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PROBATE 42: The court held that the trial court did not err by granting defendant summary disposition of plaintiff-PR’s fraud and conversion action on the basis that it was barred by a prior judgment.

Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant alleging statutory and common law conversion. In July 2018, a global settlement was reached as to the various matters pending in the probate court. Relevant to this appeal, Plaintiff’s conversion claims against Defendant were dismissed with prejudice. All of the heirs to the estate or their attorneys consented to the settlement agreement and were present for the hearing where it was read into the record. An order regarding the settlement was entered in August 2018. In January 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant action as personal representative. The complaint alleged statutory and common law conversion on the basis of Defendant’s withdrawals from the joint savings account, and also claimed fraud for Defendant’s alleged actions that removed a block on the account. In lieu of filing an answer, Defendant  moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), arguing that the estate was barred from relitigating issues and claims resolved by the 2018 settlement agreement. The circuit court later issued an opinion and order granting Defendant’s summary disposition. Having reviewed the probate court hearing and order containing the terms of the 2018 settlement agreement, the circuit court concluded that the estate’s claims were barred by res judicata.

ANALYSIS

On appeal, the estate argues that res judicata does not preclude the present action because the estate’s interests are distinct from the parties who entered into the 2018 settlement agreement.  The doctrine of res judicata is employed to prevent multiple suits litigating the same cause of action. The doctrine bars a second, subsequent action when (1) the prior action was decided on the merits, (2) both actions involve the same parties or their privies, and (3) the matter in the second case was, or could have been, resolved in the first. We review de novo a circuit court’s decision to grant summary disposition under MCR2.116(C)(7). There is no dispute that the 2018 settlement dismissing Plaintiff’s conversion claims against Defendant was a decision on the merits. Nor does the estate dispute that its instant claims were or could have been resolved in the 2018 case. Thus, the question in this case is whether the second element of res judicata is satisfied. The estate was not a party to the prior action and so we must determine whether privity exists in this case. All those with an interest in the estate were aware of Plaintiff’s claims against Defendant and agreed to resolve that dispute as part of the global settlement. In sum, as it pertains to the claims against Defendant, the estate itself has no interest distinct from the combined interests of those who consented to the 2018 settlement agreement. For these reasons, we conclude that the estate was adequately represented in the prior action.

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