7th Circuit vacates dismissal of son’s federal estate dispute over father’s death

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated dismissal of a federal estate lawsuit and remanded a case brought by a Bartholomew County man who claims his father’s wife and her children murdered his father.

In 2013, Cary Owsley died from a gunshot wound that public officials believed to be a suicide. But Owsley’s son, Logan, argued that Cary’s wife, Lisa Owsley, and her two sons murdered Cary. In response, Logan filed a federal civil-rights suit, invoking 42 U.S.C. sections 1983, 1985, and 1986, arguing that the Bartholomew County Sheriff and his deputies lost or destroyed evidence that would help Cary’s estate to pursue claims against Lisa and her sons.

Lisa was administrator of Cary’s estate, and a trial court denied Logan’s request to replace her, with the Indiana Court of Appeals affirming the denial of Logan’s motion to open a separate estate in 2017.

The estate decided not to pursue litigation, but assigned to Logan “[w]hatever interest the Estate of Cary A. Owsley has in the federal lawsuit.” The state’s appellate court implied that “whatever interest” the estate had is worthless but left final determination to the federal court, which ultimately dismissed Logan’s suit for lack of standing.

In a Monday decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that dismissal of the federal claims on jurisdictional grounds was “a misstep.”

“Logan asserts injury and seeks damages. Decedents’ relatives may have damages claims against tortfeasors, and Logan also has the benefit of the assignment from the estate. Federal law permits assignees to sue on assignors’ claims. The right to sue as representative of an estate depends on state law, and the district court properly recognized that the state court’s decision to retain Lisa as the estate’s representative is not subject to collateral attack,” Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the 7th Circuit.

“Logan contends that, by concealing or destroying evidence that the estate could have used to sue Lisa and her children — or perhaps to persuade a state judge to replace Lisa as the estate’s administrator — defendants deprived the estate of access to the courts, thus violating the Constitution. Like the state court, we have doubts about this ‘access’ approach,” it wrote.

The 7th Circuit found that Logan “does not contend that the defendants did anything that blocked the estate from filing a wrongful-death suit.” Instead, Cary’s estate decided not to sue because it believed that he committed suicide, not because the federal suit’s defendant’s “closed the courthouse doors.”

“None of the Supreme Court’s ‘access to the courts’ cases hints that a potential discovery problem can be the basis of a federal suit, when the state courts are open. Just as a federal defense does not allow a federal court to decide a suit founded on state law, a potential federal issue during discovery in a suit founded on state law should not spawn a separate federal suit,” the 7th Circuit wrote.

“The district court did not consider this subject, and perhaps Logan has a line of argument, not articulated in his appellate briefs, that would overcome our skepticism.”

The first order of business on remand, the 7th Circuit noted, should be to decide whether an access-to-courts claim can be based on an assertion that the defendants concealed or destroyed evidence that could have been relevant, had suit been filed in state court.

The case is Logan Owsley v. Mark Gorbett, 19-1825.

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