Court Awards Punitive Damages in Breach of Fiduciary Duty Suit Against Regions

A Chancery Court in Mississippi has entered a final Order (as amended) awarding punitive damages to the Plaintiffs in their suit against Regions Bank for breach of fiduciary duty, a case we’ve looked at in the past (see Regions Hit with $4M Judgment over Trust Mismanagement).  The total damage award is $6,464,254 as follows:

  • $3,363,326 actual damages;
  • $1,000,000 punitive damages;
  • $966,740 attorneys’ fees;
  • $175,867 expenses;
  • $958,321 pre-judgment interest at 8% from date suit was filed through the date the Court’s Order on liability was entered;
  • In addition, the Court awarded post-judgment interest at 8% from the entry of its Final Judgment.

Some of the compelling findings of the court include:

  • “[T]his Court finds that the overall breach of duty to be reprehensible.”
  • “Regions knew they were required to conduct a needs analysis, yet they never did.  There were hundreds of transactions conducted over the course of 11 years and not once did Regions take into consideration the needs of Mrs. Sheppard to maintain her present standard of living.  They were giving her money any time she asked for it, distributing principal when income was available in the trust, and they never swept the account.  They violated their own policies and this rises to the level of reckless behavior.”
  • “The court also notes that Regions’ actions and intentional concealment regarding the Trust really set the family on a course that would have been very different if Regions had performed its duties. . .  Evidence reveals that [Regions’] actions had a severe impact on the family and the Trust.  Ironically, the impact on the family Trust was exactly what Mr. Sheppard was trying to ensure never happened.”
  • “A substantial punitive damages verdict would send Regions the message that it cannot utilize a ‘let the buyer beware’ mentality when it serves as a fiduciary.”
  • The trust officer’s supervisor testified that he didn’t properly supervise the trust officer “because he knew very little about trusts.”
  • “Evidence revealed that [the investment manager assigned to the Trust] took orders from Birmingham (Regions’ headquarters) and she never questioned why the entire principal was being disbursed from the trust in such a manner.”

Trustees and Proprietary Products

Elsewhere, over at Bloomberg BNA, Daniel Hauffe looks at another case in Mississippi involving Regions Bank.  In his article, Prudence in Violating the Prudent Investor Act, Hauffe offers some precautionary measures when a Trustee invests trust assets in its own proprietary financial products.

Decanting

At Wealth Management, David Silvian and Phyllis Johnson ask, Do Trustees Have a Duty to Consider Decanting?

High Investment Concentration

Finally, one of the largest banks in the world, Fifth Third Bank, has found itself in the middle of a claim that it failed to diversify the assets of a trust settled by one of the founders of the Standard Register Company.  Margarida Correia explains in Fifth Third Battles heirs of Standard Register Founders.

 

This is the final installment of a series of posts that examine recent litigation against bank trustees in Mississippi.  For the prior installments, please see Regions Hit with $4M Judgment over Trust Mismanagement and Renasant Settles Trust Mismanagement Litigation.

While it is critical for a corporate Trustee to have a process, it is equally important that a corporate Trustee not only follow its process but also document adherence to the process.  The story that follows demonstrates the result when a corporate Trustee has a process but the process is not followed or documented (and a cover-up ensues).

THE TRUST

When Dr. William Rosenblatt, a prominent physician, passed away in 1991, his Last Will and Testament created a trust for the benefit of his children and grandchildren.  Dr. Rosenblatt appointed Trustmark National Bank to serve as one of the co-Trustees of the trust.  The head of Trustmark’s Personal Trust Department was the trust officer assigned by Trustmark to manage the trusts.

The Last Will and Testament provided that the primary purpose of the trust is “to maintain . . . my children, or their issue . . . in the standard of living to which they are accustomed.”  In order to further the purpose of the trust, the Last Will and Testament required the Trustee to distribute all of the net income to Dr. Rosenblatt’s children, Cy and Dee.  In addition to mandatory distributions of net income, the Trustee had the discretion to invade the corpus of the trust and distribute trust principal in order to meet any “emergency needs” of Cy and Dee in which the trustee in its sole discretion determines and justifies.  Upon the death of Cy and Dee, the trust would then terminate and the assets of the trust would pass to Cy’s children and Dee’s children (the remainder beneficiaries).

From 1991 when Dr. Rosenblatt passed away until 2002, Trustmark distributed all of the net income to Cy and Dee.  Cy and Dee made no requests for principal distributions until 2002, when the trust was split into two trusts, one for Cy and one for Dee.  After the trust was split into two trusts, each trust was valued at approximately $3.8 Million.

THE INVASIONS OF CORPUS

In 2002, Trustmark began to invade and distribute the corpus of Dee’s trust which ultimately sparked litigation.  In 2002, Trustmark made a distribution of principal in the amount of $32,000 so Dee could purchase a Lexus vehicle.  Over the next 6 years, Trustmark invaded the corpus of the trust 150 times and distributed over $1.75 Million to Dee.

The distributions of principal stopped in 2008.  In August of that year, Dee requested a distribution of principal in the amount of $65,000 to pay a bill at a high-end clothing store.  It was at that time that Trustmark contacted one of the remainder beneficiaries, Dee’s daughter Meg, and asked for her consent before Trustmark made the distribution.  When she was informed of the number and amount of principal invasions between 2002 and 2008, Meg was shocked and refused to give her consent to the distribution.  In 2009, Meg sued Trustmark for numerous breaches of fiduciary duty.  Sadly, as seen too often in trust litigation against bank trustees, Trustmark promptly sued the beneficiaries of the trust.

TRUSTMARK’S POLICIES AND PROCEDURES

As the Court noted in its Opinion, whether the 150 invasions of corpus totaling over $1.75 Million were for “emergency needs” as required by the Last Will and Testament will never be known because Trustmark did not follow the proper procedures to find out.  Trustmark’s Policies and Procedures state that committee approval is required if any distribution of income or principal is discretionary and that complete information regarding the beneficiary’s needs, standard of living and other resources shall be considered by the committee members in making the decision to exercise the discretionary distribution.  In addition, The FDIC Audit Manual requires that the reason for each invasion be documented in the file.

Contrary to Trustmark’s Policies and Procedures, committee approval was never sought or obtained for any of the 150 invasions of corpus.   The Court explained the process of invading the trust as such: Dee would leave a voice message with the trust officer who would then give his assistant instructions to transfer funds to Dee.  As the Court noted, “this all occurred without Trustmark following any of its procedures.”

Likewise, contrary to the FDIC Audit Manual requirement that the reason for each invasion be documented in the trust file, Trustmark had no forms or documentation on any of the 150 corpus invasions.

THE COVER-UP

Since he had not received committee approval for or documented any of the 150 invasions of corpus, the head of Trustmark’s Personal Trust Department forged “Request for Encroachment” forms which contained the signatures of other trust officers.  He then placed these forms in the minutes of the Administrative Committee in order to create the appearance that the committee in fact did approve the 150 invasions of corpus.

THE COURT’S RULING

In a scathing Opinion, the Court found Trustmark liable for multiple breaches of fiduciary duty.  In so finding, the Court described Trustmark’s actions as “willful, grossly negligent and overall egregious,” “grossly derelict,” and “reckless and egregious.”

THE DAMAGES

The Court imposed the following damages:

  • Removed Trustmark as the Trustee;
  • Imposed a surcharge on Trustmark in the amount of $1,755,750;
  • Charged Trustmark interest at a rate of 3% compounded annually for each and every invasion of corpus, beginning on the last day of the year in which each distribution was made (a total of approximately $300,000);
  • Awarded the Plaintiff all of her Attorneys’ fees (a total of $321,630);
  • Charged all costs to Trustmark;
  • Charged post-judgment interest against Trustmark; and
  • Awarded the Plaintiff punitive damages in the amount of $100,000.

The Court specifically noted that a punitive damage award of $100,000 is “nominal considering Trustmark’s egregious conduct and substantial net worth.”  The Court found that Meg benefitted from some of the trust distributions, e.g., for her wedding.  The Court held that “had Meg not benefitted from Trustmark’s grossly negligent conduct, an award of punitive damages would likely have been greater.”