FROM THE BENTON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 06CV-16-592]
HONORABLE BRAD KARREN, JUDGE
Law, LLC, by: Jacob Worlow, for appellant.
Osborne Law Firm, by: Ken Osborne, for appellee.
BRANDON J. HARRISON, JUDGE.
appeal asks whether Jeff Phillips presented sufficient
evidence during a bench trial to repel Jewell Edward
Denton's motion to dismiss Phillips's
unjust-enrichment claim. He did. We therefore hold that the
circuit court erred by granting Denton's motion, which
came after Phillips had rested his case. The circuit
court's decision is reversed and the case remanded for
and Susie Phillips, and Jewell (J.E.) and Vallalee (Val)
Denton, lived in separate mobile homes on a piece of land
outside Rogers, Arkansas. J.E. is Susie's father. Susie
and her mother, Val, have since passed away. Jeff Phillips
and J.E. Denton were related to each other by marriage
(son-in-law and father-in-law). There was no evidence that a
probate proceeding had ever been opened related to
Susie's and Val's estates.
April 2016, the property was the focus of litigation.
Phillips filed a complaint in circuit court alleging that he
was entitled to an undivided one-half interest in the land.
He raised four claims: (1) breach of contract, (2) fraud, (3)
promissory estoppel, and (4) unjust enrichment. Phillips also
asked the court to declare that the Dentons had conveyed at
least a one-half interest in the property to him and Susie
and that Susie's interest passed to him through intestate
succession. Phillips has abandoned all claims except unjust
case was tried to the circuit court in February 2017. A
summary of the testimony goes like this. According to
Phillips, he, Susie, and her parents (J.E. and Val) agreed to
jointly purchase a parcel of land located at 12761 Douglas
Lane in Rogers, Arkansas. Phillips said that he and Susie did
not have sufficient credit to obtain financing to buy the
land, so the parties agreed that J.E. and Val would finance
the property. In turn, Phillips and Susie would make payments
directly to J.E. and Val for one-half of the promissory note.
It was a "handshake" agreement-the common goal
being that each family would get to buy land on which to
place a mobile home. Phillips said the agreement was that
each couple would pay half of each note payment, although
there might be some months when someone would need to
shoulder more of the financial load. In the end, each couple
would own half of the property.
National Bank and Trust Company financed the property on 12
October 1995. The contract sales price was $35, 000. The
fifteen-year promissory note reflects that the bank financed
$28, 000 at an annual interest rate of 10.259%. The monthly
payments were $305.34. The total amount to be paid was $54,
961.20. The promissory note and the related warranty deed
show J.E. and Val as the promisors and grantees.
families moved mobile homes onto the property near one
another. Susie passed away a few months later, in February
1996, but Phillips continued to make monthly payments to the
Dentons. At trial, Phillips presented three receipt booklets
as evidence of the monthly payments. The receipts track the
length of the promissory note from October 1995 to December
2010 and are numbered sequentially in the three receipt
booklets. Most receipt amounts are between $150 and $320; a
few are as low as $50, some as high as $1200. Phillips told
the court that when one couple or person struggled
financially then the other couple or person would cover all
or part of the note payment. The deficit would then be made
up later. Phillips said that he was not concerned that it was
only Val and J.E.'s names on the promissory note because
he trusted them. He would pay Val and J.E., and they would
make the mortgage payments. A number of receipts recite the
words "purchase of land J. Phillips, " "Pmt.
on land, " "land pmt." or "on land."
The total value of the signed receipts is approximately $25,
000. About $3, 000 worth of additional receipt stubs do not
testified that J.E. informed him that the mortgage had been
paid off in 2010, that he no longer needed to pay on the
property, and that J.E. gave him the receipt booklets for the
payments Phillips had made. No payments have been made since
December 2010. Phillips testified during the trial that J.E.
informed him that he wanted to sell the land, move closer to
his children in Kansas, and had placed a "for sale"
sign on the property in April 2016. J.E. refused to partition
the property or promise to give Phillips one-half of the sale
testified as an adverse witness during Phillips's
case-in-chief. J.E. acknowledged that Phillips had lived on
the property since 1995. J.E. contended that all the payments
Phillips had made were to Val. J.E. said that he never wrote
a receipt, that Val was the one who wrote and signed them,
and that he knew Phillips was giving Val money for the land.
He said that he did not sign the receipts with the signature
"J.E. Denton." J.E. denied having a
"deal" with Phillips but acknowledged that Susie
and Val had a "deal." J.E. could not explain why
Phillips had paid him. Phillips did not owe him money for any
obligation, nor for any improvements related to the land. He
also said that he was the one who gave Phillips the receipt
booklets and stubs and that Phillips did not contribute
toward real-estate property tax on the land.
then rested his case. The circuit court granted Denton's