On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-4175-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Sabatino and J.N. Harris.
This appeal highlights the dangers that lurk within transactions that rely upon human memory, are steeped in informality, and bank upon alleged oral promises for their vitality. It also is a poignant reminder that no good deed goes unpunished.
Plaintiff Judney Joseph (Joseph) claims that he was a joint venturer, along with defendant Gwendolyn Dennis (Dennis), in the purchase of a house that was to be used for Dennis's family residence. Joseph - doing a favor for Dennis - lent his name, credit rating, and risk capacity towards the acquisition of real property in Plainfield in exchange for what he thought was an unwritten fifty percent interest. However, he was no silent partner. Joseph not only co-signed the purchase money mortgage and note, but was also listed as a grantee on the deed.
Dennis acknowledged that Joseph's participation facilitated the transaction, but argued that Joseph was merely an accommodation party and gratuitous moneylender. Dennis contended that Joseph was entitled to nothing as a matter law, and morally no more than, as Dennis testified, "some shape of money."
Because the parties could not agree upon Joseph's putative share in the realty, Joseph filed a partition action in the Law Division. Dennis counterclaimed with a cause of action that sought to quiet title in the property in her name alone. After a bench trial, Judge Ross R. Anzaldi determined that Joseph legally was not entitled to anything more than repayment of a loan for $1,500 plus accrued interest, but noted:
What defendant does to meet her moral obligation in response to plaintiff's charitable conduct will rest solely with the defendant. This court will make no recommendation and will leave the defendant to grapple with her own [conscience]. [(Emphasis added).]
Judge Anzaldi dismissed the partition action, ordered repayment of the loan, and declared that title was to be held in Dennis's name only. This appeal followed.
In 1998, Dennis rented the first floor of a dwelling located in Plainfield. She wished to purchase the entire property, but could not qualify for a mortgage on her own. She applied for financing, and to that end, she enlisted her husband and her pastor as co-signatories. Nevertheless, that mortgage application was denied.
Thereafter, Kelvin Joseph (Kelvin), Dennis's son-in-law and Joseph's first cousin, suggested that Joseph might help to qualify for a mortgage, because Joseph had afforded Kelvin similar assistance in the past. Dennis, with her daughter Stacey Hillhouse (Hillhouse) (who managed her mother's financial matters), called Joseph to ask if he would co-sign a mortgage to acquire a house. Hillhouse testified:
With my mom, since she doesn't understand a lot of what's going on and everything, we asked him if he could co[-]sign. And after awhile we'll make sure that his name is off so he - nothing would go wrong with his credit.
According to Joseph, Dennis and Hillhouse called him to ask if he were interested in investing in the property. He told them that he needed to view the property, and testified that he ultimately visited the house several times prior to the closing:
After Mrs. Dennis came on the phone, she was telling me about the property. She told me that we can invest together. I said I have to see the property first. Before I ever do anything investment, I went to the property approximately, I believe, three to four times.
Dennis denied that she indicated that the house would be a profit-oriented investment opportunity for Joseph. Instead, she viewed the joint acquisition solely as a permanent home for herself and her children: "When my kids come and see me, that they can also go to sleep." As for Joseph, she felt that he was merely performing a good deed. According to Dennis, when she and Hillhouse called Joseph, he readily agreed to co-sign the mortgage, and did not ask about other details concerning the property. In Dennis's words, "I ask him if he would co[-]sign for me. He say no problem. He say when I'm ready to let him know."
Hillhouse testified that she "did most of the talking" because her mother did not "understand a lot of what's going on and everything." Dennis conceded as much, admitting that she did "not know the price [of the house]. Everything go[es] through my daughter. My daughter know[s] everything."
Hillhouse noted that, in the future, when Hillhouse obtained her immigration green card, the plan was to ultimately transfer ownership of the house to Hillhouse and refinance the mortgage. It was anticipated that Joseph's name would be removed from the title and his obligations under the purchase money mortgage would be extinguished.
Dennis contends that neither Hillhouse nor Dennis offered, nor did Joseph request, anything in return for being a cosignatory on the financing. Dennis claims that she told Joseph:
Well, I - I tell him when his name time to come off I will give him some shape of money. I don't know how much, but I'll give him some shape of money. I don't know.
The parties never discussed the amount, but Dennis testified that she considered "some shape of money" to mean "[m]aybe $10,000, something, just to have his name there. I don't know."
The contract of sale for the property was dated October 20, 1999, but was not signed by the parties until months later, in July 2000. Joseph claimed that when he signed the contract he believed that he was a "half owner of the property." He stressed that he and Dennis spoke frequently in the months leading up to the closing, and discussed the house's living arrangements, rentals, taxation issues, and the need for repairs and other home improvements. Joseph never intended to live in the property, and understood that Dennis would remain in occupancy of the first floor, while Joseph's cousin Kelvin and Dennis's daughter, Lorraine, would live on the second floor, and Hillhouse would reside on the third floor.
Dennis asserted that Joseph did not pay for any of the pre-closing fees and expenses associated with the transaction. Instead, she claimed that she used "box money" held by her pastor's mother to fund these costs. "Box money," also called "partner money," consisted of funds drawn from a shared system of forced savings that Joseph, also familiar with the informal practice from Antigua, described:
It's like we pay like $120 a week, which is a check of all our money. And it's, it's go like, if all of use draw box money like, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 of us, and we draw $20, one week you get it, one week the other guy get it; the other person get it, something like that; it goes around until everybody get it.
The real estate transaction closed on September 15, 2000, at the office of an attorney hired by Dennis. Joseph was purportedly instructed by Dennis to bring $3,461 to the closing as his share of the balance due. Joseph produced his bank records to try to show that he made multiple withdrawals, which he testified were intended to cover his portion of the balance due: $1,600 on June 2, 2000, $700 on July 21, 2000, and $1,000 on August 19, 2000. Joseph explained that he did not ...