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Sallaz v. Rice

Supreme Court of Idaho

November 23, 2016

DENNIS J. SALLAZ and MARCY FOX, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
EUGENE (ROY) RICE and JANET RICE, husband and wife, and MICHAEL RICE, Defendants-Respondents.

         2016 Opinion No. 134

          Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Ada County. Hon. Jason D. Scott, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Vernon K. Smith, Jr., Boise, argued for appellants.

          J. Kahle Becker, Boise, argued for respondents.

          EISMANN, Justice.

         This is an appeal out of Ada County from an order denying the Plaintiffs' motion for a directed verdict. We affirm the denial of the motion and therefore uphold the jury verdict and judgment in favor of the Defendants.

         I.

         Factual Background.

         Dennis J. Sallaz was the owner of a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado that he had purchased in 1964. In 1991, Mr. Sallaz granted Eugene "Roy" Rice a lien on the Cadillac, and a new certificate of title was issued on July 17, 1991, showing that Roy Rice had a lien on the car. On July 22, 1991, Mr. Sallaz had a duplicate of that certificate of title issued to himself.

         Mr. Sallaz was counsel for Mr. Rice, and they were close friends and business associates for many years. Their relationship soured, and on January 17, 2011, Mr. Rice had his son Michael Rice repossess the Cadillac. On January 24, 2011, Michael Rice, on behalf of his father, presented an Affidavit of Repossession to the Idaho Transportation Department, and the Department issued a new certificate of title showing that the owner of the Cadillac was Eugene LeRoy Rice or Rose Jeanette Rice, who was his wife. Mr. Rice later sold the Cadillac for the sum of $25, 000.

         On April 11, 2011, Mr. Sallaz filed this action against Mr. Rice, his wife, and his son seeking to recover possession of the Cadillac or, if he could not do so, damages for conversion in the sum of $75, 000. In the verified complaint, Mr. Sallaz averred that "[a]t all times relevant hereto (except as may be specified), Plaintiff was the sole owner of a 1954 Cadillac, VIN 546265334." He also averred that he had granted Mr. Rice a lien on the Cadillac in July 1991 because Mr. Rice had offered to loan money to Mr. Sallaz, that the transaction never closed, and that Mr. Rice signed the certificate of title releasing his lien on July 20, 1995. A copy of the duplicate title was attached to the complaint, and it showed a signature of "Roy Rice" releasing the lien. In his verified answer and counterclaim, Roy Rice alleged that his purported signature releasing the lien was a forgery.

         The bottom portion of the duplicate title had a form for transferring ownership of the vehicle, and it had been filled out showing that on January 1, 2011, Mr. Sallaz had transferred ownership of the Cadillac to Marcy Fox, his fiancé. She was later added as a plaintiff in this action, although Mr. Sallaz also continued to prosecute the case in his name pursuant to a power of attorney that she had executed on February 11, 2011.

         Mr. Sallaz sought a writ of possession to gain possession of the Cadillac, but the district court denied the writ because "Mr. Rice has shown with sufficient probability that he is the official owner of record of the 1954 Cadillac Eldorado and that he is entitled to possession of the vehicle." There were other claims filed between the parties, and all of the various claims were tried to a jury from June 30 through July 21, 2014. The other claims are not relevant to this appeal.

         After the Defendants rested, Mr. Sallaz moved for a directed verdict. The district court denied the motion, and the jury returned a special verdict finding that the Plaintiffs had failed to prove their claim against the Defendants for conversion of the Cadillac. The Plaintiffs timely appealed.

          II.

         Did the District Court Err in Denying the Plaintiffs' Motion for a Directed Verdict?

         When reviewing the grant or denial of a motion for a directed verdict, we conduct an independent review of the evidence and do not defer to the findings of the trial court. Gillingham Constr., Inc. v. Newby-Wiggins Constr., Inc., 136 Idaho 887, 891, 42 P.3d 680, 684 (2002). Our standard of review is as follows:

We must determine whether, admitting the truth of the adverse evidence and drawing every legitimate inference most favorably to the opposing party, there exists substantial evidence to justify submitting the case to the jury. The "substantial evidence" test does not require that the evidence be uncontradicted, or even that we find it persuasive. We do not weigh the evidence or consider the credibility of the witnesses. It requires only that the evidence be of sufficient quantity and probative value that reasonable minds could conclude that a verdict in favor of the party against whom the motion is made is proper. A directed verdict is proper only where the evidence is so clear that all reasonable minds would reach only one conclusion-that the moving party should prevail.

Id. at 891-92, 42 P.3d at 684-85. (Citations omitted.)

         A claim of conversion requires proof of three elements: "(1) that the charged party wrongfully gained dominion of property; (2) that property is owned or possessed by plaintiff at the time of possession; and (3) the property in question is personal property." Taylor v. McNichols, 149 Idaho 826, 846, 243 P.3d 642, 662 (2010). In this case, there was no dispute that the Cadillac was owned by one of the Plaintiffs when it was repossessed and that it was personal property. The only issue in dispute was whether the Defendants wrongfully gained dominion over it.

         Mr. Sallaz testified that in 1991 he and Roy Rice were working together to purchase something, that his part was to give Mr. Rice a lien on the Cadillac, that he did so, that Mr. Rice worked on the transaction for a long time, and that they backed out of the purchase because Mr. Rice could not get the price he wanted. According to Mr. Sallaz, in 1995 he was going through his car documents and noticed that he had never had Mr. Rice release the lien. He therefore went to Mr. Rice's house and had him sign the release of lien. Mr. Sallaz produced at trial the duplicate title that he had issued on July 22, 1991. A signature purporting to be that of Roy Rice was written in the place on the title for releasing a lien against the Cadillac along with the release date of "7-20-95." Mr. Sallaz stated that after 1995, Roy and Michael Rice did ...


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