In the present matter, petitioner Janet Beyer ("Beyer"), the Personal Representative for the Estate of Betty Y. Keat ("Keat"), challenges the subject matter jurisdiction of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on appeal, pursuant to Maryland Code (1974, 1998 Repl.Vol.), Section 12-502(a) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, of two Orders of the Orphans' Court allowing payment of attorney's fees and extraordinary expenses out of the Estate. Petitioner further contends that the Circuit Court improperly vacated the Order of the Orphans' Court allowing for the payment of attorney's fees from the Estate based on an oral motion for summary judgment made by respondent Morgan State University ("MSU" or "University") at the hearing on the appeal. For the reasons set forth below, we find that the Circuit Court of Baltimore City had subject matter jurisdiction to hear MSU's appeal and properly granted summary judgment in favor of MSU, vacating the Order of the Orphans' Court authorizing the payment of attorney's fees.
On January 12, 1996, Betty Keat met with an untimely death from gunshot wounds inflicted by members of the Baltimore City Police Department during an altercation in which she menacingly approached the officers, crying, "There's no
The house was her residence at 326 Taplow Road in Baltimore City. The will made various other distributions of Keat's personal affects, such as her china, crystal, jewelry, and personal papers; it did not contain a residuary clause.
On January 18, 1996, Keat's sister and sole heir at law, Janet Beyer, retained attorney Anton J.S. Keating ("Keating") to file a survival action
Neither Beyer nor Allen responded to the University's letter.
On June 28, 1996, Beyer sold Keat's house for $95,045.94 and failed to inform MSU of the sale. On August 13, 1997, after having not heard anything from the Personal Representative or her attorneys, MSU's Office of General Counsel sent a letter to Allen inquiring as to the disposition of Keat's house and the bequest of Keat's books on India which were supposed to have been turned over to the Soper Library. Again, MSU received no response.
On February 4, 1998, Beyer filed a Petition to Approve Expenditure of Extraordinary Expenses of Administration ("Expenses Petition") in the Orphans' Court for Baltimore City. The Expenses Petition requested more than $13,000 for distribution to Beyer and her relatives to compensate them for expenditures associated with cleaning and repairing Keat's house and property for sale. Although Allen was aware of communications from MSU's Office of General Counsel, notice of the Expenses Petition was served on the Soper Library, rather than on MSU's attorney. Thereafter, on March 30, 1998, Beyer filed a Petition for Attorney's Fees ("Fees Petition") with the Orphans' Court for services performed by Keating in the survival action. Once again, counsel for MSU did not receive notice of the Petition because it had been mailed to the Soper Library. On April 20, 1998, the Orphans' Court approved Beyer's Expenses Petition. On April 29, 1998, however, the Orphans' Court delayed acting upon the Fees Petition pending receipt of a verification, a certificate of service to interested parties, a detailed list of services performed by Keating, and a first and final administration account of the Estate. Keating subsequently filed a Petition for an Extension for filing these requested documents with the Orphans' Court on May 19, 1998.
On June 8, 1998, Keating filed another Fees Petition requesting $40,000 from the Estate, although the Personal Representative previously had paid Keating $30,000 for his services. The Orphans' Court granted Keating an extension of time to provide the Court with the information it had requested in its April 29th Order. The Court also ordered Keating to provide his retainer agreement with the Personal Representative for his representation of the Estate in the survival action.
On July 2, 1998, over two years after the sale, MSU learned that Keat's house had been sold. MSU responded by immediately filing a Petition to Order Distribution of Property ("Petition for Distribution") with the Orphans' Court to facilitate its receipt of the bequest. In the Petition for Distribution, MSU objected to Beyer's failure to file a first and final administration account for the Estate and to the proposed payment of attorney's fees for any litigation arising out of Keat's death and requested that the Orphans' Court stay any further expenditures from the Estate pending review by the court.
On September 9, 1998, without notice to MSU or a hearing, the Orphans' Court approved payment of $30,000 in attorney's fees to Keating and allowed him to request additional payment for services rendered following the disposition of the survival action. Thereafter, on September 11, 1998, the Orphans' Court denied MSU's exceptions to Beyer's Expenses Petition without a hearing. MSU did not receive a copy of the September 11th Order until September 25, 1998.
On October 1, 1998, MSU sent a letter to the Chief Judge of the Orphans' Court for Baltimore City protesting the failure to receive notice of the petitions and the lack of hearings prior to the issuance of the Orphans' Court's Orders of September 9 and September 11, 1998. Counsel for MSU did not learn of the June 8, 1998 Fees Petition or September 9, 1998 Order approving of those fees until he appeared before the Orphans' Court on September 29, 1998, for the hearing on the Petition for Distribution. Although MSU requested that the Orphans' Court immediately remediate the situation, the Court declined to intervene. MSU then filed an appeal to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City pursuant to Maryland Code (1974, 1998 Repl. Vol.) Section 12-502 of the Courts and
The Circuit Court consolidated MSU's appeal with the ongoing survival action brought by Beyer as Personal Representative of the Estate of Betty Y. Keat against members of the Baltimore City Police Department, which had been set for trial in February of 1999. In addition, the Circuit Court, acting sua sponte on January 15, 1999, appointed attorney Arthur Drager to serve as counsel to represent the interests of the Estate of Betty Y. Keat.
On February 23, 1999, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the individually named police officers and the Baltimore City Police Department in the survival action. The de novo hearing on MSU's appeal was held in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on February 24, 1999. During the hearing, the following discourse took place:
I am concerned about the Personal Representative making expenditures without the approval of the Orphans' Court to almost half of the entire Estate, and approval of the Orphans' Court was never even sought until more than two years after some of the expenditures had been made. That gives me a great deal of concern. I am concerned, because the original attorney for the Estate was put on notice as far back as April of `96 of an objection to a disbursement
The court then raised the issue of a summary judgment motion:
The Circuit Court thereupon orally granted summary judgment in favor of MSU and the next day memorialized the decision, in which it stated:
1. Janet Beyer, the Personal Representative, wrongfully expended estate funds in the amount of $40,000 for legal services to Anton J.S. Keating,
2. Janet Beyer, the Personal Representative, wrongfully expended estate funds in the amount of $13,309.53 for extraordinary expenses.
Beyer filed a timely appeal in the Court of Special Appeals, wherein she challenged the subject matter jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to hear the appeal, arguing that the September 9 and September 11, 1998 Orders of the Orphans' Court were not appealable orders, and asserting that the Circuit Court erred in vacating the Orders of the Orphans' Court by granting summary judgment to MSU. See Beyer v. Morgan State University, 139 Md.App. 609, 613, 779 A.2d 388, 390-91 (2001). The Court of Special Appeals held that the Order granting Beyer's Fees Petition on September 9, 1998, and the Order granting Beyer's Expenses Petition on September 11, 1998, constituted final appealable judgments of the Orphans' Court pursuant to Section 12-502(a) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, so that the Circuit Court had subject matter jurisdiction over MSU's timely filed appeal. See id. at 632-33, 779 A.2d at 401-02; Md.Code, § 12-502(a)(1).
With regard to Beyer's contention that the Circuit Court erred in vacating the Orders of the Orphans' Court premised on MSU's oral motion for summary judgment, the Court of Special Appeals concluded there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Beyer had used money from the Estate to pay the legal fees of the attorney working on the tort claim prior to receiving approval from the Orphans' Court in violation of her fiduciary duties as Personal Representative of Betty Keat's Estate. See Beyer, 139 Md.App. at 639, 779 A.2d at 406. The intermediate appellate court did find, however, that the Circuit Court erred in failing to make evidentiary findings as to whether the expenses for which Petitioner sought payment approval were extraordinary expenses which could be paid from Estate funds because the evidence was in dispute. See id. at 641, 779 A.2d at 407.
We granted a petition for a writ of certiorari in this case, 367 Md. 86, 785 A.2d 1290 (2001), to consider the following questions presented by Beyer, which we have rephrased:
1. Whether the Court of Special Appeals erred in finding that the Circuit Court for Baltimore City had subject matter jurisdiction over an appeal pursuant to Maryland Code, Section 12-502 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (1974, 1998 Repl.Vol.) about the September 9 and September 11, 1998 Orders entered by the Orphans' Court?
2. Whether the Court of Special Appeals erred in affirming the Circuit Court's decision to vacate the September 9, 1998 Order of the Orphans' Court granting payment of attorney's fees pursuant to an oral motion for summary judgment?
A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction of the Circuit Court
Beyer argues that because MSU, an interested party to the Estate, did not receive notice of the Expenses and Fees Petitions pursuant to Section 7-502(a) of the Estates and Trusts Article, the subsequent order of the Orphans' Court granting the petition was not a final judgment for purposes of triggering the appellate provisions of Section 12-502 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. Rather, Beyer contends that because MSU did not receive notice, its appellate remedies were limited to challenging the order granting attorney's fees under the procedures set forth in Section 7-502(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article and Maryland Rule 6-416(a)(5).
Our analysis begins with an examination and interpretation of Section 7-502 of the Estates and Trusts Article and related Maryland Rule 6-416, governing notice of proposed payments from the Estate to the Personal Representative or an attorney, as well as Section 12-502 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article and related Maryland Rule 6-463 concerning appeals to the Circuit Court from judgments rendered in the Orphans' Court. The principal goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the legislative intent behind the enactment. See Ridge Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing, Inc. v. Brennen, 366 Md. 336, 349, 783 A.2d 691, 699 (2001); Taylor v. NationsBank, N.A., 365 Md. 166, 181, 776 A.2d 645, 654 (2001); Derry v. State, 358 Md. 325, 335, 748 A.2d 478, 483 (2000); Oaks v. Connors, 339 Md. 24, 35, 660 A.2d 423, 429 (1995). The statutory language serves as the primary source for determining legislative intent. See Marriott Employees Fed. Credit Union v. Motor Vehicle Admin., 346 Md. 437, 444-45, 697 A.2d 455, 458 (1997); Tucker v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 308 Md. 69, 73, 517 A.2d 730, 731 (1986). Where the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, our inquiry is at an end. See Fister v. Allstate Life Ins. Co., 366 Md. 201, 212, 783 A.2d 194, 200 (2001); Board of License Comm'rs for Charles County v. Toye, 354 Md. 116, 122, 729 A.2d 407, 410 (1999). Where the statutory language is ambiguous, we read it within the context of the statutory scheme as a whole. See In re Mark M., 365 Md. 687, 711, 782 A.2d 332, 346 (2001); Stanford v. Maryland Police Training & Correctional Comm'n, 346 Md. 374, 380, 697 A.2d 424, 427 (1997). Thus, the provisions must be read from "a commonsensical perspective to avoid a farfetched interpretation." Graves v. State, 364 Md. 329, 346, 772 A.2d 1225, 1235 (2001).
These principles applied to statutory interpretation are identical to those used to interpret the Maryland Rules. See
When Beyer was appointed as Personal Representative of her sister's Estate, she undertook to perform the following duties, as set forth in Maryland Code, Section 7-101 of the Estates and Trusts Article:
(1) He had no actual knowledge of the claim; and
(2) The plaintiff had not filed on time his claim with the register.
Thus, we must first determine whether Beyer in her capacity as Personal Representative for the Estate of Betty Y. Keat breached a fiduciary duty owed to the Estate by disbursing attorney's fees for services rendered allegedly on behalf of the Estate prior to providing notice of such payment to MSU, an interested person, and prior to receiving approval by the Orphans' Court for such expenditures. See Md.Code, § 7-502 of the Est. & Trusts Art.
A Personal Representative owes a duty to the beneficiaries of a will to act in the best interests of the Estate. See Ferguson v. Cramer, 349 Md. 760, 769, 709 A.2d 1279, 1283-84 (1998). In fulfilling this duty, the Personal Representative is obligated to exhibit the following qualities:
It is undisputed that neither Beyer acting in her capacity as Personal Representative
When filing a petition for attorney's fees, the Personal Representative of an estate is required to give written notice to all interested persons. Such notice sets forth the amount requested from the estate and the basis for that request, and alerts interested persons that they may make a request for a hearing within 20 days of the notice being sent. See Md. Code, § 7-502(a) of the Est. & Trusts Art. As "[a] legatee in being, not fully paid" based on the bequest contained in Keat's will, MSU qualified as an "interested person" for purposes of the notice provision of Section 7-502(a). See Md.Code, § 1-101(i)(3) of the Est. & Trusts Art. The procedure for giving notice to interested persons of a petition for attorney's fees is set forth in Maryland Rule 6-416(a)(3):
Furthermore, the rule provides that "[u]pon the filing of a petition, the court, by order, shall allow attorney's fees or personal representative's commissions as it considers appropriate, subject to any exceptions." Md. Rule 6-416(a)(4) (emphasis added). The decision to allow attorney's fees is dependent upon the Orphans' Court's exercise of its discretion to approve all, some, or none of the requested fees. See Dessel v. Goldman, 231 Md. 428, 431, 190 A.2d 633, 635 (1963)(explaining that in allowing payment of attorney's fees from an estate, "the court must exercise sound judgment and discretion, basing its determination upon the evidence offered for its instruction and guidance and a consideration of the tests held generally applicable in fixing the size of a fee").
The Fees Petition failed to alert the Orphans' Court to the fact that funds already had been taken out of the Estate to pay Keating prior to receiving court approval for those expenditures. The first accounting for the Estate filed with the Register of Wills on September 9, 1997, however, reveals that as early as January 20, 1996, Beyer wrote a check from her own account in the amount of $500 to an investigator hired in relation to the survival action and subsequently reimbursed herself from the Estate without the Court's permission. Similarly, Beyer paid Keating a total of $30,000 in attorney's fees from the Estate for a period covering January 18, 1996 to September 10, 1996, more than two years before receiving approval for the payment of fees from the Orphans' Court. Due to Beyer's omission of information in the Fees Petition that these payments had been made, the Orphans' Court approved payment of the attorney's fees without knowledge of her
We turn now to the statutory provisions governing appeals from final judgments of the Orphans' Court and their applicability to the instant case. A party may take an appeal from "a judgment of the court" to either "the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland pursuant to Code, Courts Article, § 12-501," or with the exception of Harford and Montgomery Counties, "to the circuit court for the county pursuant to Code, Courts Article, § 12-502." Md. Rule 6-463. We have explained that "[a] final judgment is any judgment or order which is `so far final as to determine and conclude the rights involved in the action, or to deny to the party seeking redress by the appeal the means of further prosecuting or defending his rights and interests in the subject matter of the proceeding.'" Grimberg v. Marth, 338 Md. 546, 551, 659 A.2d 1287, 1290 (1995)(quoting In re Buckler Trusts, 144 Md. 424, 427, 125 A. 177, 178 (1924)).
Petitioner argues that the September 9 and September 11, 1998 Orders of the Orphans' Court, which approved the payment of $30,000 in attorney's fees to Keating from the Estate and overruled MSU's exceptions to the Expenses Petition, were not final judgments which would permit MSU to file an appeal with the Circuit Court under Section 12-502 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. In support of this argument, Beyer attempts to extend our decision in Radcliff v. Vance, 360 Md. 277, 757 A.2d 812 (2000), to require that an interested person who is not properly served with notice of a petition for attorney's fees must file a motion to vacate the Order of the Orphans' Court granting such fees because the "substantial irregularity" caused by improper service of notice on an interested party prevents the order from being final. In its counterargument, however, MSU states, "Radcliff simply stands for the unremarkable proposition that when a party does not receive proper notice of an orphans' court order, there is `substantial irregularity' sufficient to vacate the order." We agree with MSU's assessment of the applicability of Radcliff to the instant case.
In Radcliff, an interested person to an estate who did not receive notice of a petition for attorney's fees prior to the issuance of an order from the Orphans' Court approving payment of the fees challenged the court's decision by filing a petition to revoke the order with the Orphans' Court. Id. at 283-84, 757 A.2d at 815. We concluded that because the interested person had not received notice of the petition for attorney's fees pursuant to Section 7-502(a) of the Estates and Trusts Article, there was a "substantial irregularity" in the proceeding which prevented the interested person from opposing the petition for attorney's fees prior to entrance of the order to pay by the Orphans' Court. Id. at 292-93, 757 A.2d at 820 ("An irregularity is a failure to follow required process or procedure.") In reaching this conclusion, we stated that because the interested person had not received the required notice, the order was not "final and binding upon" her. Id. at 292, 757 A.2d at 820. This finality language, however, cannot be manipulated against the position of an interested person who did not receive notice.
Section 7-502(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article provides that "[u]nless there was fraud, material mistake, or substantial irregularity in the proceeding, or a request for a hearing is filed within 20 days of the sending of the notice, any action taken by
Beyer, 139 Md.App. at 631, 779 A.2d at 401. Thus, while it is true that MSU could have elected to file a motion to vacate the September 9 and September 11, 1998 orders in the Orphans' Court based on the "substantial irregularity" in the proceedings, Section 7-502(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article does not mandate that an aggrieved interested person or creditor pursue this avenue of relief as adverse to any other avenue available when it did not receive notice from the very party who would seek to bar the door to the Circuit Court.
Beyer asserts that our decision in Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Owrutsky, 322 Md. 334, 587 A.2d 511 (1991), upon which the Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals based their decisions that she breached her fiduciary duty as Personal Representative, is "not on all fours with this case." In Owrutsky, we emphatically declared that an attorney "has no right to [estate] funds, either as a commission or as an attorney's fee, unless and until an approval pursuant to § 7-601 or § 7-602 of the Estates and Trusts Article ... has been obtained from the Orphans' Court." Id. at 344, 587 A.2d at 516. We admonished that "[a]ppropriating any part of [estate] funds to [the attorney or Personal Representative's] own use and benefit without clear authority to do so cannot be tolerated." Id. at 345, 587 A.2d at 516. The Court of Special Appeals likewise chastised petitioner in this case:
Beyer v. Morgan State University, 139 Md.App. at 639, 779 A.2d at 406. The Owrutsky analogy is extremely apt here, where the petitioner breached her fiduciary duty to give notice and secure approval
The premise of giving notice to parties having an interest in a particular piece of litigation is to prevent such parties from being bound by the determinations of the court where they did not have an opportunity to be heard.
Therefore, we find that under the facts of this case, MSU was not required to file a motion to vacate the September 9 and September 11, 1998 Orders in the Orphans' Court prior to seeking an appeal in the Circuit Court pursuant to Section 12-502 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article and Maryland Rule 6-463. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City properly had subject matter jurisdiction over MSU's appeal. We will not permit personal representatives or their attorneys the luxury of controlling an interested person's appellate remedies through their own misfeasance. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the Court of Special Appeals.
B. Grant of Summary Judgment
Beyer urges this Court to reverse the decision of the Court of Special Appeals by asserting that MSU failed to make a motion for summary judgment that was appropriate, because the motion was made orally rather than through a formal filing of pleadings.
Maryland Rule 2-501(e) states that "[t]he court shall enter judgment in favor of or against the moving party if the motion and response show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the party in whose favor judgment is entered is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The rule does not contain any language which would require a written motion. In fact, oral motions are permitted expressly by Maryland Rule 2-311(a), which provides "An application to the court for an order shall be by motion which, unless made during a hearing or trial, shall be made in writing, and shall set forth the relief or order sought." See Crews v. Hollenbach, 358 Md. 627, 638, 751 A.2d 481, 487 (2000)(discussing the trial court's decision to grant both motions for summary judgment which were filed in writing by two parties in advance of a hearing, as well as the oral motions for summary judgment submitted by three other parties at the hearing). Therefore, the form of the motion complied with the rules; the only issue is whether the Circuit Court's decision to grant the motion was legally correct.
We review a lower court's decision to grant a motion for summary judgment de novo. See Schmerling v. Injured Workers' Ins. Fund, 368 Md. 434, 443, 795 A.2d 715, 720 (2002). In so doing, we must determine whether there is a dispute over a genuine issue of material fact. See Lippert v. Jung, 366 Md. 221, 227, 783 A.2d 206, 209 (2001). Where there are no genuine disputes as to material facts, we must determine whether the Circuit Court was legally correct in granting MSU's oral motion for summary judgment. See Maryland Dept. of the Environment v. Underwood, 368 Md. 160, 171, 792 A.2d 1130, 1136 (2002); Okwa v. Harper, 360 Md. 161, 178, 757 A.2d 118, 127 (2000).
In the case sub judice, the transcript of the hearing before the Circuit Court shows that there was no genuine dispute of material facts between the parties, that the last of Beyer's four payments to Keating came at least fifteen months before the Orphans' Court granted approval for payment of those fees, and that MSU did not receive notice of the Fees Petition, all of which violated Section 7-502 of the Estates and
Any recovery in the survival action would not have benefitted MSU, a specific legatee of the house.
In her brief to this Court, petitioner cites to Maryland Rule 6-416(e), which was eliminated and rewritten in 1998 as the current provision quoted above.
GOVERNOR'S COMMISSION TO REVIEW AND REVISE THE TESTAMENTARY LAW OF MARYLAND, SECOND REPORT § 7-502, at 117 (1968). The 1969 provision, which serves as the basis for the current version of Section 7-502 states:
The personal representative shall give written notice to each creditor who has filed a claim under Section 8-104 which is still open and to all interested persons of any claim, petition or other request which could result, directly or indirectly, in the payment of a debt, commission, fee, or other compensation to, or for the benefit of, the personal representative or the attorney for the estate. The notice shall set forth in reasonable detail the amount to be requested and the basis therefor. Unless a request for a hearing thereon is filed within 20 days of the sending of the notice, any action taken by the Court in connection therewith shall be final and binding on all persons to whom the notice was given unless there was fraud, material mistake or substantial irregularity in the proceeding.
1969 MD. LAWS, ch. 3. The language of the current provision is substantially the same. See Md.Code (1974, 2001 Repl.Vol.), § 7-502 of the Est. & Trusts Art.