The Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport recently reversed a ruling by Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Alvin Sharp, of Monroe, for basing a court decision on an emotional response instead of the law.
In Fairbanks Development LLC vs Charles Woodrow Johnson and Jessica Lyn Petersen, the Second Circuit ruled that Sharp erred by finding that one of two people who bought a house in Calhoun had no ownership interest despite their signature on the deed as a purchaser.
According to the Second Circuit's recitation of facts, Charles Johnson and Jessica Petersen moved to Calhoun in 2000 and together – though unmarried – bought a large home with a pond on nearly 19 acres of land. The couple bought the land with more than $624,000 from Petersen's trust account.
“Although Petersen paid the entire purchase price in cash, both she and Johnson were shown in the appearance clause as the purchasers and both signed the deed and an attachment containing the property description as purchasers,” the Second Circuit wrote.
Petersen later bought 15 additional acres with $150,000 from her mother. Though still unmarried at the time, Johnson and Petersen were still listed as purchasers on the deed.
The couple later married and had three children.
“During the marriage, Petersen used funds from her trust to enhance the property, including the building of two shop buildings, a long concrete driveway leading to the house, and an elaborate front gate,” the Second Circuit wrote. “Johnson did not work during the marriage and Petersen paid all the family’s living expenses from her trust fund. In 2006, the couple divorced. Johnson remarried and had two more children. In 2017, Petersen moved to Florida. When Petersen left Louisiana, Johnson and his new family moved into the house.”
In February 2018, Petersen sold her right and title to a one-half interest in the property to Fairbanks Development LLC for $250,000. Shortly afterward, Fairbanks Development filed the lawsuit and asked the court to order a sale of the property at a public auction.
Petersen claimed Johnson had no ownership claim to the property and that she was the sole owner because she bought all the property with her own funds before the couple ever married. She and Fairbanks each sought to recover rent from Johnson, who had been living at the house.
In July 2019, after trial, Sharp issued a judgment upholding Petersen's position as the sole owner of the property because Johnson never contributed anything to the price. Johnson appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, noting that he and Petersen each signed the deed as purchasers, which meant they were co-owners of the property.
“The court questioned whether Johnson ever offered to provide any money for the purchases,” the Second Circuit wrote. “He said that he did not. The court asked if Petersen ever said, 'I need you to hurry up and get some cheese and pay me back on that property.' Johnson said she did not. He and Petersen went to the closing together and Petersen never asked him for any money.”
Petersen acknowledged the couple's intent, in signing the deed, was to have a home in which to raise their children.
“The trial court then asked Petersen: '[W]hy in the world would a sister that’s got this kind of cheese why would she give it up to a brother that ain’t working? That ain’t got a job. I mean, you know, ain’t bringing nothing to the table. What’s that about?'”
Petersen said she asked herself that question each day.
“The only thing I can tell you is young and dumb and made mistakes,” Petersen said. “That was my first love. We met when I was fifteen years old, and he knows what he did.”
Petersen's testimony showed the intent at the time of purchase was for the couple to serve as co-owners, the Second Circuit ruled.
“When the marriage failed, Petersen could not then change her mind as to that intent in contravention of the clear wording of the deeds listing the parties as co-owners and the stated intent of the parties to be partners at the time the deeds were signed,” the Second Circuit wrote. “In deciding that Petersen was the sole owner of the property, the trial court did not examine or apply the law to the facts presented, but rather exhibited an emotional response to the fact that Johnson made no monetary contributions to the purchase of the property. The result reached by the trial court is contrary to the jurisprudence.”
The Second Circuit reversed Sharp's decision declaring Petersen the sole owner.
Costs were assessed one-half to Petersen, and one-half to Johnson. The matter was remanded to the court so the property could be sold by the sheriff at public auction.
Second Circuit Judge Jeanette Garrett penned the April 22 opinion on behalf of a three-judge panel also including Judge James “Jimbo” Stephens and Chief Judge Felicia Williams.