By Nicole Killoran
Nystrom v. Hafford, 2012 VT 60.
Today’s case stems from the fallout following a romantic relationship that produced a home and a joint tenancy and threatened to—but never did—consummate in marriage before things got ugly.
Plaintiff and Defendant dated for seven years, during which time Defendant purchased a plot of land. In 2009, Defendant conveyed title to himself and Plaintiff as joint tenants with right of survivorship. This gave each of them an equal ownership interest in the land. Plaintiff and Defendant proceeded to build a house on the property with Plaintiff’s parents providing a substantial portion of the labor, materials, and money for construction.
When the relationship dissolved, Plaintiff filed suit asking the court to partition the property between she and Defendant, divide the equity in the home, and determine each party’s liability to the other. Defendant responded by claiming that he had included Plaintiff on the deed as a conditional gift in anticipation of their future marriage; that Plaintiff had been unfaithful to him; and that such infidelity defeated his intent to gift partial ownership of the home to Plaintiff.
Defendant also moved to join Plaintiff’s parents as parties, and Plaintiff amended the complaint to include Parents’ claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment for the money they put into the home. In addition, Plaintiff’s father added a Prompt Pay Act (PPA) claim, arguing that Defendant had failed to pay father pursuant to an informal agreement that father would be paid for his labor if his daughter did not eventually occupy the premises.
The trial court’s first judgment order followed a two-day bench trial. The trial court granted ownership of the property to Plaintiff on the condition that she paid Defendant for his portion of the equity in the property—roughly $67,000. The court credited Plaintiff with the lion’s share of the “sweat equity” in the home, due to both hers and her parents’ efforts, and found that Plaintiff was more likely than Defendant to repay the debt, justifying the court’s grant of ownership.
The court dismissed Defendant’s “it ain’t a gift when she cheated on me” argument, noting that the parties had never been engaged and nothing on the face of the deed indicated it was a promise conditioned on marriage. The court then determined that Plaintiff and Defendant collectively owed roughly $33,000 to Parents whose contributions to the home’s construction were contemplated at the time of the deed transfer.
As for Parents’ claims, the trial court determined that Plaintiff’s father was the de facto construction supervisor for the house and that Parents had contributed substantial labor and materials. However, the court dismissed father’s claim under the PPA for his labor, finding that the parties had not agreed he would be paid in lieu of his daughter living in the home. For their contributions, Parents were granted a lien for the amount owed them by the parties.
The initial order did not grant any of the parties an award for attorney’s fees, a point which Defendant raised in a subsequent motion to amend and clarify. Defendant argued that, as to father’s PPA claim, he was the substantially prevailing party and thus entitled to attorney’s fees. The court rejected this argument, and instead found that Defendant was not entitled to his fees because Plaintiff and Parents were the overall prevailing parties and neither side substantially prevailed on the PPA claims. Defendant appealed.
The SCOV’s analysis addresses all of Defendant’s sundry beefs with the trial court’s orders. It gives each claim short and efficient treatment. First, the SCOV concludes that the evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that the conveyance was conditioned on Plaintiff’s family’s future contributions to construction, and not on marriage.
Second, the SCOV addresses a series of issues regarding the parties’ respective contributions and rights to the home equity. Defendant claimed that the trial court had improperly valued the property, the record did not support the court’s calculations, the court had forgotten Parents’ $8000 home equity loan used to finance construction, and the court had not accounted for some never-installed vinyl siding left to molder outside. On all points, the SCOV finds that the record supports the trial court’s calculations.
Next, the SCOV upholds the trial court’s decision to allow Plaintiff to occupy the premises. The trial court reasonably concluded that Plaintiff’s ability to finance portions of construction, her family’s substantial contributions of labor and money, and her greater ability to organize and enlist money and labor, entitled Plaintiff to ownership conditioned on payment to Defendant, rather than the opposite arrangement. In the SCOV’s opinion, all were reasonable factors to consider. Plaintiff keeps the house, though she will still have to buy out Plaintiff’s interest at $67 grand as a consequence.
Finally, the SCOV throws Defendant a bone on his attorney’s fee claim. In doing so, the SCOV clarifies its precedent on a small point: whether a trial court may parse out attorney’s fees for discrete claims within a single case. The Court’s position on this point is that the trial courts must determine the substantially prevailing party with regards to all the claims, and may not award attorney’s fees on individual claims where there is a common core of facts among all the claims in the case.
However, as the SCOV clarifies, such a method is inappropriate where there are multiple claims involving some shared facts and some independent evidence, as this case illustrates. Your bread and butter PPA claim, the SCOV instructs us, involves two parties, one claiming a right to payment and the other seeking to avoid payment.
But this case is no orange sherbet construction dispute. The trial court not only had to determine father’s claim for payment against Defendant; but also whether the property was transferred jointly; what all the parties’ respective contributions were to the property; what Parents’ entitlement to reimbursement; and whether the balance of equity weighed in favor of allowing Plaintiff to occupy the home. Most of the claims, including Defendant’s rebuttal to father’s PPA claim, shared common facts, but father’s PPA claim required separate and distinct evidence of the labor father contributed to the project. Thus, the SCOV concludes, the trial court improperly denied attorney’s fees Defendant incurred in rebutting the PPA claim.
In addition, though father’s testimony on his labor contributions also supported in part the court’s decision granting Plaintiff the right to occupy the premises, the trial court treated both Plaintiff and Parents as one party in finding that Plaintiff was more deserving of ownership. In doing so, the SCOV concludes, the trial court improperly aligned Plaintiff and Parents’ legal and financial interests. Going forward, the SCOV instructs its subordinate trial court judges, in future cases similar to today’s, to first determine whether the various claims arise from a common core of facts before granting legal fees to a party who prevailed on a sub-issue requiring separate evidence.
Ultimately, today’s case clarifies the SCOV’s precedent on awards of attorney’s fees in complicated multiparty cases. But, we have also learned, it is best to be cautious of the contributions of future in-laws toward construction of the future marital home if you want to keep the house when things go south.