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In re Estate of Drake

September 16, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM 2334-95) (Hon. Eugene N. Hamilton, Senior Judge).

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

Argued November 23, 2009

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

The Estate of Carthur L.M. Drake ("the Estate"), along with the Carthur L.M. Drake Trust ("Drake Trust"), Necia Drake Thompson, and Alvitra Drake,*fn1 appeal the trial court's order to execute a quitclaim deed to appellee Sherry Miles St. Claire Drake, hereinafter St. Claire Drake, for property that was the subject of a 1998 settlement agreement between the parties. The Estate alleges that the trial court erred by granting a remedy that was not requested and by enforcing a contract with a condition precedent,*fn2 which the Estate claims has not yet occurred. We find no error and affirm.

I. Factual Background

This case arises out of litigation that started in 1996, when appellee St. Claire Drake renounced the will of her deceased estranged husband, Carthur L.M. Drake, and filed suit in probate court. The litigation originally resulted in a settlement agreement in 1998, but St. Claire Drake filed a separate action in Superior Court seeking to set aside the settlement agreement in 2005. The Superior Court dismissed the action.*fn3 We decided St. Claire Drake's appeal of that action on April 29, 2010.*fn4 That opinion provides a more detailed explication of the background of this litigation.

The parties are now before us because of the appeal of a separate action brought by St. Claire Drake in February 2008, a Motion for Immediate Possession of Property Located at 1336 W Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.*fn5 The property at issue is 99 percent owned by the Drake Trust, but is subject to IRS liens. As part of the 1998 settlement agreement, the Drake Trust agreed to execute a quitclaim deed to St. Claire Drake for this property "within 20 days following the IRS Settlement and the Release of the IRS liens . . . ." The quitclaim deed has never been executed because the IRS liens remain unresolved. In her motion, St. Claire Drake urged the trial court to use its equitable authority to grant her immediate possession of the property because the trustees have made no apparent progress toward the resolution of the IRS liens during the ten years since the execution of the settlement agreement. St. Claire Drake asserted that she had repeatedly tried to determine the status of the IRS liens and the likely time-frame for the vesting of her rights, but never received a response from the Estate.

St. Claire Drake's motion was heard by Judge Eugene Hamilton on March 27, 2008. At the evidentiary hearing, St. Claire Drake testified that she had taken many steps to determine the status of the trustees' negotiations with the IRS over the course of the past four years, including communications with the Estate's attorney, calls to the trustees themselves, and at least one certified-mail letter. Overall, St. Claire Drake estimated that she had attempted to make contact over one hundred times with no response. The Estate trustees do not deny their failure to respond to St. Claire Drake, despite the fact that the settlement agreement provides for "quarterly reports of disbursements made from the Drake Trust" and "prompt notice of any settlement with the IRS."

For the Estate, Ms. Necia Drake Thompson, a co-trustee, testified that the Estate was paying $6,000 per month to the IRS to stay current on its debt. She admitted, however, that the Estate had not paid or settled any of the various claims the IRS had against the Estate. Moreover, Ms. Drake Thompson did not deny that the Estate had not communicated with the IRS or advanced their negotiations in at least four years. When asked by St. Claire Drake's attorney how St. Claire Drake would have known if the IRS debt had been resolved, Ms. Drake Thompson opined that she would not know "if [the trustees] hadn't called her," which they admittedly never did.

St. Claire Drake asked the trial court to grant her possession of the property based on her "equitable owner's interest" and urged the court to consider the following equitable factors: the fact that ten years have passed since the settlement agreement was reached and there has admittedly been no attempt to resolve the IRS liens in at least the past four years; the house on the property at issue has been vacant for at least five years; in that time, St. Claire Drake has paid over $100,000 in rent but has still never owned, or even rented, a house of her own;*fn6 the trustees' admission that St. Claire Drake has no way to ascertain the status of the IRS liens; and St. Claire Drake's deteriorating health and its impact on her reasonable expectation of resolution of the IRS liens within her lifetime.

Judge Hamilton found for St. Claire Drake and ruled that the resolution of the IRS liens constituted a condition precedent to the vesting of St. Claire Drake's property rights. He concluded that "the [Estate] has failed to show by competent evidence that this condition precedent has not occurred, and [] has failed to show that [it] has acted diligently and in good faith with respect to what was necessary to be done by the trustee[s] in order to trigger the condition precedent . . . ." Judge Hamilton ordered the Estate to execute a quitclaim deed transferring the title of the property to St. Claire Drake within twenty days of the order.*fn7 This appeal followed.

II. Standard of Review

"Settlement agreements are construed under 'general principles of contract law.' Accordingly, we enforce a valid and binding settlement agreement just like 'any other contract.'"*fn8 Whether a condition precedent has been fulfilled is a question of fact.*fn9 As such, we will not ...

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