Appeal from the Judgment Entered April 25, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County Civil Division at No.: 2008-1185
BEFORE: DONOHUE, J., OTT, J., and PLATT, J. [*]
Appellant, Patrick Carr, substitute administrator of the estate of James Carr, appeals from the judgment order which decreed that Appellees, David and Roxann Williams, had a valid and enforceable contract for the sale of property from the estate. Appellant asserts the agreement is invalid and unenforceable, and that it violates the Statute of Frauds and the "Pennsylvania Probate and Fiduciaries Code." (Appellant's Brief, at 4). We affirm.
For the facts of this case we rely on the opinion of the trial court.(See Trial Court Opinion, 3/04/13, 2-7). James Carr died intestate on September 22, 1990, in Lackawanna County. His sole asset was a parcel of property of approximately thirty-one acres in Susquehanna County (acquired from his previous wife in a divorce). His widow, Carrie Carr, was granted Letters of Administration on October 10, 1990. In 1993, Carrie approached her next door neighbors, Appellees, about buying the property. On September 23, 1993, Carrie was arrested on charges unrelated to this appeal and incarcerated in Lackawanna County Prison. On October 19, 1993, Appellees arranged for her to be freed on bail. The same day they executed an installment contract for the purchase of the property, agreeing to pay $1, 000 down and $100 a month, for the purchase price of $24, 000. The contract and a memorandum of agreement were filed with the County Recorder of Deeds on November 12, 1993. (See id. at 3). Appellees moved on to the property and built a home on it. (See id.).
Shortly after the agreement was executed, Carrie Carr notified her lawyer, Lawrence A. Durkin, Sr., about the sale; their correspondence suggests she may have had misgivings, or second thoughts, about the transaction.
In any event, as noted by the trial court, Attorney Durkin, despite his threat of legal action while the parties negotiated, took no actual steps to challenge or void the contact. (See id. at 4, 8 n.3). To the contrary, the record confirms that for the next two decades he apparently was actively involved in various matters concerning the property. For eleven years he accepted installment payments from Appellees, at first on behalf of Carrie Carr as Administratrix while she was in prison (until she died at Muncy State Correctional Institution in 1996), and then on behalf of the estate. There were various negotiations to finalize the sale.
Furthermore, in 1994, then-counsel for Appellees sent a letter to Attorney Durkin, informing him and his client, Carrie Carr, that Appellees would pay the overdue taxes, to prevent a forced sale for unpaid taxes, and seek a credit when the transaction was completed. (See Letter of Jeffrey C. Nallin, Esq. to Lawrence A. Durkin, Esq., 8/08/94). Appellees have continued to pay taxes on the property ever since. (See Trial Ct. Op., at 8). From correspondence, it is apparent that Attorney Durkin gave both the Appellees and their counsel reason to believe that Carrie Carr or Appellant desired to complete this transaction. (See Trial Ct. Op., at 6).
After Carrie Carr's death, James Carr's brother, Patrick, eventually became the Administrator. In February of 2009, after entering into an oil and gas lease with Fortuna Energy, Inc., Appellees instituted this legal action. (See id. at 7). In their suit, Appellees sought an accounting for the payments they had made, and asked the court to order Appellant to issue a deed to them, plus attorney's fees. Appellant responded that their claims are barred.
The trial court held a bench trial (captioned as a hearing), on December 18, 2012. Afterward, the trial court issued an order dated February 28, 2013, (filed March 4, 2013), which decreed that a valid and enforceable contract existed between "Plaintiffs" (Appellees in this appeal) and "the Defendant's estate." (Order, 3/04/13). Appellant filed post verdict motions, which the court denied on March 27, 2013. Appellant filed a praecipe to enter judgment on April 25, 2013. The court entered judgment the same day. This timely appeal followed, on May 17, 2013.
Appellant raises two overlapping questions on appeal:
1) Whether the [trial] court erred as a matter of law when it concluded that the contract between Plaintiffs [Appellees] and the Defendant Estate was valid and enforceable, despite the failure to meet the required elements of a contract with an authorized party, violations of the Statute of Frauds, and violations of the Pennsylvania Probate and Fiduciaries Code[?]
2) Whether the [trial] court erred as a matter of law in upholding the self-dealing of the Executrix [sic] of the [e]state in the formation of an ...