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Estate of Crook v. Foster

Court of Appeals of Georgia

July 10, 2015

ESTATE OF ANNIE CROOK et al.
v.
FOSTER

Cert. applied for.

Unjust enrichment. Peach Superior Court. Before Judge Self.

Walter G. Sammons, Jr., for appellants.

Ben M. Mills, Jr., for appellee.

DOYLE, Chief Judge. Phipps, P. J., and Boggs, J., concur.

OPINION

Page 287

Doyle, Chief Judge.

The estate of Annie Crook and Ralph Jackson, in his capacity as administrator of the estate (collectively, " the Estate" ), sued Albert L. Foster for unjust enrichment. A jury found in favor of the Estate, awarding damages in the amount of $30,000, and the trial court entered a judgment. Thereafter, the trial court entered an order granting a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (" JNOV" ) and, alternatively, a motion for new trial. The Estate appeals that order, and we reverse for the reasons that follow.

The record shows that Crook owned a house in Peach County that was paid for and unencumbered by a mortgage. Crook and Foster began dating in 2003, and in August 2010, they decided to purchase a home in Dooly County. In order to purchase the Dooly County property, Crook executed a deed for her Peach County home to secure the debt, and both Crook and Foster signed a note for $50,000 in favor of SunMark Bank (" the Bank" ).[1] The Dooly County home was titled in the name of both Crook and Foster as joint tenants with a right of survivorship.

[333 Ga.App. 37] In December 2010, Crook ended her relationship with Foster. Two months later, on February 15, 2011, Foster married another woman. On February 23, 2011, Crook filed a lawsuit to remove Foster from the deed on the Dooly County home and asserted a claim for unjust enrichment, alleging that Foster

Page 288

coerced her into putting his name on the deed for the Dooly County property; he did not contribute financially in any way to the purchase of the Dooly County home; and she needed to sell the Dooly County property and use the proceeds to pay off the mortgage on the Peach County property.[2]

Crook died on June 9, 2011.[3] Thereafter, her daughter, Angela Brock, moved into the Peach County home with her family and made the payments on the mortgage signed by Crook and Foster. After about a year, Brock was unable to make the mortgage payments, and she moved out. A representative from the Bank contacted Foster about making payments, and Foster advised that he had no intention of paying the mortgage and would assist the Bank in the foreclosure process.[4] On October 3, 2012, the Bank foreclosed on the Peach County property. Because the property sold for more than the mortgage amount, the Bank did not pursue a deficiency judgment against Foster.[5] In February 2013, the Estate filed an amended complaint, asserting claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraud.

The case proceeded to a jury trial solely on the Estate's claim for unjust enrichment.[6] After the Estate rested, Foster moved for a directed verdict, and the trial court orally denied the motion on the basis that there was clearly a jury question as to whether or not Crook gave Foster a gift or made a voluntary payment. Then, after both parties rested, Foster renewed his motion for a directed verdict, arguing only that there was " insufficient evidence ... to show that [Foster] has had any undue enhancement of property or money." The trial court orally denied the motion and submitted the case for the jury's consideration, but noted that " it will be preserved for appella[te] purposes."

[333 Ga.App. 38] The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Estate, awarding damages in the amount of $30,000. The trial court entered a judgment in that amount, and the clerk entered a writ of fieri facias in the amount of $30,000. Thereafter, Foster filed a motion for new trial.[7] The trial court entered an order granting a JNOV or, alternatively, a new trial pursuant to OCGA § 5-5-20. This appeal followed.

1. JNOV.

The Estate argues that the trial court erred by entering a JNOV. We agree.

When considering whether the trial court erred by granting [a] motion[ ] for ... [JNOV], we review and resolve the evidence and any doubts or ambiguities in

Page 289

favor of the verdict ... ; [a JNOV is] not proper unless there is no conflict in the evidence as to any material issue and the evidence introduced, with all reasonable deductions therefrom demands a certain verdict. Thus, a [JNOV] may be granted only when, without weighing the credibility of the evidence, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the proper judgment. If the evidence is conflicting, or if insufficient evidence exists to make a " one-way" verdict proper, [a JNOV] should not be granted.[8]

In the order granting the JNOV, the trial court concluded:

Foster has not been unjustly enriched because he received sole possession of the Dooly County [p]roperty via his right as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. ... Foster did not retain a benefit that belonged to ... Crook's Estate; [333 Ga.App. 39] rather[,] he received a benefit to which he is entitled via the interest in the property that ... Crook voluntarily gave him.[9]

This finding by the trial court contradicts the trial court's earlier ruling that the question of whether Crook voluntarily gifted to Foster his interest in the Dooly County property was an issue for the jury to determine.

" Unjust enrichment is an equitable concept and applies when as a matter of fact there is no legal contract, but when the party sought to be charged has been conferred a benefit by the party contending an unjust enrichment which the benefitted party equitably ought to return or compensate for." [10]

The concept of unjust enrichment in law is premised upon the principle that a party cannot induce, accept, or encourage another to furnish or render something of value to such party and avoid payment for the value received; otherwise the party has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another and, in fairness and good conscience, must reimburse the other to the extent of the value conferred. Inherent in unjust enrichment is the requirement that the receiving party knew of the value being bestowed upon them by another and failed to stop the act or to reject the benefit.[11]

Nevertheless,

[e]ven where a person has received a benefit from another, he is liable to pay therefor only if the circumstances of its receipt or retention are such that, as between the two persons, it is unjust for him to retain it. The mere fact that a person benefits another is not of itself sufficient to require the other to make restitution therefor. Thus, ... one who [333 Ga.App. 40] makes a gift or voluntarily pays money which [s]he knows [s]he does not owe confers a benefit[, but she is not] entitled to restitution.[12]

Whether (a) Crook gave Foster a gift or, (b) Foster received a benefit by unjustly retaining the Dooly County house while refusing to pay the mortgage on the Peach County house and should therefore reimburse the Estate, was " an issue for the trier of fact." [13] Therefore,

Page 290

the trial court erred by entering a JNOV.

2. Motion for new trial.

The Estate further contends that the trial court erred by granting Foster's motion for new trial. We agree.

Concluding that " the facts simply do not permit a finding of unjust enrichment as a matter of law," the trial court granted Foster's motion for new trial, specifically citing OCGA § 5-5-20, which provides: " In any case when the verdict of a jury is found contrary to evidence and the principles of justice and equity, the judge presiding may grant a new trial before another jury."

A timely motion for new trial under this Code section

require[s] the trial judge to exercise a broad discretion to sit as a " thirteenth juror." In exercising that discretion, the trial judge must consider some of the things that [he] cannot when assessing the legal sufficiency of the evidence, including any conflicts in the evidence, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight of the evidence. Although the discretion of a trial judge to award a new trial on the general grounds is not boundless -- it is, after all, a discretion that should be exercised with caution and invoked only in exceptional cases [333 Ga.App. 41] in which the evidence preponderates heavily against the verdict, -- it nevertheless is, generally speaking, a substantial discretion.[14]

Here, there was evidence that Foster agreed to pay the mortgage on the Peach County home so he and Crook could purchase the Dooly County property, later refused to make the mortgage payments and allowed the Peach County property to be foreclosed upon, and then, following Foster's death, became the sole owner of the Dooly County property unencumbered by a mortgage. Under these circumstances, the subsequent verdict in favor of the Estate was not, as a matter of law, " contrary to [the] evidence and principles of justice and equity." [15] Thus, the trial court abused its discretion by granting Foster's motion for new trial.

Judgment reversed.

Phipps, P. J., and Boggs, J., concur.


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