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Sanders v. Sanders

June 15, 2010

THOMAS LEROY SANDERS, APPELLANT (DEFENDANT),
v.
SHIRLEY K. SANDERS AND DANIEL K. SANDERS, APPELLEES (PLAINTIFFS).



Appeal from the District Court of Goshen County, The Honorable Keith G. Kautz, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kite, Justice.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Thomas Leroy Sanders (Leroy) was named as a joint tenant with right of survivorship on two Goshen County deeds. The other joint tenants, Shirley K. Sanders (Shirley) and Daniel K. Sanders (Daniel), brought a reformation action to have Leroy removed from the deeds. The district court reformed the deeds, and Leroy appealed. We conclude that the requirements for reformation were not met in this case and reverse.

ISSUE

[¶2] Although the parties articulate several issues on appeal, the dispositive issue is:

Are the District Court‟s Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order providing for reformation of the deeds by removing Leroy as a joint tenant with right of survivorshipsupported by sufficient evidence and in accordance with Wyoming law?

FACTS

[¶3] Shirley operates a farming and ranching enterprise in Goshen County and is the father of Leroy and Daniel. In 1995, Shirley‟s mother, Yola Sanders (Yola), decided to sell property referred to by the parties as Parcel 1 to Shirley. The purchase agreement drafted by Yola‟s attorney, Jerry Smith, stated that Yola would sell the property to Shirley under an installment contract which would require him to execute a promissory note and a mortgage on the property to secure the debt.

[¶4] On May 9, 1995, Yola and Shirley went to Mr. Smith‟s office to execute the documents. Shirley told Mr. Smith that he wanted Leroy‟s name added to the deed with a right of survivorship. He wanted to do this for two reasons -- 1) he was estranged from his wife and did not want her to be able to make a claim to the property; and 2) as part of his estate planning, he wanted the property to pass to Leroy by operation of law without going through probate. Although the attorney advised him against it, Shirley insisted on putting Leroy‟s name on the deed. Consequently, the deed was revised to include Leroy as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. Leroy signed the mortgage which secured the debt to Yola, but Shirley remained solely liable on the promissory note.

[¶5] In 1998, property referred to by the parties as Parcel 2 and owned by the Janet E. McIlquham Revocable Trust became available for purchase. Members of the Sanders family had leased the property for many years and Shirley‟s father had wanted to purchase it. To that end, he had placed funds in certificates of deposit to finance the eventual purchase of the property. After Shirley‟s father died, Yola had title to the certificates of deposit, and she gifted the funds to Shirley, Daniel, Leroy and Leroy‟s wife*fn1 to be used to purchase the property. Shirley, Leroy and Daniel were named on the deed to Parcel 2 as joint tenants with right of survivorship.

[¶6] Shirley and Leroy farmed together until a dispute arose between them. In June 2002, Leroy brought suit (hereinafter referred to as the First Case) against Shirley and Daniel asserting that he had the right to a present possessory interest in Parcels 1 and 2. During the course of that litigation, Shirley requested that the deeds be reformed to establish that Leroy did not have a present possessory interest in the properties, but only a survivorship interest. Shortly before the matter was to go to trial, Leroy moved to dismiss the action. The First Case was dismissed on November 1, 2004, with the district court making the following rulings:

1. [Leroy‟s] Motion to Dismiss is granted, and all of [Leroy‟s] causes of action are dismissed, with prejudice; specifically including but not limited to:

A. All of [Leroy‟s] claims and causes of action alleging any present ownership interest in or rights to possession, use or control of [Parcels 1 and 2] and any right or claim to partition of said real property.

2. [Shirley and Daniel] have voluntarily dismissed their claims, counterclaims and defenses against [Leroy] and that such dismissal shall be without prejudice and that [Shirley and Daniel], or either of them, may, in the future, assert any of their claims, counterclaims and defenses against [Leroy] . . . .

[¶7] After dismissal of the First Case, Leroy continued to assert that he had the right to a present possessory interest in the properties. He accessed the properties and told others, including hunters, that they could use them. On June 15, 2007, Shirley and Daniel filed a complaint against Leroy. Among other remedies, they sought reformation of the deeds to Parcels 1 and 2 by removing Leroy as a joint tenant. Leroy moved for summary judgment claiming the deeds clearly set forth his interest in the properties. Shirley and Daniel responded with a motion to strike Leroy‟s summary judgment motion on the grounds that his claims were barred by res judicata or judicial estoppel because of the dismissal with prejudice of his claims in the First Case.

[¶8] The district court denied Leroy‟s motion for summary judgment, ruling that its order in the First Case dismissing Leroy‟s claims with prejudice was binding in the current action and res judicata prohibited Leroy from claiming any present interest in Parcels 1 and 2. The court also stated, however, that Leroy was entitled to assert a future interest, such as a remainder interest, in the properties.

[¶9] The district court conducted a bench trial on December 1, 2008, and after the trial, the district court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, ordering reformation of the deeds to Parcels 1 and 2 by removing Leroy as a grantee without any mention of a future interest.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶10] In reviewing the determination of a district court after a bench trial, we apply the following standard:

After a bench trial, we review the trial court‟s factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard and its legal conclusions de novo. Hansuld v. Lariat Diesel Corp., 2003 WY 165, ¶ 13, 81 P.3d 215, 218 (Wyo. 2003) (citing Rennard v. Vollmar, 977 P.2d 1277, 1279 (Wyo. 1999)). We do not substitute ourselves for the trial court as a finder of facts; instead, we defer to the trial court‟s findings unless they are unsupported by the record or erroneous as a matter of law. Deroche v. R.L. Manning Co., 737 P.2d 332, 336 (Wyo. 1987). Although the factual findings of a trial court are not entitled to the limited review afforded a jury verdict, the findings are presumptively correct. Piroschak v. Whelan, 2005 WY 26, ¶ 7, 106 P.3d 887, 890 (Wyo. 2005).

This Court may examine all of the properly admissible evidence in the record, but we do not reweigh the evidence. Forshee, et ux. v. Delaney, et ux., 2005 WY 103, ¶ 6, 118 P.3d 445, 448 (Wyo. 2005). Due regard is given to the opportunity of the trial judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses. We accept the prevailing party‟s evidence as true and give to that evidence every favorable inference which may fairly and reasonably be drawn from it. Harber v. Jensen, 2004 WY 104, ¶ 7, 97 P.3d 57, 60 (Wyo. 2004) (quoting Life Care Centers of America, Inc. v. Dexter, 2003 WY 38, ¶ 7, 65 P.3d 385, 389 (Wyo. 2003)). Findings may not be set aside because we would have reached a different result. Harber, ¶ 7, 97 P.3d at 60 (citing Double Eagle Petroleum & Mining Corp. v. Questar Exploration & Production Co., 2003 WY 139, ¶ 6, 78 P.3d 679, 681 (Wyo. 2003)). A finding will only be set aside if, although ...


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