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Roe v. Austin

Court of Appeals of Arizona, Second Division

November 29, 2018

Dan Roe and Myriam Roe, Plaintiffs/Appellees,
v.
Valer C. Austin; Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation Trust; El Coronado Ranch & Cattle Company, L.L.C.; and El Coronado Ranch, L.L.C., Defendants/Appellants. El Coronado Ranch, L.L.C., Counterclaimant/Appellant,
v.
Dan Roe and Myriam Roe, Counterdefendants/Appellees. Anna Valer A. Clark, fka Valer C. Austin, and El Coronado Ranch, L.L.C., Third-Party Plaintiffs/Appellants,
v.
Josiah T. Austin, Third-Party Defendant/Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Pima County No. C20154177 The Honorable Sarah R. Simmons, Judge

          Slutes, Sakrison & Rogers P.C., Tucson By Tom Slutes Counsel for Plaintiffs/Counterdefendants/Appellees

          Snell & Wilmer L.L.P., Tucson By William N. Poorten III and Kevin J. Parker Counsel for Defendants/Counterclaimant/Third-Party Plaintiffs/Appellants

          Rusing Lopez & Lizardi P.L.L.C, Tucson By Michael J. Rusing and Sivan R. Korn Counsel for Third-Party Defendant/Appellee

          Presiding Judge Staring authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Judge Eckerstrom and Judge Vásquez concurred.

          OPINION

          STARING, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         ¶1 Valer Clark (formerly Valer Austin), on behalf of herself and the entities she owns and controls, appeals from the judgment entered after a jury trial, in which the trial court awarded Dan and Myriam Roe a life estate in a house and surrounding property and concluded that the divorce settlement agreement ("Settlement") entered between Valer and Josiah Austin did not require Josiah to defend and indemnify Valer against the Roes' life estate claim. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the judgment awarding a life estate to the Roes, as well as the judgment that Josiah is not required to defend and indemnify Valer.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         ¶2 The parties' disputes stem from a life estate claim brought by the Roes against Valer, Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation Trust, El Coronado Ranch & Cattle Co. L.L.C., and El Coronado Ranch L.L.C. (collectively, "Valer"), [1] and the interpretation of an indemnification provision in the Settlement. We view the facts in the light most favorable to upholding the jury verdicts. Crackel v. Allstate Ins. Co., 208 Ariz. 252, ¶ 3 (App. 2004).

         ¶3 Valer and Josiah divorced in 2015, several years after the Roes had moved into a house on El Coronado Ranch ("Ranch"), which Valer and Josiah owned jointly. Valer obtained sole ownership of the Ranch pursuant to the terms of the Settlement. She subsequently demanded the Roes vacate the Ranch, and the Roes filed an action for declaratory judgment claiming a life estate in the house and surrounding property on the Ranch.

         ¶4 Valer asserted the statute of frauds as a defense to the Roes' claim, arguing there was no written contract evincing the creation of a life estate. She also filed a counterclaim to quiet title to the Ranch. In addition, Valer filed a third-party complaint against Josiah, alleging the Settlement required him to defend and indemnify her against the Roes' life estate claim.

         ¶5 Valer subsequently moved for summary judgment on the Roes' life estate claim and on her indemnification claim against Josiah. The trial court denied summary judgment on both claims, concluding issues of fact existed that required resolution at trial. At trial, pursuant to Rule 50, Ariz. R. Civ. P., Valer moved for judgment as a matter of law on the Roes' life estate claim, and the court denied her motion. After trial, the jury awarded the Roes a life estate in the house on the Ranch and found Josiah had not breached the indemnification provisions of the Settlement. Valer renewed her motions for judgment as a matter of law on the Roes' life estate claim and also moved for judgment as a matter of law on her third-party indemnification claim against Josiah. The court denied the motions and ultimately entered judgment in favor of the Roes, granting them a life estate in the house and 214 surrounding acres on the Ranch, and in favor of Josiah on the indemnification claim.

         ¶6 Valer appealed, and we have jurisdiction pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 12-120.21(A)(1) and 12-2101(A)(1).

         Discussion

         Statute of Frauds

         ¶7 Valer argues the statute of frauds bars the Roes' life estate claim because it is based on an oral contract and, therefore, the trial court erred when it denied her motions for judgment as a matter of law. In its denial of the Rule 50 motion Valer made at trial, the court concluded the alleged acts of part performance by the Roes "raise a question for the trier of fact as to whether [the Roes'] acts are unequivocally referable to the alleged agreement." Subsequently, when denying Valer's renewed motions, the court concluded it "d[id]n't think any other explanation is plausible . . . . [e]xcept a life estate." We review ...


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