Wright v. Dropik, Supreme Court No. S-17769

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtBORGHESAN, Justice.
Citation512 P.3d 655
Parties Leslie R. WRIGHT, Appellant, v. George M. DROPIK, Appellee.
Docket NumberSupreme Court No. S-17769
Decision Date24 June 2022

512 P.3d 655

Leslie R. WRIGHT, Appellant,
v.
George M. DROPIK, Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-17769

Supreme Court of Alaska.

June 24, 2022


Deborah Burlinski, Burlinski Law Office, LLC, Palmer, for Appellant.

Dan Allan, Law Offices of Dan Allan & Associates, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before: Winfree, Chief Justice, Maassen, Carney, and Borghesan, Justices. [Henderson, Justice, not participating.]

OPINION

BORGHESAN, Justice.

512 P.3d 658

I. INTRODUCTION

A man filed suit against a former romantic partner to resolve disputes about property acquired during their relationship. The superior court ruled the parties had been in a domestic partnership, a marriage-like relationship with implications for division of the parties’ property when the relationship ends. It then determined the woman owed the man for his contributions toward a Wasilla property they jointly bought and improved, an out-of-state property acquired in his name that was later sold at a loss, and veterinary bills charged to the man's credit card. Although it was error to determine the parties were in a domestic partnership without making predicate factual findings, this error does not affect the superior court's ruling on the Wasilla property or veterinary bills, and we affirm the superior court's decision on those points. But the error may affect the ruling on the out-of-state property, so we remand for additional proceedings on that issue.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Relationship Between Wright And Dropik

Leslie Wright and George Dropik began a relationship in February 2015. Dropik moved into Wright's Palmer house later that year. During their relationship, Wright worked as a hairdresser and ran a dog-breeding business while Dropik worked as a truck driver and for a construction company. The couple ended their relationship in August 2018.

B. Complaint

The following month, Dropik filed a complaint to partition and sell property the parties had purchased together in Wasilla and to distribute the proceeds according to their respective interests as tenants in common. He also claimed that Wright owed him $6,000 for charges incurred on his credit card. Wright counterclaimed for $7,500 that she allegedly loaned Dropik so he could purchase a property in Oklahoma. The court granted Dropik's motion to hold the net proceeds of the Wasilla property sale in escrow until after trial, scheduled to occur roughly a year later.

Wright argued in her trial brief that the parties should split the Wasilla property proceeds equally and that the credit card bills for which Dropik sought repayment reflected gifts, not loans. Wright also asserted that she had borrowed $15,000 from her daughter to lend to Dropik for the Oklahoma property but that Dropik had repaid only $7,500; therefore Wright argued that Dropik still owed another $7,500. Wright also contended the Oklahoma property was not jointly owned. Dropik, on the other hand, argued that Wright owed him for (1) costs associated with the Wasilla property; (2) costs associated with the Oklahoma property; and (3) veterinary bills he paid on her behalf. Dropik's trial brief also referred for the first time to the parties’ having been in a "domestic relationship."

C. Trial

At trial the parties testified about the nature of their relationship and certain items of property. We summarize the testimony relevant to this appeal.

1. Living expenses and veterinary bills

Wright testified that when she and Dropik lived together she paid for the mortgage and utilities, including the phone bill. Dropik testified that, when he moved in, the two had an agreement that he "would pay for everything that [they] do, and [he] wouldn't pay [Wright] rent," and that they acted consistently with this agreement. Dropik tallied the amount he contributed to over $134,000, which included travel, house maintenance, dining out, and miscellaneous purchases.

The parties testified that Dropik would put veterinary bills for Wright's dog-breeding business on his credit card to receive airline miles; the parties disputed whether Wright promised to pay him back. Dropik testified that Wright had owed him $10,600 for outstanding veterinary bills and had partially paid him back in two installments of $2,000.

512 P.3d 659

2. The Wasilla property

Wright and Dropik agreed that they were joint owners of the Wasilla property. Both of their names were on the title, and they planned to build a house on the property, contributing to a joint bank account to do so. Wright testified that the parties agreed to be "50-50" with respect to the Wasilla property; Dropik testified that the two "were to split the money going in to acquire the property" and that "everything was equally split short of just a couple of payments."

The parties both presented evidence about contributions to the joint bank account and the cost of improvements to the Wasilla property, including the repair of damage from a fallen tree, the use of heavy machinery to make improvements, a concrete slab, and other miscellaneous costs.

The two ended their relationship before the house was built. They sold the property for net proceeds of $60,936.65 in September 2019. The amount was held in Dropik's counsel's trust account.

3. The Oklahoma property

A house in Oklahoma was acquired and titled in Dropik's name during the course of the parties’ relationship. Wright obtained $15,000 for the down payment from her daughter.

The parties disputed whether the house was to be owned by Dropik only or by both of them. Wright's name was not on the house loan. Dropik testified that his name alone appeared on the loan for "financial reasons" but that they agreed to "split it and [ ] eventually move down there," sharing expenses 50/50. Dropik testified that they were "equally invested in it" and that Wright was "putting up half of the money." Wright testified that the parties did not discuss these arrangements beyond seemingly agreeing that they would share the property "[i]f [they] resided there." Wright was not listed on the title, which Dropik testified was because they found out at closing that he could not add her "unless [they] were both there." Wright, however, testified that she was present at the closing. Dropik added that Wright "regularly wanted [him] to add her to the title" but that they never found the time to do so. Wright testified that she never asked to be put on the title but added that Dropik "would" have added her to the title "if [they] moved down there."

Wright and Dropik never moved into the house and instead found renters, who did not pay their rent and damaged the house, necessitating repair costs. Dropik sold the home without any involvement from Wright after their relationship ended. Dropik repaid Wright's daughter $7,500 for what he characterized as his half of the borrowed money. Wright argued, and Wright's daughter testified, that Dropik borrowed the entire $15,000, meaning Wright was still owed $7,500 for the amount she eventually repaid her daughter. Dropik claimed he lost $28,457 on the Oklahoma property and argued Wright owes him $10,478 to cover her half of those losses as a joint owner of that property.1

D. Superior Court Decision

After trial the court found that Dropik and Wright were in a domestic partnership from February 2015 to August 2018. It accepted the parties’ agreement that they were joint owners of the Wasilla property and that each was entitled to half of the sale proceeds. It then found that the evidence showed Dropik had invested $15,283.15 more than Wright in the property and ruled that Wright owed Dropik half the difference: $7,641.58.

The court found credible Dropik's testimony that the two "intended to be equal partners in the Oklahoma property," finding most persuasive the fact that Dropik and Wright each paid Wright's daughter back for half of the money she loaned for the down payment. It determined that Wright owed Dropik $10,478.65 for half of the expenses and losses associated with the Oklahoma property.

Finally, the court rejected Wright's argument that Dropik paid her veterinary bills with his credit card as a gift because Wright had already repaid portions of the amount owed and had acknowledged the debt by

512 P.3d 660

phone and text. It found Wright still owed $5,632.45 but did not owe interest on that amount.

In sum, the court concluded that Wright owed Dropik $23,752.68, to be satisfied with the proceeds from the sale of the Wasilla property. Wright moved for reconsideration, which the court denied.

III. DISCUSSION

On appeal Wright argues that the superior court erred by: (1) determining her relationship with Dropik was a domestic partnership; (2) distributing the proceeds from the Wasilla property sale according to domestic partnership rules; (3) miscalculating Dropik's expenditures on the Wasilla property; (4) determining she owes Dropik half of the Oklahoma...

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