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Delaware Federal Court Examines Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17 Requirements Regarding the Executor of an Estate
Jennifer Thomas, Executor of the Estate of James Green v. New Castle County Police Department and Mary Malin
In Jennifer Thomas, Executor of the Estate of James Green v. New Castle County Police Department and Mary Malin, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that Plaintiff was not considered an executor under Delaware law and, therefore, she did not possess the requisite "injury in fact" in order to bring a claim on behalf of her deceased fiancé, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17. Thus, the Honorable Sue L. Robinson granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss.
By way of factual background, on August 6, 2014, Plaintiff Jennifer Thomas (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint alleging constitutional violations under federal law and the wrongful death of her fiancé and father of her children, James Green ("Green"), under state law. Plaintiff proceeded pro se and had been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants, New Castle County Police Department ("NCCPD") and Officer Mary Malin ("Malin") (collectively, "Defendants"), failed to employ proper procedures during a traffic stop on August 9, 2012. Plaintiff further alleged that, during this traffic stop, Malin shot Green in the back of the head. Green died the following day. On February 25, 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint stating that Plaintiff was the executor of Green's estate. Subsequently, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), arguing that Plaintiff did not have standing to bring these claims in the capacity as the executor of Green's estate.
The Court began its analysis by noting that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) permits a party to raise the defense of lack of subject matter jurisdiction by filing a motion, and that a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction if a party does not have standing. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1); Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992) (the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision describing standing as an "essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III"). The Court explained that "the party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing the elements of standing,” and that, under Lujan, standing requires three (3) elements: “an injury in fact, a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, and redressability.” See id. at 561-62.
Further, the Court noted that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17 states that "an action must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(a)(1). The Court explained that Rule 17(a)(1) lists parties who may "sue in their own names without joining the person for whose benefit the action is brought," and that under Rule 17(a)(1)(A), "the executor or administrator of an estate may sue in his or her own name as the real party in interest." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(a)(1)(A).
Additionally, the Court noted that Section 1501 of Title 12 of the Delaware Code states that "[n]o one shall act as the executor or administrator of a domiciliary decedent's estate within this State without letters testamentary or of administration being granted in accordance with this title." See 12 Del. C. § 1501. The Court explained that the Delaware Code, therefore, requires that, to act as an executor or administrator of an estate in Delaware, one must possess the relevant documents attesting to his/her status as an executor or administrator. Id.
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court noted that whether Plaintiff had an "injury in fact" that would establish standing turned on whether she was the executor of Green's estate. The Court explained that the affidavit of the custodian of records accompanying Defendants' motion to dismiss stated that "no estate for James L. Green ... has ever been opened in the Register of Wills” and that "neither Letters of Testamentary nor Letters of Administration have ever been granted to Jennifer Thomas by the Register of Wills for the estate of James L. Green." Thus, the Court found that the affidavit demonstrated that Plaintiff lacked the proper documentation to be considered the executor of Green's estate under Delaware law.
According to the Court, without this documentation, Plaintiff was not considered an executor under 12 Del. C. § 1501 and, therefore, she did not possess the requisite "injury in fact" in order to bring a claim on behalf of James Green pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17.
For the above reasons, the Court concluded that Plaintiff had not demonstrated that she had standing to bring the asserted claims against Defendants. Accordingly, the Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss.
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