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Smith v. Bell

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 7, 2018


          MILLER, P. J., ANDREWS and BROWN, JJ.

          Miller, Presiding Judge.

         Simone Smith sued her former girlfriend, Martha Jean Bell, to recover either half of the equity in a home titled in Bell's name or a portion of the money Smith invested in the home during the parties' 14-year relationship. The trial court granted summary judgment to Bell on Smith's claims, and Smith now appeals, alleging in several related enumerations of errors that the trial court erred by sua sponte granting summary judgment despite material factual disputes. We find that the basis on which the trial court granted summary judgment was in error as it was premised on a disregard of evidence submitted by Smith, and that the insufficiency of the record before the trial court prevents us from determining the proper disposition of this case at this time. Consequently, we vacate the trial court's order and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[1]

Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). We apply a de novo standard of review to an appeal from a grant of summary judgment and view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.

(Citations omitted.) Higgins v. Food Lion, Inc., 254 Ga.App. 221 (561 S.E.2d 440) (2002).

         So viewed, the evidence shows that Smith and Bell were romantically involved in a same-sex relationship for years. In December 2001, Bell purchased a house that was titled solely in her name. She and Smith entered into an oral agreement that Smith would be entitled to a 50 percent equitable interest in the house as long as she paid a portion of the purchase price, equally shared in the bills and mortgage payments for the property, and made repairs to the property. The parties agreed that if the relationship ended prior to the couple getting married, Bell would sell the house and Smith would be entitled to 50 percent of the equity. Alternatively, the parties agreed that if there was no equity in the home at the time of the break-up, Smith would be compensated for her contributions to the house expenses. During the 14 years Smith and Bell lived together, Smith contributed equally to mortgage payments, paid half of the bills and expenses for the house, and performed home improvements.

         After the relationship ended, Smith sued Bell in the Superior Court of DeKalb County for misrepresentation, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and quantum meruit, seeking to recover under the oral agreement between the parties, or, alternatively, to recover her contributions to the house over the years. In response to Smith's lawsuit in superior court, Bell denied all of Smith's claims and counterclaimed to dispossess her from the home and recover unpaid rent and attorney fees.[2] The parties do not dispute that around the same time that Smith filed her lawsuit in superior court, Bell also filed suit against Smith in the Magistrate Court of DeKalb County seeking to evict Smith and recover unpaid rent.[3]

         The superior court, on its own initiative, entered an order titled "Order Directing Submission of Authority on Subject-Matter Jurisdiction." This order noted that magistrate courts have jurisdiction over dispossessory matters, and it instructed the parties to brief whether the superior court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute in light of such fact. Although not related to subject-matter jurisdiction, the order also identified the law concerning oral agreements to transfer an interest in real property and the Statute of Frauds.

         In response to the superior court's order, Smith submitted a filing which briefly stated that the superior court had subject-matter jurisdiction and primarily focused on the merits of her claims. Attached to the brief was Smith's affidavit, which mirrored the allegations in her complaint concerning the oral agreement between the parties.[4]Bell responded to the superior court's order by filing a motion for summary judgment as to Smith's claims, arguing, in relevant part, that res judicata precluded Smith's claims because those claims were required to be litigated in the dispossesory proceeding pending in magistrate court.

         The superior court never ruled on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction, but instead entered an "Order Permitting Submission of Authority" which indicated that it was considering granting summary judgment to Bell on Smith's claims and inviting the parties to submit argument and authority. Smith responded with a brief and affidavit restating the legal and factual arguments she previously made. Bell submitted an affidavit disputing both the existence of any oral agreement as well as Smith's claims that she had split expenses with Bell.

          The superior court granted summary judgment to Bell on Smith's claims without a hearing, concluding that Smith had no evidentiary support for her claims, whereas Bell had stated in an affidavit that she had never agreed to give Smith any interest in the home nor had she entered into any agreement whatsoever with Smith concerning the home. In doing so, the superior court ignored the sworn allegations in Smith's own affidavits, which directly contradicted the allegations in Bell's affidavit. Smith appeals from this order. The superior court never addressed the other issues in the case, including the threshold issue Bell raised: that Smith's claims were precluded by res judicata because her claims should have been raised and litigated in the magistrate court dispossessory proceeding.

         As an initial matter, we note that we cannot affirm the trial court's order based on the reasoning contained therein. The trial court entirely disregarded Smith's affidavits, which were sufficient to create a factual dispute as to the existence of an oral agreement between the parties and performance under that purported agreement.[5] Consequently, the trial court erred in basing its ruling exclusively on a lack of sworn evidence supporting Smith's contentions.

         Further, reviewing the record de novo, we are required to find that Smith's claims in superior court were not barred by res judicata because those claims could not have been litigated in magistrate court.

The doctrine of res judicata prevents the re-litigation of all claims which have already been adjudicated, or which could have been adjudicated, between identical parties or their privies in identical causes of action. Before res judicata applies, three prerequisites must be satisfied - (1) identity of the cause of action, (2) identity of the parties or their ...

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