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Fitzpatrick v. Hoehn

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 2, 2018

Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick
v.
Margaret Hoehn Margaret Hoehn
v.
Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick

         Appeals from Baldwin Circuit Court (CV-14-900717)

          PARKER, JUSTICE.

         This appeal and cross-appeal arise out of an action initiated in the Baldwin Circuit Court by Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick against Margaret Hoehn ("Margaret").

         Facts and Procedural History

         John Hoehn ("John") and his wife, Margaret, jointly owned the Foley Flea Market located at 14809 Highway 59 North in Foley, Alabama ("the property"). On April 23, 2009, John, Margaret, and Fitzpatrick entered into an agreement ("the agreement") to sell John's "1/2 undivided interest in the property" to Fitzpatrick -- John and Margaret's daughter --and her then husband, Paul Kihano, for $400, 000.[1] The agreement specified that Margaret would "retain her 1/2 undivided interest in the property." The agreement required Fitzpatrick and Kihano to pay $20, 000 at closing and to repay the balance of $380, 000, at an interest rate of 3% per annum, in 360 monthly payments of $1, 602.10. The agreement stated that Fitzpatrick and Kihano "shall be entitled to enter into possession of [the] property so long as [they are] not in default in the performance of [the agreement]." The agreement also made clear that title to John's "1/2 undivided interest in the property" would not pass to Fitzpatrick and Kihano until all the payments had been made under the agreement:

"When the purchase price and all other amounts to be paid by [Fitzpatrick and Kihano], pursuant to this Contract, are fully paid as provided for in this Contract, [Margaret and John] will execute and deliver to [Fitzpatrick and Kihano] a good and sufficient deed conveying to [Fitzpatrick and Kihano] good and marketable title to said property by general warranty deed, subject to all restrictive covenants, easements, reservations, mineral reservations[, ] conveyance of minerals, rights-of-way applicable to said property of record in the Probate Court of Baldwin County, Alabama, zoning laws and real property taxes and any encroachments existing at the time of conveyance."

         Margaret and Fitzpatrick also held a bank account jointly. At some point after the agreement was executed, Margaret withdrew approximately $603, 000 from the joint account. According to Fitzpatrick, Margaret would not tell Fitzpatrick why she had withdrawn the money. Apparently, Margaret gave the money she withdrew to Kihano, Fitzpatrick and Kihano's son Justin Kihano ("Justin"), and Timothy Mixon, a family member. This caused tension between Margaret and Fitzpatrick.

         Subsequently, on October 21, 2013, John executed a quitclaim deed conveying his one-half interest in the property to Margaret; the quitclaim deed made no mention of the agreement. On November 11 or 12, 2013, Margaret changed the locks on the property so that Fitzpatrick could no longer access the property or operate the flea market.

         Thereafter, in mid-November 2013, Fitzpatrick withdrew $395, 000 from an account she held jointly with Margaret; it is unclear if this is the same account from which Margaret withdrew approximately $603, 000. Concerning the bank account from which she withdrew the $395, 000, Fitzpatrick explained:

"[Fitzpatrick's trial counsel:] But how did the funds get in that account, and ... was the account in your name and was it known between you and [Margaret] that those funds were yours, if you can explain that to us?
"[Fitzpatrick:] Yes. The account was only in she and my name, and like I said, after I had gotten divorced I made her the guardian of Justin, I had made her my health proxy, my business proxy, my executrix, and we had -- we had had that particular account, it had moved many banks, but since I was a child."

         Even though it is undisputed that the $395, 000 was in a joint account held by Fitzpatrick and Margaret, Fitzpatrick testified that the $395, 000 was hers. Fitzpatrick also withdrew $400, 000 from an account at another bank; the parties have not directed this Court's attention to anything indicating who owned this account. Fitzpatrick testified that she withdrew the $400, 000 at John's request.

         It was undisputed that Fitzpatrick quit making payments under the agreement in December 2013.

         On June 6, 2014, Fitzpatrick, with her sisters, initiated this lawsuit against Margaret, Kihano, and Mixon. Fitzpatrick submitted numerous amended complaints adding John's estate[2] as a defendant and asserting a total of 15 claims against the defendants. The only claims relevant for purposes of these appeals are Fitzpatrick's claims against Margaret alleging intentional interference with a contract and intentional interference with business relations; against John's estate alleging breach of contract; and against Margaret, Kihano, and Mixon alleging tortious interference with an inheritance. Concerning her claim against John's estate, Fitzpatrick alleged that John had breached the agreement by conveying his one-half interest in the property to Margaret by quitclaim deed. Fitzpatrick argued that John's conveyance prohibited him from being able to convey his interest in the property to Fitzpatrick upon her performance of the agreement. Fitzpatrick subsequently changed the theory of her breach-of-contract claim to argue that John had assigned the agreement to Margaret by conveying his interest in the property to Margaret by way of the October 21, 2013, quitclaim deed and that Margaret had breached the agreement by denying Fitzpatrick access to the property.

         On September 11, 2014, Margaret filed a counterclaim against Fitzpatrick and the other plaintiffs seeking recovery of the $795, 000 Fitzpatrick had withdrawn from the bank accounts.

         On January 13, 2015, the circuit court entered a scheduling order that was agreed to by the parties. The scheduling order states that "March 2, 2015, is the deadline to join other parties" and that "March 30, 2015, is the deadline to amend pleadings." On March 2, 2015, Fitzpatrick filed a motion to extend the deadline to add a party until the parties completed depositions. The circuit court granted Fitzpatrick an additional 30 days "to determine if additional parties should be added." On August 26, 2015, the circuit court entered an order stating that Fitzpatrick "may file an amended complaint no later than 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, August 27, 2015. Any amended complaint which [Fitzpatrick] see[ks] to file after this said date and time deadline shall be stricken from the record." On August 27, 2015, Fitzpatrick filed her third amended complaint adding Justin as a party. On the same day, the circuit court entered an order stating that "all pleadings in this case are now closed with [Fitzpatrick's] filing of [her] third amended complaint." Subsequently, Fitzpatrick filed two more amended complaints, which the circuit court struck.

         On October 6, 2015, Margaret filed a motion for a summary judgment as to several of the claims against her. Relevant to this appeal, Margaret argued that Fitzpatrick's claim of tortious interference with an inheritance is not a valid claim under Alabama law. On October 22, 2015, the circuit court entered a summary judgment in favor of Margaret on Fitzpatrick's claim of tortious interference with an inheritance.

         On June 14, 2016, Margaret filed a motion noting that Fitzpatrick had agreed during the course of an oral argument concerning an unrelated motion that John's estate was no longer a party in this case. On the same day, the circuit court entered the following order: "It is hereby noted in the record that counsel stipulated on this date that the Estate of John Hoehn is not a party to this action."

         It is undisputed that, before trial, Fitzpatrick returned to Margaret the $400, 000 she had allegedly withdrawn at John's direction. Accordingly, Margaret's counterclaim sought recovery of the remaining $395, 000 Fitzpatrick withdrew from the account she held jointly with Margaret.

         Fitzpatrick states in her brief before this Court that the case proceeded to trial on her claims of intentional interference with a contract, intentional interference with business relations, and breach of contract. Margaret's counterclaim was also tried before the jury.

         On November 10, 2016, at the close of Fitzpatrick's case, Margaret filed a motion for a judgment as a matter of law ("JML") as to Fitzpatrick's claims. Concerning Fitzpatrick's breach-of-contract claim, Margaret argued that she was entitled to a JML because, she said, John's obligation under the agreement to convey his interest in the property to Fitzpatrick upon Fitzpatrick's performance had not been assigned to her. Margaret argued that "John's execution of the quitclaim deed, if a breach, was a breach of John['s] ... obligation to convey title. And the breach by John is only actionable against his estate." This was the only argument Margaret asserted in support of her motion for a JML on Fitzpatrick's breach-of-contract claim. The circuit court heard oral argument on Margaret's motion for a JML and, at the conclusion of the oral argument, stated:

"All right. Court's going to rule in this case that as to Counts Three and Four, the interference with business relationships and contractual relationships, I'm going to let those go to the jury and deny the motion for judgment as a matter of law. I am, however, going to grant it as to the breach of contract claim."

         Fitzpatrick's claims of intentional interference with a contract and intentional interference with business relations and Margaret's counterclaim were submitted to the jury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Fitzpatrick on her claims and in favor of Margaret on her counterclaim.[3]

         On November 14, 2016, the circuit court entered the following order:

"Having struck the Jury on 11/07/2016 this case was tried and submitted to the Jury on 11/10/2016 and the following verdict was rendered as to plaintiff's complaint: 'We, the Jury, find in favor of the Plaintiff, Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick and against the Defendant, Margaret Hoehn and assess Compensatory Damages: $55, 240.00, Punitive Damages: $0.00, Total Damages: $55, 240.00, Byron Hilton, Foreperson.' The following verdict was rendered as to the counterclaim: 'We, the jury, find in favor of the defendant/counterclaim plaintiff, Margaret Hoehn and against the plaintiff/counterclaim defendant, Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick on the defendant/counterclaim plaintiff's counterclaim and assess defendant/counterclaim plaintiff's damages at $395, 000.00, Byron Hilton, Foreperson.'
"It is hereby ordered
"1. That Judgment is entered in favor of the Plaintiff, Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick and against the Defendant, Margaret Hoehn in the amount of $55, 240.00 plus costs of court, including jury costs.
"2. That judgment is entered in favor of the Defendant/Counterclaim Plaintiff, Margaret Hoehn and against the Plaintiff/Counterclaim Defendant, Roman Hoehn Fitzpatrick in the amount of $395, 000.00."

         On December 12, 2016, Fitzpatrick filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., concerning her claims against Margaret, arguing, among other things not relevant to the issues before us, that the amount of the compensatory-damages award is insufficient. On the same day, Fitzpatrick also filed a "motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative, a new trial"[4] concerning Margaret's counterclaim. Fitzpatrick argued that "1. [t]he jury's verdict is not supported by the evidence and is against the great weight or preponderance of the evidence"; "2. [t]he jury's verdict on [Margaret's] counter-claim relating to the $395, 000.00 is not supported by Alabama law and in fact is contrary to Alabama law"; and "3. [Fitzpatrick] was prevented from presenting evidence defending against said counter-claim due to time constraints placed upon [Fitzpatrick] in presenting her case and defenses to the counter-claim."

         On December 15, 2016, the circuit court denied Fitzpatrick's postjudgment motions.

         Fitzpatrick appealed; Margaret cross-appealed. Because, however, all claims of all parties had not been disposed of by the circuit court's November 14, 2016, order, this Court, on July 24, 2017, remanded the case for the circuit court to

"(1) make the interlocutory order of November 14, 2016, a final judgment pursuant to the provisions of Rule 54(b), Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure; (2) adjudicate the remaining pending claims and thus issuing a final judgment; or (3) take no action, in which event this appeal will be dismissed as from a non-final judgment."

         On August 6, 2017, the circuit court entered the following order:

"This matter comes before the court on defendant Margaret Hoehn's motion for final judgment based on grounds of express abandonment, as to all remaining claims pleaded by all plaintiffs against all defendants.' The motion is due to be, and hereby is, GRANTED. Accordingly, the prior judgment entered by the court following the jury verdict remains the judgment of this court, but now, as to all remaining claims, it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED that judgment is rendered in favor of the defendants on all remaining claims of plaintiffs, no costs to be taxed."

         Standards of Review

         Different standards of review apply in resolving the issues before us. Fitzpatrick first challenges the circuit court's granting of Margaret's motion for a JML on Fitzpatrick's breach-of-contract claim. We ...


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