Stander v. Szabados

Decision Date11 June 2013
Docket NumberNo. WD 75697.,WD 75697.
PartiesMaria STANDER, Appellant, v. Linda SZABADOS, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals


Gaylin Rich Carver, Jefferson City, MO, for Appellant.

F. Randall Waltz, III, Jefferson City, MO, for Respondent.

Before Division I: GARY D. WITT, Presiding Judge, and THOMAS H. NEWTON and MARK D. PFEIFFER, Judges.


Maria Stander (Stander) appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri (trial court), in favor of Linda Szabados (Szabados), on her counterclaims to quiet title to Szabados as joint tenant with Stander in certain improved real property (“the Property”).1 We affirm.

Facts and Procedural History 2

Stander and her sister, Szabados, entered into an oral agreement to contribute equally to purchase the Property in February 2002. Due to Stander's superior credit standing (because she was employed and Szabados was not), the Property was purchased in Stander's name individually. The Property was purchased for $92,000, with a $20,000 down payment and a $72,000 loan. Stander and Szabados agreed that Szabados would pay one-half of the purchase price. Stander required Szabados to pay her share of the loan payment each month in cash.

During the term of the loan, Szabados, using Stander's identity, arranged refinancing, resulting in a lower interest rate and shorter payoff period. Stander did not object to Szabados's conduct. When the loan was paid off, Stander received a check for $1,200 for a refund from the escrow. When Szabados learned of the refund, she asked for half, but Stander refused. Szabados also demanded that Stander add Szabados's name to the title, but Stander refused to re-title the Property to reflect Szabados's one-half interest.

In August 2010, without Stander's permission, Szabados used Stander's identity and executed a general warranty deed (“Deed”) conveying the Property from Stander to Stander and Szabados's daughter. When Stander discovered what Szabados had done, Stander filed suit against Szabados and others requesting, among other things, that the trial court set aside the Deed, because Szabados had forged Stander's name on the Deed, and award Stander damages based upon Szabados's fraud. Szabados counterclaimed, requesting, among other things, that the trial court quiet title in the Property to Stander and Szabados as tenants in common and partition the Property by sale, or alternatively, to award her damages resulting from Stander's fraud.

After a bench trial, the trial court issued its judgment. As pertinent to this appeal, the trial court:

• found in favor of Stander on her claim (i) to set aside the Deed as void because it was not signed by Stander; (ii) of fraud against Szabados, assessing Stander's damages at one dollar, finding that no credible evidence of special damages was received;

• found in favor of Szabados on her counterclaim (i) to quiet title and partition,finding that Stander's defense of the statute of frauds was not supported by either the pleadings or the facts, quieting title to Stander and Szabados as tenants in common with each holding an undivided one-half interest in the Property, and ordering the Property partitioned by sale but staying the sale requirement until the judgment becomes final (either by operation of law or by resolution by appeal); (ii) for fraud, but finding no unique damages given the quiet title and partition relief granted.

Stander timely appeals, asserting five points of trial court error.

Standard of Review

The standard of review for a bench-tried civil case is that set forth in Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). This court will affirm the judgment of the trial court unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or misapplies the law. Id. We view the evidence and the reasonable inferences that may be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the judgment, disregarding evidence and inferences to the contrary. Id. Appellate courts should exercise the power to set aside a decree or judgment on the ground that it is ‘against the weight of the evidence’ with caution and with a firm belief that the decree or judgment is wrong.” Id. We defer to the trial court's determination of the credibility of the witnesses.” River Oaks Homes Ass'n v. Lounce, 356 S.W.3d 855, 859 (Mo.App. W.D.2012).


In her fourth point, Stander contends that the trial court erred in quieting title in favor of Szabados because she did not have standing to bring a quiet title action in that she did not have legal or equitable title in the Property. Because [c]ourts have a duty to determine if a party has standing prior to addressing the substantive issues of the case,” we will address that issue first. CACH, LLC v. Askew, 358 S.W.3d 58, 61 (Mo. banc 2012) (citing Farmer v. Kinder, 89 S.W.3d 447, 451 (Mo. banc 2002)). A party's standing to sue is a question of law that we review de novo on appeal. Id. We determine standing on the basis of the petition, along with any other undisputed facts. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mo. v. Nixon, 81 S.W.3d 546, 551 (Mo.App. W.D.2002).

“Standing refers to a party's right to seek relief.” Bellistri v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 284 S.W.3d 619, 622 (Mo.App. E.D.2009). It ‘requires that a party seeking relief have a legally cognizable interest in the subject matter and that [s]he has a threatened or actual injury.’ Id. (quoting E. Mo. Laborers Dist. Council v. St. Louis Cnty., 781 S.W.2d 43, 46 (Mo. banc 1989)). “Standing requires the party to be sufficiently affected so as to ensure a justiciable controversy.” Id. A party must have some actual, justiciable interest—a recognizable stake. Id.

“A suit to quiet title, such as that filed by [Szabados], is a statutory action, and it is an appropriate means to determine the respective estates, titles, and interests of multiple people claiming an interest in land.” Robson v. Diem, 317 S.W.3d 706, 712 (Mo.App. W.D.2010). Section 527.1503 governs actions to quiet title and authorizes relief under both legal and equitable principles:

1. Any person claiming any title, estate or interest in real property, whether the same be legal or equitable, certain or contingent, present or in reversion, or remainder, whether in possession or not, may institute an action against any person or persons having or claiming to have any title, estate or interest in such property, whether in possession or not, to ascertain and determine the estate, title and interest of said parties, respectively, in such real estate, and to define and adjudge by its judgment or decree the title, estate and interest of the parties severally in and to such real property.

2. And upon the trial of such cause, if same be asked for in the pleadings of either party, the court may hear and finally determine any and all rights, claims, interest, liens and demands, whatsoever of the parties, or of any one of them, concerning or affecting said real property, and may award full and complete relief, whether legal or equitable, to the several parties, and to each of them, as fully and with the same force and effect as the court might or could in any other or different action brought by the parties, or any one of them, to enforce any such right, claim, interest, lien or demand, and the judgment or decree of the court when so rendered shall be as effectual between the parties thereto as if rendered in any other, different or separate action prosecuted therefor.

“The statute is remedial in nature and is to be liberally construed.” Robson, 317 S.W.3d at 712 (internal quotation omitted). “A person who enters into a contract for sale of a piece of real property with the legal owner of the property acquires equitable title.” Id. at 713 (citing Allied Pools, Inc. v. Sowash, 735 S.W.2d 421, 424 (Mo.App. W.D.1987), and Bath v. Bath, 233 S.W.3d 742, 743 (Mo.App. S.D.2007)).

Conversely, lack of title “goes fundamentally to standing, since a quiet title plaintiff must have some legal or equitable title to the subject property.” Bath, 233 S.W.3d at 743. It is not enough to claim title, legal or equitable, to real property where the claim for title flows from an alleged agreement with a person or entity that has no title to the property in dispute.

Consequently and fundamentally, plaintiff needed a contract with a property owner to claim equitable title via equitable conversion. Her only agreement was with Cheney Bath, who had no title. Plaintiff could not acquire and cannot claim title through dealings with a non-owner.

Id. Szabados had no legal title in the Property. Thus, to have standing, Szabados's counter-petition had to allege facts to support her claim of equitable title to the Property, acquired from the legal owner of the Property, her sister—Stander. Id.

Szabados alleged in her counter-petition that she and Stander decided to purchase a home together, equally sharing the cost and expenses. They each paid one-half of the down payment for the Property, with the oral agreement and understanding between them that each would have a property interest as tenants in common in the Property. Because Stander was the only one employed at the time, at her insistence and with Szabados's passive concurrence, Stander's name was the only purchaser's name placed on the warranty deed from the sellers. Thereafter, consistent with their oral agreement, Stander and Szabados each paid one-half of the mortgage payments on the Property each month from the date of purchase until the mortgage was paid in full. Szabados also paid one-half of all utility bills and property taxes for the Property during her nearly eight years of occupancy, as well as one-half of maintenance for, and improvements to, the Property.

As noted above, standing is determined solely on the basis of the petition, Kinder v. Holden, 92 S.W.3d 793, 803 (Mo.App. W.D.2002), and after...

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