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[U] Jones v. Brown

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 10, 2014

NORMAN A. JONES Appellant
v.
TINA L. BROWN Appellee

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Judgment Entered July 3, 2013 In the Court of Common Pleas of Franklin County Civil Division at No(s): 2011-1900

BEFORE: PANELLA, OLSON and PLATT, [*] JJ.

MEMORANDUM

OLSON, J.

Appellant, Norman A. Jones, appeals from the judgment entered on July 3, 2013. After careful consideration, we affirm.

We summarize the facts and procedural history of this case as follows. Appellant and Tina L. Brown (Brown) were involved in a romantic relationship since the mid-1990s. At all relevant times, Appellant knew that Brown was married to another man. Appellant and Brown never married. They cohabitated at Brown's inherited residence in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania from 1996 until they separated in 2010. At some point after the parties began living together, they started collecting antiques as a hobby. In 1998, Appellant and Brown decided to build a two-story garage, in part, to store their antique collection. Appellant assisted in the construction of the garage. Brown took out various home equity loans for construction. Appellant borrowed approximately $5, 000.00 from his father. The parties agreed that Brown would give Appellant's father a truck in satisfaction of that debt.

After separating in 2010, the parties agreed to divide the antiques collection between them and to sell some items at auction. In November 2010, the parties entered into a contract for the sale of selected items with Carl Ocker (Ocker) of Kenny's Auction. The contract specified that, after Ocker received his commission, Appellant would receive 40% of the proceeds and Brown would receive 60%. Three auction sales were scheduled. The first sale was held in January 2011 and the net proceeds were distributed according to the contract with Kenny's Auction. The second sale was conducted in February 2011 and the net proceeds were mistakenly distributed with 60% going to Appellant and 40% to Brown. The third sale was held on March 9, 2013 and the proceeds were held in escrow.

On May 3, 2011, Appellant filed an action in replevin against Brown, seeking to recover antiques worth approximately $292, 000.00. The trial court held a three-day bench trial. On April 17, 2013, the trial court issued an opinion and order ruling in Brown's favor. Appellant filed a motion for post-trial relief that the trial court denied on May 17, 2013. Brown praeciped to enter judgment on July 3, 2013. This timely appeal resulted.[1]On appeal, Appellant presents the following issues for our review:

1. Whether the failure of [Brown] to produce any corroboration of her testimony at trial as to the change in the written contract and the valid consideration for the change in any pleading, answer to discovery, deposition, or any exhibit or other witness testimony is fatal to an amendment of the written consignment agreement to dispose of the collection.
2. Whether the trial court erred as a matter of law by giving [Brown] rights in portions of the collection purchased by [Appellant] because of the long period of cohabitation in her house at her expense.
3. Whether the trial court's decision was against the weight of the evidence, given [Brown's] admitted false statements relating to her marital status on tax returns and bank loan applications, as well as her grossly inconsistent testimony at trial compared with her other trial testimony and deposition testimony.

Appellant's Brief at 3-4.

In a non-jury case such as this, our review is

limited to a determination of whether the findings of the trial court are supported by competent evidence and whether the trial court committed error in the application of law. Findings of the trial judge in a non-jury case must be given the same weight and effect on appeal as a verdict of a jury and will not be disturbed on appeal absent error of law or abuse of discretion. When this Court reviews the findings of the trial judge, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the victorious party below and all evidence and proper inferences favorable to that party must be taken as true and all unfavorable inferences rejected.
Moreover, the trial court's findings are especially binding on appeal, where they are based upon the credibility of the witnesses, unless it appears that the court abused its discretion or that the court's findings lack evidentiary support or that the court capriciously disbelieved the evidence. Conclusions of law, however, are not binding on an appellate court, whose duty it is to determine whether there was a proper application of law to fact by the lower court. With regard to such matters, our scope of review is plenary as it is with any review of questions of law.

Showalter v. Pantaleo, 9 A.3d 233, 235 (Pa. Super. 2010) (citations and brackets omitted).

In his first issue presented, Appellant argues that Brown unilaterally modified the parties' written agreement with Ocker by keeping antiques that the parties previously agreed to sell. Appellant's Brief at 10. Appellant alleges that the parties agreed to "keep only a few items" and sell the rest of the antiques collection. Id. at 9. He claims that "[w]hen Ocker came to take the [c]ollection to sell, the scope of the sale had changed and the better quality pieces were not being sold" and instead, "the better stoneware remained at [Brown's] house." Id. at 9.

The trial court first determined that the parties engaged in a hobby for pleasure, as opposed to a business for profit. Trial Court Opinion, 4/17/2013, at 8. It noted that in an action for replevin, the plaintiff's right to possession must be superior to the right of the defendant. Id. at 9. The trial court stated that unmarried and cohabiting parties may enter into valid and enforceable agreements, except for sexual services. Id. It then determined that there was a verbal, mutually agreed upon contract between the parties for an initial 50-50 division of a portion of the antiques collection, with the remainder to be sold at auction. Id. The trial court found that Appellant "already possessed the items f[ro]m the [c]ollection that he agreed he would retain, or [had] already removed all of the items from the [c]ollection that he agreed he would receive." Id. at 10. The trial court also concluded that the parties entered into a written agreement to consign a portion of the collection for sale at auction with the proceeds divided with Appellant receiving 40% and Brown receiving 60%. Id. Because Appellant improperly received 60% of the proceeds from the second auction, Brown was owed $3, 399.42 for her share of that sale. Id. Finally, the trial court concluded the balance of the third auction sale, held in escrow, must be divided according to the auction agreement. Id. Upon review, the trial court's findings are supported by the record and free of legal error.

Next, Appellant argues there was no contract or agreement between the parties and, thus, the trial court improperly determined the antiques collection was joint property based upon the parties' cohabitation in Brown's home. Appellant's Brief at 11.

As previously noted, the trial court properly determined there were two enforceable agreements between the parties. Moreover, that the trial court specifically rejected Appellant's argument that Brown acquired an interest in the collection through cohabitation alone. Trial Court Opinion, 4/17/2013, at 12-13. Instead, the trial court determined that the parties obtained the antiques jointly over an extended period of time and then jointly insured the entire collection. Id. at 13. Moreover, the trial court noted that if the parties had intended to keep separate collections, they would have segregated the individual items. Id. Instead, the collection was split only after the parties' romantic relationship ended. Id. Again, the trial court concluded that Appellant already possessed the items that the parties agreed he should retain. Id. at 10. Based upon our standard of review, we discern no abuse of discretion or error of law.

Finally, Appellant claims that the trial court's decision was against the weight of the evidence. Appellant claims that Brown's testimony at trial that she filed her federal income tax returns and applied for bank loans as a single person (when she was, in fact, still married to another man) constituted perjury and the trial court erred in finding her credible. Appellant's Brief at 16. Appellant also points to specific examples of alleged inconsistencies between Brown's deposition and trial testimony. Id. at 16-17.

An appellate court's standard of review when presented with a weight of the evidence claim is distinct from the standard of review applied by the trial court:

Appellate review of a weight claim is a review of the exercise of discretion, not of the underlying question of whether the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. Because the trial judge has had the opportunity to hear and see the evidence presented, an appellate court will give the gravest consideration to the findings and reasons advanced by the trial judge when reviewing a trial court's determination that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. One of the least assailable reasons for granting or denying a new trial is the lower court's conviction that the verdict was or was not against the weight of the evidence and that a new trial should be granted in the interest of justice.
This does not mean that the exercise of discretion by the trial court in granting or denying a motion for a new trial based on a challenge to the weight of the evidence is unfettered. In describing the limits of a trial court's discretion, [our Supreme Court has] explained:
The term discretion imports the exercise of judgment, wisdom and skill so as to reach a dispassionate conclusion within the framework of the law, and is not exercised for the purpose of giving effect to the will of the judge. Discretion must be exercised on the foundation of reason, as opposed to prejudice, personal motivations, caprice or arbitrary actions. Discretion is abused where the course pursued represents not merely an error of judgment, but where the judgment is manifestly unreasonable or where the law is not applied or where the record shows that the action is a result of partiality, prejudice, bias or ill-will.

Commonwealth v. Clay, 64 A.3d 1049, 1055 (Pa. 2013) (citations, quotations, and original emphasis omitted).

The trial court made a credibility determination in Brown's favor, finding "[h]er testimony regarding the division of the collection [] more credible." Trial Court Opinion, 4/17/2013, at 13. The trial court discounted

Brown's misstatements on her federal income tax statements, stating she wrongly filed as a single person while still legally married, but did not do so to defraud the government and may have actually subjected herself to greater tax liability. Id. The record supports the trial court's credibility assessment and its determinations were not the product of partiality, prejudice, bias or ill-will.

We have reviewed the certified record, the parties' briefs, the relevant law, and the trial court's opinion entered on April 17, 2013. We conclude that there has been no error or abuse of discretion in this case and that the April 17, 2013 trial court's opinion meticulously, thoroughly, and accurately disposes of Appellant's issues on appeal. Therefore, we affirm on the basis of the trial court's opinion and adopt it as our own. Because we have adopted the trial court's opinion, we direct the parties to include the trial court's opinion in all future filings relating to our examination of the merits of this appeal, as expressed herein.

Judgment affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

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