Jury Decides Complex Ownership Dispute

By Adam Leitman Bailey

In September, Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. won a jury trial in Kings County Supreme Court before Justice Herbert Kramer which allowed our client to keep her property despite a claim of ownership by her brother. We represented a client who was the owner according to a filed deed; her brother alleged that she had promised to convey the property to him and held it only as a trustee.

In 1973, our client’s father, a lawyer, bought a property in Brooklyn with office space on the ground floor and two apartment floors above. The father placed the property in our client’s name. The father practiced law in the building until 2001. From 1978, when he was admitted to the bar, until 2001, when he was disbarred, the client’s brother also practiced law there and lived in the upstairs apartment. The property was substantially renovated before the law office opened and was kept in good condition at no cost to the client. The brother moved out in 2001 and rented out the upstairs apartments and the commercial space. From 1973 to 2002, our client never made a mortgage, tax, water, electricity or repair payment. In late 2002, client asserted her control over the premises by evicting the tenants and negotiating leases with new tenants. The brother sued to impose a constructive trust, alleging that father had intended the building be his and that his sister was merely a “straw man” on the deed so that he could avoid losing his assets in a divorce he was going through. He said our client had agreed to this use of her name and promised to sign over the deed any time he asked her to. Another brother supported his claims and said their father had always intended the house should belong to his brother and not his sister. The brother claimed that he had supplied the down payment, paid off a purchase money mortgage, paid taxes, maintenance and renovation bills; he produced witnesses who confirmed portions of his testimony. The father had died before trial.

The legal issue was the existence of a constructive trust. A constructive trust requires (1) the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship; (2) a promise; (3) a transfer in reliance thereon; (4) a breach of that promise; and, (5) unjust enrichment. Family relations can establish the first prong, i.e. the existence of a confidential relationship. The key issue was establishing the credibility of our client and destroying the credibility of the brother with respect to the existence of a promise, since all the other issues flowed from that one.

The jury returned a verdict for our client after four hours of deliberation. Colin Kaufman led the Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. legal team in its victory at trial.

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Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C.