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Ibru v. Ibru

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 27, 2018

PETER IBRU
v.
JANET IBRU

          Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAL16-24141

          Graeff, Kehoe, Leahy, JJ.

          OPINION

          Leahy, J.

         Chief Michael Christopher Ibru[1] ("Chief Ibru")-a prominent and very wealthy Nigerian business magnate-traveled to the United States from Nigeria for a medical procedure related to his Parkinson's Disease. Shortly after the procedure, in 2008, Chief Ibru began living in Maryland with one of his daughters, Ms. Janet Osiorebruvbiho Ibru ("Janet" or "Appellee").[2] Chief Ibru purportedly executed a durable power of attorney in which he appointed Janet as his attorney-in-fact, and then roughly a year later, in 2010, he entered into a general power of attorney, again appointing Janet as his attorney-in-fact (collectively, the "Powers of Attorney"). In 2016, Mr. Peter Ibru, one of Chief Ibru's sons ("Peter" or "Appellant"), filed suit in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County to enjoin Janet from exercising her rights under the Powers of Attorney. He claimed that the Powers of Attorney were invalid because Chief Ibru was incompetent when he signed them, and, that Janet had fraudulently used them to gain access to his assets. While the case was pending, the court entered an order naming Janet as the temporary guardian of Chief Ibru so that she could continue to assist Chief Ibru with his medical needs.

         Chief Ibru passed away intestate on September 6, 2016. Peter amended his complaint, requesting that, in addition to declaring the Powers of Attorney invalid, the court establish a constructive trust for Chief Ibru's remaining assets in Maryland and order an accounting of Chief Ibru's assets for the entire time Janet acted as his attorney-in-fact. In response, Janet filed a motion to dismiss and requested attorney's fees. Janet averred that an estate case had been opened in Nigeria where the vast majority of Chief Ibru's assets and family reside and insisted that a Nigerian court would be best suited to handle the issues relating to Chief Ibru's property in Maryland. Six days later-before Peter responded to the motion-the trial judge granted Janet's motion to dismiss at a motions hearing. The court decided that "standing issues" precluded the court from considering Peter's petition for relief because the matter was actually an estate case. The court then awarded Janet $4, 500 in attorney's fees. Peter appealed.

         The central question in this appeal is the justiciability of Peter's claims in the circuit court.[3] We must determine whether the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction to consider Peter's petition and render a declaratory judgment, [4] and whether Peter had standing to bring the action below. Additionally, we consider whether the circuit court erred in awarding Janet attorney's fees.

         We hold that the circuit court mistakenly determined the underlying action was an estate case and that it was precluded from exercising jurisdiction over the case. Next, we hold that Peter, as a descendant of Chief Ibru, had standing to petition the court to construe the validity of the Powers of Attorney and review Janet's actions as an agent under Maryland Code (1974, 2017 Repl. Vol.), Estates and Trusts Article ("ET"), § 17-103(a). Accordingly, we also resolve that the circuit court abused its discretion when it awarded attorneys' fees against Peter in favor of Janet without any findings or calculations.

         BACKGROUND

         In late 2008, Chief Ibru traveled from Nigeria to the United States for medical treatment for Advanced Parkinson's Disease and related disorders. Roughly three weeks after arriving, Chief Ibru began living with Janet, one of his children, in Prince George's County. He remained in her care until his death.

         On February 17, 2009, Chief Ibru purportedly executed[5] a durable power of attorney (the "Durable POA"), naming Janet as his attorney-in-fact. The Durable POA gave Janet several powers incident to her role as Chief Ibru's caregiver, including:

1.1 Bank Accounts
To deposit in my name for my account in any banking or similar financial institution, all monies, bills of exchange, drafts, checks, promissory notes, and other securities for money payable or belonging to me, and for that purpose to endorse the same for deposit or collection, and to withdraw sums deposited with such financial institution[.]
1.3 Sign Checks
To draw and sign on my behalf any check, draft, note or other negotiable or non-negotiable commercial instrument which I might lawfully sign in person, whether as maker, drawer or endorser[.]
1.6 Purchase
To purchase such goods and items as my agent deems appropriate for my welfare and benefit and to accept and take possession of any property or interest or estate on my behalf.
1.7 Medical Treatment
To consent on my behalf to medical examinations and medical or other professional care, treatment or advice. My agent shall not be personally liable for consenting to medical care which results in injury to me resulting from negligence or acts and/or omissions of third persons unless my agent fails to act in good faith with respect to approving such treatment. . . . I hereby authorize my agent to obtain my individually identifiable health information and/or medical records, or consent to the use of my individually identifiable health information and/or medical records, for the purpose of obtaining medical care and treatment.
1.23 General Authority
To do all such other acts and things in relation to all or any part of any interest in my property, estate, affairs or business of any kind or description as I might or could do if acting personally.

         Roughly a year and a half later, on July 21, 2010, Chief Ibru purportedly executed[6]a general power of attorney (the "General POA"), again appointing Janet as his attorney-in-fact. The General POA allowed Janet "[t]o do anything [Chief Ibru] could do [him]self with regards [sic] to bank accounts, accounts at savings and loan institutions, credit unions and any other institution, including opening, modifying and closing such accounts and signing and endorsing checks or drafts of any kind." It also empowered Janet "[t]o make decisions [] and to authorize medical treatment" on Chief Ibru's behalf, which included

accepting treatment in an emergency event or in the ordinary event, to agree to medical procedures which are suggested by [Chief Ibru's] physician or any treating physician, to determine whether a treatment is necessary or desirable, to consent to an operation, to decline treatment on [Chief Ibru's] behalf, and to make any other medical decision that [Chief Ibru] could make [him]self.

         For nearly six years, Janet assumed the role of primary caretaker for Chief Ibru. During this time, his physical and mental health further deteriorated, [7] and by April 2016, he required rigorous medical treatment and constant monitoring.

         On May 26, 2016, Peter filed a complaint in the circuit court which sought, among other things, to declare the Powers of Attorney null and void, alleging they were "fraudulent and unenforceable, as a matter of law, because [Chief] Ibru did not execute such document[s]." In addition, Peter entreated the court to infer that because Chief Ibru was unable to "even sign such [] important document[s]" due to "severe adverse health" issues, they were "in fact a product of fraud and or duress."

         The next day, on May 27, 2016, the circuit court granted a temporary restraining order ("TRO") and enjoined Janet "from exercising any right or authority purportedly granted to her" under the Powers of Attorney. The court set in a hearing on the TRO for July 22, 2016. In response, Janet filed an emergency motion to rescind the injunction and request for a hearing, alleging that Chief Ibru was mentally competent when he "signed" the Powers of Attorney, and implored the court to "rescind[] the injunction until the hearing . . . to preserve [Chief] Ibru's health and life." The court deferred ruling on Janet's motion until the July 22, 2016 hearing.

         At the hearing on July 22, 2016, the court decided to appoint Janet as temporary guardian of Chief Ibru, noting that Chief Ibru had been living in Janet's home for "about eight years[, ]" and saw "no good reason to upset that right now." The court explained:

It is my proposal, if everyone is agreed, we will appoint a temporary guardian so all of his property goes under court supervision, the guardianship of the person as well, to manage his affairs.
We agree that the two of you will give me a list of three names of physicians, that I can pick one off the list to go visit with him, and to make sure that the powers of attorney would end today unless we find that he is competent, in which case he is free to reinstate the powers of attorney or do anything that anyone of us can do in polite society. That is the best way to handle it.
In the event he is not able to manage his affairs we will have to appoint a permanent guardian. . . .
There will have to be an accounting of the property. Any moneys spent on his behalf will have to be accounted for to the court.

         On August 1, 2016, the court signed an order appointing Janet as "temporary guardian of the person and properties" of Chief Ibru. The order stated its purpose was to "preserve the status quo of all normal business operations and all assets belonging to [Chief] Ibru, pending a full evidentiary hearing before this Court[.]" (Emphasis in original court order). The court also ordered Janet to provide an accounting "as is normally and customarily required of all the properties and expenditures of [Chief] Ibru[, ]"[8] and temporarily suspended "all powers of attorney [signed] by [Chief] Ibru[.]"

         On September 6, 2016, Chief Ibru passed away intestate. Pursuant to Maryland Rule 10-707(a), Janet completed an inventory of the fiduciary estate signed September 28, 2016, which the court docketed on October 11, 2016. In it, Janet listed $151, 925.36 in "cash and cash equivalents" and in the next section, the information report, she noted that $151, 199.85 was held in jointly titled accounts (the "Joint Accounts") bearing her and Chief Ibru's names. She disclosed that Chief Ibru owned one checking account in his own name containing $725.51. Janet also completed a "fiduciary's account" report pursuant to Maryland Rule 10-708(a) and disclosed that she had disbursed $94, 782.83 while serving as the temporary guardian of Chief Ibru. According to the fiduciary's account, these disbursements included $37, 155.50 in dayshift nursing and $51, 481.48 in night-time nursing care and doctor's visits. Additionally, Janet completed an "annual report of guardian of disabled person" pursuant to Maryland Rule 10-206(e), in which she petitioned the court to extend her temporary powers of guardianship over Chief Ibru's property "to encourage reporting from those persons who have control over" his property.[9]

         On October 14, Peter filed a motion to terminate Janet's temporary guardianship of Chief Ibru as well as any authority purportedly granted to her pursuant to the Powers of Attorney. Peter argued that any power to act as Chief Ibru's temporary guardian expired on the date of Chief Ibru's death and any actions after his death were beyond the scope of the temporary guardianship order. Peter also requested that the court order Janet to provide an accounting. And, on November 1, 2016, he amended his complaint (the "Amended Complaint"), [10] adding a request for an accounting and the establishment of a constructive trust over Chief Ibru's assets that Janet transferred.

         Janet responded to Peter's motion to terminate temporary guardianship, maintaining that he made "no specific allegation[s] that she ha[d] committed any illegal act" and agreed that her temporary guardianship authority had lapsed due to Chief Ibru's death. She also filed a motion to strike the Amended Complaint on November 16, arguing that, among other things, Peter had attempted to assert "almost entirely new claims for relief." She contended that Peter had essentially received all requested relief in the original complaint, as Chief Ibru's death rendered the Powers of Attorney a nullity. Additionally, Janet averred that Peter had "no standing" to compel Janet to produce an accounting of her actions under the Powers of Attorney, citing that because of Chief Ibru's massive "empire worth millions, if not billions of dollars, . . . [s]uch an act would be frivolous, financially burdensome, and an imposition upon Chief Ibru's and [Janet]'s privacy without any justification."

         Then, on February 16, 2017, Janet filed a motion to dismiss, contending that Chief Ibru's death mooted all matters in Peter's original complaint. She denied taking advantage of her father's trust and reiterated that his death extinguished any Powers of Attorney. She averred further that Peter's Amended Complaint was merely an "attempt[] to convert a guardianship matter into an estate matter[.]" Janet insisted that "a Nigerian court would be best suited" to handle the case because an estate case was already open in Nigeria to address Chief Ibru's property; that approximately 99% of his assets were in Nigeria; and that the only asset that Chief Ibru had remaining in Maryland was a bank account with roughly $2, 000 in it. After accusing Peter of launching the litigation as a vehicle "to harass [her] and impugn her good character to place himself in a better position to be the executor of his father's estate in Nigeria[, ]" Janet requested that the court strike the Amended Complaint, dismiss the case, and order Peter to pay her attorney's fees.

         On February 22-six days after Janet filed her motion to dismiss-the parties appeared in circuit court to address "all pending motions." Peter had not yet filed an opposition to the motion, nevertheless, the Court began by addressing Janet's motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint "just in case[.]" Janet's counsel argued, in relevant portion, that Peter did not have standing and that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to consider the case because an estate proceeding was opened in Nigeria and "this is not an estate proceeding." Peter's counsel responded that "we agree on one point. This is not an estate matter." Counsel argued that dismissal was not warranted, as Janet had disclosed that only $2, 000 remained of Chief Ibru's money, yet in her inventory in the guardianship she listed approximately $149, 000 in joint checking accounts, which she became owner of upon Chief Ibru's death. Janet's counsel responded that Peter could have objected to Janet's appointment as Chief Ibru's temporary guardian, but he did not.

         The court made the following ruling orally:

I hate to go out on a limb and dismiss this case, but I am. I think there are standing issues. In reciting some of the history, [Chief] Ibru had resided in Lanham, Maryland with his daughter for a fairly long period of time. Apparently, [Chief] Ibru is worth about $2 billion in Nigeria, most of the assets being there. And as I understand it, there's now an estate case pending there. I think this is an estate case. I don't think it's a declaratory judgment case. You can call it that, but it's really not and I'm not sure the standing to even bring it by one of the other brothers of [Chief] Ibru's daughter. Or in any event, it's a large - obviously large family in any event. I think it appropriate and the right thing to do to order this case dismissed. Thank you all very much.

         Shortly thereafter, the circuit court issued an order embodying its decision to grant Janet's motion. The court also awarded Janet $4, 500.00 in attorney's fees.

         On March 20, 2017, Peter noted his timely appeal to this Court.

         DISCUSSION

...


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