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Sanders v. Brown

Supreme Court of West Virginia

November 21, 2018

Juanita Sanders, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
William Brown, Defendant Below, Respondent

          Monroe County CC-32-2015-C-29

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Juanita Sanders, by counsel Jeffry A. Pritt, appeals the Circuit Court of Monroe County's December 8, 2017, order ruling in respondent's favor following a bench trial concerning a real property conveyance. Respondent William Brown, by counsel Henry L. Harvey, filed a response. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in failing to grant her equitable relief from her real property conveyance to respondent and in determining that her manufactured home was transferred with the real property.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         On June 23, 2011, petitioner conveyed, by general warranty deed, a tract of land to her son, respondent, reserving a life estate to herself. Petitioner also conveyed the property on behalf of her husband, for whom she held power of attorney due to his declining health. The conveyance was without consideration, as a gift from a parent to a child. Following the conveyance, respondent assumed responsibility for the property taxes and insurance on the property.

         Prior to the conveyance of the subject property, petitioner purchased a manufactured home (the "home") for the property. Both petitioner and her husband lived in it, but it was titled exclusively in her name. Also prior to the conveyance, the home was placed on a cinderblock foundation, decks were built around it, and the tongue, used for transporting the home, was removed. Petitioner did not cancel the certificate of title following the home's placement on the land or transfer title to respondent.

         Approximately three years after the conveyance, on October 22, 2014, petitioner's counsel informed respondent by letter that, "[i]t is our understanding from [petitioner] that you had an agreement with her that you would return the property to her at a later date." Accordingly, respondent was asked to execute a deed enclosed with the letter conveying the subject property back to petitioner. Respondent refused to return the property, and petitioner filed suit asserting claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment, constructive trust, promissory estoppel, and fraud, and she sought specific performance of their alleged agreement.

         The circuit court held a bench trial on October 13, 2016. Recognizing that no written agreement existed to support her claims, petitioner admitted at the outset of trial that her only remedy was in equity: "In particular, the imposition of a constructive trust is probably the primary one." Petitioner testified that she conveyed the subject property to respondent prior to her husband's death because she believed her husband's children from a prior marriage would either attempt to assert ownership of the property following his death or attempt unduly to encourage a transfer prior to his death. Petitioner testified that respondent was aware of her motives and they agreed that, following the settlement of her husband's estate, respondent would convey the property back to her. Petitioner further argued that she has three other children and did not intend to favor respondent over the others by conveying the property solely to him.

         Respondent countered that no such agreement existed, and that petitioner would have had no need to reserve a life estate if there had been an agreement such as that described by her. In fact, respondent noted that the deed originally conveying the property to petitioner and her husband included a right of survivorship, thereby obviating any need to transfer the property to respondent for protection.[1] Respondent further highlighted that petitioner was represented by counsel at the time of the conveyance to him. Finally, respondent argued that the home was also conveyed as the deed specified that all improvements go with the property, and, in any event, fixtures attached to real property become part of the real estate.

         The parties also testified regarding their relationship. Petitioner stated that she and respondent helped one another out over the years, but that he helped her "[n]o more than [she] helped him." Petitioner acknowledged that she was not coerced into conveying the property to respondent. Respondent testified that, of petitioner's children, he was the one to assist her, and that he often had to coax his siblings to visit petitioner. Respondent also acknowledged that, throughout the years, both he and petitioner helped one another as needed.

         On December 8, 2017, the circuit court entered an order in respondent's favor. With respect to petitioner's constructive trust claim, the court recounted this Court's holding in Kersey v. Kersey:

[W]here one obtains the legal title to property through the influence of a relation of confidence and trust, under such circumstances that he ought not in equity and good conscience to hold and enjoy the same as against the other party to the relation, equity will impress the property with a trust in favor of the latter.

76 W.Va. 70, 85 S.E. 22, 25-26 (1915) (citation omitted). But the court found that "[t]he only evidence presented as to the circumstances of [the parties'] relationship was that [they] had a fairly good relationship at the time the property was transferred."

         The court further found both parties to be equally credible concerning whether an oral agreement was formed addressing the property's return. As a result, petitioner, the moving party who carried the burden of proof, failed to establish the existence of any such agreement. The court also noted other factors tending to militate against the existence of a constructive trust. Namely, petitioner suggested the property conveyance and consulted with an attorney to prepare the deed. Respondent did not encourage petitioner to convey the property, nor was there evidence that he obtained title to the property by gaining his mother's trust or otherwise influencing their relationship. Also, petitioner reserved a life estate, which would have been unnecessary if she believed the property was held in trust. She also allowed respondent to pay taxes and insurance.

         Finally, the court concluded that, because a cinder block foundation had been built beneath the home, decks had been constructed around it, and the tongue had been removed prior to the conveyance, "[t]here can be no question that the doublewide mobile home became affixed to and was a part of the subject ...


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