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Rogers v. Rogers

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

February 1, 2019


          Argued: November 28, 2018

          Hillsborough-southern judicial district

          Greenblott & O'Rourke, PLLC, of Contoocook (Seth W. Greenblott on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

          Bielagus Law Offices PLLC, of Milford (Jason A. Bielagus on the brief and orally), for the defendant.

          DONOVAN, J.

         The plaintiff, Samuel Rogers, appeals an order of the Superior Court (Nadeau, C.J.) dismissing his complaint against his son, Joseph Rogers, upon finding that the circuit court, probate division (probate court), [1]and not the superior court, maintains exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over his cause of action. We reverse and remand.

         I. Factual History

         The trial court found or the record otherwise supports the following facts. The plaintiff's wife died in March 2012 and the parties' dispute arose after the disposition of her estate. The decedent's will named the defendant as the executor of the estate, which was comprised, in pertinent part, of two properties in Hollis - the plaintiff's marital home and the decedent's 50% ownership interest in 94.3 acres of undeveloped land on Rocky Point Road (Rocky Point).[2] In her will, the decedent devised one-third of the estate to the plaintiff and devised the remaining two-thirds of the estate to the defendant.

         The probate court appointed the defendant as the executor of the estate in May 2012 and, pursuant to his duties as the executor, he contracted for appraisals of both properties. The defendant's appraiser valued the decedent's 50% interest in Rocky Point at $550, 000 and the marital home at $273, 000. Based upon these valuations, the defendant suggested to the plaintiff that they settle the estate by the plaintiff taking title to the marital home, in his name alone, in exchange for the defendant assuming the estate's entire interest in Rocky Point. The plaintiff accepted this offer in light of his apparent impression that his one-third interest in the estate's ownership of Rocky Point closely approximated the defendant's two-thirds interest in the marital home.[3]This exchange of property interests was accomplished by way of an exchange of fiduciary deeds in September 2012.

         At some point in 2015, the plaintiff learned that the Town of Hollis had either offered to purchase or agreed to purchase Rocky Point for $2, 500, 000, but, for reasons not established by the record, the sale was never consummated. Thereafter, the plaintiff discovered that his son had commissioned an appraisal of Rocky Point in 2005 which estimated that the value of the property, at that time, was $1, 950, 000. These valuations suggested that following the parties' exchange of property interests, the defendant's interest in Rocky Point would have been worth approximately $975, 000.

         II. Procedural History

         Armed with these discoveries, the plaintiff sued the defendant in the superior court in September 2016 alleging claims of breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligence, and unjust enrichment. The defendant moved to dismiss the suit in October 2016 arguing, inter alia, that the plaintiff's claims were barred by the time limitations set forth in RSA 556:3 (2007), because all claims against the estate needed to be filed within six months of the probate court's issuance of the certificate of appointment in May 2012, and barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel, because he could have, but did not, raise these claims in the original probate matter. The Trial Court (Ignatius, J.) denied the motion upon finding that: (1) the defendant mischaracterized the nature of the plaintiff's claims as against the estate rather than the defendant, personally; and (2) the res judicata doctrine did not apply because the plaintiff could not have previously litigated his claims in the initial probate matter since he did not become aware of the defendant's actionable conduct until 2015, three years after the probating of the estate.

         In January 2017, the defendant filed another motion seeking to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint, or in the alternative, to transfer the matter to the probate court. In his pleading, the defendant argued that "[a]ll of [the] [p]laintiff's claims are related to the [e]state, and the administration of the [e]state, and the values of estate assets, and the disbursement of the estate assets" and, therefore, the probate court has exclusive jurisdiction over the parties' dispute pursuant to RSA 547:3 (Supp. 2018). In March 2017, the trial court denied the defendant's motion, citing its previous ruling that the defendant had mischaracterized the nature of the plaintiff's claims.

         Undeterred, the defendant moved to consolidate the plaintiff's action with a petition he filed in the probate court against the plaintiff seeking to enforce his mother's will. In his motion, he again argued that the probate court maintained jurisdiction over the parties' disputes.[4] The plaintiff objected, arguing that: (1) the court had already determined this issue; and (2) the superior court was the proper forum to determine the plaintiff's tort claims and the probate ...

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