Appellate judges uphold Liberty County court finding of fraud in property dispute

Steve Korris Jan. 22, 2009, 2:54am

Justice Hollis Horton

Liberty County District Judge C. T. Hight correctly returned a home to an old man who signed it away, the Ninth District appeals court in Beaumont decided.

Hight heard enough evidence to find that Peggy Ballard Williams defrauded Melvin Kaufman, three justices ruled.

Kaufman, who was 87 when he conveyed his property to Williams, testified that she broke a promise to take care of him and keep him out of a nursing home.

She testified that she promised nothing and received the property as a gift.

Hight held that she made the promise and never intended to keep it.

Ninth District Justice Hollis Horton wrote in a Jan. 8 opinion, "Based on the testimony before it, the trial court's conclusion finds support in the evidence."

He wrote, "Although none of the witnesses except Williams and Kaufman claimed to have any knowledge of the promise Williams allegedly made to Kaufman, we are not aware of any cases holding that corroboration of a promise is required in order for a court to find a witness's testimony about the promise credible."

He wrote, "Cancellation of a deed is a proper remedy when promises are fraudulently made with no intention of carrying them out at the time of the deed's execution."

Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justice Charles Kreger agreed.

Kaufman and wife Elsie lived in the house for about 40 years.

Williams, a great niece of Elsie Kaufman, helped care for her.

Elsie died in 2005. Melvin left the house and stayed in an adjacent garage apartment.

Williams fixed meals for him and helped him with business relating to Elsie's death.

In 2006, Kaufman executed a deed conveying two lots to Williams for $10 and other valuable considerations.

He traveled to Indiana to see a brother. Upon his return, his keys didn't open the doors of the house, the apartment, or a shed where he kept tools.

Kaufman sued Williams, claiming she procured the deed with a false promise. She hadn't even paid the $10, he alleged.

Hight held trial and ruled in Kaufman's favor on Aug. 1, 2007.

He did not adopt findings of fact or conclusions of law, and Williams requested them on Aug. 30, 2007.

Hight denied the request, pointing out that Texas law allows 20 days for such a request and Williams waited 29 days to file it.

Williams moved for a new trial, seeking to introduce recorded conversations that would contradict Kaufman's testimony.

When Hight asked why she didn't bring the tapes to trial, she said she didn't think she would need them.

Hight denied a new trial.

On appeal, Williams pleaded for a new trial and argued that Hight decided the case on insufficient evidence.

She claimed that without findings of fact and conclusions of law, she couldn't file a proper appeal.

The Ninth District justices didn't need findings or conclusions to make up their minds.

In the absence of findings and conclusions, Horton wrote, an appellate court must affirm a trial court's judgment if it can be upheld on any theory finding support in the evidence.

He wrote that Hight "believed Kaufman's testimony about Williams' alleged promise to care for him and rejected Williams' testimony to the contrary."

He wrote that language in the deed was inconsistent with her claim that she received the property as a gift.

Horton attached importance to the $10 price tag, writing that failure to pay it counted as circumstantial evidence of subsequent conduct with respect to breaking a promise.

He wrote that Hight didn't have to honor a tardy request for findings and conclusions.

He found no error in Hight's decision to deny a new trial based on tapes, writing that they didn't count as newly discovered evidence.

Gary Dennison represented Kaufman. Richard Burroughs represented Williams.

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