Summary Judgment Cannot Assess Credibility

Elder Law Answers case summary.The Supreme Court of the State of Idaho holds that the district court erred in granting summary judgment. Summary judgment is improper when a witness’ credibility is in question and that credibility has a material impact on the case. In Kelso v. Applington (Idaho No. 50039, May 8, 2024).

Mr. Karon Kelso owned a joint checking account with his wife, who handled their finances. After she died in 2017, his friend, Linda Applington, began helping him with bills. In 2018, he made a will leaving his entire estate to his son, Greg Kelso. Fourteen months later, he added Ms. Applington to his checking account as a joint owner with the right of survivorship.

Following his death, his son became the personal representative of his estate. He contacted Ms. Applington seeking a transfer of the account funds to the estate. Learning for the first time that she was a joint owner with survivorship rights of the account, Ms. Applington refused to transfer the funds.

Acting as personal representative, the son filed a multi-count complaint against Ms. Applington. This included a claim to invalidate the will for lack of donative intent and equitable claims.

Ms. Applington relied on the testimony of a bank employee, Janet Overman, to show donative intent, even though their testimony contradicted in certain parts.

Finding no issues of material fact, the district court granted summary judgment to Ms. Applington, and the son appealed.

Reviewing de novo, the Idaho Supreme Court finds that the lower court erred by resolving questions of credibility in a summary judgment motion. When the matter turns on the credibility of a witness, the court must deny summary judgment.

In this case, conflicting testimony calls a key witness’ credibility into question. The case turned on whether Mr. Kelso intended for Ms. Applington to receive the funds. To show this intent, she relied on the bank employee’s testimony.

However, their testimony diverged in several areas, raising a question of credibility. Ms. Overman claimed that they had met before and had spoken about the account, but Ms. Applington disagreed. While Ms. Applington said Mr. Kelso added her to the account alone, Ms. Overman contradicted her and said she accompanied him. They also had different accounts of how Mr. Kelso executed the signature card. Ms. Applington said she came to the bank to sign it, whereas Ms. Overman claimed Mr. Kelso obtained her signature elsewhere.

Because Ms. Applington’s argument rests on Ms. Overman’s credibility, these differences in testimony are material. Courts in most jurisdictions refrain from weighing a witness’ credibility in summary judgment. Here, there is a genuine dispute of material fact. A trial is needed to determine if Ms. Overman is a credible witness.

It is also improper to award attorney’s fees at this stage, before a trial on the merits, so the court vacates the district court’s award of attorney’s fees to Ms. Applington.

The Idaho Supreme Court reverses the summary judgment and remands the case for trial.

Read the full opinion.