Susan L. Moraska
Albert F. Moraska
This decision has been designated as "Supreme Court of Vermont Appeals Disposed of Without Published Opinion or Memorandum Decision." table in the Atlantic Reporter
Appeal from: Superior Court, Chit. Civil Division. DOCKET NO. 279-3-11 Cncv. Trial Judge: Dennis R. Pearson.
Reiber, C.J., Dooley, andEaton, Jr., JJ.
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
Defendant Albert Moraska appeals a ruling of the superior court, civil division, that he entered into a contract with his father, Dr. Albert Moraska, requiring him to relinquish his interest in the family homestead to his sister, plaintiff Susan Moraska. We affirm.
Dr. Moraska, who died in May 2010, had a large-animal veterinarian practice that he ran from his home in Charlotte, Vermont, for many years. In July 1999, Dr. Moraska and his wife, Betsy Moraska, executed reciprocal trust agreements that, in relevant part, conveyed a one-half interest in the Charlotte homestead to their respective trusts. Susan and Albert were named as remaindermen, each to receive one-half of each trust's principal. Susan assisted her father in the veterinary business and lived in the family home. Albert has lived and worked in Colorado since 1991.
Betsy died in 2006, at which time her trust became irrevocable. Following Betsy's death, Dr. Moraska's health began to fail. Susan became her father's nurse, personal assistant, and home companion. From 2007 until his death in 2010, Dr. Moraska consistently and repeatedly expressed to numerous people, including his attorney and medical providers, his intent that Susan obtain sole ownership of the Charlotte homestead. In April 2008, Dr. Moraska changed the beneficiary designations on his Charles Schwab IRA account, which was not in his trust, to give Albert seventy-five percent (rather than half) of the proceeds upon his death, and Susan the remaining twenty-five percent. Five months later, in September 2008, Dr. Moraska amended his trust to provide that Susan would receive the entire fifty percent of the Charlotte property contained therein. At that point, Susan had a seventy-five-percent interest in the property -- twenty-five percent from Betsy's trust and a contingent fifty percent from Dr. Moraska's trust.
In March 2010, Albert came to Vermont to visit his father, who was within two months of his death. On March 18, Albert and Susan had a physical altercation that was upsetting to Dr. Moraska. The next day, Dr. Moraska called both Susan and Albert to his bedside to discuss his desires concerning the distribution of assets upon his death. The ensuing discussion between the three of them is the subject of this lawsuit. Susan contends that Albert agreed to cede to Susan his remaining twenty-five-percent interest in the Charlotte homestead in exchange for their father agreeing to give Albert all of the value of the cash investment account. Albert contends that the agreement related only to the disposition of personal property in the house, and not the real estate.
The next day, March 20, Susan left the homestead for an extended trip out of state to visit relatives. Albert remained with his father in Vermont. On March 22, Albert drove his father to the bank, where Dr. Moraska executed a first codicil to his will directing that his residence and real estate be devised and transferred to his daughter upon his death. The next day, March 23, Dr. Moraska received confirmation that Albert had been made the sole beneficiary of the Schwab account. The account had a value of approximately $1,000,000 on the date of Dr. Moraska's death six weeks later. The entire proceeds of the account were transferred to Albert in June 2011. In connection with the estate proceedings, the Charlotte real estate was appraised at approximately $765,000.
Following Dr. Moraska's death on May 2, 2010, Albert declined to agree to a transfer to Susan of his twenty-five-percent interest in the Charlotte property stemming from Betsy's trust, which, as it turned out, was unaffected by the codicil that Dr. Moraska had attached to his will six weeks before his death. Susan sued Albert in March 2011, contending that at the March 19 meeting Albert agreed to cede to her his interest in the homestead property in exchange for being designated the sole beneficiary of the Schwab account, and asking the superior court to either order the conveyance of Albert's interest in the Charlotte property to her or order Albert to return all of the funds he received from the Schwab account. The court later allowed Susan to amend her complaint to include counts of breach of contract, estoppel, and unjust enrichment. In December 2012, the court denied Albert's motion for summary judgment, concluding that there were triable issues of fact concerning Albert's Statute of Frauds defense and Susan's claim of an exception to that defense.
A bench trial was held on March 17, 2014. At the close of Susan's evidence, the court granted Albert's motion for judgment as a matter of law as to Susan's claim of unjust enrichment. Following the bench trial, the superior court entered judgment in favor of Susan on her breach-of-contract count and, in the alternative, on her quasi-contract count. Regarding the breach-of-contract count, the court concluded that there was an agreement as to all essential terms between Albert and his father at the March 19 meeting. The court did not find credible Albert's version of what he and his father had agreed to. Accordingly, the court ordered Albert to relinquish to Susan any rights or interest he had in the Charlotte property within thirty days of the judgment.
On appeal, Albert argues that the record contains no credible evidence to support the trial court's findings and determination that he and his father entered into a contract during the March 19 meeting. He claims that Susan's testimony as to what transpired during the March 19 meeting was nothing more than Albert's recognition of his father's testamentary wishes. In contending that there was no direct evidence of an agreement, Albert emphasizes Susan's acknowledgement of her belief that there was nothing for Albert or her to do as a result of the meeting because their father would handle everything by changing the beneficiary on the Schwab account and adding the codicil to his will. Albert asserts that there was no evidence that he agreed to anything -- let alone that he would give up property that he was entitled to through Betsy's trust -- and that the circumstantial evidence was insufficient to support the court's finding of a contract.
In making these arguments, Albert takes a different tack than he took at trial, where he acknowledged that an agreement between him and his father had taken place at the March 19 meeting but contended that the agreement concerned only personal property in the house. Specifically, he testified that his father gave him the remainder of the Schwab account in exchange for Susan receiving more of the personal property. The court explicitly found, however, that Albert's version of the oral agreement between him and his father was not credible. See Benson v. Hodgdon, 2010 VT 11, ¶ 10, 187 Vt. 607, 992 A.2d 1053 (mem.) (stating that " review of a trial court's finding of fact is curbed by ... deference to that tribunal's unique position to assess witness credibility and the weight of the evidence presented" ). Moreover, Albert acknowledged at trial that his father signed the codicil to his will -- which directed that Susan receive the entire homestead property -- in direct response to the March 19 meeting three days earlier. Despite the disconnect between what the codicil addressed and what he claimed the March 19 agreement was about, Albert insisted that the ...