9th District rules woman not entitled to attorneys' fees in property dispute

By Charmaine Little | Jan 28, 2019

BEAUMONT – A state appellate court ruled that a lower court was correct in denying a woman's claim for attorneys' fees in a suit against her stepfather over the ownership of a property.

The Court of Appeals for the 9th District Court on Jan. 24 affirmed in part, reversed and rendered in part a decision of the 136th District Court for Jefferson County.

Melissa Barclay said the District Court erred when it denied her motion for instructed verdict on the defendant and Aury Gene Richey’s counterclaim concerning reformation of the deed. She also said Richey received way too much in damages for unjust enrichment, and she alleged the lower court failed to award her reasonable and necessary attorneys' fees on her declaratory judgment of action.

Justice Charles Kreger said the lower court was correct when it shut down Barclay’s request concerning Richey’s counterclaim for reformation deed. It also said the damages Richey got for unjust enrichment were fitting considering the evidence presented and Richey’s payment for property taxes, the payoff for Barclay’s mortgage and the costs of remodeling the property. 

Still, Kreger did strike the amount of damages Richey got for insurance premiums but agreed with the trial court on denying Barclay’s attorney’s fees claim. 

Concerning the first issue of Barclay’s motion for directed verdict, Barclay said Richey’s argument for reformation of deed should not have been given to the jury since it was time-barred under the statute of limitations and the statute of frauds. 

“Because parol evidence is admissible to determine a fact issue as to whether the parties reached a mutual oral agreement for Barclay to sell her house to Richey in exchange for him paying off her mortgage, but the attempt to reduce the agreement to a writing – the Feb. 1, 2007, original deed – contained an overly vague property description to be effective, the statute of frauds did not bar Richey’s reformation of deed counterclaim,” Kreger wrote.

As for unjust enrichment, the Appeals Court looked at property taxes, which Barclay didn’t argue that Richey actually paid, and the payoff of the mortgage to determine the trial court properly awarded Richey $78,733.15 for paying off Barclay’s mortgage. It also evaluated how much it cost for Richey to remodel the place and insurance premiums paid affirm some of the awards. It did modify one part of this claim.

"We reverse the damages award to him for unjust enrichment for payment of insurance premiums and render Richey take nothing for this portion of his claim," Kreger wrote.

Lastly, looking at Barclay’s argument that she was owed attorney’s fees, the Appeals Court agreed with Richey that the claim was barred because the lower court didn’t have the plenary power to give attorney’s fees.

According to the opinion, Barclay bought the property in question in 2000 but faced foreclosure seven years later after missing payments. Richey loaned Barclay $78,000. 

In 2009, there was a disagreement of what Barclay actually owed Richey. Barclay insisted she signed a promissory note and deed of trust that she would pay Richey $78,733.15 plus 12 percent interest. Richey instead argued that Barclay would sell her home to Richey and buy it back after two years. 

Barclay went to get a loan to repay Richey in 2009 and was told Richey was actually the new owner of the home after he transferred ownership to himself. Richey told Barclay she could buy the home back or $106,000, the opinion states. 

Kreger wrote the opinion and Justices Hollis Horton and Leanne Johnson concurred.

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