The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in In re the Matter of the Estate of Dean C. Krieger, reversing summary judgment dismissal of a will contest. The appellate court found that the opposing party presented evidence of the movant’s delays in authorizing the production of requested medical records, which resulted in the opposing party having insufficient information to respond to the motion for summary judgment. While not precedential outside of Indiana, the Court of Appeals’ opinion is consistent with how state and federal courts across the country deal with similar situations where a party moves for summary judgment when the opposing party has not yet received the critical information it needs to support its claims.
The circumstances of this case will be familiar to many probate litigators. In 2002 Dean Krieger executed a durable power of attorney instrument naming his daughter, Nancy Wigent, and her husband as his attorneys-in-fact to act on his behalf in “all possible matters and affairs affecting [his] property.” One month later, Krieger signed a self-proved will that bequeathed the vast majority of his estate to Wigent (and if she predeceased Krieger, to Wigent’s children). The will bequeathed only $2,000 to Krieger’s other daughter, Roberta Stellar, and nothing was provided for Stellar’s children. The will designated Wigent as Krieger’s personal representative.
Approximately 10 years later, Krieger was admitted to a long-term care facility due to advancing Alzheimer’s disease. He died in February 2015.
Shortly after Krieger’s death, Wigent filed a petition to probate her father’s will. Stellar filed a complaint to contest the will, which she alleged was the product of undue influence by Wigent. In connection with the will contest, Stellar sought discovery of Krieger’s medical records from 2002 until his death, which Wigent refused to provide. Stellar filed a motion to compel the requested medical records in July 2015.
The case suffered from numerous delays, but in September 2017, Stellar’s son, Jerry Finton, was substituted as a party after Stellar’s death, at which point he renewed the motions previously made by his mother. In August 2019, the trial court held a hearing and ordered Wigent to provide “subpoenas for medical records relating to Dean C. Krieger’s initial diagnosis of dementia,” and set a tight timeline for the parties to complete discovery and depositions. In October 2019, Wigent provided the requested releases, but only relating to “treatment provided prior to January 16, 2003, the date of the execution of decedent’s Will.”
In November 2019, Finton filed a motion to show cause why Wigent’s medical releases had failed to adhere to the trial court’s order and requested that the court order sanctions. In her response, Wigent noted that she recently executed new releases without any time limitation.
In January 2020, after Wigent signed the releases but before Finton could obtain all the requested medical records, Wigent filed a motion for summary judgment in which she argued there was no evidence in the record to rebut the presumption that Krieger was competent to execute his will in 2003. The same day, Finton filed a motion pursuant to Indiana Rule of Trial Procedure 56(F) requesting that the court deny the summary judgment motion without prejudice, and that Finton not be required to respond to any such motion until discovery and depositions were completed. In particular, Finton pointed out that he had not yet received all of the requested medical records due to the intervening holidays, the fact that some providers had moved, and because additional time was required to locate older medical records. The court never ruled on Finton’s motion, and Finton was forced to respond substantively to Wigent’s summary judgment motion to preserve his rights.
Finally, the trial court issued an order granting Wigent’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court found that “there [was] no genuine issue of fact which is material to Finton’s claim that the Will was the product of undue influence or that Krieger was of unsound mind at the time that he made the Will.” Finton appealed.
Court of Appeals’ Decision
At the heart of Finton’s appeal was the trial court’s failure to grant his request pursuant to Trial Rule 56(F) to allow Finton additional time to complete discovery, particularly with respect to the medical records he and his mother had been seeking since 2015. Trial Rule 56(F) provides:
Should it appear from the affidavits of a party opposing the motion that he cannot for reasons stated present by affidavit facts essential to justify his opposition, the court may refuse the application for judgment or may order a continuance to permit affidavits to be obtained or depositions to be taken or discovery to be had or may make such other order as is just.
Under Indiana law, the Court of Appeals reviews a trial court’s ruling on a Trial Rule 56(F) motion for abuse of discretion, and the appellant “must show both that good cause existed to grant the motion and that it was prejudiced by the denial of the motion.”
The Court of Appeals agreed with Finton that the trial court abused its discretion when it ruled on Wigent’s summary judgment motion before Finton received the medical records that he and his mother had been seeking since 2015. Specifically, the appellate court held that there was “good cause” to grant Finton’s motion when he had not been able to obtain all the requested medical records within a few weeks of Wigent executing the required releases. Moreover, the Court of Appeals held that Finton had been prejudiced by the trial court’s failure to grant the motion:
Krieger’s medical records were essential to determining when Krieger’s dementia manifested and determining Krieger’s state of mind when he executed the 2003 will. Because discovery was not complete as a result of Wigent’s delay in providing the medical releases, Finton’s ability to designate evidence in response to Wigent’s motion for summary judgment was hindered.
Consistent with its findings, the Court of Appeals ordered that the trial court either deny the application for summary judgment or order a continuance to permit Finton time to complete discovery of the requested medical records.
The Indiana Court of Appeals’ opinion is not an anomaly. Across the country, federal and state procedural rules give trial courts the authority to continue summary judgment proceedings until the nonmovant has an opportunity to complete discovery on the essential elements of the claims.1 This is particularly true where, as here, access to the relevant facts are within the control of the party moving for summary judgment.2
While Wigent had executed the authorizations to allow Finton discovery into his grandfather’s medical records before Wigent filed her motion for summary judgment, the Court of Appeals found that it would have been unreasonable to expect that Finton would have obtained the records in time to respond. While the Court of Appeals decision does not expressly state that Wigent acted in bad faith, the decision should serve as a warning to parties that would attempt to shirk their discovery obligations and then take advantage of an opposing party’s lack of information.
- See, e.g., Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56(d) (“If a nonmovant shows by affidavit or declaration that . . . it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, the court may (1) defer considering the [summary judgment] motion or deny it; (2) allow time to obtain affidavits or declarations or to take discovery; or (3) issue any other appropriate order”); Minn. R. Civ. Pro. 56.04 (same); Pa. R. Civ. Pro. 1035.2 (summary judgment appropriate “whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of action or defense which could be established by additional discovery or expert report”).
- See, e.g., In re PHC, Inc. Shareholder Litig., 762 F.3d 138 (1st Cir. 2014) (noting that a court that fails to grant an appropriately supported motion for continuance “encourage[s] defendants to stonewall during discovery — withholding or covering up key information that is otherwise available to them through the exercise of reasonable diligence.”); Int’l Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chem. Co., 898 F.2d 946 (3d Cir. 1990) (vacating summary judgment in case where discovery was incomplete and nonmovant credibly alleged lack of discovery cooperation by movant); Stanley v. Scott Petroleum Corp., 184 So. 3d. 940 (Miss. 2016) (granting motion for continuance when nonmovant was actively in the process of conducting a property inspection, compiling expert reports and preparing to depose movant when summary judgment motion was filed).