Virginia Lawyers Weekly//March 8, 2020
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//March 8, 2020//
Where appellant claimed that deeds of sale her mother executed gave a 100 percent interest in the conveyed property to appellant, a 2015 final decree that voided the deeds precludes further litigation. We affirm the circuit court’s ruling that appellant has a 75 percent interest in the property, and her brother, the appellee in this case, has a 25 percent interest.
George and Dorothy Cobb had two children, Linda Lee Alexander and David Cobb. George’s will granted a life estate to Dorothy in properties they owned as tenants in common, each having an undivided one-half interest in fee simple. George’s remainder interest would pass to Linda and David. The will authorized Dorothy to sell the life estate and invest the proceeds, so long as the investments indicated that they belonged to the life estate.
After George died in 2003, Dorothy’s health declined, and she began living with Linda. In 2009 and 2010, Dorothy executed gift deeds purporting to convey the properties in fee simple to Linda.
David sued Dorothy and Linda in Alexandria Circuit Court for fraudulent conveyance. He requested that the gifts be voided because they concerned the fee simple remainder of Dorothy’s life estates acquired through George’s will. The Alexandria court entered a 2011 order finding for David on the fraudulent conveyance claim. The court voided the gift deeds.
In 2012, Dorothy executed sale deeds for the properties. The deeds conveyed Dorothy’s undivided one-half interest in the properties and half of her life estate to Linda.
In 2014, Dorothy and Linda sued in Bath Circuit Court to have the court interpret George’s will as authorizing Dorothy to sell her life estate, to quiet title to the properties in Linda and to confirm that the sale deeds vested fee simple ownership in Linda.
David filed a special plea in bar, arguing that collateral estoppel precluded any further litigation because the Alexandria court’s 2011 order stated that Dorothy could only sell her life estate. He also asserted the 2012 gift deeds could not convey a fee simple interest because Dorothy only had a life estate to sell.
The Bath court sustained David’s special plea and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. No appeal was taken from the court’s 2015 final decree.
Dorothy died in 2017. Later that year, David sued Linda in Bath Circuit Court. He asked for an accounting and partition of the properties, and pleaded claims of conversion and ejectment. David asserted a 25 percent interest in the properties (half of the fee simple remainder of George’s half interest in the properties) as a tenant in common with Linda.
In response, Linda again argued she had a 100 percent interest by virtue of the 2012 sale deeds. At the bench trial, the Bath court said it was “constrained” by the 2015 final decree, which precluded Linda’s claim of 100 percent ownership. The Bath court ruled that Linda had a 75 percent interest and David had a 25 percent interest. The court ordered a partition and sale in accordance with the parties’ interests.
The issue on appeal is whether “the circuit court correctly concluded that the 2015 Final Decree had a preclusive effect on Linda’s declaratory judgment claim in the present action. We conclude that the circuit court did not err. …
“Claim preclusion bars successive litigation where (1) there has been a final judgment on the merits, (2) the parties or privies are the same, and (3) the later lawsuit arises from the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence as the earlier lawsuit.” The second and third elements are satisfied, as the same parties are involved in a dispute about the same property.
“The 2015 Final Decree was a final judgment because it dismissed, with prejudice, Linda and Dorothy’s complaint which requested that the court determine that Linda owned the Properties in fee simple based upon the 2012 deeds of sale she received from Dorothy. The 2015 Final Decree disposed of the ‘whole subject’ and left nothing for the court to do following its entry.
“The 2015 Final Decree was also a judgment ‘on the merits’ because it decided the respective rights of Linda and David. Linda asked the circuit court, in 2015, to quiet title in her and to rule that she had a 100% ownership interest in the Properties; the circuit court ruled that she was not entitled to that relief, and dismissed her claim with prejudice. …
“In ruling on the plea of collateral estoppel, the Bath County Circuit Court concluded that the Alexandria Circuit Court ruled in 2011 that Dorothy could only sell her life estates and not the remainder interests. It determined that Linda and Dorothy were precluded by collateral estoppel from relitigating that issue of fact or law in the Bath County case and granted David’s plea of collateral estoppel.
“The circuit court’s ruling on the plea of collateral estoppel resolved an issue of fact or law which the circuit court considered and found to be dispositive in its determination of the parties’ rights, given the allegations in the complaint.
“In other words, the Bath County Circuit Court’s 2015 dismissal was based on the factual and legal determination that Linda failed to prove that she had a 100% ownership interest in the Properties. It was a decision on the merits of her claim of a fee simple ownership interest in the Properties based upon the 2012 deeds of sale she received from Dorothy. …
“Even if the circuit court erred in its interpretation of the 2011 Order, in its conclusion that collateral estoppel barred Linda from relitigating some issues, in its dismissing Linda’s claims with prejudice, and in entering the 2015 Final Decree, Linda failed to appeal any of those rulings. Therefore, those rulings became final and their validity cannot be collaterally attacked in this subsequent proceeding.”
Alexander v. Cobb, Record No. 181613 (Goodwyn) Feb. 27, 2020, Bath Cir. Ct. (Wetzel). Robert John Test for Appellant, Melisa Gay Michelsen, Jordan Kennedy Bowman for Appellee. VLW 020-6-011, 10 pp.