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Lewis v. Estate of Lewis

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

September 13, 2018

William C. Lewis, Sr., et al., Appellants,
v.
Estate of Robert A. Lewis, et al., Appellees.

          Submitted December 12, 2017

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (LIT51-13) (Hon. Gerald I. Fisher, Trial Judge)

          William C. Lewis and Esther Y. Lewis, co-personal representatives of the Estate of Amos W. Lewis, Jr., pro se.

          John C. Morrison and Lilia C. Machado were on the brief for appellees.

          Before Glickman, Thompson, and McLeese, Associate Judges.

          THOMPSON, ASSOCIATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs/appellants William C. Lewis, Sr. ("William"), and Esther Y. Lewis ("Esther"), co-personal representatives of the Estate of Amos W. Lewis, Jr., [1] appeal from December 8, 2015, and December 11, 2015, judgments of the Superior Court, entered upon the verdict in a bench trial, declaring that the real property located at 638 Quebec Place N.W. (the "Quebec Place property") is an asset of the estate of Robert A. Lewis rather than belonging to the estate of Amos W. Lewis, Jr. Plaintiffs/appellants also contend that the trial court erred in ruling that they were not entitled to a jury trial on their claims. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         I.

         This litigation arose out of competing claims to real properties once owned in their entirety by decedent Amos W. Lewis, Jr. ("Amos"), who died intestate in 1992. Plaintiffs/appellants — Amos's estate and William and Esther, two of Amos's surviving children, who sued in their capacity as personal representatives of Amos's estate — alleged in their complaint that two 1987 deeds fraudulently conveyed title to the Quebec Place property, and to another property located on North Capitol Street, N.W. (the "North Capitol property"), [2] to Amos and his son Robert A. Lewis.

         The pertinent background is as follows. After Robert A. Lewis died intestate on August 25, 2013, his son, appellee Robert T. Lewis, who was appointed to administer the estate, listed the Quebec Place and North Capitol properties as assets of the estate of Robert A. Lewis. That prompted William and Esther, who believed that the properties had belonged to Amos alone (after the death of Amos's wife in 1986), to petition for probate of Amos's estate. After their appointment as personal representatives of Amos's estate, William and Esther listed the two properties as assets of Amos's estate.

         Thereafter, on November 1, 2013, William and Esther caused the instant suit to be filed in the Superior Court on behalf of Amos's estate, alleging fraudulent conveyance, wrongful withholding of estate assets, and unjust enrichment. The crux of appellants' allegations was that the December 1987 deeds purporting to transfer interests in the Quebec Place and North Capitol properties to Robert A. Lewis were fraudulent because "the signature[s] conveying title to the properties . . . [were] not Amos W. Lewis's signature." Plaintiffs/appellants alleged that "Robert A. Lewis either forged or caused his father's signature to be forged on the [d]eeds[, ] vesting title in himself."

         Trial in the matter began on October 26, 2015, and the trial court heard from several witnesses. In the summary that follows, we focus on the testimony the court heard that was relevant to whether the signature on the December 8, 1987, deed conveying the Quebec Place property was Amos's signature.[3] Naomi Williams ("Naomi"), another one of Amos's surviving children, testified that "from about August[] 1987 to the day [Amos] died [in 1992] he was totally with [her]" in Detroit, Michigan. She further testified that after Amos suffered a stroke in November 1987, she went to stay with him in the house he owned in Detroit. She told the court that Amos thereafter had four additional strokes, in 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1992, and potentially "little mini strokes in between." After the second stroke in 1988, Naomi told the court, she "brought [Amos] into her house" where he stayed, and where someone was present with him "24/7," until his death in 1992. Naomi testified that her father "couldn't travel by himself, and [she and her husband] were both working." Naomi further testified about Amos's signature, stating that "he wrote big" as he "moved his whole arm" when signing documents. Referring to the signature on one of the December 1987 deeds, Naomi told the court that she had "never seen a signature [by Amos] this small." She opined that there was "no way" that Amos "could have personally appeared before [Bernice Stone, the notary who notarized the 1987 deeds]" because he was in Detroit on the date the deeds were executed.[4]

         Gordon Lewis ("Gordon"), another of Amos's surviving offspring, told the court that "after [his] mother died" in October 1986, "to [his] knowledge," his father never "c[a]me to the District of Columbia again." William testified that while the signatures on the deeds "appear[] to be similar to [his] father's signature, . . . [they are] not [his] father's handwriting." William explained that his father "wrote big." William also told the court that Amos "wasn't [in the District of Columbia] on those dates [December 7 and 8, 1987] to sign that signature" and instead "was in Detroit."

         Esther testified that after her father got sick, she and William attempted to get him moved from a hospital in Detroit to a hospital in the District of Columbia but were unable to successfully move him because "he wasn't able to travel" between 1987 and 1991. She further stated that the signatures on the December 7 and December 8, 1987, deeds "do[] not appear to be [Amos's] signature" and that "[i]t was . . . impossible for [her] father to be [in the District] during that time."

         The trial court announced its verdict with respect to the Quebec Place property on December 8, 2015. The court explained that, in reaching its verdict, it gave little weight to trial testimony recounting statements that family members purportedly made about who owned or would own the property. Rather, the court stated, the "real key to th[e] case . . . [wa]s the examination of the signatures" on the deed and "the question of whether plaintiffs ha[d] proven by clear and convincing evidence that Amos Lewis was not in the District of Columbia on December 7th and 8th of 1987." The court found that plaintiffs/appellants had not met their burden of showing by clear and convincing ...


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