In re Estate of Ruth Tuttle aka Ruth Fowler Tuttle
Court No. 2018-1252
Jeffery Rengel and Thomas R. Lucas, for appellant.
Speweik, for appellees.
DECISION AND JUDGMENT
1} Appellant, Judith L. Rengel, appeals from the
February 12, 2019 judgment of the Erie County Court of Common
Pleas, Probate Division, ordering D. Jeffrey Rengel to be
removed from this case as attorney of record. For the reasons
which follow, we reverse. Appellant asserts a single
assignment of error:
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN ITS DECISION TO
DISQUALIFY LEGAL COUNSEL FROM ACTING ON BEHALF OF APPELLANT
IN THE PROBATE MATTER.
2} Ruth Tuttle died on February 16, 2018. On July
16, 2018, her daughter, appellant, submitted the
decedent's December 1, 1999 will for probate in the Erie
County Court of Common Pleas, Probate Division, through her
attorney, Thomas R. Lucas. The will made no provision for the
decedent's three children and instead provided for
distributions to the decedent's grandchildren. The
probate court admitted the will to probate on July 26, 2018.
3} Appellant also filed an application to administer
the estate. The will named appellant and her brother, Gordon
Fowler, as co-executors. Because Fowler had not explicitly
waived his right to administer the estate, the probate court
held a hearing on September 5, 2018. No official record was
kept of this hearing.
4} Appellant asserts appellees, Gordon Fowler and
Ronald Fowler, appeared pro se. At a meeting in chambers,
Ronald Fowler informally raised questions as to the
jurisdiction of the Erie County Probate Court as the proper
forum for probate of the estate. The judge requested that
appellant voluntarily dismiss the application to probate the
will, refile the application in an alternate jurisdiction, or
file a memorandum in support of jurisdiction in Erie County.
5} Accordingly, on September 19, 2018, appellant
filed a brief in support of jurisdiction in Erie County with
several unauthenticated documents attached and
appellant's affidavit: 1) the decedent's death
certificate indicating that she resided in Erie County at the
time of her death but died in a Columbus, Ohio, hospital and
was buried in Sandusky, Ohio; 2) a copy of the decedent's
Erie County voting record from 1992 to 2016 and a letter from
the Erie County Board of Elections to the decedent's
Huron County address notifying her family that her voter
registration had been cancelled due to her death; 3) copies
of the appellant's 2016 and 2017 tax returns indicating
the decedent was named as a dependent residing in Erie County
at appellant's residence; and 4) the decedent's Erie
County burial plot in Sandusky, Ohio, purchased shortly
before her death. Also attached to the brief was the
affidavit of appellant, who attested the decedent had not
resided in her own home in Huron, Ohio, since 2013, except
for a brief period of less than six months. Appellant further
attested the decedent resided with appellant from 2012
through September 2017, and all of her doctors were located
in Erie County. In September 2017, the decedent moved
temporarily to live with Ronald Fowler in Lancaster, Ohio, to
give appellant a break as caregiver. While the decedent
expressed a desire to return to appellant's home, she was
unable to do so because of her declining health. She was
instead transferred to several hospital and nursing
facilities until her death. Appellant further asserts that
Ronald Fowler had control over the decedent's financial
accounts and paid her medical bills.
6} Appellees moved on October 30, 2018, to transfer
venue to Fairfield County, Ohio, on the ground that the
decedent had lived most recently with Ronald Fowler.
Appellees asserted the following facts in their brief and not
by affidavit: the decedent had alternated living at her home
in Huron, Ohio, and staying with appellant in Erie County,
Ohio. However, because of the decedent's declining
health, appellant was unable to care for decedent and, on
August 16, 2017, demanded that Ronald Fowler move the
decedent to his home in Fairfield County, Ohio. They further
asserted that the decedent established her final home at
Ronald Fowler's home and indicated she did not desire to
return to Erie County, Ohio, prior to her death approximately
five months later. She also established new doctors near
Fairfield County and appellant never saw the decedent again
until shortly before the decedent's death. Appellees
asserted the proper venue for administration of the estate
was Fairfield County, Ohio. Appellant opposed the motion and
challenged the factual assertions in appellees' brief
7} Attorney D. Jeffery Rengel filed a notice of
appearance as co-counsel for appellant on January 8, 2019.
Appellees moved to disqualify Rengel, pursuant to
Prof.Cond.R. 3.7, on the ground that Rengel, as the
decedent's son-in-law and "former housemate,"
would have personal knowledge of the facts in dispute and
will be called as a witness. Appellant opposed the motion.
8} On February 11, 2019, the probate court granted
appellees' motion and removed Rengel as an attorney of
record for appellant without making any specific findings.
Appellant filed an appeal from this order ...