Trust Accounting: Remedy or Cause of Action?

Becker v. Davis, 491 F.3d 1292 (11th Cir.(Fla.) Jul 11, 2007)

In trusts-and-estates litigation there are certain remedies that take on a life of their own; often plead as stand-alone causes of action.  They're not, they're remedies.  Examples include "constructive trusts" (see here) and "accountings."

The remedy v. cause-of-action distinction is not just semantics.  Understanding the distinction can have real life consequences: and the linked-to-case is a great example.

In the linked-to case one of the parties sued for a trust accounting in connection with a business dispute subject to an arbitration clause.  The trial court ruled the trust accounting "count" was not subject to the arbitration clause because it was an independent cause of action.  Wrong answer.  A trust accounting is a remedy.  Not a cause of action, so it can't be litigated as a stand alone claim.  Here's how the 11th Circuit articulated this point in its reversal of the trial court's ruling:

[A]n accounting is a remedy attached to a separate independent cause of action. See Johnson v. Pullman, Inc., 845 F.2d 911, 913 (11th Cir.1988) (“Although plaintiff's complaint contained a count in which an accounting was sought, that relief would not be available here absent some independent cause of action.”).

Accordingly, if the four substantive claims brought by the Trust against the defendants arise out of the agreements and are therefore subject to arbitration, as the parties agree, the Trust's claim for an accounting, which is merely a remedy for any liability, would also arise out of the agreements. Furthermore, to the extent that Becker's individual claims rely on the terms of the agreements and are therefore subject to arbitration, Becker's individual claim for an accounting of the Trust's assets also rely on the terms of the agreements and are subject to arbitration. Accordingly, we find that the district court erred in not sending Count Nineteen to arbitration.

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