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Munawar v. Tibbs

September 17, 2009

IN RE ESTATE OF MARY MUNAWAR; MOHAMMAD MUNAWAR, APPELLANT,
v.
FRANKLIN TIBBS, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM362-06) (Hon. Eugene N. Hamilton, Trial Judge).

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

Argued October 16, 2008

Before KRAMER, BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY and THOMPSON, Associate Judges.

Appellant argues that the trial court committed reversible error in reforming a deed to show appellee Lucien Franklin Tibbs ("Franklin") as an owner of a certain multi-unit real estate property with rights of survivorship. We agree.

I. The Facts

In March 1989, the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") sold the subject premises to, and received a deed of trust secured by the premises from, Mary L. Brown. The language at the top of the first page of the deed, as provided by the Recorder's office, indicates that the VA sold the deed to "Mary L. Brown, unmarried." At the bottom of the second page of the deed there is what appears to be a cover sheet summarizing the deed and providing mailing information. That section states the following:

DEED EDWARD J DERWINSKI Secretary of Veterans Affairs TO MARY L. BROWN FRANKLIN TIBBS . . .

When recorded mail to: MARY L. BROWN FRANKLIN TIBBS 527 16th Street, NE Apt #1 Washington, DC 20002

Approximately ten years later, in March 1999, Mary L. Brown married Mohammad Munawar. Mary died intestate on March 7, 2006. Mr. Munawar claims that the property should pass to him through inheritance, while Franklin claims that the property should go to him because the deed should be reformed to reflect the decedent's intention that he co-own the property as a joint tenant with a right of survivorship.

At trial, appellant called himself, Mr. Munawar, as the decedent's husband and her estate's personal representative. Franklin called six witnesses: (1) himself, as the decedent's brother and the claimant in this case, (2) Marion Mitchell, a close friend and distant relative of the decedent; (3) Berton Norville, the decedent's long-time neighbor; (4) Na'imah Omar, the decedent's niece who lived at the subject premises and took care of the decedent before she died; (5) Shirley Parker, a long-time friend of the decedent; and (6) Dorothy Jackson, the decedent's sister. The six witnesses generally testified that the decedent had told them that Franklin was on the deed with her, that Franklin would receive the house if she died, and that she had originally planned to purchase the home with Franklin because she believed she could not qualify for financing on her own, but then discovered she could qualify on her own and attended the closing by herself.

Taking into account the above testimony and finding that the deed was ambiguous on its face as to the intent of the parties because Franklin's name appeared on the face of the deed, the trial court found that there was clear and convincing evidence that the deed did not express the parties' mutual agreement and therefore used its equitable powers to reform the deed to reflect what it found was the intent of the parties at the time of the deed's signing, making Franklin a joint tenant with right of survivorship.

II. Standard of Review

This case was a bench trial. Therefore, although we will review issues of law de novo, "[t]he trial court's findings of fact will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous, and the evidence will be viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party." Hinton v. Sealander Brokerage Co., 917 A.2d 95, 101 (D.C. 2007) (internal citations omitted); D.C. Code ยง 17-305 (a) (2001). We have interpreted this statute to be "indistinguishable from the 'clearly erroneous' standard" under Super. Ct. Civ. R 52 (a). Vereen v. ...


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