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Alabama Probate Court Has No Jurisdiction To Alter Circuit Court Judgment

In the March 2020 opinion of Ex parte Huntingdon College, the Alabama Supreme Court directed an Alabama probate court to vacate an order that nullified a circuit court judgment on the basis that the probate court lacked jurisdiction.

The Facts Of Ex Parte Huntingdon College

Huntingdon College is a beneficiary of the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation (“Foundation”) established by Walter Bellingrath.

Bellingrath contributed to the Foundation from inception and through his will and codicil.   The contributions included property, including Bellingrath Gardens (the “Gardens”) and Coca-Cola stock.  The beneficiaries included three private Christian colleges, including Huntingdon.

Alabama Circuit Court Enters A Final Judgment

The Foundation’s trustees and beneficiaries historically disagreed about whether the Trust contemplated the subsidy of the Gardens by the Foundation.  In 1981 a settlement agreement (“Agreement”) was executed which outlined a framework for managing the Foundation and operating the Gardens.  The Agreement was amended in 2003 to address, in part, some of the funding issues.  The Mobile Circuit Court entered a final judgment approving the 2003 Amendment.

Alabama Probate Court Enters An Order Effectively Nullifying the Circuit Court Judgment

In August 2017, the trustees filed a petition in the Mobile Probate Court.  The trustees asked the probate court for emergency and declaratory relief, asserting that their ability to maintain the Gardens was impaired by the funding restraints in the Agreement and 2003 Amendment.  The trustees requested that the Mobile probate court issue emergency instructions as to how the existing funding agreement should be revised.

The beneficiaries moved to dismiss the trustees’ action in the probate court.  The beneficiaries argued that the trustees’ action was a collateral attack on the judgment approving the 2003 Amendment and that a collateral attack could only be brought in the court in which the prior judgment rendered (in this case, the Mobile Circuit Court).

The Mobile Probate Court entered an order concluding it had jurisdiction of the trustees’ action and purporting to render a decision in favor of the trustees.   The Mobile Probate Court essentially declared that the trustees were no longer bound by the 2003 Amendment capping the funding of the Gardens, effectively rendering the 2003 final judgment entered by the Mobile Circuit Court void.

Huntingdon petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Mobile Probate court to vacate its order denying Huntingdon’s motion to dismiss an action filed by the Foundation’s trustees, and to enter an order dismissing the action for lack of jurisdiction.  The Alabama Supreme Court granted the petition and issued the writ.

Does An Alabama Probate Court Have Jurisdiction to Alter A Final Judgment of A Circuit Court?

No, because the petition in the probate court was really an impermissible collateral attack of the Alabama circuit court’s judgment.  The Alabama Supreme Court stated:

Although the trustees maintain that their petition for emergency instructions filed in the probate court seeks a declaration as to the purposes of the Foundation and the trustees’ proper responsibilities relating to those purposes, there can be no rational dispute that the trustees’ ultimate goal in filing their petition was to attack the 2003 Amendment and the final judgment of the Mobile Circuit Court approving the 2003 Amendment–in an attempt to substantially alter the agreed-upon and accepted limitation on funds available for the Gardens. As indicated, the trustees expressly asserted in their petition that their ability to financially support the Gardens had been substantially impaired by the restraints of the 1981 Agreement and the 2003 Amendment, and they requested, among other things, emergency instructions as to how the “existing funding agreement should be revised.” There is no question that their request was a collateral attack on the judgment approving the 2003 Amendment.

What Is An Impermissible Collateral Attack On A Judgment Under Alabama Law?

An impermissible collateral attack on a judgment under Alabama law has been summarized as follows:

“It is well settled in Alabama that the judgment of a court that has jurisdiction of the subject matter and the parties and possesses the power to render the particular judgment is immune from collateral attack.” Greene v. Thompson, 554 So.2d 376, 380 (Ala. 1989)  [**5]  (citations omitted). “[A] collateral attack on a judgment is an attack made by or in an action or proceeding that has an independent purpose other than impeaching or overturning the judgment.” Black’s Law Dictionary 237 (5th ed. 1979).

Here, because the trustees were seeking to alter the circuit court’s judgment, they were required to file a motion for relief from that judgment in the circuit court pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure.

Rather than filing a Rule 60(b) motion for relief from the judgment in the circuit court, the trustees initiated an entirely new proceeding in the probate court seeking review of the entirety of the Foundation, its operations, and its distributions, as if the previously negotiated 1981 Agreement and 2003 Amendment were of no effect.  This action was procedurally improper as a matter of law, and the Alabama probate court had no jurisdiction to alter the judgment of the Alabama circuit court.