United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division
RICHARD K. INGLIS, as Special Trustee to the trust under the will of Rosa B. Schweiker, dated February 2, 1961, the Frederick W. Berlinger Revocable Deed of Trust, dated 10/17/1991, as amended and restated., Plaintiff,
WELLS FARGO BANK N.A., Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
E. STEELE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter comes before the Court on defendant's Motion to
Strike Plaintiff's Jury Demand (Doc. #136) filed on
October 13, 2016. Plaintiff filed a Response in opposition
(Doc. #144) on October 25, 2016. For the reasons set forth
below, the motion to strike is denied.
First Amended Complaint, plaintiff, the special trustee of
the Trusts, asserts a single claim for civil theft
and demands a jury trial on all issues so triable in the
action (Doc. #125, ¶ 34). Specifically, plaintiff
alleges that defendant, Wells Fargo Bank N.A. (defendant or
Wells Fargo), a former corporate co-trustee of the Trusts,
intentionally and wrongfully refrained from transferring
trust assets to the successor trustee in a timely manner.
Plaintiff seeks judgment against Wells Fargo for treble
damages in the amount of $19, 394, 171.88 and reasonable
attorney fees and costs. (Doc. #125, p. 7.)
asserts that plaintiff's demand for jury trial should be
stricken due to the equitable nature of plaintiff's claim
and the equitable relief sought. (Doc. #136.) Defendant
argues that plaintiff's civil theft claim is
“essentially cloaking a simple breach of fiduciary duty
claim” and the damages sought are “essentially
restitution.” (Doc. #136, p. 2.) Plaintiff responds
that this is a legal action which seeks a legal remedy
therefore, plaintiff is entitled to a trial by jury. (Doc.
basic principles are well established, and do not appear to
be disputed by the parties. First, while jurisdiction is
based upon diversity of citizenship and plaintiff's claim
is a Florida state law cause of action, the issue of whether
a party is entitled to a jury trial is a matter of federal
law. Simler v. Conner, 372 U.S. 221, 221-22 (1963);
In re Graham, 747 F.3d 1383, 1387 (11th Cir. 1984).
Although “the substantive dimension of the claim
asserted finds its source in state law” in diversity
cases, “the characterization of that state-created
claim as legal or equitable for purposes of whether a right
to jury trial is indicated must be made by recourse to
federal law.” Simler, 372 U.S. at 222.
there are two possible sources of plaintiffs' right to a
jury trial, a federal statute and the federal Constitution.
In re Graham, 747 F.3d at 1387. Neither party relies
on a federal statute, but rather upon the U.S. Constitution
as the source for the right to a jury trial in this case.
(Docs. #136, pp. 2-3; #144, pp. 1-3.)
the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution
preserves the right to a jury trial “[i]n suits at
common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed
twenty dollars.” Determination of entitlement to a jury
trial under the Seventh Amendment is a two-step inquiry when
a federal statute does not explicitly provide for a jury
To determine whether a particular action will resolve legal
rights, we examine both the nature of the issues involved and
the remedy sought. “First, we compare the statutory
action to 18th-century actions brought in the courts of
England prior to the merger of the courts of law and equity.
Second, we examine the remedy sought and determine whether it
is legal or equitable in nature.” The second inquiry is
the more important in our analysis.
Chauffeurs, Teamsters & Helpers Local No. 391 v.
Terry, 494 U.S. 558, 565 (1990) (citing Tull v.
United States, 481 U.S. 412, 417- 18 (1987)).
“[T]he first inquiry is nonetheless essential because
the Seventh Amendment only extends to cases in which legal
rights are at stake.” Stewart v. KHD Deutz of Am.
Corp., 75 F.3d 1522, 1526 (11th Cir. 1996).
asserts that both prongs of the inquiry show that plaintiff
is not entitled to a jury trial in this case. First,
defendant asserts plaintiff's civil theft claim will only
succeed if defendant breached its fiduciary duties and that
disputes involving trusts are exclusively equitable in
nature. Defendant is correct that generally an action for
breach of a trustee's fiduciary duties would have been
brought in courts of equity in eighteenth century courts of
England prior to the merger of the courts of law and equity.
Chauffeurs, Teamsters & Helpers Local No. 391,
494 U.S. at 567. However, plaintiff asserts a claim for civil
theft, not breach of fiduciary duty. Thus, the prevailing
issue in this case is whether Wells Fargo's actions rise
to the level of violating Florida's criminal theft
statute. See Fla. Stat. § 772.11 (providing
civil remedy for theft); United Techs. Corp. v.
Mazer, 556 F.3d 1260, 1270 (11th Cir. 2009).
Court finds that the issue in this case - whether Wells Fargo
committed civil theft by intentionally and wrongfully
delaying the transfer of trust assets to the successor
trustee -would not have been brought in courts of equity in
eighteenth century courts of England prior to the merger of
the courts of law and equity. Therefore, the first factor
weighs in favor of a jury trial.
the second prong, Wells Fargo argues plaintiff's civil
theft claim seeks the equitable recovery of funds on behalf
of the Trusts. Defendant asserts plaintiff does not seek
direct money damages but rather equitable restitution for the
money that was improperly withheld from the Trusts. (Doc.
#136, pp. 5-6.) Plaintiff counters that he is seeking
monetary relief that is punitive in nature thus, entitling
him to a jury trial. (Doc. #144, pp. 3-5.)
initial matter, Florida courts have not been consistent in
determining whether the primary purpose of damage awards
under the civil theft statute are remedial or
punitive. Nevertheless, the Court finds that the
relief sought in this case is legal in nature. “[F]or
restitution to lie in equity, the action generally must seek
not to impose personal liability on the defendant, but to
restore to the plaintiff particular funds or property in the
defendant's possession.” Great-W. Life &
Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 214 (2002).
plaintiff seeks treble damages in the amount of $19, 394,
171.88 and reasonable attorney fees and costs. (Doc. #125, p.
7.) Plaintiff calculated this amount by alleging the Trustee
suffered actual damages of $6, 464, 723.96 and is entitled to
three time the actual damages pursuant to Florida Statute
§ 722.11. (Id. at 6.) The basis for
plaintiff's claim is not that Wells Fargo still holds
particular funds that belong to the Trusts, but that ...