Burrus v. Reyes

Citation516 S.W.3d 170
Decision Date08 March 2017
Docket NumberNo. 08–14–00265–CV,08–14–00265–CV
Parties Annette BURRUS, Appellant, v. David REYES and Sonia Valenzuela, Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas

516 S.W.3d 170

Annette BURRUS, Appellant,
David REYES and Sonia Valenzuela, Appellees.

No. 08–14–00265–CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, El Paso.

March 8, 2017

Veronica Carbajal, El Paso, TX, for Appellees.

Annette Burrus, El Paso, TX, for Appellant.

Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Hughes, JJ.



David Reyes and Sonia Valenzuela ("the Reyes Family") thought they were buying a mobile home and a one-half acre lot from Annette Burris under an oral contract for deed. Burrus, on the other hand, contended the Reyes Family was only renting the property. After the Reyes Family had lived on the property for 17 years and had made numerous improvements to the property, Burrus sold the lot to a third party and ordered the Reyes Family to vacate. The Reyes Family sued for breach of contract, statutory fraud, money had and received, and for violations of the Texas Property Code. The jury found, among other things, that Burrus had agreed to sell the property to the Reyes Family, had breached that agreement, and that her oral agreement to sell was enforceable under the partial-performance exception to the statute of frauds. The jury also found Burrus was liable for statutory fraud, for money had and received, and for liquidated damages under the Texas Property Code.

Burrus appeals on multiple grounds, contending the evidence is insufficient to show that the Reyes Family made the necessary permanent improvements to take an oral agreement out of the statute of frauds, to show that there was a meeting of the minds on the essential terms of the agreement, or to show that the parties intended to enter into a contract for deed. Burrus also contends that the trial court submitted the contract question to the jury improperly, that the statutory fraud claim is barred by limitations, and that the Reyes Family failed to prove they were entitled to liquidated damages under the Property Code or entitled to recover damages for money had and received. We affirm.


Burris is a licensed real estate agent with over 40 years of experience. In 1988, she purchased 10.75 acres of land in Tornillo, Texas as investment property.1 Burrus then approached several individuals who had been renting from the prior owner, and inquired whether they wanted to purchase their rental property from her. It appears that most of the individuals entered into oral agreements to purchase their property through seller-financed, contract-for-deed transactions, in which Burrus agreed to finance the purchase price by allowing the individuals to make monthly payments until the amount financed was paid off, after which she would transfer title to them.2

516 S.W.3d 177

The Oral Agreement with the Reyes Family

In 1993, the Reyes Family, who had been living in government-subsidized housing with their two children, approached Burrus about the possibility of purchasing one of her lots. Burrus acknowledged that the Reyes Family initially asked to purchase rather than rent a lot from her. However, according to Burrus, she advised them that she had no lots for sale at the time and instead offered to rent them an unoccupied portion of her 10.75 acre tract. Burrus testified that she offered to purchase the Reyes Family a mobile home of their choice, which she would have moved to the property at her expense, and to rent the mobile home and lot to them on a month-to-month basis. Burrus claimed the Reyes Family orally agreed to the rental arrangement.

Both parties agreed that Burrus purchased a mobile home chosen by the Reyes Family and had the mobile home moved to the lot. Both parties also agreed that the Reyes Family paid Burrus $500 before moving into the mobile home in September 1994, and thereafter paid Burrus $200 a month until November 2011.3 The parties, however, disagreed as to the purpose of those payments and the intent of their oral agreement. Burrus contended they had agreed to a landlord-tenant relationship, asserting that the money they paid her was for rent. The Reyes Family contended they had agreed to purchase the mobile home and lot for $21,000 with Burrus financing the purchase. They further believed that their initial $500 payment was a down payment on the property, pointing out they had put the notation "down payment" on their money orders to Burrus, and that the $200 monthly payments were to be applied to pay off their seller-financed mortgage loan from Burrus. As would be the case in a contract-for-deed transaction, the Reyes Family believed they would receive title to the property from Burrus once they paid off the loan.

According to the Reyes Family, throughout the 17 years they lived on the property, they repeatedly asked Burrus for documentation of the purchase, for receipts of their payments, and for additional information regarding the terms of their loan, as well as for an accounting of how much they owed on their loan, all of which Burrus failed to provide. Nevertheless, they testified that they trusted Burrus because she was the expert in real estate, and they believed that she would let them know when they had paid off the balance of their loan. Burrus, on the other hand, claimed she never gave them an accounting because she viewed the Reyes Family as renters and not purchasers of the property.

The Improvements on the Property

Shortly after moving in, the Reyes Family began making improvements to the property, including installing a chain link fence around the perimeter of the lot, installing plumbing fixtures, lighting, and ceramic tile in the home, building a shed and

516 S.W.3d 178

a dog kennel, and planting trees. They also added a porch and several rooms to the mobile home, doing much of the work themselves. In order to make the additions, they paid to have the mobile home moved to the center of the half-acre lot and paid to have a concrete slab poured on which to build the additions. In all, the Reyes family spent over $22,000 in materials for the improvements on the property with no reimbursement from Burrus.

Burrus acknowledged that she had agreed to allow the Reyes Family to install a fence around the property and that the Reyes Family had paid for the installation and did not seek reimbursement from her. The Reyes Family contended that before the fence was installed, Burrus sent her father to assist the Reyes Family in ascertaining the dimensions of the lot and that her father pointed out the stakes that had been placed at the property's boundary lines during an earlier survey Burrus had done on the property. After ascertaining the dimensions, the Reyes Family installed the fence around the perimeter of the half-acre lot at a cost of $2,400.

Burrus acknowledged that she was also aware of the other improvements the family made on the property because she had driven by the property several times during the 17 years the Reyes Family lived there. Burrus testified that she did not require them to tear down the improvements, or penalize them for making the changes to the mobile home, because she allegedly advised them that any improvements made on the property would belong to her as the owner.4 The Reyes Family also paid for all needed repairs on the property. Burrus claimed she had a similar agreement with all of her tenants.

The Sale to Tornillo DTP

In March 2011, Burrus began negotiating to sell 1.76 acres of her original 10.75 acre tract to Tornillo DTP VI, L.L.C., which included the half-acre lot where the Reyes family was living and a vacant lot next door. Tornillo DTP was buying the property to fulfill a lease obligation it had made to Dollar General, which intended to build a store on the property. Burrus claims that she contacted David Reyes in May 2011 to advise him that she was considering selling the property, and told him the family would have to move if she sold the property. According to Burrus, David Reyes initially agreed to move, and she thereafter kept him apprised of her negotiations with Tornillo DTP.

Burrus signed a final contract with Tornillo DTP on January 31, 2012, in which she was to receive $90,000 for the sale, with a closing date of February 24.5 Burrus testified that she informed David Reyes that same month that the contract had been finalized and that he was initially cooperative and agreed to move by March 31—the date on which she was required to convey the property to Tornillo DTP without any encumbrances. Burrus claims that the Reyes Family informed her on March

516 S.W.3d 179

16 that they were refusing to move and were claiming ownership of the land.

The Reyes Family, on the other hand, contended that Burrus did not advise them of the sale until February 2012 after she had already signed the final contract with Tornillo DTP. In November 2011, however, the Reyes Family had become suspicious that something unusual was occurring when Sonia Valenzuela noticed surveyors on the lot next door. Sonia Valenzuela testified that the surveyors informed her that a Dollar General store was going to be constructed on that property. The Reyes Family decided to suspend...

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    ...term was essential or material. And a term is essential or material only if it is "vitally important" to the bargain. Burrus v. Reyes , 516 S.W.3d 170, 187 (Tex.App.—El Paso 2017, pet. denied). Thus, the presence of an ambiguity in a contract does not always indicate a structural failure; i......
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