Court Upheld A Release In A Family Settlement Agreement That Protected A Former Trustee’s Estate From Claims

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In Austin Trust Co. v. Houren, beneficiaries of a trust executed a family settlement agreement with the trustee and the former trustee’s estate. No. 14-19-00387-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 1955 (Tex. App.—Houston March 16, 2021, no pet. history). After the settlement agreement was executed, one of the parties sued the former trustee’s estate for over a $37 million debt (or due to over distributions). The estate then filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release in the settlement agreement, which the trial court granted. The court of appeals affirmed, finding that the release’s language was sufficiently broad to cover these claims:

In the FSA, the parties agreed that the releases contained therein generally applied to “any and all liability arising from any and all Claims,” as defined in the FSA, against the other parties or relating to “Covered Activities,” as defined in the FSA. The released claims included, but were not limited to “claims of any form of sole, contributory, concurrent, gross, or other negligence, undue influence, duress, breach of fiduciary duty, or other misconduct by the other parties, the professionals, or their affiliates[.]” The FSA defined “Covered Activities” as (1) “the formation, operation, management, or administration of the Estate, . . . or the Trusts,” (2) “the distribution (including, but not limited to, gifts or loans) (or failure to distribute) of any property or asset of or by the Mayor, the Estate, . . . or the Trusts,” (3) “any actions taken (or not taken) in reliance upon this Agreement or the facts listed in Article I,” (4) “any Claims related to, based upon, or made evident in the Disclosures,” and (5) “any Claims related to, based upon, or made evident in the facts set forth in Article I” of the FSA. We conclude that this language specifically and unambiguously released appellants’ claims asserted in their First Amended Counterclaim.

Id.

The court also held that the fact that the decedent may have owed fiduciary duties did not impact the enforcement of the release:

The fact that the Mayor and Houren may have owed the other parties a fiduciary duty, a question we need not reach, does not change this analysis….

This court held that six factors were key to their decision to affirm the settlement agreement: (1) the terms of the contract were negotiated rather than boilerplate, and the disputed issue was specifically discussed; (2) the complaining party was represented by legal counsel; (3) the negotiations occurred as part of an arms-length transaction; (4) the parties were knowledgeable in business matters; (5) the release language was clear; and (6) the parties were working to achieve a once and for all settlement of all claims so they could permanently part ways. An examination of the record reveals that all of these factors are present here with respect to appellants, the complaining parties. We therefore conclude that even if the Mayor and Houren owed appellants fiduciary duties, appellants released any claims for breach of those duties when they executed the FSA. Id. This decision adheres to the public policy in favor of Texas courts upholding contracts negotiated at arms-length by knowledgeable and sophisticated business players represented by highly competent and able legal counsel.

Id. (citing Harrison v. Harrison Interests, Ltd., 14-15-00348-CV, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 1677, 2017 WL 830504, at *4 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Feb. 28, 2017, pet. denied)).

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