Indigent Prisoner Claims Tortious Conversion of Documents Against Mother’s Estate

Posted on March 31, 2017

In Spradley v. Spradley, No. 2D15-4850, 2017 WL 913632 ((Fla. 2nd DCA 2017), Indigent prisoner, Glenn Spradley, appeals an Order dismissing his civil action as legally insufficient under Section 57.085(6), Florida Statues (2015). Mr. Spradley’s complaint alleged that the estate of his mother, Ruby Lee Fuller/Waters, and his brothers Derrick and James Spradley, converted his property.  Mr. Spradley’s valid claim of action for the tortious conversion should have been granted leave to amend his complaint against his mother’s estate. 

According to Mr. Spradley’s allegations in his complaint, he gave all his legal documents concerning his criminal and civil cases to his mother to store at her home. The papers value exceeded $15,000. Upon the mother’s death in June 2014, Mr. Spradley’s brothers were left with possessions of their mother’s home and Mr. Spradley’s legal documents.  Mr. Spradley demanded return of the documents, and when his brothers failed to do so, they converted his property.

“In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the trial court must confine itself to the four corners of the complaint, accept the allegations of the complaint as true, and construe the allegations in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff.” Nelson v. Hillsborough Cty., 189 So.3d 1037, 1040 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016) (quoting Brooke v. Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, 828 So.2d 1078, 1080 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002)).  “Conversion occurs when a person asserts a right of dominion over chattel which is inconsistent with the right of the owner and deprives the owner of the right of possession.” Estate of Villanueva ex rel. Villanueva v. Youngblood, 927 So.2d 955, 959 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (quoting Ming v. Interamerican Car Rental, Inc., 913 So.2d 650, 654 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005)); see also Edwards v. Landsman, 51 So.3d 1208, 1213 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) (“Conversion is an ‘act of dominion wrongfully asserted over another’s property inconsistent with his ownership therein.’” (quoting Warshall v. Price, 629 So.2d 903, 904 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993)). In other words, “to state a claim for conversion, one must allege facts sufficient to show ownership of the subject property and facts that the other party wrongfully asserted dominion over that property.” Edwards, 51 So.3d at 1213. For instance, a conversion of property may occur when “a person with a right to possess property demands its return, and the demand is not or cannot be met.” Day v. Amini, 550 So.2d 169, 171 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989); see also Ernie Passeos, 855 So.2d at 108–09 (“The ‘essence of conversion’ is the possession of property ‘in conjunction with a present intent on the part of the wrongdoer to deprive the person entitled to possession of the property, which [intent] may be, but is not always, shown by demand and refusal.’” (quoting Senfeld v. Bank of Nova Scotia Tr. Co. (Cayman) Ltd., 450 So.2d 1157, 1161 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984))); Mayo v. Allen, 973 So.2d 1257, 1259 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008); Bookworld Trade, Inc. v. Daughters of St. Paul, Inc., 532 F.Supp.2d 1350, 1363 (M.D. Fla. 2007) (applying Florida law).”

The court here accepted all allegations as true and draws reasonable inferences in favor of Mr. Spradley, thereby finding that Mr. Spradley alleged a valid cause of auction for the tort of conversion against his brothers. Mr. Spradley successfully proved he had had possessory rights and ownership to the legal documents. Mr. Spradley’s allegations that his brothers converted the legal documents by failing to return them are facially sufficient to state a valid cause of action for conversion, and surpass the minimum requirements to plead this cause of action. Therefore, the Trial Court erred in dismissing Mr. Spradley’ s complaint against his brothers.

Furthermore, in Mr. Spradley’ s attempt to sue his mother’s estate, the appellate court found that the trial court erred in failing to grant Mr. Spradley leave to amend his complaint to substitute the proper party.

Although there is no Florida case directly analogous to the case at bar, it is well-settled that “an ‘Estate’ is not an entity that can be a party to litigation. It is the personal representative of the estate, in a representative capacity, that is the proper party.”  Ganske v. Spence, 129 S.W.3d 701, 704 n.1 (Tex. App. 2004) (citations omitted); see also § 733.608, Fla. Stat. (2016) (describing the general power of the personal representative); Reopelle v. Reopelle, 587 So.2d 508, 512 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991)

Despite Mr. Spradley failing to sue the proper party, he additionally failed to allege that the estate had been opened and a personal representative had been appointed. 

Notwithstanding these failures, the trial court should have granted Mr. Spradley leave to amend his complain before dismissing his action. Citing to Reed v. Mims, 711 So.2d 169, 172 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998), which states “where it appears that a pleading’s deficiencies can be cured by an amendment, a reasonable opportunity for amendment should be allowed.” In conclusion, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order dismissing Mr. Spradley’ s complain and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

NOTICE: THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION IN THE PERMANENT LAW REPORTS. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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