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Estate of Gagnon

Supreme Court of Maine

August 11, 2016

ESTATE OF PAUL GAGNON

          Submitted On Briefs: June 22, 2016

         Androscoggin County Probate Court docket number 2012-499.

          Jason Dionne, Esq., Isaacson & Raymond, P.A., Lewiston, for appellant Estate of Paul Gagnon

          Paul P. Murphy, Esq., and Coleman G. Coyne Jr., Esq., Murphy & Coyne Law Offices, P.A., Lewiston, for cross-appellant Cecile Poulin

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          HUMPHREY, J.

         [¶l] The personal representative of the Estate of Paul Gagnon appeals from a judgment of the Androscoggin County Probate Court [Dubois, J.) in favor of Cecile Poulin following a bench trial on Poulin's claims of, inter alia, breach of fiduciary duty and undue influence against the Estate. Poulin cross-appeals from the court's denial of her motion for attorney fees. We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the Probate Court's finding that Paul Gagnon misappropriated Poulin's funds and was not acting pursuant to the authority granted to him by the power of attorney executed by Poulin. We also conclude that the Probate Court did not abuse its discretion nor err as a matter of law when it denied Poulin's motion for attorney fees. We therefore affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following facts were found by the Probate Court after a bench trial on Cecile Poulin's complaint against the Estate of Paul Gagnon for the unauthorized withdrawal of funds from her bank account, and they are supported by competent evidence in the record. Estate of Fournier, 2009 ME 17, ¶ 6, 966 A.2d 885.

         [¶3] Following her husband's death in 2005, Poulin, then eighty-five or -six, asked her nephew, Paul Gagnon, to assist her with her financial affairs-duties that had previously been performed by her late husband. Gagnon assumed this role and also assisted her in her daily life, such as transporting her to her appointments and running errands for her. Poulin asked Gagnon to withdraw money from her bank account to provide her with living expenses, and he routinely gave her $300 once a month. However, instead of making only the single monthly withdrawal, bank records showed additional ATM withdrawals of $300 one or more times each month from February 2005 until July 2009, [1] when Gagnon was hospitalized with a heart condition.

         [¶4] While Gagnon was in the hospital, from mid-July 2009 to November 2009, he could not complete financial transactions for Poulin. At his request, his wife and daughter provided Poulin with her monthly spending money, and bank records indicated that only three withdrawals of $300 were made during that three-month period. After Gagnon's discharge from the hospital, Poulin's account was changed into a joint account naming both Gagnon and Poulin as holders. Records from the joint account show that, following Gagnon's discharge, the frequency of ATM withdrawals occurring before Gagnon's hospitalization resumed. In June 2011, Poulin signed a durable power of attorney appointing Gagnon as her agent, which included the power of self-gifting. Poulin testified that she did not know what the document was and did not remember signing it.

         [¶5] After Gagnon died in November 2012, Poulin asked Gagnon's nephew, Robert Gagnon, to help with her finances. Robert withdrew the $300 per month she requested, but he had to gradually decrease that amount as her funds diminished. Robert noticed that a substantial number of withdrawals had been made prior to his uncle's death, and he obtained complete banking records for the period from February 3, 2005, to November 21, 2012. These records revealed ATM withdrawals from Poulin's account totaling $91, 620, a sum well in excess of the amount that Poulin actually received during that time. In March 2013, Poulin filed a claim against Gagnon's Estate, alleging unauthorized withdrawal of funds, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and undue influence. Both parties filed motions for attorney fees.

         [¶6] In December 2014, the Androscoggin County Probate Court held an evidentiary hearing. In an order dated March 25, 2015, the court concluded that [1] Gagnon had not violated any duty imposed by the Maine Uniform Power of Attorney Act, see 18-A M.R.S. § 5-914 [2015], because he had not acted pursuant to his grant of that power; [2] Poulin had met her burden of establishing that she had a fiduciary or confidential relationship with Gagnon, resulting in a presumption of undue influence; [3] the Estate failed to sustain its burden of showing that Gagnon acted with "entire fairness" and that the transaction was free of any undue influence affecting Poulin's interest; and [4] Poulin had not received the benefit of the additional ATM withdrawals. In fact, she had not even spent the entire $300 she had received each month.

         [¶7] The court concluded that Gagnon "misapplied Poulin's assets, using them for his own benefit and manifestly violating his fiduciary duty, " and it granted Poulin's claim for damages in the amount of $63, 420. The court denied Poulin's motion for attorney fees because it did "not find any support for [her] request for an award of attorney's fees in the [Probate] Code."

         [¶8] Poulin filed a motion for alteration or amendment of judgment as to the denial of her request for attorney fees, and the Estate filed motions for additional findings of fact and conclusions of law and for reconsideration. In August 2015, the court entered an order denying all of the motions, but this time, based on a different analysis, it addressed the merits of ...


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