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Autery v. Pope

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

March 30, 2018

Frank W. Autery and Janice P. Autery
K. Todd Pope

          Appeal from Tallapoosa Circuit Court (CV-15-900070)

          MOORE, JUDGE.

         Frank W. Autery and Janice P. Autery appeal from a judgment entered by the Tallapoosa Circuit Court ("the trial court") awarding K. Todd Pope $29, 415.39 for modifications that Pope had made to a house and real property ("the property") owned by the Auterys. We reverse the trial court's judgment.

         Procedural History

         On October 21, 2015, Pope filed a complaint against the Auterys, who are Pope's mother and stepfather, requesting that the trial court award him title to the property. In the alternative, he requested restitution for the improvements he had made to the property. Pope asserted that he was entitled to his requested relief pursuant to the theories of constructive trust, unjust enrichment, and equitable estoppel. On November 20, 2015, the Auterys answered the complaint and counterclaimed, asserting that, if Pope were to be awarded title to the property, they should receive compensation for all the work and labor that they had invested in renovating the property. On November 20, 2015, Pope filed a reply to the counterclaim.

         After a trial, the trial court entered a judgment on February 3, 2017, concluding, in pertinent part:

"The Court finds that [Pope] did not prove that the [Auterys] intended for him to be fee simple title holder to the property at present; however, the Court finds that the [Auterys] would be unjustly enriched if they are allowed to retain the benefit of the improvements to the property paid for by [Pope]. It is ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED that judgment is entered against the [Auterys] and in favor of [Pope] in the amount of twenty-nine thousand four hundred fifteen dollars and 39/100 ($29, 415.39)."

         On March 2, 2017, the Auterys filed a postjudgment motion. That motion was denied by operation of law on May 31, 2017. See Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ. P. The Auterys filed their notice of appeal on July 12, 2017.


         The Auterys reside in Tallassee directly across the street from the property. In 2010, the Auterys purchased the property for $56, 550. Frank testified that the Auterys intended to rent or sell the property, after renovating the house, in order to fund any medical or other care they might need in their advanced years. At the time of the trial, the Auterys were in their early seventies. Frank further testified that the Auterys had preliminarily identified a tenant who would rent the property after the renovations were complete for $650 per month, but, he said, they had abandoned that plan after Pope had indicated that he wanted to reside in the house.

         Pope testified at trial that, at some point in 2011, the Auterys had promised him that they would deed him the property if he renovated the property. The Auterys, on the other hand, testified that they had not promised to convey the property to Pope in exchange for his renovation of the property, but had informed Pope that, if they still owned the property upon their deaths, they would leave the property to Pope as his inheritance. Three of Pope's sisters testified at trial regarding a November 2013 discussion of the ownership of the property. All three sisters basically testified that the Auterys had informed them and Pope that Pope would inherit the property and that Pope had not, during that discussion, protested that he was entitled to a present conveyance of the deed to the property in accordance with any alleged promise that had been made by the Auterys.

         In November 2012, Pope, who had retired from the military seven years earlier on disability, moved from his home in Mississippi to Tallassee. Pope initially moved in with the Auterys, and, according to Pope, not long thereafter he and the Auterys began renovating the property. Pope testified that, over the next year or more, he and Frank had both contributed manual labor to the renovations and that Pope had spent $29, 415.39 of his own money on modifying the property by, among other things, adding a water-filtration system, a security system, a tankless water heater, and a safe room.

         Frank testified that the improvements Pope had made to the property had not benefited him and Janice. Specifically, he testified that the improvements had not increased the fair market value or the fair rental value of the property and that he would not have made those improvements. For example, Frank testified that renovations Pope had made to one of the bathrooms did not "fit with the house." Frank testified that he had agreed to pay a plumber $1, 200 to renovate the bathroom, but, he said, Pope had made improvements and those improvements had gone beyond what Frank had agreed to. Frank testified further that the security system, the tankless water heater, and the water-filtration system were not necessary, so he had informed Pope that Pope would have to pay for those items if he wanted them as part of the renovations. He testified that he and Janice had spent over $3, 000 on renovating the property.

         In April 2014, Pope moved onto the property and began paying the Auterys $500 per month as "rent." Pope, however, refused to sign a lease agreement presented to him by the Auterys. In June 2014, the Auterys contacted Bonita Caldwell, a real-estate attorney, who testified that, upon the Auterys' request, she had drafted ...

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