756 A.2d 179 (R.I. 2000), 98-479, Mitchell v. Mitchell

Docket Nº:98-479-Appeal.
Citation:756 A.2d 179
Opinion Judge:FLANDERS, Justice.
Party Name:Mary P. MITCHELL et al. v. Charles MITCHELL.
Attorney:Anthony F. Cottone, Mark H. Grimm, Providence, for Plaintiff., Thomas L. Mirza, Rumford, David N. Bazar, East Providence, for Defendant., Present LEDERBERG, BOURCIER, FLANDERS and GOLDBERG, JJ. Anthony F. Cottone, Mark H. Grimm, Providence, for Plaintiff. Thomas L. Mirza, Rumford, David N. Bazar...
Judge Panel:Present LEDERBERG, BOURCIER, FLANDERS and GOLDBERG, JJ.
Case Date:June 28, 2000
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island
 
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Page 179

756 A.2d 179 (R.I. 2000)

Mary P. MITCHELL et al.

v.

Charles MITCHELL.

No. 98-479-Appeal.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 28, 2000.

Page 180

Anthony F. Cottone, Mark H. Grimm, Providence, for Plaintiff.

Thomas L. Mirza, Rumford, David N. Bazar, East Providence, for Defendant.

Present LEDERBERG, BOURCIER, FLANDERS and GOLDBERG, JJ.

OPINION

FLANDERS, Justice.

We face here the propriety of a Superior Court motion justice deciding on summary judgment various questions related to asserted gift-giving and debt-forgiveness among family members. The plaintiffs, Mary P. Mitchell (Mary) and George Mitchell (George), claimed that the defendant Charles Mitchell (Charles)--who is Mary's son and George's brother--had failed to pay certain debts that he owed them. In response, Charles contended that his mother and brother either had forgiven these debts or had given him the money as a gift and that, consequently, they should not be allowed to sue him for nonpayment.

The alleged gifts and debt forgiveness pertained to two different matters: (1) Mary's adding Charles's name to two $40,000 certificate-of-deposit (CD) accounts that she opened and maintained at a local bank and then, together with Charles, pledging these joint accounts to secure Charles's bank loan; and (2) Mary's and George's alleged forgiveness of Charles's $25,000 debt owed to the family trust. After reviewing the facts relating to these disputes and the applicable standard of review, we shall discuss our rationale for sustaining Charles's appeal, vacating the summary judgment, and remanding this case to the Superior Court for trial.

Facts and Travel

The late Lewis J. Mitchell (Lewis) was the father of Charles and George and the husband of Mary. When Lewis died in 1983, he left a will that established the Lewis J. Mitchell Family Trust (trust). 1 The will named Mary, George, and Charles as cotrustees and cobeneficiaries.

Following Lewis's death, disputes arose between Charles and his mother and brother concerning whether Charles owed any money to Mary and/or to the trust. The first dispute began after Mary added Charles's name in May 1985 to a $40,000 CD account that she alone had funded and maintained at a local bank, and after she opened another joint $40,000 CD account in both of their names at the same bank. Both of these accounts had rights of survivorship for both Mary and Charles. (Mary, however, continued to receive the interest income from these accounts.) In October 1985, in consideration of a bank's lending $72,000 to Charles, both Charles and Mary signed assignment forms that pledged the joint accounts as collateral for this loan. After Charles defaulted on the loan, the bank seized the accounts and used them to liquidate the unpaid loan balance. Mary asked Charles to reimburse her, but he refused, arguing that

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Mary had given him the money in these accounts as a gift. The second dispute concerned Mary's and George's alleged forgiveness of a $25,000 debt due from Charles to the trust, as evidenced by a promissory note that Charles signed after Mary had transferred to Charles certain real estate in Maine.

Both disputes ended up in court when Mary and George sued Charles to recover the money they claimed Charles owed to them. After Mary and George moved for a partial summary judgment with respect to the claims addressing these disputes, a Superior Court motion justice concluded that no genuine issues of material fact existed with respect to Charles's defenses: namely, that Mary's and George's alleged gift-giving and debt-forgiveness in connection with the joint accounts and the $25,000 debt, respectively, barred them from suing him on these matters. As a result, the motion justice rejected Charles's defenses and entered a partial summary judgment in plaintiffs' favor. 2 Charles has appealed from this judgment.

Standard of Review

Rule 56(c) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in relevant part, that summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." In determining whether any genuine issue of material fact precludes summary judgment, the motion justice, like this Court on review, must review the pleadings and other relevant documents in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Nichols v. R.R. Beaufort & Associates, Inc., 727 A.2d 174, 176 (R.I.1999). If no genuine issue of material fact exists, the motion justice should then determine if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Superior Boiler Works, Inc. v. R.J. Sanders, Inc., 711 A.2d 628, 632 (R.I.1998). The nonmoving party, however, cannot rest upon mere allegations or denials in pleadings, conclusory statements, or legal opinions. See Doe v. Gelineau, 732 A.2d 43, 48 (R.I.1999). Also, the court should not pass upon the weight or the credibility of the evidence in its summary-judgment determination. See Superior Boiler Works, Inc., 711 A.2d at 631.

Analysis

I

The Alleged Gift of the Funds in the Collateralized CD Accounts

By February 1995 Citizens Bank (the bank) had acquired the $72,000 loan to Charles, as well as the collateralized joint accounts. The bank soon demanded payment on the loan because, by this date, Charles was more than ninety days delinquent on his loan payments. After Charles failed to respond to the bank's requests for payment, it seized the joint accounts and used the...

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