On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-4379-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 8, 2008
Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.
Appellants, the Estate of Robert G. Senn and Joseph Tropiano, Special Administrator of the estate, appeal from a judgment entered against the estate in the amount of $66,500 in favor of plaintiff, and from the denial of their motion for a new trial. We conclude that the jury verdict was factually supported by the evidence and accorded with the controlling legal principles. We further conclude that Judge Locascio did not err in denying the new trial motion. Accordingly, we affirm.
Plaintiff, a resident of Middletown, became aware of an abandoned house that had fallen into a state of semi-disrepair in Middletown. Plaintiff was interested in acquiring the home as his personal family residence. Plaintiff is a plumber by trade and possesses home improvement skills. It was his intention, if he could acquire the property, to perform necessary repairs and upgrades to the property.
Plaintiff contacted the Middletown tax office and learned that the property was owned by the Estate of Robert G. Senn. Senn, a New Hampshire resident, died on May 13, 2001. The Middletown tax record listed the property owners as "Senn, R., Estate of, c/o Hobbs & Assoc." Plaintiff obtained a title search, which revealed the owner as Robert G. Senn. Plaintiff further learned that a local realtor had listed the property a year earlier for $439,000.
Plaintiff contacted James B. Hobbs, a New Hampshire probate attorney, who had been appointed by the New Hampshire court as administrator of the Senn estate and who confirmed to plaintiff that he was "in charge [of] the property." After some discussions and negotiations, plaintiff and Hobbs reached an agreement. They both signed a document dated September 1, 2004 entitled "Real Estate Lease with Option to Purchase," designating plaintiff as the tenant and the "Senn Family Trust" as landlord. Hobbs executed the agreement as individual landlord and as trustee for the "Senn Family Trust." The lease ran from September 1, 2004 to May 31, 2005, at which time plaintiff would have the option of purchasing the property for $420,000. In the interim, plaintiff was obligated to pay $2000 per month, of which $1500 from each payment would be credited to the purchase price if he exercised his option to buy. Plaintiff was also obligated to pay a $60,000 deposit at the commencement of the agreement. Plaintiff paid the $60,000 and paid $8000 in monthly payments. He made these payments to Hobbs as trustee for the Senn Family Trust.
The Senn Family Trust never existed. It was a fictitious entity created by Hobbs for the purpose of looting the estate.
Hobbs deposited the funds received from plaintiff into his personal checking accounts and appropriated them to his own use, thus defrauding both plaintiff and the estate. To facilitate his scheme as Senn lay on his deathbed two weeks before his death, Hobbs somehow misappropriated the expired seal of a New Hampshire notary and executed a phony deed purporting to convey the property from Robert Senn individually to the Senn Family Trust. The deed was never recorded.
As he planned, plaintiff proceeded to make improvements on the property. He fully intended to exercise the option and purchase the property. However, as the May 31, 2005 closing date came and went, plaintiff found that he could no longer get in touch with Hobbs. As it turned out, the New Hampshire probate courts discovered Hobbs' nefarious dealings as a result of his looting another estate. By order dated October 25, 2005, the New Hampshire courts removed Hobbs from all probate matters and appointed Joseph Tropiano, another New Hampshire probate attorney, as special administrator for the Senn estate.
Tropiano found among Hobbs' papers letters from plaintiff and his attorney requesting a copy of the deed in the name of the fictitious trust. Tropiano contacted plaintiff and his attorney, and requested copies of cancelled checks and the lease agreement, which were furnished. Neither party was able to understand how the bank allowed checks made payable to Hobbs as trustee for another entity to be deposited directly into his personal checking accounts instead of into a trust account.
Tropiano repudiated the agreement with plaintiff. On behalf of the estate, he sold the property to another party. In the process, plaintiff was evicted from the property.
On May 17, 2006, Hobbs was indicted in New Hampshire for various felonies in connection with his improprieties in dealing with several estates. One indictment charged theft by misappropriation of property for defrauding the Estate of Robert G. Senn and Robert A. King. Hobbs pled guilty and was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. In accordance with ...