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Cragle v. Gray

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 8, 2009

Blanche L. CRAGLE, Appellant,
v.
Marie GRAY, Appellee.

Page 447

Robert D. Lewis, Lewis & Thomas, P.C., Nome, for Appellant.

Andrew J. Fierro, Law Office of Andrew J. Fierro, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

Page 448

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, and WINFREE, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

The parties in this case contest the ownership of Elizabeth Sarren's Unalakleet house. Sarren died in 2000. Her will left the house to her daughter, Blanche Cragle. But Sarren's granddaughter, Marie Gray, claimed that Sarren orally agreed to give Gray the house if Gray would be Sarren's live-in caregiver until Sarren died. Gray cared for Sarren until Sarren's death, but after Sarren died the house was conveyed to Cragle per Sarren's will. Cragle sued to evict Gray; Gray counterclaimed to quiet title. After a four-day jury trial, the superior court awarded the house to Gray. Cragle appeals the denial of her pre-trial motion for partial summary judgment. We conclude that AS 13.12.514, which provides that oral succession contracts are unenforceable, controls. We therefore reverse.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Elizabeth Sarren was Blanche Cragle's mother and Marie Gray's grandmother. Sarren owned and lived in a house in Unalakleet. According to Gray, in September 1999 Sarren made an oral promise to Gray to give Gray the house if Gray would reside with and take care of Sarren until Sarren's death. It appears to be undisputed that Gray moved into the Unalakleet residence in October 1999 and cared for Sarren until Sarren died in January 2000.

Sarren's will, executed in October 1983, did not mention any agreement to give the house to Gray but instead " bequeath[ed]" the house to Cragle, who was also the will's executrix. The will bequeathed other property to Gray, including half of Sarren's shares in regional and village corporations. In September 2001 Cragle executed an administrator's deed conveying the Unalakleet house to herself in accordance with the will. Gray continued to reside in the house with her children.

In late 2005 Cragle served Gray with a written notice to quit and filed a forcible entry and detainer action against Gray. Gray answered and counterclaimed, alleging that she had equitable title to the property.

Cragle moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that the statute of frauds barred Gray from claiming ownership of the house. The superior court denied Cragle's motion, concluding that a genuine issue of material fact remained as to the existence of an oral agreement between Gray and Sarren. The court reasoned that if such an agreement existed and Gray had fully performed, an exception to the statute of frauds would excuse the lack of a writing. It therefore concluded that if a jury found that (1) Sarren made the promise Gray described and (2) Gray " fully performed her part of the bargain, then at the time of her death, Ms. Sarren's property was conveyed" to Gray.

Cragle moved for reconsideration, arguing in part that Gray's claim to Sarren's house was time barred by the statutes of limitations for probate and contract claims. Gray responded that her counterclaim was timely because the ten-year statute of limitations for actions relating to real property applied, giving her at least ten years in which to defend her right to possession. The superior court denied reconsideration. It concluded that, if two statutes might reasonably apply to a claim, the statute providing for the longer period is preferred.

The superior court then held a four-day jury trial, in part to determine ownership of the house. At the end of the trial, the jury was asked to answer the following questions: (1)" Did Elizabeth Sarren offer to give the house to Marie Gray in exchange for Marie taking care of Elizabeth for the rest of her life?" ; (2) " Did Elizabeth Sarren intend to give the house to Marie Gray when she made the offer?" ; and (3) " Did Marie Gray provide care to Elizabeth Sarren until her death in reliance on the offer?" The jury answered " yes" to ...


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