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Wilfrido Cuevas v. Bernardino Barraza

March 22, 2012


Appeal from the District Court of the Third Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Canyon County. Honorable Gregory M. Culet, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Jones, Justice.

2012 Opinion No. 56

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment of the district court is affirmed in part, vacated in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

This appeal involves a decade-long fight over title to a piece of real property. Juan Cuevas allegedly agreed to sell the property to Bernardino Barraza in 2001. However, after Barraza failed to pay the purchase price, Juan filed a quiet title action against Barraza. Barraza defaulted. While Barraza was seeking to set aside the default, Juan quitclaimed the property to his relative, Wilfrido Cuevas. Meanwhile, Barraza was successful in setting aside the default on appeal. On remand, Juan defaulted and the district court quieted title in Barraza. Wilfrido then filed the present quiet title action against Barraza, in which the district court found the default judgment against Juan void and quieted title in Wilfrido. For the reasons outlined below, we agree that the default judgment against Juan is void, but we vacate the summary judgment quieting title in Wilfrido as against Barraza.


Juan Cuevas and Yrene Baez (hereinafter collectively referred to as "Juan") jointly held title to real property commonly known as 29452 Pearl Road, Parma, Idaho, pursuant to a warranty deed recorded in Canyon County on June 15, 1993. In March 2001, Juan allegedly executed a written contract to sell the property to Bernardino Barraza and Liobaldo Garza (hereinafter collectively referred to as "Barraza") for a total purchase price of $80,000.*fn1

Barraza claims he paid a total of $22,635 toward the purchase, but then the agreement fell apart. He asserts Juan agreed to repay him $20,000 upon resale of the property if he would vacate the premises, which he did. Barraza claims Juan never repaid any money. In response, on May 6, 2002, Barraza recorded a claim of lien against the property, purportedly securing an "unpaid refund in the amount $20,000.00 for the payments on Real estate Title."*fn2

Wilfrido Cuevas claims he began purchasing the property under an oral agreement with Juan in August of 2003. At that time he moved onto the property with his family, began making improvements to it, started paying the property taxes on it, and began making payments to Juan pursuant to the oral agreement.

On April 2, 2007, Juan filed a quiet title action against Barraza, seeking to clear his title of Barraza's purported lien. Barraza failed to respond, and the district court entered a default judgment against him May 15, 2007, which was recorded May 17, 2007. On May 24, 2007, Barraza moved to set aside the default judgment, attaching his proposed Answer and Counterclaim--which included an affirmative request for the court to quiet title in his name--to his attorney's affidavit in support of that motion.

Around June 13, 2007, Wilfrido claims he paid the remaining balance of the purchase price to Juan pursuant to their oral contract, based on his understanding that Juan had successfully quieted title. Juan executed a quitclaim deed transferring his interest to Wilfrido, and Wilfrido claims he researched the Canyon County land records to ensure title was clear before recording it on June 20, 2007.*fn3

On June 25, 2007, the district court denied Barraza's motion to set aside the default judgment, and Barraza appealed. On June 25, 2008, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion vacating the default judgment and remanding the case. Cuevas v. Barraza, 146 Idaho 511, 198 P.3d 740 (Ct. App. 2008). The Court of Appeals held that (1) Barraza's poor English and mistaken belief that he was being represented by counsel constituted mistake or excusable neglect sufficient to set aside the judgment, and (2) the proposed Answer and Counterclaim served with Barraza's motion presented a meritorious breach of contract defense to the quiet title action. Id.

Following issuance of the Court of Appeals opinion, Barraza recorded a lis pendens against the property on August 6, 2008. On January 6, 2009, the Court of Appeals entered the Remittitur, and on January 15, 2009, the district court granted Juan's attorney leave to withdraw. Although a copy of the order granting leave to withdraw was mailed to Juan on January 23, 2009, Juan failed to appear. The district court entered default judgment quieting title in Barraza on March 17, 2009, and Barraza recorded the quiet title judgment on March 24, 2009.

After learning that he no longer held title to the property, Wilfrido filed a new suit against Barraza to quiet title on August 7, 2009, and Barraza answered. Wilfrido moved for summary judgment, arguing that the default judgment entered against Juan was void. The district court granted that motion, ruling from the bench that (1) the judgment was void for lack of notice because the Answer and Counterclaim was never properly filed or served on Juan and, (2) alternatively, Wilfrido could collaterally attack the judgment notwithstanding the doctrine of res judicata because he was not in privity with Juan.

Following limited discovery, Wilfrido again moved for summary judgment, seeking to quiet title in the property and arguing that Barraza did not have a viable unjust enrichment claim against Wilfrido. The district court also granted this second motion, ruling from the bench that (1) Barraza failed to establish a valid claim against the property, and (2) Barraza did not unjustly enrich Wilfrido. The district court denied ...

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