Justices remand Morningstar-Robison real-estate appeal

Courtesy photo

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Wyoming Supreme Court justices disagreed with how a Pinedale judge settled a civil suit contesting a real estate transaction by allowing then-owners to breach a sales contract and keep the property after their anticipated purchase of another property fell through.

The reluctant owners did not appear at the scheduled closing so the potential hopeful buyers sought “specific performance” in 9th District Court, asking now-retired Judge Marv Tyler to rule that they should be allowed to complete the purchase and take possession of the property.

The judge ordered the sellers to pay some monetary damages but determined it was more of a hardship to ask the sellers to leave than for the buyers to keep renting, records show.

In their April 6 opinion of the resulting appeal, Wyoming Supreme Court justices concluded in part, “The district court committed an error of law … and abused its discretion when it improperly used the special equities factors to rewrite the contract…”

They reversed and remanded the case to 9th District Court for Judge Kate McKay to award the contested property to the buyers and review the monetary damages.

The judge set a scheduling conference for Thursday, May 12, at 3 p.m. after the press deadline

Heated market

The contested transaction began in the pandemic-heated summer market of 2021 and in early July, Christopher and Rachel Robison listed their Daniel home, buildings and property in Mountain View Ranches with a realtor for sale.

Renting a home in Jackson but looking for property for 4-H animals and a daily commute, Virgil and Vickie Morningstar quickly made an offer and with the Robisons agreed on a price in a written contract. The Morningstars deposited earnest money and closing was set for Aug. 27, 2021, records show.

However, the Robisons wrote the Morningstars and said their offer on their desired new property wasn’t accepted so they couldn’t sell the house to The Morningstars’ attorney rejected the Robisons’ attempt to cancel the contract, saying the new owners were ready to close and move in.

Court, appeal

When the Robisons did not appear at the closing, the Morningstars filed a civil suit over ownership in 9th District Court, asking for “specific performance” to enforce the property sale. Judge Tyler ruled that Robisons breached their contract, which they in turn said was “intentional misconduct” by their realtor’s not including a contingency clause in it, records show.

Judge Tyler determined the Morningstars were owed $6,128 for inspection, rental and utility costs for the cabin they’d moved the family into before closing.

The Morningstars “could be ‘made whole’ without requesting specific performance and putting the Robisons out of their home without another property,, he ruled.

They filed a timely appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

“The district court committed an error of law when it placed the burden on the Morningstars to prove monetary damages were an inadequate or impractical remedy,” justices concluded.

Judge Tyler abused his discretion by ruling specific performance was not an appropriate remedy in this case, they wrote.

“The district court also committed an error of law when it interpreted the contract as requiring the Morningstars to choose between specific performance and monetary damages,” the opinion said.

Justices noted that they worked on the appeal “with a limited record” with no trial recordings, only filed court documents, but felt it was sufficient for the appeal.

“The district court attempted to put the Morningstars into the position they would have been in if they had never entered unto the contract. However, the district court should have awarded damages that put the Morningstars ‘in as nearly the same position as (they) would have been had there been no default’ by the Robisons.”

The Robisons put the contract’s fault on their realtor Neika Boulter; the justices found Judge Tyler “essentially rewrote the contract to allow the Robisons to cancel the contract because their preferred lot was unavailable – a clause the parties agree was not in the contract.”

Morningstars have continued to rent while await the appeal’s outcome, justices noted.

”We reverse and remand to the district court to enter an order granting the Morningstars’ request for specific performance and to determine what other damages if any should be awarded to the Morningstars,” the justices wrote.