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Longley v. Gatewood

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

February 1, 2017




          Smith, Cohen & Horan, PLC, by: Stephen C. Smith, for appellant.

          Gean, Gean Gean, Attorneys at Law, by: Roy Gean III, for appellees.

          RITA W. GRUBER, Chief Judge.

         This case has returned to us after rebriefing.[1] Appellant Joseph Longley appeals from an order of the Sebastian County Circuit Court setting aside a deed and quieting title to certain property in his sister, appellee Christine Gatewood, subject to the marital interest of her husband, appellee Curtis Gatewood. On appeal, Joseph contends that the circuit court erred, first, in allowing his counsel to withdraw on the morning of trial in violation of Rule 64(b) of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure and, second, in not properly considering his defense of laches. We affirm the circuit court's order.

         Clarence Wilson, the uncle of Christine and Joseph, purchased the disputed property at 600 North 20th Street in Fort Smith on May 3, 1996. The deed transferring the property lists 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[2]-and appearing to contain the notarized signatures of Clarence, Frances, and Christine-was filed of record 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 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 retained James Filyaw to represent them. Joseph denied the allegations in the complaint and pleaded the defenses of laches, statute of limitations, and waiver. The trial was continued several times at Filyaw's request due to Joseph's unavailability and, in January 2015, Filyaw filed a petition to withdraw due to Joseph's continued lack of cooperation and communication. Filyaw withdrew the motion less than a week after having filed it, indicating that the communication problems had been resolved. However, on March 24, 2015, Filyaw filed a second petition to withdraw, again alleging difficulty communicating with Joseph. He mailed a copy to Joseph. On April 2, 2015, Filyaw filed a letter addressed to the court, copying the Gatewoods' counsel and Joseph, alerting the court to his motion to withdraw and asking for a hearing on the motion. He stated that he had lost contact with his client; that he had been unable for six weeks to schedule a meeting, talk on the phone, or otherwise communicate with him despite repeated efforts; and that it had become impossible for him to continue as an effective attorney for him. The circuit court neither granted nor denied Filyaw's motion, but did send a letter to Filyaw on April 7, 2015, copying the Gatewoods' counsel; recognizing receipt of the motion and letter; and stating that it could not grant the request "at this time" because the trial had been delayed numerous times already, and the court would "have to afford" Joseph additional time to retain counsel, only further delaying the matter. The court did not send a copy of this letter to Joseph.

         A trial was eventually held on April 16, 2015. Before hearing any testimony, the circuit court addressed Filyaw's petition to withdraw. The court first heard argument from Filyaw and then allowed Joseph to address the court. Joseph stated that he had been out of work for a year, that he and Filyaw had continued to argue about money when they talked, and that he had realized that he could not afford Filyaw's legal services. The circuit court then questioned Joseph, "So you don't want Mr. Filyaw to be your lawyer?" Joseph responded, "Well, evidently not, because we can't agree. I mean, there was never a set price as to what it would cost in this matter." The court then made the following findings and observations and granted Filyaw's motion to withdraw:

The Court: Let me tell you my problem, Mr. Longley. This is the fourth time that this matter has been set for trial. It's been pending since October of 2013. The three previous trial settings were continued at your request. Throughout the trial there have been issues regarding discovery that Mr. Filyaw could not respond to because he said you wouldn't cooperate with him in that.
I think Mr. Filyaw . . . has made it clear that you have not completed your obligations to him, as far as meeting with him and providing information to present a defense on your behalf. Therefore, I am . . . going to allow Mr. Filyaw to withdraw as your attorney, but we are going to proceed [with] this matter to trial today. And so you will be representing yourself, if it remains your desire to contest this petition, which I assume it does. All right?

         The court then explained the trial process, and the trial proceeded with Joseph representing himself. Joseph never objected to the circuit court's decision granting Filyaw's motion to withdraw or to its decision to proceed with the trial.

         The Gatewoods' first witness was Joseph Lucas, a forensic document examiner, who was retained by them to examine the 2000 deed to determine whether the signature purporting to be Christine's was valid. He testified that after reviewing documentation containing Christine's signature and reviewing ten signatures and certificates from the same time period as the deed and comparing them with the signature on the deed, he determined that the signature on the deed was a forgery. He testified that the signature on the 2000 deed was not Christine's genuine signature, ...

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