Minnesota Estate Planning Case: Christie v. Estate of Dilman Christie, Filed April 24, 2017, A16-1244

Case Summary: Oral Contract Related to Land Was Not Void

Christie v. Estate of Dilman Christie, Filed April 24, 2017, A16-1244. This is the second appeal on this matter. The son claimed that he and his parents entered into an oral contract regarding the sale and re-purchase of 5 parcels of farmland. He was to transfer land to parents, they would get a mortgage to pay son’s debts, and then transfer the land back to son. The land was not transferred back. Son sued parents. The contract was a breach of contract case. The court, before an advisory jury, found that there was a contract and that the son suffered damages of $3 million plus due to the failure to give the land back. The contract was removed from the statute of frauds due to part performance and that only had to be proved by a preponderance of evidence. The land was transferred to parents, the mortgage was acquired and payments were made. The land was not re-conveyed. The matter was a valid contract subject to damages.

Court Case:

RANDALL, Judge

Appellants challenge the district court’s denial of their motions for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) and/or a new trial, arguing that (1) the underlying oral agreement to convey real estate was void under the statute of frauds; (2) there was insufficient evidence that a contract was formed; and (3) the district court improperly instructed the advisory jury on the burden of proof. We affirm.

FACTS

This matter comes to us on a second appeal after remand. In the underlying action, respondent James Christie sued his parents Dilman and Dorothy Christie, since deceased, alleging that they had entered into an oral contract regarding the sale and repurchase of five parcels of farmland. Respondent stated that he had an oral agreement with his parents with the following terms: (1) he would transfer the land to them at a price representing half of its market value, (2) they would procure a mortgage from AgStar Financial to finance the purchase, with the mortgage proceeds going to pay off a debt respondent owed to Wells Fargo Bank, and (3) they would transfer the land back to respondent after he paid off the mortgage. Respondent paid the mortgage before his parents’ deaths, but the properties were not returned to him. The original complaint alleged both legal and equitable causes of actions, including breaches of contract and fiduciary duty, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, and fraudulent inducement, and requested both equitable and legal relief.

Appellants here are the estates of Dilman Christie and Dorothy Christie.

At the conclusion of testimony in the first trial in September 2014, the district court granted the estates’ motion for JMOL, concluding that there was insufficient evidence that the parties had entered into a contract and that the promised transfer of land was, in any event, void under the statute of frauds because there was no written document to support the sale of land. See Christie v. Estate of Christie, No. A14-2196, 2015 WL 5825096, at *2-3 (Minn. App. Oct. 5, 2015).

Respondent appealed, and this court reversed, concluding that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there was sufficient evidence of an oral agreement to submit to a jury. Id. at *1. This court also reversed on the statute-of-frauds issue, concluding that the district court had not understood respondent’s arguments. Id. A second trial was held in March 2016 and the matter was tried solely on a breach-of-contract theory, with a request for monetary damages.

The district court denied the estates’ motion for a directed verdict, primarily based on this court’s opinion. The jury issued a special verdict, finding that there was a contract between respondent and his parents, respondent paid the AgStar mortgage, insurance, taxes, and maintenance on the land “in reliance upon the contract he had with [his parents],” his parents breached this contract, and that the breach directly damaged respondent. The jury found respondent had incurred damages of $3,332,000, the market value of the land that he transferred to his parents. The district court issued its findings, conclusions, and order for judgment based on the jury’s special verdict. On June 28, 2016, the district court denied appellants’ motions for JMOL and/or a new trial, and issued an amended order. This appeal followed.

DECISION

I.

Appellants argue the district court erred by denying their motion for JMOL because the alleged agreement (1) was void under the statute of frauds, Minn. Stat. § 513.05 (2016); (2) was not supported by clear-and-unequivocal evidence; and (3) was not definite enough to show a meeting of the minds.

“A district court should grant JMOL only in those unequivocal cases where (1) in the light of the evidence as a whole, it would clearly be the duty of the district court to set aside a contrary verdict as being manifestly against the entire evidence, or where (2) it would be contrary to the law applicable to the case.” 650 N. Main Ass’n v. Frauenshuh, Inc., 885 N.W.2d 478, 486 (Minn. App. 2016) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. Nov. 23, 2016). We review a district court’s decision to deny a motion for JMOL de novo. Moore v. Hoff, 821 N.W.2d 591, 595 (Minn. App. 2012). In doing so, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id.

Minn. Stat. § 513.05 provides that “[e]very contract . . . for the sale of any lands, or any interest in lands, shall be void unless the contract, or some note or memorandum thereof, expressing the consideration, is in writing and subscribed by the party by whom the . . . sale is to be made.” “A contract may be taken out of the statute of frauds by part performance.” Crossroads Church of Prior Lake v. County of Dakota, 800 N.W.2d 608, 614 (Minn. 2011).

The underlying principle is that, when one of the contracting parties has relied on an oral agreement to such an extent that it would be a fraud on the part of the other contracting party to
void the agreement, equity will make that agreement an exception to the statute of frauds.

Id. at 615.

Underlying the statute of frauds is the idea that real property is unique and that the equitable remedy of specific performance may be had because “damages for the breach of a contract for the sale and purchase of any interest in land is always considered inadequate, without regard to the size, value or location of the land or the possibility of getting other land substantially equivalent.” Shaughnessy v. Eidsmo, 222 Minn. 141, 150, 23 N.W.2d 362, 368 (1946) (quotation omitted). But here we are faced with parties who, by acquiescence, agreed to try this matter as if it were the breach of an oral contract for which damages were an acceptable remedy.

Appellants argue that the oral contract, in order to be removed from the statute of frauds, had to be established by clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence, and not by a mere preponderance of the evidence. “Identification of the applicable burden and standard of proof presents questions of law, which [an appellate court] review[s] de novo.” C.O. v. Doe, 757 N.W.2d 343, 352 (Minn. 2008). Typically, civil suits use the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, the least stringent standard, unless there are “allegations of fraud or other quasi-criminal wrongdoing,” in which case the clear-and-convincing standard is used “because the defendant’s interests at stake in those cases are more substantial than those present in a typical civil case.” Carrillo v. Fabian, 701 N.W.2d 763, 774 (Minn. 2005). When a “case hinges upon oral evidence to establish that which the statute of frauds . . . require[s] to be in writing, the oral evidence to establish the facts claimed must be clear, unequivocal, and convincing.” Ives v. Pillsbury, 204 Minn. 142, 148, 283 N.W. 140, 143 (1938) (citation omitted).

But “[c]ivil proceedings typically employ the preponderance standard because society has a minimal concern with the outcome of private suits and because the parties should share the risk of error in roughly equal fashion.” In re Mortg. Elec. Registration Sys., Inc., 835 N.W.2d 487, 493 (Minn. App. 2013) (quotations omitted). “The preponderance of the evidence standard requires that to establish a fact, it must be more probable that the fact exists than that the contrary exists.” City of Lake Elmo v. Metro. Council, 685 N.W.2d 1, 4 (Minn. 2004). By treating this as a breach-of-contract issue and requesting a damages remedy, the parties indicated less concern about the proper disposition of unique pieces of land. In these circumstances, the district court did not err by charging the jury to use the preponderance-of-evidence standard.

Appellants assert that there is insufficient evidence of a “meeting of the minds” to support the jury’s finding that there was an oral contract. When a jury has issued a special verdict, an appellate court should not set it aside “unless the answer is perverse and palpably contrary to the evidence, or where the evidence is so clear as to leave no room for differences among reasonable persons.” Frauenshuh, 888 N.W.2d at 486 (quotation omitted). We review the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and will not reverse if the special verdict answers are consistent with the evidence and the inferences to be drawn from the evidence, and “can be reconciled on any theory consistent with the evidence.” Id. (quotation omitted). JMOL “is appropriate when a jury’s verdict has no reasonable support in fact or is contrary to law.” Kidwell v. Sybaritic, Inc., 749 N.W.2d 855, 861 (Minn. App. 2008), aff’d, 784 N.W.2d 220 (Minn. 2010).

“Both the existence and terms of an oral contract are issues of fact, generally to be decided by the fact-finder.” Rios v. Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc., 793 N.W.2d 309, 315 (Minn. App. 2011). An appellate court should not set aside a jury’s special verdict unless it is perverse, palpably contrary to the evidence, or irreconcilable on any theory. Frauenshuh, 885 N.W.2d at 486. We agree there is contrary evidence in the record, but there is sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings.

II.

Appellants also argue that the district court abused its discretion by denying their motion for a new trial. We review a district court’s decision on a motion for a new trial for an abuse of discretion. Dostal v. Curran, 679 N.W.2d 192, 194 (Minn. App. 2004), review denied (Minn. July 20, 2004). “But when the district court exercises no discretion and decides a motion for a new trial because of an error of law, a de novo standard of review applies.” Id. Appellants’ first claim is for an error of law; its second claim involves an abuse of discretion.

First, appellants contend that the district court improperly instructed the jury as to the burden of proof. As we concluded above, the district court did not err by requiring the jury to make its decision by a preponderance of the evidence.

Second, appellants argue that the evidence does not support the jury’s verdict, a ground for a new trial under Minn. R. Civ. P. 59.01(g). We review the district court’s decision on a motion for a new trial under this rule for an abuse of discretion. Border State Bank of Greenbush v. Bagley Livestock Exch., Inc., 690 N.W.2d 326, 334 (Minn. App. 2004), review denied (Minn. Feb. 23, 2005).

A new trial should not be granted unless the verdict is so contrary to the preponderance of the evidence as to imply that the jury failed to consider all the evidence or acted under some mistake or from some improper motive, bias, feeling or caprice, instead of honestly and dispassionately exercising its judgment.

Id. at 335 (quotation omitted). This is described as a “demanding standard.” Clifford v. Geritom Med, Inc., 681 N.W.2d 680, 687 (Minn. 2004).

The district court is in a better position to weigh the evidence and judge credibility. Id. An appellate court defers to the district court’s new-trial decision based on whether the evidence justifies the verdict. Id.

The record evidence supports the jury’s special verdict; the special verdict is not so outrageous as to support a finding of mistake, improper motive, bias, feeling, caprice, or failure to consider all of the evidence.

Affirmed.

 

Credit:

Part of the preceding was a summary of a case relevant to Minnesota trust, probate, and/or estate planning law prepared by attorney Robert A. McLeod at Briggs and Morgan PA. This was an excerpt from the 2017 Probate & Trust Law Section Conference; copyright 2017 Minnesota Continuing Legal Education.