Jack Nelson Jones Professional Association

February 13-19, 2017

Longley v. Gatewood, 2016 Ark. App. 48 (February 1, 2017)

This appeal comes from the Sebastian County Circuit Court, Fort Smith District, honorable Stephen Tabor presiding. This case concerns the defense of laches.

Clarence Wilson, the uncle of Christine Gatewood and Joseph Longley, purchased property at 600 North 20th Street in Fort Smith on May 3, 1996. The deed transferring the property listed the grantees as Clarence, Frances M. Longley (Clarence’s sister and Christine and Joseph’s mother), and Christine as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. On December 18, 2000, a warranty deed purporting to transfer the property to Joseph and Annette Longley—and appearing to contain the notarized signatures of Clarence, Frances, and Christine—was filed in Sebastian County. Joseph, Annette, and their children began residing at the property on December 18, 2000, and Joseph has been in continuous possession of the property since that time.

On February 7, 2003, Frances passed away, and on March 20, 2013, Clarence passed away. Seven months after Clarence’s death, on October 17, 2013, Christine and her husband, Curtis, filed a petition against the Longleys to set aside/cancel the 2000 deed, alleging that Christine’s signature had been forged, that she had not discovered the deed until after Clarence’s death, and that she should be the sole record owner of the property because Frances and Clarence had both passed away, leaving her the owner as the sole survivor of the three. Joseph denied the allegations in the complaint and pleaded the defense of laches, among others.

A trial was held on April 16, 2015. The Gatewoods’ first witness was Joseph Lucas, a forensic document examiner. He testified that there was no correlation between Christine’s known writings from that time period and the deed. He thus concluded that the Christine’s signature was a forgery. Christine testified that she could not have signed the deed because, at the time it was purportedly signed, she lived in Little Rock. She stated that she was a teacher in Little Rock, and was planning a school Christmas party the day the deed was signed. She also claimed that she had not discovered the deed containing her forged signature until she went to the courthouse to inquire about the property following Clarence’s death. She testified that she attempted to speak to Joseph about the deed in order to resolve the matter, but he did not respond. Dale Arnold, the title insurance agent who notarized all three signatures on the deed, testified that “sometimes” a signature on a document would be notarized when the signor was not present. He also said it was possible that someone identified herself as Christine who might not have been Christine.

Joseph presented the testimony of both of his adult daughters. Sarah Tinsley testified that Clarence trusted Joseph and put everything of his in Joseph’s name. She also testified that her mother had improved the disputed property by putting in new carpet and installing a new roof. Alicia Smith testified that Clarence was very close to their family and that he “absolutely” trusted Joseph. Both Sarah and Alicia testified that they had never seen their aunt, Christine, at the disputed property. Finally, Joseph testified on his own behalf, stating that Clarence had wanted to help him and that Clarence trusted Joseph with everything he had.

The court entered an order on June 8, 2015, and an amended order on June 15, 2015, stating that “the evidence could have hardly been more clear that the signature on the document purporting to be that of Christine Gatewood conveying the property to Defendants was fraudulent.” The court also found that the defense of laches was not established by the evidence. The court granted the Gatewoods’ motion to set aside/cancel the deed and quieted title to the disputed property in Christine subject to Curtis’s marital interest.

On appeal, Joseph contended that the circuit court’s failure to properly consider the defense of laches was clearly erroneous. The court’s order simply stated that “[t]he defense of laches was not established by the evidence.” The Court noted first that laches is an equitable principle premised on some detrimental change in position made by one party in reliance upon the action or inaction of the other party. The first requirement in laches is that the party have knowledge of his or her rights and the opportunity to assert those rights. The doctrine operates to bar an action by a party who has “sat on his rights,” i.e., purposely or negligently failed to assert a claim for so long that to permit it now would disadvantage prejudicially an opposing party.

Joseph argued that the evidence at trial established that he and his family were in need of a larger home. Clarence thus deeded the disputed property to Joseph and Annette. He and his family had lived there since 2000, making improvements and paying the taxes. Christine knew that Joseph and his family lived at the disputed property. Christine took no legal action to assert her interest in the property until after the death of the joint tenants to the original deed. Joseph contended that he was disadvantaged because he lived in the home for fifteen years, improved it, and no evidence proved that he had committed or commissioned the fraud or forgery. Thus, he argued, Christine should be barred by laches from uprooting Joseph from his home.

The Court, citing the first requirement of laches, stated that Christine must have had knowledge of her rights and an opportunity to assert those rights. Until the death of Clarence, Christine did not have sole ownership of the property. She shared ownership with Clarence, who had funded the purchase of the property. The court also found, and Joseph did not challenge the finding, that Christine’s signature on the deed conveying the property to Joseph was a forgery. Christine testified that she had no knowledge of the forged deed and asserted her rights shortly after discovering it several months after her uncle’s death. She filed this lawsuit several months after discovering the deed, having unsuccessfully attempted to resolve the matter first with Joseph. Accordingly, the Court held that the circuit court’s finding that laches was not established by the evidence in this case was not clearly erroneous. Affirmed.