MORALES v. NOVOA

No. E065627.

FRANK Y. MORALES, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. EVA NOVOA, Defendant and Respondent.

Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, Division Two.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Law Office of Jim Husen and Jim Husen for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Eva Novoa, in pro. per., for Defendant and Respondent.


NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

OPINION

McKINSTER, Acting P. J.

Plaintiff and appellant Frank Y. Morales appeals an adverse judgment, following a court trial, in his suit for partition by sale of real property held in joint tenancy with defendant and respondent Eva Novoa, for partition by sale of four items of personal property allegedly owned jointly by the parties, and for the return of or compensation for a number of items of personal property he asserted were solely his property. The trial court concluded that plaintiff failed to present evidence sufficient to establish that he has "any recognized legal interest" in either the real property or in the personal property.

On appeal, plaintiff challenges the judgment only with respect to the real property and a 1966 Chevrolet. He contends that the trial court relied on principles applicable to family law or to the dissolution of partnerships, rather than partition of a joint tenancy and the return of wrongfully withheld property. He does not, however, acknowledge the effect of the absence of a statement of decision in a court trial and the doctrine of implied findings. (Shaw v. County of Santa Cruz (2008) 170 Cal.App.4th 229, 267-268.) We conclude that the trial court's implied findings are supported by substantial evidence and that the judgment is based on valid legal principles. Accordingly, we will affirm the judgment.

FACTUAL HISTORY

Plaintiff and defendant lived together in a nonmarital relationship for over 30 years. In 1994, they bought a house located on Souder Street in Perris. They took title to the property as "Frank Y. Morales, Jr., a single man, and Eva Nova [sic], a single woman, as joint tenants." They used a gift from defendant's parents as the down payment. Plaintiff testified that it was a gift to both of them. Plaintiff testified that they did not keep account of how much each contributed to mortgage payments. Plaintiff testified that he purchased the 1966 Chevrolet with a loan from defendant's parents, which he repaid. The car was registered solely in plaintiff's name.

Defendant, who represented herself at trial, testified that plaintiff was physically and emotionally abusive throughout the relationship and that he was extremely controlling and demanding. She testified that plaintiff worked only sporadically while she constantly worked long hours to support the family, but that he controlled the money. She testified that most of the payments for household expenses came from her earnings. She testified that the money for the house was a gift to her alone from her parents, and that the understanding was that it would be for her and her children, to give her security because of the abusive nature of her relationship with plaintiff. She testified that "it was never intended for [plaintiff], but [plaintiff] always puts everything in his name." She testified that the money for the 1966 Chevrolet was also a gift to her alone. She was afraid to challenge plaintiff on anything because he had repeatedly threatened her and abused her physically.

LEGAL ANALYSIS

Plaintiff contends that the trial court "transformed an action for partition of real property and the delivery of personal property" into an action for dissolution of a marriage or partnership. He contends that this was a violation of his due process rights because he had no "fair warning that the trial court would require evidence beyond proof that he and [defendant] bought the subject real property together, held title as joint tenants and that for some 20 years while they lived in the real property they paid the mortgage jointly without keeping accounts." Plaintiff contends that this was an abuse of discretion.

In support of his contention that the trial court applied incorrect legal principles, plaintiff quotes a portion of the trial court's comments at the close of evidence. The single paragraph he quotes does appear, perhaps, to support his contention. The full text of the court's comments provides a different picture, however:

"All right. . . . The matter stands submitted for decision. No party made a request for a statement of decision in a timely fashion, and, thus, this Court will not be rendering a formal statement of decision, either in writing or orally. "However, having sat through the testimony this morning, having reviewed the written evidence that has been submitted and admitted into evidence and had time to do so, I do have some comments as to my thoughts about what I heard and what I have seen. "My comments are mainly directed at the plaintiff, and my over arguing [sic] thought process is as follows: That the plaintiff's position is that throughout the relationship, his property was his property and her property was our property. Our expenses are her expenses, and her expenses are her expenses. My money is my money, but her money is our money. And, in fact, that's pretty much what I heard him testify to in terms of who should be entitled to what when it comes to winding up and liquidation, liquidation of assets acquired during the course of this relationship of over 35 years.1 "Mr. Husen [plaintiff's attorney], you're correct. The law indicates quite clearly that if there is a true joint tenancy that the Court should not engage in issues of allocation of [sic] contribution and offset towards a fair and equitable division, but the law does absolutely require me to engage in a process and in a weighing that would accomplish a fair and equitable decision—division, excuse me, of this property. "It seems to me that the evidence presented to me establishes that, in all likelihood, the plaintiff is not entitled to anything. That this property, the real property, should be sold and the proceeds of sale should be utilized to pay whatever expenses are deemed to be appropriate to pay in the discretion of the defendant. "Further, that the plaintiff's testimony has not established even by a preponderance and even as to those portions of which was uncontroverted [sic] that the plaintiff truly owns any assets that have been left behind by him when he voluntarily moved off the subject real property, thus, abandoning those assets for disposition at the choosing of [defendant]. "Had he chosen to do something about those assets, he had over a couple of years to do so prior to the inception of this lawsuit. And I heard nothing from him that indicated he was in any way prohibited from claiming anything that he wished to claim as property he felt entitled to. In fact, [defendant] indicated he did so quite freely and for quite some time. Seems to me he was allowing, or was requiring her to store at her expense, at her inconvenience for his benefit until he decided he would find a place to put such things he might later on make a claim to. Today is too late to make that claim. "So for all of those reasons, in all likelihood, this Court's decision will be that the property be sold, but that the plaintiff has failed to establish, even though there is a legal joint tenancy, that it is a true joint tenancy, that there was a true pooling of assets. "Again, his own testimony is all of his assets were his assets, all of his money was his money, all of his inheritances were his inheritances, things that he was provided by his family were his. I don't see any reason why the Court would ever find that it should be any different when it comes to defendant's assets, the defendant's money, the defendant's income and such that the defendant will have to pay those expenses that are liens against the property as to the two judgment liens.2 "As to any claimed lien of Mr. Husen as counsel for the plaintiff, the Court would decline to allow that to serve as any lien against any proceeds of sale recovered by [defendant]. "And so I'm going to have to take a look at the law before I render a formal judgment in this case to see whether, in fact, I do need to order the real property sold, or whether I can simply order that because I have found that [plaintiff] is not entitled to any portion of proceeds of sale, that that would be a needless act, and that alternatively, his claim to any ownership of the real property should be ordered forfeited, expunged, and stricken from the record. "That's my intention. And so the matter stands submitted. I will reread the case law, I will see what it allows me to do. But, again, I've heard all of the facts. I have decided the facts and now it falls on me to determine the legal implications therefrom. Thank you all. You'll get my decision in the mail."

From these comments, we do not discern that the court contemplated applying family law or partnership principles. Even if it did so intend at that point, moreover, we could not rely on the court's comments to conclude that the judgment was in fact based on the application of those principles.

Following a court trial, we can determine the court's factual findings and conclusions of law only from either a statement of decision or express statements contained in the judgment. (Shaw v. County of Santa Cruz, supra, 170 Cal.App.4th at p. 268.) We cannot rely on a tentative decision or on the court's oral statements prior to issuance of the statement of decision or the judgment, such as the comments plaintiff relies upon in this case, except to help us interpret the trial court's findings or conclusions. (Ibid.) Such statements cannot be used to impeach the judgment. (Ibid.) The reason for that rule is that "a trial court retains inherent authority to change its decision, its findings of fact, or its conclusions of law at any time before entry of judgment and then the judgment supersedes any memorandum or tentative decision or any oral comments from the bench. [Citations.] Thus, a trial judge's prejudgment oral expressions do not bind the court or restrict its power to later declare final findings of fact and conclusions of law in the judgment. [Citation.] In the absence of a statement of decision, a reviewing court looks only to the judgment to determine error. [Citation.] Absent contrary indication in the final judgment or statement of decision, the appellate court will assume that, during the period before rendition of judgment, the trial court realized any error and corrected it." (Ibid.)

Here, in the judgment, the court stated only that plaintiff "failed to present evidence sufficient to establish that he has any recognized legal interest in the real property" or in the items of personal property. As we discuss below, there is no indication in the record that the court relied on family law principles to determine ownership of the property. And, since the court did not divide the property, there is no basis for plaintiff's contention that the court applied principles applicable to the dissolution of a marriage or a partnership in order to effect the division of property.

Plaintiff also fails to address the effect of the absence of a statement of decision. In the absence of a statement of decision, we must apply the doctrine of implied findings. "This doctrine requires that in the absence of a statement of decision, an appellate court will presume that the trial court made all factual findings necessary to support the judgment for which substantial evidence exists in the record. In other words, the necessary findings of ultimate facts will be implied and the only issue on appeal is whether the implied findings are supported by substantial evidence. [Citations.]" (Shaw v. County of Santa Cruz, supra, 170 Cal.App.4th at pp. 267-268.) Furthermore, in the absence of a statement of decision, we must infer as well that the trial court made correct legal conclusions. (Id. at p. 269.) We must affirm a judgment that is correct on any legal basis, even if that basis was not invoked by the trial court. (Ibid.)

In this case, we infer that as to the real property, the trial court found that despite title being taken as joint tenants, defendant did not actually agree to create a joint tenancy. Joint tenancy is a joint interest, owned by two or more persons in equal shares, by a title created by a single will or transfer. (Civ. Code, § 683.) Although a joint tenancy deed is not conclusive as to the nature of the ownership, it creates a rebuttable presumption that the property is held in joint tenancy.3 (Clark v. Carter (1968) 265 Cal.App.2d 291, 294-295, superseded by statute on another point as stated in Estate of Mitchell (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 1378, 1390.) However, in a suit for partition, "all parties' interests in the property may be put in issue regardless of the record title [citations]." (Milian v. De Leon (1986) 181 Cal.App.3d 1185, 1195-1196; see Code Civ. Proc., § 872.610.)

Here, defendant did put plaintiff's interest in the property in issue by her answer to the complaint, which stated that she purchased the home with a $12,000 "inheritance" from her parents and that "plaintiff did not purchase said property." She testified that (1) the money used for the down payment was a gift to her, not a gift to both of them; (2) plaintiff "always" claimed ownership of items purchased with her money; and (3) plaintiff bullied and threatened her and physically abused her, so that she did not dare object when he claimed ownership.

The testimony of a single witness whom the trier of fact finds credible is substantial evidence, unless the facts testified to are physically impossible or inherently improbable. (People v. Young (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1149, 1181.) The court could rationally have found defendant's testimony credible and found plaintiff's testimony not credible as to the true ownership of the property, and we must infer that it did so. Accordingly, defendant's testimony is substantial evidence that the property was purchased with funds belonging solely to her and that she did not intend to give plaintiff an interest in the property, or did so only under the threat of physical harm. A deed that is given under the threat of physical harm is void. (Wickland v. Wickland (1912) 19 Cal.App. 559, 560-561; Civ. Code, § 1570 [defining menace].) For these reasons, defendant's testimony is sufficient to rebut the presumption created by the deed.4

As to the 1966 Chevrolet, a similar analysis applies. Plaintiff relies on Evidence Code section 662, which provides that the owner of the legal title to property is presumed to be the owner of the beneficial title. However, this presumption applies only "when there is no dispute as to where legal title resides but there is a question as to where all or part of the beneficial title should rest." (Murray v. Murray (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 1062, 1067.) When the legal title is disputed, the presumption does not apply. (Id. at p. 1068.) Here, defendant did dispute plaintiff's claim that he had a valid legal title to the vehicle. And again, defendant's testimony that the car was purchased with funds given to her alone by her parents and that she did not agree to plaintiff taking title to it is substantial evidence that supports the trial court's implied finding that plaintiff failed to establish that he had a legal interest in the vehicle.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed. Defendant is awarded costs on appeal.

CODRINGTON, J. and FIELDS, J., concurs.

FootNotes


1. This is the sole paragraph from the court's lengthy statement that plaintiff quotes in his opening brief.
2. Defendant testified that after plaintiff left, she was forced to incur credit card debt in order to meet her expenses and that two judgment liens against the property had resulted.
3. Exceptions for property held jointly by spouses do not apply here. (See, e.g., Fam. Code, § 2581; see discussion in Estate of Mitchell (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 1378, 1385.)
4. Plaintiff does not assert that he is entitled to reimbursement of any amounts he paid toward the mortgage on the house. He did testify, however, that they did not keep records of the contributions each made toward payment for the house.

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