Robert P. Dougherty III's case note discusses the Supreme Court's ruling in Marshall v. Marshall that Vickie Lynn Marshall (better known as Anna Nicole Smith) was entitled to bring her claim against her stepson for tortious interference with her inheritance from her deceased husband in federal court, despite the fact that the Probate Court of Harris County, Texas, had jurisdiction over the administration of her husband's estate.
Shortly after her husband's death, Anna Nicole filed for bankruptcy in California and her stepson, Pierce Marshall, filed a proof of claim with the Bankruptcy Court asserting that Anna Nicole had defamed him. Anna Nicole counterclaimed and alleged that Pierce had tortiously interfered with a gift that she had expected to receive from her husband.
The Bankruptcy Court ruled in favor of Anna Nicole. Pierce appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, contending that the “probate exception” to federal diversity jurisdiction gave the Texas probate court exclusive subject matter jurisdiction to rule on Anna Nicole's tort claim. The Ninth Circuit agreed with Pierce and the case moved to the Supreme Court on a writ of certiorari.
The Supreme Court confirmed the existence of a “probate exception” that prohibits federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over the decedent's property under administration in a state court and from interfering with the probate proceedings. The high court disagreed, however, with the Ninth Circuit's broad application of that exception to Anna Nicole's tortious interference claim. The court ruled that her claim did not affect her deceased husband's property but instead was a claim affecting Pierce's property. Further, Anna Nicole's success with respect to the tort claim would not interfere with the probate proceedings in her husband's estate.
This note will be interesting to those specializing in probate litigation. But because it focuses more on procedural issues than substantive fiduciary issues, it's unlikely to appeal to a wide audience.
Reviewer: BARBARA B. FERGUSON is a partner in the Dallas office of the law firm Thompson & Knight LLP. She's also a member of Trusts & Estates' advisory committee on fiduciary professions