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Rodriguez v. Lopez

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

February 21, 2018



          Watson Law Firm, P.A., by: Jeff H. Watson, for appellant.

          Walters, Gaston, Allison & Parker, by: Veronica L. Bryant, for appellee.

          RITA W. GRUBER, Chief Judge

         Appellant Martha Rodriguez (formerly Lopez) appeals from an order of the Crawford County Circuit Court quieting title in favor of appellee, Noemi Lopez as administratrix of the estate of Guadalupe F. Lopez. Appellant raises two arguments on appeal: (1) that the circuit court improperly quieted title in favor of appellee; and (2) that this court should reverse and remand for a new trial because the trial judge was disqualified from hearing the case as the attorney who drafted the quitclaim deed at issue. We affirm.

         Appellant and Guadalupe Lopez (Mr. Lopez) were in a relationship when he purchased the property located at 400 North 23rd Street in Van Buren, Arkansas. After he purchased the property, Mr. Lopez executed a quitclaim deed placing title in himself and Martha C. Salinas[1] as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. The deed was filed on May 8, 1995. The couple married on January 28, 1996, and divorced on July 21, 1998. Section VII of the divorce decree provided:

That during the marriage of the parties, they have acquired no tract of real property. That [Mr. Lopez] acquired a home and real property located at 400 North 23rd Street which is non-marital property. That [appellant] does not have an interest in said property.

         Section VIII addressed the division of personal property. Paragraph X of the decree ordered that the parties shall be awarded the property as specified in paragraphs VII and VIII.

         After the divorce, Mr. Lopez resided at the home and continued to pay the monthly note/mortgage until paid in full in 2007, as well as the property taxes. Mr. Lopez died in 2012. His daughter, Noemi Lopez, was the administratrix of his estate; she filed a petition for declaratory judgment to quiet title on September 2, 2015. A bench trial occurred on May 1, 2017.

         Appellant testified at the bench trial that she married Mr. Lopez on January 28, 1996, separated in April 1998, and divorced in July 1998. She explained that Mr. Lopez purchased the property in April 1995. Appellant testified that she was with Mr. Lopez when he obtained the loan and explained that she was not approved for the loan because of her personal debts and credit problems. She stated that there was a mortgage on the property and that a warranty deed had been executed that transferred property to him. She testified that just before the divorce, Mr. Lopez told her that the property was in his name and that she had to leave the property. It was appellant's understanding when she signed the divorce decree that the house belonged only to Mr. Lopez. Appellant testified that after the divorce, Mr. Lopez was solely responsible for the mortgage payments and that she did not pay any property taxes until 2014.

         Appellant testified that Mr. Lopez never told her that he had executed the quitclaim deed, which was filed on May 8, 1998. She did not know her name was on the title to the property until 2014, when the tax collector charged her for two years of property taxes. She testified that she paid the taxes because they were two years behind, and she hired an attorney to ascertain her interest in the property. Her attorney told her she could begin cleaning the home. Appellant stated that she did not have a key to the home, but she entered the home through an open door. Appellant indicated that the statement regarding the property in the divorce decree was a mistake and that she did not discover the mistake until 2014.

         Martha Lopez (Ms. Lopez), who was married to Mr. Lopez before his marriage to appellant, also testified at the trial. Ms. Lopez testified that she resumed her relationship with Mr. Lopez after he was divorced from appellant. She stated that in 1998, she and Mr. Lopez, along with two of her children, lived in the home located at 400 North 23rd Street. She explained that in 2000, she and the children moved to Springdale and they would see each other on the weekends. Ms. Lopez testified that she and Mr. Lopez paid the mortgage from their joint checking account and eventually paid off the mortgage; the bank issued a deed of release. She stated that they paid the property taxes until Mr. Lopez died in 2012. Ms. Lopez testified that she moved to Springdale after Mr. Lopez died and thereafter heard nothing about the property taxes. In addition, she indicated that Mr. Lopez intended the property to go to his children and that he never mentioned appellant as having an interest in the property in all the years they lived in the home.

         Appellee Noemi Lopez testified that she is the daughter of Mr. Lopez and is the administratrix of his estate. She stated that she had lived in the home with her father, mother, and two siblings and had visited her father at the home. Appellee explained that her father lived in the home during the week while he worked and traveled to Springdale on the weekends. In addition, appellee lived in the home by herself for a year and a half. Appellee also testified that there were periods when her father rented the home and that she assisted him at times with the rent collection.

         Appellee explained that her father told her that he wanted his children to have the house and that he had never mentioned appellant having an interest in the property. Appellee testified that her father never told her about the quitclaim deed, but he had told her that he had put the property in his and appellant's name ...

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