Fate of Brite Ranch awaits judge’s ruling as opposing motions are filed

Panoramic view of the Brite Ranch property in the 1920s. Photograph courtesy of The University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, Marfa Public Library.

MARFA — Nearly a month after a Presidio County jury found that Brite Ranch manager Jim White had breached his fiduciary duty as trustee of the family trust, the questions at the heart of the case — whether Jim will be removed from the position he has held for over a decade, and whether a trust modification will allow the sale of the ranchland — remain unanswered, as each party pulls for differing visions of the estate’s future ahead of a final judgment.

The legal battle concerning the historic Brite Ranch and its handling began in 2018, when Mac and Beau White sued their brother Jim for breach of fiduciary duty, alleging that he acted as trustee in ways that benefited him and his family while neglecting to generate income for trust beneficiaries, including themselves. The jury verdict rendered in June largely favored Mac and Beau, finding, in part, that Jim owes Mac and Beau $3 million in damages because the breach of duty had been “intentional or fraudulent,” and that he owes the Jane White Trust $1 million. 

But the case isn’t over. Judge Melvin “Rex” Emerson has yet to enter a final judgment, and opposing parties are now shooting their shots in hopes of swaying the outcome. Last week, attorneys filed opposing motions for the judge’s consideration. On Tuesday, they presented oral arguments at a hearing held over Zoom.

The plaintiffs filed a motion for the entry of a final judgment that would mandate the various payouts outlined in the jury verdict — for damages to the trust and to Mac and Beau individually, and for attorney fees — plus a payout of $185,000 to trust beneficiary Brite Divinity School, a nominal party to the suit with which Jim has entered a settlement. The motion further argues that Jim should pay the trust back for attorney fees incurred on its behalf — a total of $1,270,993.96.

The defendants, meanwhile, filed a motion to disregard many of the jury’s findings. They argue that the court improperly placed the burden of proof on Jim to prove that he fulfilled his duties as trustee, rather than placing the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove the opposite, and that “no legally sufficient evidence” supports the finding that Jim breached his fiduciary duty. Jim’s lawyers also argue that, contrary to the jury’s finding that the Jane White Trust depreciated in value as a result of Jim’s actions, the estate increased in value under his management. 

Jim’s lawyers further argue that because the jury did not find that Mac and Beau individually suffered actual damages, Jim should not be asked to pay them monetary damages as individuals. 

“They’re asking the court to wire around their failure and to enter a judgment that’s not supported by the jury’s findings,” said Dennis Weitzel, an attorney for Jim White, at Tuesday’s hearing.

As for damages owed to the Jane White Trust, the defendants argue that because the jury found that the Jane White Trust suffered no material financial loss, Jim should not be asked to pay them damages either. 

Monetary damages aside, the court is also being asked to make a determination about the future of both the trust and the ranchland.

Mac and Beau’s attorneys are lobbying for the removal of Jim as trustee of the Jane White Trust, and for its division into four separate trusts, one for each of Jane White’s four children — Mac, Beau, Jim and Hester — consisting of equal, undivided interests in the estate. “This has the effect of giving each sibling the ability to manage their own individual interests and reduce the discord associated with their individual lack of control,” reads the plaintiffs’ motion.

They are also requesting the judicial modification of the trust to allow for the sale of the Brite Ranch — a move currently forbidden per the last will and testament of the siblings’ great-grandmother, but which the plaintiffs argue would be in keeping with the will’s original intent.

“One of the purposes of this trust was clearly to benefit income for beneficiaries,” said Frank Ikard, an attorney for the plaintiff, at Tuesday’s hearing. “For 13 years, the trustee has not been able to do this.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Mac and Beau’s attorneys argued that if the modification is granted, and if the trust is divided equally — and the land along with it — each sibling could decide whether or not to sell their portion of the ranchland.

Judge Emerson said he would review the motions in the coming days and try to render a judgment as soon as possible. As for the requests apart from the jury’s findings, including the removal of Jim as trustee, the judge directed the attorneys to submit briefings by August 2 at noon. 

“Give this your best shot, throw as much mud at the walls as you can, and I’ll try to figure it out,” said Judge Emerson.