Vaughn v. Vaughn

Decision Date05 September 2002
Docket NumberNo. 1232,1232
Citation806 A.2d 787,146 Md. App. 264
PartiesGene VAUGHN v. Jay VAUGHN.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Andrea L. Shapiro, Clinton, for appellant.

Paul Bauer Eason, Greenbelt, for appellee.



The Circuit Court for Prince George's County, sitting without a jury, returned a verdict in favor of Jay Vaughn ("Jay"), the appellee, and against his wife, Gene Vaughn ("Gene"), the appellant, on claims for breach of contract and conversion, and entered judgment for $7,060. The court found against Gene on her counterclaim for conversion. In doing so, it made a finding on the record that certain United States Treasury Bonds titled in Gene's name are Jay's property.

Gene appeals from the judgment of the circuit court, posing the following question for review, which we have rephrased:

Did the trial court err in ruling that the United States Treasury Bonds titled in her name are Jay's property?

For the following reasons, we shall vacate the judgment of the circuit court on Gene's counterclaim and remand the case to that court with instructions.


Jay and Gene were married on October 15, 1996. It was the second marriage for each. They had no children together, though each have children from prior marriages.

For the first ten months of the marriage, Jay and Gene lived apart. They began cohabiting in August 1997, when Jay moved into Gene's house, in Brandywine, Prince George's County. Jay and Gene separated on June 23, 2000.

On December 1, 2000, in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Jay sued Gene for conversion, breach of contract, abuse of process, fraud in the inducement, and injunctive relief ("the tort action"). Jay alleged that when the parties separated, he moved out of the marital home and left behind several items of personal property. Later, Gene agreed to give him access to the marital home at a specific date and time to remove those items. When the agreed date and time arrived, however, Gene refused to let Jay in the house. His items of personal property thus remained in the marital home. Jay claimed that Gene's conduct was a breach of their agreement and a conversion of his items of personal property. He attached to his complaint a list of the items he claimed Gene had converted, with valuations. According to Jay, the value of the items totaled $21,470.

Gene filed an answer in the tort action on January 4, 2001.

On January 23, 2001, also in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Jay filed a complaint for limited divorce against Gene ("the divorce action"), alleging he and Gene had mutually and voluntarily separated on June 23, 2000, with the intention of ending their marriage. Jay asked the court to resolve any dispute between them respecting their property.

On February 12, 2001, Gene filed an answer in the divorce action, admitting the parties had separated as alleged, with the intention of ending their marriage. The same day, she filed a counterclaim for conversion in the tort action, alleging that when Jay left the marital home, he took certain of her personal property and converted it to his own use. Gene attached to her counterclaim an itemized list of the items she claimed Jay had converted, with valuations. The most valuable items listed were certain United States Treasury Bonds, titled in Gene's name, that she claimed were worth $28,000. Gene assigned the other items (all small pieces of personal property) values totaling $1,000. Gene alleged that she had demanded the return of the items but Jay had refused.

On July 3, 2001, Gene filed a counter-complaint for absolute divorce in the divorce action. She also filed a motion to stay in the tort action, pending the outcome of the divorce action, asserting that the same property was in dispute in both actions. Jay opposed the motion, and on July 11, 2001, the court issued an order denying it.

On July 12, 2001, the parties appeared before the court for a bench trial in the tort action. At the outset, Gene renewed her motion to stay, arguing that the property at issue was "disputed marital and non-marital property"; that a spouse cannot convert marital property, and therefore it was necessary for the court to determine whether the property at issue was marital or non-marital for it to decide the conversion claim and counterclaim; and the proper forum for that determination was the divorce action, not the tort action. In response, Jay's lawyer acknowledged that, with respect to the counterclaim, the parties were disputing whether the United States Treasury Bonds were marital property; he agreed, for that reason, that the divorce action was the proper forum in which to resolve that dispute. With respect to Jay's conversion claim, however, Jay's lawyer pointed out that of the 67 items Jay was claiming were non-marital and that Gene had converted, 15 were items Gene already had acknowledged as being non-marital, in answers to interrogatories. Jay's lawyer suggested that the court proceed with the tort action as to those items only.

Ultimately, and over Gene's protest, the court left to Jay the decision whether to go forward with the conversion claim on all or some of the items he was claiming Gene had converted, and with the counterclaim for conversion of the bonds. Despite his lawyer's advice to the contrary, Jay asked the court to proceed with his conversion claim on all the property, including the items of disputed marital property, and to proceed with the counterclaim. The court then did so.

Jay testified that in 1993, he purchased some United States Treasury Bonds to fund his children's education. The bonds were titled in his name. By 1997, after he and Gene had married, Jay found himself in debt and pursued by creditors. He decided to try to hide the bonds from his creditors by redeeming them and giving the proceeds to Gene.

Further to his plan, in late June 1997, Jay redeemed the bonds for approximately $35,000 and gave the money to Gene. Documents moved into evidence included checks Jay wrote to Gene in July 1997, after he redeemed the bonds, for sums totaling approximately $35,000. Also in July 1997, Gene used the money from Jay to purchase United States Treasury Bonds, which she titled in her name. According to Jay, Gene agreed to hold the new bonds for him; therefore, the new bonds were not marital property. Rather, they were "[Jay's] property that [Gene] was holding for [him]."

In 1999, Jay filed for bankruptcy. He did not include any bonds in his disclosure of personal property in the bankruptcy case.

Jay further testified that he is a cab driver and throughout the marriage he was working in that capacity and earning an annual income of approximately $20,000.

Gene testified that before moving into her house, in August 1997, Jay announced that he planned to continue running a start-up business that had yet to turn a profit, and that he did not intend to continue driving a cab. Because Jay was not going to be bringing any income to the marriage, he agreed to redeem his United States Treasury Bonds and give Gene the proceeds to contribute to the household and otherwise use as she saw fit. After Jay redeemed the bonds and gave her the proceeds, Gene decided to use the money to purchase her own United States Treasury Bonds. She did so, and titled them in her name. She planned to use the bonds to fund her daughter's education.

Gene is an accountant, and was employed in several positions during the course of the marriage.

Gene further testified that when the parties first experienced marital problems, in March 2000, Jay moved out of their bedroom into an extra room in the house. Gene's United States Treasury Bonds were in a box in that room. When Jay moved out of the house, he took several boxes, including the box containing the bonds. Gene demanded that Jay return the bonds, but he refused. At the conclusion of the evidence and after hearing argument of counsel, the court ruled from the bench. It granted motions for judgment on Jay's claims for abuse of process and fraudulent inducement, and then ruled in Jay's favor on his breach of contract and conversion claims. Jay's itemized list of personal property allegedly converted by Gene had been admitted into evidence. The court rejected the values assigned to the items on that list, but with some exceptions, accepted the values testified to by Jay, which totaled $10,710. The court excluded several items that it identified and in one case ruled was marital property, and then valued the remaining items of personal property at $7,060.

The court found that the parties had entered into an oral agreement for Jay to have access to the marital home to retrieve those items of personal property and that Gene had breached the agreement. It further found that Gene had "exercised ... dominion over [the] property," thereby committing the tort of conversion. The court concluded that it was not a sufficient remedy for Gene to return the converted items, because Jay had had to expend sums to replace them and, on that basis, entered judgment in favor of Jay for $7,060. The court denied Jay's request for injunctive relief, concluding it was moot.

The court then turned its attention to Gene's counterclaim for conversion of the United States Treasury Bonds. It stated, "[t]he [c]ourt is only concerned here with whose property it is, and I bel[ie]ve it [the bonds] was his...." Acknowledging "fraud" by both parties, the court credited Jay's testimony that he had given the proceeds of his redeemed United States Treasury Bonds to Gene not for her to use but for her to hold, for his benefit, to keep the money from his creditors. Jay's lawyer then asked the court: "Would you just indicate, just for clarity, that all the bonds that were purchased you found of (sic) [Jay's] property?" The court responded, "Defendant's Exhibit...

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