CODY B. HEISINGER v. WARD F. CLEARY et al., SC 19633
Judicial District of Hartford
Trusts; Fiduciaries; Whether Court Properly Required Expert Testimony on Standard of Care Applicable to Fiduciary; Whether Communications Between Fiduciary and Attorney Privileged; Whether Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim Requires Evidence of Fraud, Self-Dealing or Conflict of Interest. The plaintiff is the son of Frank Heisinger, the decedent, and a beneficiary of his estate. The defendants Ward Cleary, an attorney, and Ann Heisinger Dillon, the decedent’s sister, are the coexecutors of the decedent’s estate. The plaintiff brought this action claiming that the defendants had breached their duties as fiduciaries and that they had engaged in maladministration of the estate by grossly overvaluing the estate’s most valuable asset, stock in the F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company, causing the estate to incur $2,865,000 in additional taxes. The defendants claimed as a special defense that they lacked expertise in corporate stock valuation and that they had reasonably relied on a report prepared by a company they hired to value the Bartlett stock. During discovery, the plaintiff sought to obtain communications between Cleary and the estate’s attorney, but the trial court ruled that the communications were protected by the attorney-client privilege. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had offered no expert testimony on the issue of whether their reliance on the stock valuation report met the standard of care governing their fiduciary duties. The plaintiff in turn moved for summary judgment as to the defendants’ liability, arguing that the defendants could not prove every element of their special defense. The trial court granted the defendants’ motions and denied the plaintiff’s motion, finding that the standard of care governing whether the defendants reasonably relied on the stock valuation report they paid for was an issue on which the plaintiff was required to produce expert testimony and that the plaintiff’s failure to do so entitled the defendants to judgment as a matter of law. The plaintiff appeals, and the Supreme Court will decide whether the trial court properly rendered judgment for the defendants where the plaintiff claims that the court improperly shifted the burden of proof on the defendants’ reasonable reliance special defense to the plaintiff by requiring him to produce expert testimony on the standard of care. The plaintiff claims that no expert testimony was required because he produced uncontroverted evidence that would compel any reasonable juror to conclude that the defendants had breached their obligations as fiduciaries. Finally, the Supreme Court will decide whether the trial court properly ruled that the attorney-client privilege applied to communications between Cleary and the estate’s attorney where the plaintiff contends that the court should have recognized a “fiduciary exception” to attorney-client privilege for legal advice related to the exercise of fiduciary duties. The defendants claim that the judgment in their favor can be affirmed on the alternative ground that a breach of fiduciary duty claim requires a showing that the fiduciary engaged in fraud, self-dealing or conflict of interest, and the defendants claim that the plaintiff offered no evidence to show that they were guilty of such wrongdoing.