may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
The Estate of Cynthia L. Hawbaker,
John D. Rudeen,
Itasca County District Court
File No. 31P296390
Sally L. Tarnowski, Johnson, Killen, Thibodeau & Seiler, P.A., 811 Norwest Center, 230 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN 55802 (for appellant)
Michael W. Haag, Magie, Andresen, Haag, Paciotti, Butterworth & McCarthy, P.A., 1000 Alworth Building, P.O. Box 745, Duluth, MN 55801 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Davies, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Foley, Judge.*
*Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
In this appeal from a judgment, appellant Estate of Cynthia Hawbaker challenges the trial court's determination that the estate has no claim against respondent John Rudeen on either an implied contract or unjust enrichment theory. Rudeen challenges the trial court's determination that he did not prove he owns a disputed camera. We affirm.
To pay the remainder of the purchase price, Hawbaker and Rudeen jointly borrowed $126,000, and mortgaged the house to secure the loan. Both Hawbaker and Rudeen signed the ten-year mortgage note. A joint checking account was used to make loan payments and pay other household expenses. Each month, Rudeen contributed $1,400 to the joint account, and Hawbaker contributed $700.
Hawbaker prepared a written schedule that listed Hawbaker's and Rudeen's respective contributions to the purchase of the house during the ten-year mortgage period. This schedule indicated that Hawbaker's initial contribution was $34,800 and Rudeen's was $0. The schedule also indicated that at the end of ten years, Hawbaker and Rudeen would have made approximately equal contributions to purchase the house.
In the fall of 1995, Hawbaker was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was expected to live for several more months, but died unexpectedly on February 23, 1996, of a pulmonary embolism. After learning of her illness, Hawbaker made no changes in the financial arrangements for purchasing the house and continued to hold title as a joint tenant. The schedule that Hawbaker had prepared indicated that when she died, her contribution to the purchase of the house was $44,458, and Rudeen's contribution was $15,355.23.
Hawbaker's estate brought suit against Rudeen, claiming that he owed money to the estate under an implied contract and that the estate was entitled to an interest in the house under the equitable doctrine of unjust enrichment. The trial court determined that the estate had no claim against Rudeen under either theory.
[O]n appeal from a judgment where there has been no motion for a new trial the only questions for review are whether the evidence sustains the findings of fact and whether such findings sustain the conclusions of law and the judgment.Gruenhagen v. Larson, 310 Minn. 454, 458, 246 N.W.2d 565, 569 (1976). A reviewing court need not defer to a trial court's decision on a legal issue. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass'n v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984). However, "[f]indings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous." Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
I. Implied Contract
The estate argues that the written schedule Hawbaker prepared at the time the house was purchased and the practice of Rudeen paying more each month into the joint checking account established the existence of an implied contract under which Rudeen was obligated to pay Hawbaker back for the amounts she initially contributed to the house and the amounts she paid on his debts.
A contract implied in fact is in all respects a true contract requiring a meeting of the minds. Roberge v. Cambridge Coop. Creamery, 248 Minn. 184, 188, 79 N.W.2d 142, 145-46 (1956). A contract implied in fact is one inferred from the circumstances and conduct of the parties. Id. at 189, 79 N.W.2d at 146. The existence of a contract implied in fact is a question of fact. Id.
When an implied contract is relied upon as the basis for legal relief and thus deduced from the circumstances, relationships and conduct of the parties,
it is not expected that the elements of a contract will be as vividly portrayed by the evidence as where an express contract has been pleaded.High v. Supreme Lodge of World, Loyal Order of Moose, 210 Minn. 471, 473, 298 N.W. 723, 725 (1941). But this does not relieve the plaintiff from the burden of establishing all essential contractual elements. Id. Moreover, "the simple fact of benefit without more does not impose contractual liability." Id. at 474-75, 298 N.W. at 725.
The trial court found that there was no implied contract that required Rudeen to pay a debt to Hawbaker. This finding is not clearly erroneous. The payment schedule that Hawbaker prepared at the time the house was purchased does not demonstrate that she and Rudeen intended to create a contractual obligation for Rudeen to repay her for her initial contribution to the purchase of the house. The payment schedule and the monthly contributions to the joint checking account demonstrate nothing more than that there was a plan for paying for the house; they do not demonstrate that Rudeen and Hawbaker were contractually obligated to make the payments reflected in the schedule or that there was a meeting of the minds regarding an obligation of Rudeen to repay Hawbaker.
II. Unjust Enrichment
The estate argues that the trial court erred by not imposing a constructive trust on the property and asks this court to find unjust enrichment justifying an equitable lien or a constructive trust in favor of the estate. "Granting equitable relief is within the sound discretion of the trial court. Only a clear abuse of that discretion will result in reversal." Nadeau v. County of Ramsey, 277 N.W.2d 520, 524 (Minn. 1979).
An equitable lien arises in an equity proceeding when a person is allowed to reach the property of another and hold it as security for a claim on the ground that otherwise the latter would be unjustly enriched. An equitable lien is essentially a form of a constructive trust.
Fredin v. Farmers State Bank, 384 N.W.2d 532, 535 (Minn. App. 1986) (citations omitted); see also Edward G. Jennings & Irving S. Shapiro, The Minnesota Law of Constructive Trusts and Analogous Equitable Remedies, 25 Minn. L. Rev. 667, 671-74 (1941) (explaining distinction between constructive trust and equitable lien; principal difference is that constructive trust applies to ownership of entire property and equitable lien creates security interest in property).
[A] constructive trust is a judicially created equitable remedy imposed to prevent unjust enrichment of a person holding property under a duty to convey it or use it for a specific purpose.
Wright v. Wright, 311 N.W.2d 484, 485 (Minn. 1981).
[W]henever the legal title to property is obtained through fraud, oppression, duress, undue influence, force, crime, or similar means, or by taking improper advantage of a confidential or fiduciary relationship, a constructive trust arises in favor of the person equitably entitled to the property.Id.
To impose a constructive trust, a court must "be persuaded by clear and convincing evidence that the imposition of a constructive trust is justified to prevent unjust enrichment." In re Estate of Eriksen, 337 N.W.2d 671, 674 (Minn. 1983).
In Eriksen, an unmarried couple, Potvin and Eriksen, purchased a home together and shared equally its expenses, including the mortgage payment and premiums on a decreasing term mortgage protection life insurance policy. Id. at 672. Potvin and Eriksen each understood that the home was purchased equally with joint funds and in both of their names. Id. But the couple agreed that title would be placed solely in Eriksen's name because (1) Potvin was still married and (2) Potvin could lose AFDC benefits if she owned a legal interest in the property. Id.
Eriksen died, and proceeds of the mortgage protection policy paid nearly all of the remaining mortgage indebtedness on the property. Id. The probate court found that Eriksen's estate would be unjustly enriched if it held sole title to the property and gave Potvin an undivided one-half interest in the property. Id. at 672-73. The supreme court affirmed, stating that
where Pamela Potvin contributed equally to the acquisition and maintenance of the home, and where she contributed equally to the premiums on the insurance which ultimately paid the mortgage after Eriksen's death, failure to award her one-half interest in the home would result in unjust enrichment of the estate.
Id. at 674.
The trial court concluded that Eriksen does not require the imposition of a constructive trust because, unlike Eriksen, where the couple intended to purchase the home jointly, but placed title solely in Eriksen's name, Hawbaker and Rudeen intended to purchase the house jointly and purposely held title to the house as joint tenants with right of survivorship. The trial court did not abuse its discretion.
The evidence demonstrates that Hawbaker under stood the legal significance of owning the property as a joint tenant, and that she knew for several months that her medical condition was terminal. Despite this knowledge, she took no steps to sever the parties' joint tenancy. There is not clear and convincing evidence that Rudeen obtained title to the property through any improper means or by taking improper advantage of his relationship with Hawbaker.
III. Inter Vivos Gift
Rudeen argues that the trial court erred when it determined that he did not prove his ownership of a disputed Minolta camera. Rudeen contends that the trial court's determination was based on the court's belief that the camera, along with other disputed personal property, was in Hawbaker's possession when she died. Rudeen contends that there is no evidence to support this belief with regard to the camera because he testified that only he used the camera after January 1991.
In its memorandum, the trial court stated, "proof that a deceased person possessed the property immediately prior to death establishes a prima facie case of ownership of the property." The trial court also stated, "It is undisputed that Hawbaker possessed the personal property at the time of her death."
The elements of an inter vivos gift are: (1) delivery; (2) intention to make the gift on the part of the donor; and (3) absolute disposition by the donor of the thing that is intended to be given to another. Oehler v. Falstrom, 273 Minn. 453, 456-57, 142 N.W.2d 581, 585 (1966). The donee bears the burden of proving the gift by clear and convincing evidence. Id. at 457, 142 N.W.2d at 585. Clear and convincing evidence means
more than a preponderance of the evidence but less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Clear and convincing proof will be shown where the truth of the facts asserted is "highly probable."Weber v. Anderson, 269 N.W.2d 892, 895 (Minn. 1978).
Rudeen testified that Hawbaker gave him the Minolta camera. But even if the camera had been delivered to Rudeen and was in his possession when Hawbaker died, to prove that the camera was his, Rudeen also had to prove that Hawbaker intended the camera to be a gift. The trial court expressly concluded that Rudeen's testimony was not sufficient to prove that Hawbaker intended to give him the personal property. Rudeen's possession of the camera when Hawbaker died, without proof of Hawbaker's intent to make a gift, does not prove that an inter vivos gift was made.