steamfitters were tried before a jury in July 2017. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs. Damages were awarded in favor of Erie a/s/o Gordon in the amount of $1,039,176; in favor of Gordon, individually, in the amount of $111,125; in favor of Continental a/s/o Gordon in the amount of $72,338; and in favor of Cincinnati a/s/o Falco in the amount of $119,909.

Steamfitters appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The plaintiffs moved to dismiss the appeal. The Court of Special Appeals denied the motion to dismiss and affirmed the judgment of the circuit court.

LAW: Steamfitters contended that the trial court erred in denying its motion for judgment, arguing that commercial landowners do not owe commercial neighbors a duty of care to prevent third parties, with whom they have no special relationship or vicarious responsibility, from discarding cigarettes in mulch based solely on notice of prior smoking activities on the property as evidenced by old cigarette butts. According to Steamfitters, it did not violate a rule or statute, there was nothing dangerous or illegal about the condition of its property, and it had no special relationship with its commercial neighbors that would establish a duty to protect them from the acts of a third party. Steamfitters maintained that a discarded cigarette is not a condition of real property and that there was “nothing special about the mulch at issue,” as it was not placed or stored in an unreasonable manner and is a commonly used product.

Whether a duty of care exists is a pure question of law for the circuit court to decide. Todd v. Mass Transit Admin., 373 Md. 149, 155 (2003). Maryland has adopted the characterization of “duty” set forth in W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, §53, at 356 (5th ed. 1984), as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Landaverde v. Navarro, 238 Md. App. 224, 248 (2018). In determining the existence of a duty, relevant factors include the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved. Ashburn v. Anne Arundel County, 306 Md. 617, 627 (1986).

Whether a duty is owed represents a policy question of whether the specific plaintiff is entitled to protection from the acts of the defendant. Blondell v. Littlepage, 413 Md. 96, 120 (2010). No Maryland case had previously addressed the specific issue duty in regard to a fire caused by a condition that is not inherently dangerous but rather is considered to be normal, absent extenuating circumstances. However, the Court of Appeals has determined that a property owner owes a common law duty of reasonable care to the owners and occupants of neighboring property when conducting activities on his or her property so as to avoid harm to the neighboring property. See, e.g., Frenkil v. Johnson, 175 Md. 592 (1939); La Belle Epoque, LLC v. Old Europe Antique Manor, 406 Md. 194, 218 (2008).

In the present case, Steamfitters used its property in a normal manner. Unlike in other cases cited, Steamfitters did not store unusually flammable materials on its property. The mulch on the strip of land near the fence was used in an ordinary manner. Nevertheless, there was evidence from which the jury could determine that Steamfitters was aware that hundreds of cigarettes had been discarded in the mulch and that this practice put it on notice that a dangerous practice was occurring on its property, specifically, the disposal of cigarettes in a combustible substance. The mulched area was a common area, not part of the space used by the Training Fund for classes. A duty arose because the otherwise normal condition became dangerous by virtue of the practice of persons tossing cigarette butts into the mulch.

Case law addressing premises liability with respect to harm caused to neighboring properties by a condition on the premises range from harm caused by an inherently dangerous artificial condition created or permitted to remain by the owner, that requires little advance notice of a certain practice, to a case such as the present case, i.e., a condition that becomes dangerous because of a certain practice. rests on the evidence from which a jury could find that a large number of cigarette butts were discarded in the mulch over a long period of time prior to the fire. It was for the jury to resolve conflicts in the evidence presented and to determine whether Steamfitters breached its duty of care to neighboring property owners to avoid the likely spread of fire arising from a cigarette discarded in mulch. The trial court did not err in denying Steamfitters’ motion for judgment and permitting the jury to resolve the negligence claim.

Accordingly, the judgment of the circuit court was affirmed.

COMMENTARY: Steamfitters additionally contended that expert testimony was required to prove the applicable standard of care and establish the reasonable steps a commercial landowner must take to fulfill its duty to prevent cigarettes from being discarded in mulch and causing a fire. Maryland Rule 5-702 provides that expert testimony may be admitted, in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if the court determines that the testimony will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. See also Bryant v. State, 393 Md. 196, 203-04 (2006). Expert testimony is required only when the subject of the inference is so particularly related to some science or profession that is beyond the ken of the average layman; it is not required on matters of which the jurors would be aware by virtue of common knowledge. Johnson v. State, 457 Md. 513, 530 (2018).

Steamfitters argued that the standard of care with respect to the management of commercial property involved complex issues of civil engineering and building codes “outside the ken of the average layperson,” and that the corrective actions suggested by the plaintiffs to deal with the disposal of cigarettes on Steamfitters’ property lacked any showing of reasonableness, cost, or that they were within industry standards. However, the plaintiffs did not allege that Steamfitters violated a duty established by building codes or civil engineering principles, but, rather, asserted that Steamfitters owed a common law duty to maintain its property in a reasonably safe manner so as to prevent harm to neighboring properties. The foreseeable risk of fire created by habitually discarding cigarettes in a combustible substance is a matter of common knowledge, well known to ordinary people, and the duty to exercise reasonable care to guard against the risk of fire was not so esoteric as to require expert testimony. As such, under the specific facts of this case, expert testimony was not required.

DISSENT: Mulch in landscaping should not be the source of a tort duty, and the fact that the hundreds of other cigarette butts in the mulch did not cause a fire indicated, if anything, a lack of risk. The majority’s opinion extends tort liability to landowners for the actions of third parties over whom they have little control and with whom they have no demonstrated special relationship, and this imposition of a duty of care would not make anybody any safer. See Patton v. United States of Am. Rugby Football, 381 Md. 627, 637-38 (2004). For these reasons, the trial court erred in finding that the Steamfitters owed a duty of care and erred in failing to grant judgment on their behalf.

PRACTICE TIPS: There is no universal test for determining whether a duty exists. The requirements of a legal duty depend on the specific facts and circumstances presented.

Trusts & Estates

Estate administration

BOTTOM LINE: Although a Florida statute barring a surviving spouse from receiving a benefit from the estate of a deceased spouse if he or she procured the marriage to the spouse through inequitable conduct did not apply where the decedent was domiciled in Maryland at the time of his death, the Orphans’ Court did not err in finding that the decedent’s wife was barred from receiving a benefit from the estate where the wife had procured the marriage by undue influence, and, therefore, the judgment of the Orphans’ Court was affirmed on the ground that the wife was barred from receiving a benefit from the estate by the doctrine of unclean hands.

CASE: In the matter of Robert H. Watkins, Jr., No. 2171, Sept. Term, 2017 (filed May 29, 2019) (Judges Berger, Leahy & EYLER, J. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned)).

FACTS: Robert Watkins, Jr., died on August 30, 2014, at the age of 82. He was survived by his third wife of less than two years, Emeline Watkins; his adult daughter from his second marriage and the personal representative of his estate, Shannon Watkins; and his adult daughter from his first marriage, Hannah Ink. Watkins’s second wife of 52 years, Jasmine Watkins, predeceased him in 2012.

On September 18, 2014, Shannon Watkins filed a petition for administrative probate with the Register of Wills of Prince George’s County, Maryland. By order of September 24, 2014, Watkins’s Last Will and Testament dated January 28, 1999, together with a Codicil dated November 16, 2006, were admitted to probate and Shannon was appointed Personal Representative of the Estate. Shannon filed a Petition for Ancillary Administrative Probate in Broward County, Florida, where Watkins owned real property.

On March 23, 2015, Emeline Watkins filed in the Orphans’ Court for Prince George’s County an “Objection and Petition to Revoke Probate and Letters Testamentary” on the ground that Watkins was domiciled in Florida, not Maryland, when he died. She asserted that the Maryland probate matter should be closed and that Watkins’s Maryland assets should be administered by a foreign personal representative within the Florida Probate Action. Shannon, in her individual capacity and as Personal Representative, opposed Emeline’s petition to revoke probate, maintaining that Watkins was domiciled in Maryland when he died and asserting that Emeline’s marriage to Watkins was procured by fraud, duress, and undue influence. Shannon asked the Orphans’ Court to overrule Emeline’s objection and rule that she was barred from receiving any share of the Estate based upon a Florida statute and/or under the common law doctrine of unclean hands.

Thereafter, Emeline filed in the Orphans’ Court her “Election to take Statutory Share of the Estate,” pursuant to Md. Code (2001, 2011 Repl. Vol.), §3-203(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article (“ET”). Following a hearing in the Orphans’ Court, the court, applying Maryland law, issued an order finding that Watkins was domiciled in Maryland when he died; that Emeline procured her marriage to Watkins by undue influence; and that in light of her conduct and by operation of a Florida statute, she was ineligible to receive any benefit from the Estate.

Emeline appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed the judgment of the Orphans’ Court.

LAW: On appeal, Emeline Watkins argued that the Orphans’ Court erred or exceeded its authority by denying Emeline her statutory share of the Estate based upon a finding that her marriage to Watkins was procured by undue influence. Emeline did not challenge the factual finding of undue influence, but instead asserted that the Orphans’ Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. She contended that because the Orphans’ Court found that Watkins was domiciled in Maryland at the time of his death, Maryland probate law governed her entitlement to an elective share of the Estate, not Florida probate law, and that the Orphans’ Court lackd the authority to invalidate her marriage to Watkins on the ground of undue influence.

Emeline was correct that the Florida statute was inapplicable. The provision of the Florida Probate Code governing a surviving spouse’s entitlement to an elective share states, in relevant part, that the surviving spouse of a person who dies domiciled in Florida has the right to a share of the elective estate of the decedent, to be designated the elective share. Fla. Stat. §732.201. However, the Orphans’ Court found that Watkins was domiciled in Maryland when he died, a ruling that Emeline no longer challenged. Emeline, as the surviving spouse of a non-domiciliary, had no right to an elective share under the Florida Probate Code. Thus, Emeline’s entitlement, if any, to an elective share of the Estate flowed from Maryland law.

Under Md. Code (2001, 2011 Repl. Vol.), §3-203(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article, a surviving spouse may elect to take a one-third share of the net estate if there is also a surviving issue. Because Emeline legally married Watkins, was not divorced from him, and did not have her marriage to him annulled, she was a surviving spouse and could elect the statutory one-third share. See ET §1-202. And, although the Florida statute was inapplicable, the ruling of the Orphans’ Court could be affirmed on any ground adequately shown by the record and which was raised below.

The Florida statute, by barring a surviving spouse from receiving a benefit from the estate of a deceased spouse if he or she procured the marriage to the spouse through inequitable conduct, essentially codifies the well-established common law doctrine of unclean hands, recognized by Maryland. The doctrine of unclean hands was argued before the Orphans’ Court. That doctrine refuses recognition and relief from the court to those guilty of unlawful or inequitable conduct pertaining to the matter in which relief is sought. Hicks v. Gilbert, 135 Md. App. 394, 400 (2000).

The doctrine of unclean hands is not applied for the protection of the parties nor as a punishment to the wrongdoer but, rather, is intended to protect the courts from having to endorse or reward inequitable conduct. Adams v. Manown, 328 Md. 463, 474-75 (1992). For that reason, an important element of the doctrine is that the alleged misconduct must be connected with the transaction upon which the claimant seeks relief. Id. at 475. In other words, it is only when a party’s improper conduct is the source, or part of the source, of his equitable claim, that he is to be barred because of this conduct. Id. at 476.

While there was no Maryland case law directly on point, at least one sister court has held that a person who procured a marriage through overreaching and undue influence forfeited any rights that would flow from the marital relationship, including the statutory right she would otherwise have to an elective share of her deceased spouse’s estate. Campbell v. Thomas, 897 N.Y.S.2d 460, 471 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010). The Campbell Court reasoned that just as “overreaching and undue influence” may bar a person from recovering under a will, a person who procures a marriage by that same conduct for pecuniary gain should not be allowed to benefit from it. Id. Similarly, in the present case, the Orphans’ Court found that Emeline exercised undue influence over Watkins to cause him to marry her for her financial gain. Had Emeline engaged in this same conduct to cause Watkins to change his will to her advantage, the will could have been set aside on that basis. See, e.g., Green v. McClintock, 218 Md. App. 336, 338-72, 374 (2014).

Thus, there was a clear nexus between Emeline’s improper conduct and her claim before the Orphans’ Court to a statutory share of the Estate. For the same reasons identified in Campbell, Emeline’s inequitable conduct in achieving her status as a surviving spouse barred her from making a claim before the Orphans’ Court for a statutory share of the Estate. The Orphans’ Court did not err by so ruling.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Orphans’ Court was affirmed.

COMMENTARY: Emeline Watkins additionally argued that the Orphans’ Court erred by determining that Watkins was domiciled in Maryland when he died. Intent is the controlling factor in determining domicile. Wamsley v. Wamsley, 333 Md. 454, 459 (1994). The two most significant objective factors evidencing a person’s intent regarding domicile are where the person lives and where he or she votes or is registered to vote. Blount v. Boston, 351 Md. 360, 368-69 (1998). However, while actual residence and voting are important, numerous other factors are also pertinent to show a person’s intent. Id. at 369. These other factors take on added significance where there are special circumstances explaining a particular place of abode or voting. Id.

Here, the Orphans’ Court focused on the circumstances of how Watkins ended up in Florida and how he became registered to vote there. It found that Emeline took advantage of Watkins’s poor health and his grief over the death of his previous wife, Jasmine, and convinced him to go to Florida. Once there, she isolated him and made it very difficult for him to return to Maryland.

Thus, while Watkins spent the majority of his last two years in Florida, it was not by his choice. Rather, Emeline chose for them to stay there because she was better able to exert control over Watkins when he was away from his daughters and his close friends. Thus, his physical presence in Florida in 2013 and 2014 did not evince an intent on his part to abandon his domicile in Maryland. The evidence, including expert testimony, was sufficient to sustain the court’s finding that Watkins was domiciled in Maryland when he died.

PRACTICE TIPS: A person’s domicile is the place with which an individual has a settled connection for legal purposes and the place where a person has his true, fixed, permanent home, habitation and principal establishment, without any present intention of removing therefrom, and to which place he had, whenever he is absent, the intention of returning. While a person may have several places of abode or dwelling, he or she can have only one domicile at a time.

 

 

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