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Thorn v. Walker

December 21, 2006

DOROTHY C. THORN, APPELLANT,
v.
JAMES T. WALKER, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB-9989-02) (Hon. Neal E. Kravitz, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued December 5, 2006

Before REID and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and SCHWELB, Senior Judge.

Appellant Dorothy C. Thorn appeals from the trial court's denial of her motion for a new trial relating to the court's final judgment and order granting appellees' (James T. Walker and Erika Walker) request for specific performance of a contract for the sale of real property by Ms. Thorn. We dismiss this appeal on the ground that it is moot.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

On May 22, 2002, Ms. Thorn executed a contract for the sale of her residential property, located on Crittenden Street in the Northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia, to the Walkers for the sum of $190,000.00.*fn1 To secure the contract, the Walkers paid a deposit of $1,000.00 to Ms. Thorn. The contract specified that the Walkers would apply for financing within seven days after the ratification of the contract. In that regard, the Walkers obtained a letter from Marvin Miles of Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corporation ("Allied"), dated May 27, 2002, stating that they were pre-approved for a loan of $184,300.00. The contract was contingent on a letter from a lender approving financing for the transaction. The Walkers were required to deliver the letter to Ms. Thorn no later than 192 days after ratification of the contract. Subsequently, Ms. Thorn, who had lived in the home for approximately thirty years, changed her mind. She refused to allow the Walkers access to the Crittenden Street property so that an inspection could be conducted and an appraisal prepared. In addition, she unsuccessfully tried to refund the Walkers' $1000.00 security deposit in October 2002.

The Walkers sued for specific performance of the sales contract on November 25, 2002. A bench trial took place on November 1 and 3, 2004, after which the trial court orally determined that "there was a binding, valid contract reached on May 22nd, 2002 between [the Walkers] and [Ms. Thorn] to purchase [Ms. Thorn's] home . . .;" that "[a]ll of the material terms [had] been agreed to . . . -- the property that was to be sold, the price, the parties, the date of settlement, the means of payment, what the . . . respective obligations of the parties were, and what the penalties would be upon default of one party or the other . . . ." The court was not persuaded by Ms. Thorn's defenses, including her claims that (1) further negotiations were to take place; and (2) the contract was invalid because one page had not been signed by Mr. Walker, even though all of the other pages containing the material terms of the contract had been initialed by Mr. Walker. The court also concluded "that at the time the contract was agreed to, May 22nd 2002," the Walkers and Ms. Thorn "fully intended to be bound" by it; and that the Walkers "did everything they were obligated to do under [the] contract."

Once the parties submitted their positions as to the proper remedy, the trial court issued a written final judgment and order on November 30, 2004, granting specific performance to the Walkers (to occur no later than May 31, 2005) but indicating that settlement on the sale should not take place before January 31, 2005. In addition, the order specified other relief.

On December 17, 2004, Ms. Thorn filed a motion for a new trial, which was based on an affidavit from the General Counsel of Allied, stating that a search of the company's records "revealed no evidence of any loan application being submitted at any time by Mr. and Mrs. Walker to [the company's] Richmond office," and further, the company's "Human Resources Department could not locate an employee known as Marvin Miles [the person from Allied who had provided the Walkers with a pre-approval letter]; it appears that he was not one of our employees." Ms. Thorn wanted to establish through the affidavit that there was no valid, binding contract because the Walkers failed to satisfy a term and condition of the contract. The Walkers opposed the motion.

In an order docketed on January 5, 2005, the trial court denied Ms. Thorn's motion for a new trial. The trial court declared that the motion was timely filed, but that "the general counsel's affidavit is not properly considered 'newly discovered evidence'" because the Walkers "maintained throughout the litigation that they obtained pre-approval of a mortgage loan application through Mr. Miles and Allied [] . . . ." Therefore, Ms. Thorn "easily could have contacted Allied's general counsel and conducted whatever other investigation was necessary in advance of trial to determine whether she had any basis upon which to challenge the assertions of [the Walkers] and Mr. Miles." However, no question was raised about Mr. Miles "until a status hearing on November 19, 2004 . . . ." The court stated that it "found" the Walkers and Mr. Miles "to be credible witnesses, and the uncross-examined affidavit of the general counsel [did] nothing to change the Court's view . . . ." Moreover, the court concluded that "the general counsel's affidavit does not establish that [the Walkers] made a misrepresentation or committed fraud or other misconduct."

ANALYSIS

We first consider the argument of the Walkers that this appeal is moot since Ms. Thorn sold the Crittenden Street property to them and accepted payment, and because that property has been in their possession since around January 31, 2005. Furthermore, they argue, Ms. Thorn has not requested any particular relief from this court, and indeed "no just or appropriate relief could be requested or ordered in light of the subsequent transaction between the parties." Ms. Thorn did not address the assertion of mootness in her reply brief, but during oral argument her counsel indicated that the relief sought might be the return of the Crittenden Street property. We have not had an occasion to consider the issue of mootness under the precise circumstances of this case. Therefore, we set forth some guiding legal principles distilled not only from our cases but also those in other jurisdictions.

A case is moot if the parties have presented no justiciable controversy to the appellate court. "Although not bound strictly by the 'case or controversy' requirements of Article III of the U.S. Constitution, this court does not normally decide moot cases." Cropp v. Williams, 841 A.2d 328, 330 (D.C. 2004) (citing District of Columbia v. Group Ins. Admin., 633 A.2d 2, 12 (D.C. 1993)). "A case is moot when the legal issues presented are no longer 'live' or when the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome." Id. (citing Murphy v. Hunt, 455 U.S. 478, 481 (1982)); see also Brownlow v. Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 261 U.S. 216, 217 (1923) (case moot because "there is now no actual controversy between the parties -- no issue on the merits which this Court can properly decide."). Moreover, there is no justiciable controversy if the court is asked to decide only abstract or academic issues. See Spingarn v. Landow & Co., 342 A.2d 41, 42 (D.C. 1975) ("appellate courts will not decide abstract questions. . . ."); see also Not in Montana: Citizens Against CI-97 v. Montana, 334 Mont. 265 (2006), 2006 Mont. LEXIS 588 at 6 ("A justiciable controversy is limited . . . to 'one upon which the judgment of the court may effectively operate,' as distinguished from a debate or argument that proposes a purely academic conclusion, or advisory opinion."); Lewis Investments, Inc. v. City of Iowa City, 703 N.W.2d 180, 183 (Iowa 2005) ("Ordinarily an appeal is deemed moot if the issue becomes nonexistent or academic and, consequently no longer involves a justiciable controversy.") (citation omitted).

Furthermore, if a party has requested no particular relief on appeal, or the appellate court can provide no effective relief, the case is moot. "In deciding whether a case is moot, we determine whether this [c]court can fashion effective relief." Graveyard Creek Ranch, Inc. v. Bell, 116 P.3d 779, 781 (Mont. 2005). Moreover, as we reiterated in Settlemire v. District of Columbia Office of Employee Appeals, 898 A.2d 902 (D.C. 2006), "'it is well-settled that, while an appeal is pending, an event that renders relief impossible or unnecessary also renders that appeal moot.'" Id.at 905 (quoting Vaughn v. United States, 579 A.2d 170, 175 n.7 (D.C. 1990)); see also Evans v. Family Sav. & Loan Ass'n of Virginia, 481 A.2d 1309, 1310 (D.C. 1984) ("[T]he appeal is moot because there is no way we can grant effective relief."). In that regard, the sale of property generally precludes effective relief. See Lathrop v. Sakatani, 141 P.3d 480, 486 (Haw. 2006) ("[T]he sale of the property prevents the appellate court from granting any effective relief."). Nevertheless, a ...


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