Williams v. Richardson

Decision Date01 November 2017
Docket NumberNUMBER 2016 CA 1430
CourtCourt of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US


Appealed from the 32nd Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Terrebonne, Louisiana

Honorable George J. Larke, Jr., Judge

J. Rene Williams

Houma, Louisiana

Attorney for Appellant

Defendant - Ashli Richardson

Mark D. Plaisance

Thibodaux, Louisiana

Attorney for Appellee

Plaintiff - Cindy Williams



The defendant/appellant, Ashli Richardson, appeals a trial court judgment in favor of the plaintiff/appellee, Cindy Williams. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the trial court judgment and render judgment against Ashli Richardson in the amount of $8,408.84 plus legal interest from the date of judicial demand.


In the instant matter, Cindy Williams ("plaintiff") filed suit seeking to enforce an oral contract involving profits derived from the sale of immovable property. In 2001, the plaintiff met Ashli Richardson ("defendant") when she sought assistance in connection with domestic issues she was experiencing with her then-husband. The defendant was the domestic abuse coordinator for the Houma Police Department. The parties developed a personal relationship over the course of time and eventually decided to rent a house together in 2003.

In July of 2004, the defendant purchased a house and property located at 704 Winrock Drive in Houma, which is the subject of the instant dispute. The parties and their children moved into the newly purchased house and continued to live together until May of 2008, when the defendant left the house. As per the agreement of the parties, the plaintiff and her child remained in the house until March of 2009, whereupon the defendant reoccupied the house. As discussed below, the Winrock property was eventually sold by the defendant to a third party in late-2010.

On August 6, 2009, after moving out of the house, the plaintiff filed a "Petition for Breach of Contract and, Alternatively, for Partition" against the defendant. The petition alleged that the plaintiff and the defendant agreed to jointly purchase the Winrock Drive property, but to place the title to the property in the defendant's name. The plaintiff alleged that she advanced the funds necessary for the down payment in the amount of $19,400.00, and that the parties agreed thatthey would "jointly share the mortgage and insurance payments" on the home. Further, the petition alleged that the parties agreed that should they no longer both live at the property together, the party that remained would pay half of the equity in the home to the other party as well as any "other adjustments as may have been appropriate with regard to the sharing of the down payment expenses incurred exclusively by [the] plaintiff."

The petition alleged that on or about June 25, 2009, the defendant advised the plaintiff that she "wished to terminate their joint ownership of the property and indicated that she would purchase plaintiff's interest in same." According to the petition, the parties were unable to agree to a buy-out agreement. The plaintiff's petition prayed for one-half of the difference between the value of the home and property based on recent appraisals and the remaining mortgage balance, together with all appropriate adjustments to reflect the plaintiff's payment of the down payment. Alternatively, the plaintiff sought a partition of the property under private sale. The defendant filed an answer and reconventional demand.1 The answer denied most of the allegations in the petition, only admitting that the defendant did offer to pay the plaintiff an undisclosed amount upon the plaintiff's departure from the house.

The record does not indicate a date, but at some point before April of 2010, the plaintiff filed a notice of lis pendens in the conveyance records, providing notification to third parties of the pendency of her claims to the Winrock Drive property made in the underlying suit. However, in a consent judgment signedApril 8, 2010, the plaintiff agreed to remove the notice of lis pendens from the conveyance records at the time of the sale, provided that the plaintiff was given ten-day notice of the terms of any proposed sale; after the sale occurred, the sum of $19,400.00 or one-half of the equity from the sale of said residence, whichever amount was greater, would be deposited in the registry of court. On December 13, 2010, pursuant to the consent judgment, the amount of $38,200.96 was deposited into the registry of the court. The sum represented one-half of the equity proceeds from the sale of the property.

The matter moved slowly until December 29, 2014, when the plaintiff filed a motion seeking release of the funds in the registry. However, the motion was continued without date, and the matter was eventually set for trial.

During the two-day trial, the plaintiff sought to establish a claim for breach of an oral contract. To that end, she submitted evidence to show the existence of an oral contract over $500.00, as required under La. C.C. art. 1846. Specifically, the plaintiff called two witnesses to testify on her behalf as to their personal knowledge regarding the existence and terms of the oral contract between the parties related to the purchase of the property. Also, the plaintiff testified on her own behalf as to her understanding of the parameters of the oral agreement with the defendant, and submitted documentary evidence regarding the down payment as well as payments she directly made on the mortgage itself.

Reviewing the plaintiff's testimony as a whole reveals that she understood that the oral agreement between the parties provided that she would be paid back all of the funds she put forth on the down payment and deposit on the house; each party would be reimbursed for funds each had "spent" on the house, including any mortgage notes she paid while the defendant was unemployed; and any equity remaining after the house was sold would be split equally between the parties. Initially, the plaintiff testified that she believed she was entitled to fullreimbursement of any mortgage payments she made, however, she adjusted her claim under cross-examination. According to the plaintiff, the parties agreed to place the house in the defendant's name "because of [plaintiff's] husband[,]" but understood that they would be co-owners. As to the down payment, the plaintiff testified that the defendant agreed to repay the full amount from funds the defendant anticipated receiving from a legal settlement. Craig Sampognaro, the plaintiff's first cousin, corroborated the plaintiff's testimony as to the parties' agreement regarding the down payment.

The defendant testified that the down payment was a loan and that there was never an oral contract between the parties to share ownership of the house, as evidenced by her name being the sole name on the title to the home. Importantly, the defendant acknowledged that the plaintiff was entitled to recovery for the remaining balance on the down payment. According to the defendant, the parties agreed to contribute $1,200.00 each towards the household expenses, a practice they had begun while renting together. However, according to the defendant, at a certain point, the plaintiff's $1,200.00 toward monthly expenses was paid directly to the mortgage at the advice of the plaintiff's divorce attorney. The defendant was unable to produce any documentary evidence to corroborate her testimony showing that she regularly contributed this amount every month during the time that the parties lived together.

In a judgment signed November 3, 2015, the trial court found that the defendant owed the plaintiff $38,265.07 (the amount representing half of the equity received from the sale of the property) "for the reasons orally assigned in open court."2 The trial court also ordered that a check in that amount be issued by the clerk of court to the plaintiff. In its oral reasons, the trial court found as follows:

Here an oral contract in excess of $500 exists with the testimony of disinterested third-party witnesses ... and the corroborating documentation provided by the parties. The Court holds that there was an oral contract between [the plaintiff] and [the defendant]. The oral agreement detailed in the petition, [the plaintiff] would provide the initial down payment for the home on Winrock Drive in exchange for ownership in indivision.
Thus when the home at Winrock Drive was sold, [the defendant] failed to give [the plaintiff] her one-half of the proceeds. Their oral contract was breached. Thus, due to the defendant's failure to perform in accordance with the contract, the [defendant is] liable, and the Court will award petitioner the sum of $38,200 for her share of the equity in the home. The Court also notes the petitioner limited her claim to the amounts secured within its registry; even though she may have been owed more. [Emphasis added.]

The defendant appeals and asserts two alternative assignments of error. First, the defendant contends that the trial court erred in finding that the plaintiff met the required burden of proof to establish the existence of an oral contract. Second, the defendant avers that the trial court erred in holding the plaintiff could acquire an ownership interest in the Winrock Drive property through an oral agreement.

In her appellee brief to this court, the plaintiff contends that based on the evidence presented at trial, she established that the parties entered into an oral agreement whereby the parties agreed that in exchange for the plaintiff's contribution of the down payment and other expenses, the plaintiff would share equally in the proceeds from the sale of the property. Alternatively, the plaintiff asserts that in the absence of an oral contract, she is entitled to recoup her share of the proceeds on the sale of the...

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