You Got Your Estate In Federal Court — You Got Federal Court In My Estate

Estate matters are not usually litigated in the federal courts. Probate and intestacy issues are relegated to the states, and specialized courts known as probate or surrogate’s courts, hear these kinds of matters. There are exceptions, however, especially when an estate or trust is involved in litigation involving large sums of monies, multiple states, or even sometimes when the estate can sue on a federal cause of action.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has just vacated the dismissal of an estate lawsuit and remanded the case to district court. That matter involves the 2013 death of Indianan Cary Owsley, whose death the county coroner ruled a suicide. The decedent’s son, Logan Owsley, claimed that Cary’s wife, Lisa Owsley, and her children were somehow responsible for the death. That was never proven.

Lisa, as surviving spouse, was appointed representative of the estate. In the Indiana state court, Logan tried, but failed, to have her removed. Logan also filed a civil rights law suit in federal court arguing that eight Bartholomew County public officers destroyed or lost evidence relating to the decedent’s death, raising a federal civil obstruction of justice claim against the sheriff, coroner, and several deputies. Several of the  sheriffs  were disciplined because they made judgment errors during the investigation. They allegedly allowed Lisa’s ex-husband to enter the death scene, where he removed the decedent’s body from the home, handled the handgun, and cleaned up the blood at the scene.

In April 2019, the federal  circuit court dismissed the lawsuit against the defendant officials who successfully argued that Logan did not have legal standing to assert a claim. They also claimed immunity and that the matter failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted.

While the federal matter was pending, Indiana state court considered Logan’s standing in the estate to pursue causes of action like the one in federal court.  Although the estate was closed in 2016, Logan was assigned “any interest” the estate had in the federal lawsuit. The assignment was not enough for the federal district court, which dismissed the case in 2019.

Seven years since the death, Logan’s case persists as the 7th Circuit’s decision notes that the district court wrongfully did not rule on the merit of the assignment, instead focusing on the fact that Logan did not suffer any personal injury. The 7th Circuit wrote, “Federal law permits assignees to sue on assignors’ claims” citing Logan’s estate assignment and Sprint Communications Co. v. APCC Services, Inc., 554 U.S. 269 (2008), focusing the case on the assignment itself.

Interestingly, the 7th Circuit noted that Logan did not argue that the defendants blocked the estate from filing a wrongful death suit. Logan argued that the defendants, by hiding or destroying evidence, prevented the estate from pursuing a claim against Lisa or her children, and he argued that the evidence also could have been used to remove Lisa as administrator. This, Logan argued, violated the Constitution, and is the reason he is before the federal court.

Cori A. Robinson is a solo practitioner having founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a New York and New Jersey law firm, in 2017. For more than a decade Cori has focused her law practice on trusts and estates and elder law including estate and Medicaid planning, probate and administration, estate litigation, and guardianships. She can be reached at [email protected]

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