Brackney v. Walker, SD 36808

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtMARY W. SHEFFIELD, J.
Citation629 S.W.3d 834
Parties Terry BRACKNEY, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Renate Mack, Appellant, v. Robert WALKER and Nancy Walker, Crystal House and Nathaniel House, Director, Department of Revenue, State of Missouri, and Century Bank of the Ozarks, Respondents.
Docket NumberNo. SD 36808,SD 36808
Decision Date13 July 2021

629 S.W.3d 834

Terry BRACKNEY, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Renate Mack, Appellant,
v.
Robert WALKER and Nancy Walker, Crystal House and Nathaniel House, Director, Department of Revenue, State of Missouri, and Century Bank of the Ozarks, Respondents.

No. SD 36808

Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, Division Two.

FILED: July 13, 2021
Application for Transfer Denied October 5, 2021


ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT – CHAD J. RICHTER, Edwardsville, IL.

ATTORNEY FOR RESPONDENTS – JOHN O. RUSSO, Gainesville, MO.

MARY W. SHEFFIELD, J.

Terry Brackney ("Brackney"), a domiciliary foreign personal representative ("DFPR"),1 appeals the trial court's judgment denying his counterclaims for quiet title and constructive trust brought on behalf of the estate (the "Estate" or "Mack's Estate") of Renate Mack ("Mack"). Brackney raises five points on appeal. Point 1 argues the trial court erred in applying the one-year statute of limitations for the admission of a will to probate to his claims for quiet title and constructive trust. Finding merit in Brackney's point 1, we reverse as to this point which disposes of points 2 and 3.2 In points 4 and 5, Brackney argues the trial court erred in denying Brackney's claim for constructive trust (point 4) and attorney's fees (point 5). Finding no merit in either point, we affirm the trial court's judgment as to those claims.

Factual and Procedural History

This case involves a dispute over real estate in Ozark County, Missouri, (the "Property")3 between Robert Walker and Nancy Walker (the "Walkers"), Crystal House and Nathaniel House (the "Houses"), and the personal representative of Mack's Estate, Brackney, appointed by a court in Florida.

Charles D. Walker, Sr. ("C.D. Walker") and Mack owned the Property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship.4 In

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1997, C.D. Walker died. Mack subsequently moved to Florida. In 2005 or 2006, Mack began renting the Property to the Houses for $375 per month. On May 17, 2014, Mack died in Okaloosa County, Florida. After Mack's death, the Houses continued to live on the Property but ceased paying rent.

In July 2014, the Walkers filed an action for adverse possession and quiet title against the unknown heirs of Mack, seeking title to the Property, and requesting service by order of publication. In November 2014, the Missouri trial court entered a default judgment in the Walkers' favor. On March 13, 2015, in the probate division of the circuit court of Okaloosa County, Florida, Brackney was appointed as personal representative of Mack's Estate. In July 2015, the Walkers executed a general warranty deed purporting to convey the Property to the Houses. The Houses paid $20,000.00 for the Property.5 Brackney filed a Motion to Set Aside the Judgment in the Walkers' adverse possession case, which motion was granted by the trial court. Pursuant to section 473.676, Brackney filed in the probate division of the circuit court of Ozark County, Missouri authenticated copies of his appointment as the DFPR for the Estate and a waiver of bond issued by the Florida court. Brackney later filed an amended counterclaim for quiet title and constructive trust adding the Houses as parties in response to the Walkers' claim for adverse possession.6

In June 2020, a trial was held. The trial court denied the Walkers' adverse possession claim and quiet title claim. The trial court also denied Brackney's quiet title claim and constructive trust claim.7 In denying Brackney's counterclaims, the trial court concluded "[it] must apply the one-year statute of limitations" finding both of Brackney's counterclaims time barred because an estate had not been opened in Missouri within one year of the death of Mack. On Brackney's constructive trust claim, the trial court also found "assuming arguendo that [Brackney's] counterclaim might proceed, the evidence at trial failed to prove that [the Walkers] deprived [Brackney] of property by fraud." Brackney appeals the trial court's judgment denying his counterclaims.

Discussion

Point 1—Statute of Limitations

In point 1, Brackney argues the trial court erred in applying the one-year statute of limitations for admitting a will to probate to his counterclaims for quiet title and constructive trust. We agree. The one-year statute of limitations for applying for letters of administration to admit a will is not the statute of limitations that applies to actions for quiet title or constructive trust brought by a DFPR.

Standard of Review

"Whether or not the statute of limitations applies to an action is a question

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of law that this Court reviews de novo. " Drury v. Missouri Youth Soccer Ass'n, Inc. , 259 S.W.3d 558, 576 (Mo. App. E.D. 2008). On questions of law, we give no deference to the trial court's rulings. Meadowfresh Sols. USA, LLC v. Maple Grove Farms, LLC , 606 S.W.3d 193, 202 (Mo. App. S.D. 2020).

Analysis

"Whether the statute of limitations bars a lawsuit depends on the nature of the cause of action and when the action accrued." Cook v. DeSoto Fuels, Inc. , 169 S.W.3d 94, 102 (Mo. App. E.D. 2005). In deciding which statute of limitations applies, Missouri courts look to the gravamen of the action. Wages v. Young , 261 S.W.3d 711, 715 (Mo. App. W.D. 2008). "[T]he ‘gravamen’ of the complaint or a fair reading of the complaint in its totality, should determine [what type of cause of action is alleged] and then the applicable statute of limitations should be applied." Id. (quoting Wenthe v. Willis Corroon Corp. , 932 S.W.2d 791, 796 (Mo. App. E.D. 1996) ).

The trial court ignored the gravamen of Brackney's actions—quiet title and constructive trust—and mistakenly assumed Brackney was required to open a probate estate in Missouri within one year in order to maintain the claims. With no administration pending in Missouri, a DFPR may file authenticated copies of his appointment and bond in the probate division, which gives the DFPR "all powers of a local personal representative and [he] may maintain actions and proceedings in this state" with the same "duties and obligations of a local personal representative[.]"8 §§ 473.677 and 473.676. In other words, if a DFPR has filed his authenticated copies of appointment and bond in the probate court, he does not have to open an estate in Missouri to have the same powers as a local representative.

Here, Brackney, the DFPR did properly file authenticated copies of his appointment and waiver of bond in the Missouri probate court in order to maintain counterclaims on behalf of the estate.9 Accordingly, the one-year limitation for the commencement of administration of a decedent's estate does not control.10 Point one is granted. The resolution of point 1 renders Brackney's points 2 and 3 moot.

629 S.W.3d 840

Point 4—Constructive Trust

In addition to barring Brackney's constructive trust claim on the basis of the one-year statute of limitations discussed in point 1, the trial court trial court found "assuming arguendo that [Brackney] might proceed, the evidence at trial failed to prove that the [Walkers] have deprived [Brackney] of property by fraud."11 In response to this ruling, Brackney's point argues the trial court "misapplied the law" and "the decision was against the manifest weight of evidence in that the trial court should have granted Brackney's claim for constructive trust and awarded damages against the Walkers and the Houses and cancelled the conveyance from the Walkers to the Houses." While Brackney's point improperly combines a misapplication-of-the-law challenge with an against-the-weight-of-the-evidence challenge, we review ex gratia this point and treat it as an against-the-weight challenge.12

Standard of Review

We will affirm the trial court's judgment unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. Ivie v. Smith , 439 S.W.3d 189, 198-99 (Mo. banc 2014). A circuit court's judgment is against the weight of the evidence only if the circuit court could not have reasonably found, from the record at trial, the existence of a fact that is necessary to sustain the judgment. Id. at 206. When the evidence poses two reasonable but different conclusions, appellate courts must defer to the trial court's assessment of that evidence. Id. Accordingly, this standard of review takes into consideration which party has the burden of proof and that the trial court is free to believe all, some, or none of the evidence offered to prove a contested fact, and the appellate court will not re-find facts based on credibility determinations through its own perspective. Houston v. Crider , 317 S.W.3d 178, 186 (Mo. App. S.D. 2010). "A court will set aside a judgment as against the weight of the evidence only when it has a firm belief that the judgment is wrong." Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted).

Analysis

Brackney bore the burden of proof to demonstrate he was entitled to a

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