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Heffington v. Puleo

United States District Court, D. Kansas

February 2, 2018




         This case involves a dispute over the proper handling of the estate of Nyla June Heffington (“Nyla June”), Plaintiff Guy Heffington's grandmother. Heffington alleges that the attorney and law firm that prepared his grandparent's will and trust documents, along with the trustee of his grandmother's trust, conspired to convert his grandmother's assets for their own use and to deprive Heffington and his brother of their inheritance. Construed liberally, his Amended Complaint purports to advance constitutional, breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, negligence, and fraud claims.

         Five motions are currently before the Court. Collectively, the Defendants have filed three motions to dismiss, Heffington has filed a motion to strike or stay the deadline for his response to Defendant Puleo's motions to dismiss, and Heffington has filed a motion to appoint counsel. The Court grants the Defendants' motions to dismiss (Docs. 14 & 16) for lack of personal jurisdiction, and denies the remaining motions as moot (Docs. 6, 10, & 24).[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

         Nyla June and her husband, Charles Heffington, lived in West Islip, New York from approximately 1952 until 1976. After Charles retired in 1976, the couple moved to Florida. While in Florida, Nyla June and Charles retained Frederick G. Sundheim, Jr., a resident of the state of Florida and a partner at the Florida law firm Oughterson, Sundheim & Associates, P.A., to perform estate planning services. In 2003, Sundheim prepared a will and a trust for Nyla June and Charles. Sundheim made periodic revisions to these documents through 2015.

         Nyla June had one child, Mark Heffington, and two grandchildren, Plaintiff and his brother, Grant. At all relevant times, Nyla June's son and grandchildren resided in Kansas. The Joint Declaration of Trust executed in 2003 named Mark Heffington as successor trustee. Mark Heffington unexpectedly passed away in 2006. Approximately five years later, in 2011, Charles Heffington passed away. In 2012, Nyla June moved back to New York to live with her life-long best friend, Helen Puleo, and Helen's daughter, Pamela Puleo (“Puleo”), at Helen's house on Ryan Street.

         2012 Amendment to Joint Declaration of Trust

         The first contested revision to Nyla June's estate plan occurred on March 1, 2012, prior to Nyla June's move to New York. Nyla June and Puleo met with Sundheim to revise Nyla June's trust. Heffington asserts that although Nyla June had always intended to leave everything to her grandsons, Puleo had somehow convinced Nyla June to leave her Florida condo to Puleo. After this revision, Puleo moved Nyla June to New York to live with her ailing mother, Helen.

         Around this time, Nyla June contacted Heffington's mother, Joan Farr, to inform Farr that Nyla June was moving to New York with the help of Puleo. This concerned Farr and she tried to contact Sundheim and his law firm by phone and e-mail to determine whether Nyla June had changed her estate plan. The law firm initially ignored her calls, but eventually called Farr and informed her that the firm could not provide any details about Nyla June's visit, but that Nyla June seemed to be in her right mind. Aside from returning Farr's phone call, no Defendant had any contacts with Farr, Heffington, or Kansas until late 2016 when Puleo mailed some of Nyla June's belongings to Heffington.

         2015 Amendment to Joint Declaration of Trust

         The second contested revision to Nyla June's estate plan occurred in early 2015. Heffington alleges that on February 9, 2015, Nyla June revised her trust to name Puleo as trustee. He attaches Exhibit B, the Fourth Amendment to Joint Declaration of Trust, as evidence. Exhibit B shows a revision to the provision titled “Trustee Succession.” Exhibit B states that Nyla June “is now the sole trustee of the Joint Declaration of Trust, ” and states that “[i]f at any time both settlors shall die, resign, or be unable to manage their affairs, PAMELA PULEO shall become successor trustee . . . .” Heffington does not identify any contacts with Kansas or with residents of Kansas in relation to this revision.

         Additional events underlying Heffington's claims in this action

         Nyla June continued to live with Helen until she moved into an assisted living facility sometime in late 2016 or early 2017. On approximately April 9, 2017, Puleo called Heffington and informed him that Nyla June was in the hospital and was not doing well. Puleo sent Heffington a check for $1, 900 to cover airfare for him, his brother, and his mother to visit Nyla June. Puleo later stated that having that many people would be too much stress for Nyla June and that they should not come.

         Heffington's mother spoke with Sundheim on Heffington's behalf on approximately April 13, 2017. Sundheim allegedly stated that Puleo had been appointed as trustee and, in reference to Nyla June's estate, said that if Puleo “spends the money down, there is nothing you can do.” Sundheim also stated that Heffington and his brother had no right to see bank statements for Nyla June going back three years.

         Heffington, his brother, and his mother had a conference call with Sundheim on April 20, 2017, wherein they learned that Nyla June had given her Florida condo to Puleo and that it had been sold. They also learned that in September of 2016, purportedly acting on behalf of Nyla June, Puleo purchased her mother's house on Ryan Street with $437, 000 of Nyla June's money. Heffington's mother later learned that Puleo had transferred the deed to the Ryan Street house from Nyla June to herself on April 21, 2017. During the conference call with Sundheim, Puleo sent a text message to Heffington asking why he did not believe her. Farr subsequently called Puleo and told her to only contact Heffington by e-mail.

         Heffington and his brother flew to New York on April 21, 2017, to visit Nyla June. Puleo paid for the brothers' hotel room, purchased them jackets, and purchased their meals during their stay-purportedly in an effort to be-friend them and make them believe she would distribute their inheritance money properly as trustee. On April 24, 2017, Nyla June passed away in Suffolk County, New York.

         Administration of Nyla June's estate

         On May 2, 2017, an employee of Oughterson, Sundheim & Associates sent a copy of Nyla June's will and trust via e-mail to Heffington's brother-neither grandson had previously seen these documents. Heffington's review of the trust showed that Sundheim put all of Nyla June's assets in the trust so that Puleo could control the assets as trustee in New York. Puleo did not understand the legalities of serving as trustee, and Sundheim and his law firm purportedly directed Puleo's actions as trustee.

         Farr sent Puleo copies of outstanding bills Heffington's brother owed, and Puleo sent each brother a check for $8, 000. Farr e-mailed Sundheim and requested a copy of the inventory accounting for Nyla June's estates at the time of her death, and although Sundheim said they were working on an accounting, he did not send one. Heffington's brother was told that Puleo and Sundheim were waiting for the house to sell before providing a final accounting of the assets in Nyla June's estate.

         Heffington alleges that Puleo breached her fiduciary duty by purchasing Puleo's family home, fraudulently deeding it to herself on April 21, 2017, and trying to sell the home to pocket the proceeds. He asserts breach of fiduciary duty claims against all Defendants alleging that they conspired together to illegally convert the assets in Nyla June's estate for their own benefit and use by paying themselves excessive administrative and legal fees, failed to provide annual accountings, failed to provide a final accounting at the time of Nyla June's death, failed to timely file Nyla June's will and trust with the New York court, converted property for their own use and benefit, wasted Heffington's inheritance money prior to Nyla June's passing, failed to act ethically in the beneficiaries' best interests, acted negligently as trustee and executor, and violated his due process and equal protection rights.

         Heffington does not allege that Nyla June ever lived in Kansas, or owned any property or assets located in Kansas. Rather, Nyla June's only connection to Kansas is that her only child and grandchildren lived in Kansas, and until her son's death in 2006, she visited Kansas every year. After her son's death, however, she ceased visiting or communicating with Heffington, his brother, and his mother. Heffington currently resides in Derby, Kansas, and has lived in Kansas for all times relevant to this lawsuit.

         Heffington does not allege that Puleo or Sundheim have ever set foot in Kansas, or had any contact with Kansas aside from sporadic mail, phone, and e-mail communications. He asserts that Puleo resides in New York and Sundheim resides in Florida. Likewise, Heffington does not allege that Oughterson, Sundheim & Associates does business in Kansas, or otherwise has any contacts with Kansas beyond what has been described above. He asserts that the law firm has its primary offices in Florida.

         II. Legal Standard

         A plaintiff opposing a motion to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction bears the burden of showing that jurisdiction over the defendant is appropriate.[3] In a pretrial motion to dismiss, when the matter is decided on the basis of affidavits and written materials, the plaintiff is only required to make a prima facie showing that personal jurisdiction is proper to avoid dismissal.[4] Once the plaintiff makes a prima facie showing, the defendant must “present a compelling case demonstrating ‘that the presence of some other considerations would render jurisdiction unreasonable.' ”[5]

         “The allegations in the complaint must be taken as true to the extent they are uncontroverted by the defendant's affidavits.”[6] “However, only the well pled facts of plaintiff's complaint, as distinguished from mere conclusory allegations, must be accepted as true.”[7] “The plaintiff has the duty to support jurisdictional allegations in a complaint by competent proof of the supporting facts if the jurisdictional allegations are challenged by an appropriate pleading.”[8]

         III. Analysis

         A. The Court lacks Personal Jurisdiction over the Defendants

         “Where a federal lawsuit is based on diversity of citizenship, the court's jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant is determined by the law of the forum state.”[9] The party seeking to establish personal jurisdiction over a diverse litigant must make two showings: (1) that jurisdiction is legitimate under the state's long-arm statute, and (2) that jurisdiction does not offend the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[10] The Kansas Supreme Court has interpreted Kansas' long-arm statute to extend jurisdiction to the fullest extent allowed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[11] Thus, in this case, the Court need not conduct a statutory analysis apart from the due process analysis.[12]

         “The Due Process Clause protects an individual's liberty interest in not being subject to the binding judgments of a forum with which he has established no meaningful ‘contacts, ties, or relations.' ”[13] “Due process requires both that the defendant ‘purposefully established minimum contacts with the forum State' and that the ‘assertion of personal jurisdiction would comport with fair play and substantial justice.' ”[14] “[A]n out-of-state defendant's contacts with the forum state may give rise to either general (all-purpose) jurisdiction or specific (case-linked) jurisdiction.”[15]

         1. ...

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