Woodward v. Woodward

Woodward v. Woodward, 192 So.3d 528 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016)

This decision deals with whether res judicata and laches barred a beneficiary's claim against a trustee.  The Court held that neither applied, since the beneficiary's two claims against the trustee did not contain identity of the causes of action, and because the beneficiary did not know about the trustee's actions until he was served with an accounting.

In 1996, the beneficiary of the Trust at issue filed suit against the trustee for breach of fiduciary duty, alleging that the trustee failed to account, improperly mortgaged real property and improperly paid expenses of the trust.  During the pendency of the action, the trustee transferred the Trust's assets to two new trusts and terminated the Trust at issue.  The trial court eventually dismissed this complaint.

In 2011, the trustee served an accounting for the Trust, and the two new trusts, on the beneficiary.  The accounting showed the termination of the Trust and the distribution to the two new trusts.  The beneficiary filed a new suit within 6 months of receipt of the accounting.  In this complaint, he sought removal of the trustee, an accounting, restoration of the assets, and other relief.  

The trial court held that the second lawsuit was barred by res judicata and laches.  The Court disagreed.  It held that the second lawsuit was not barred by res judicata, since res judicata requires that the original claim and the subsequent claim have identity of the causes of action.  Identity of the cause of action depends on whether the facts or evidence necessary to maintain the suit are the same in both actions.  Because the facts and events giving rise to the 1996 suit were different than those giving rise to the later suit, the Court held that res judicata does not apply.

The Court also found that laches did not bar the second action.  It held that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the beneficiary received the trust accounting, even though the Trustee argued that the beneficiary knew that he had terminated the trust more than four years (the statute of limitations period) before he filed his second action.

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