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Villenuve v. Cash

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

September 21, 2017


         On Appeal from the 21st Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Livingston State of Louisiana Trial Court No. 142, 620, Honorable Charlotte H. Foster, Judge Presiding.

          Robert H. Harrison, Jr. Watson, LA, Maryanna B. Haynes Brian K. Abels Denham Springs, LA, Attorneys for Defendants-Appellants-Michael Eugene Cash and Brenda Sue Cash.

          Carlton Jones, III Ryan R. Brown Baton Rouge, LA, Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellee, Connie B, Villenuve.


          HIGGINBOTHAM, J.

         This appeal concerns the review of a judgment declaring a donation inter vivos of immovable property null and void for lack of authentic form.


         Connie B. Villenuve is a widow with no children. In 2012, Ms. Villenuve was living on approximately 25 acres of property in Denham Springs, Louisiana. She originally acquired the property, including three houses and a barn, from her parents.[1] On July 31, 2012, Ms. Villenuve went with her neighbors and close friends, Michael Eugene Cash and Brenda Sue Cash, to a local notary's office to sign documents that she believed were related to the succession of her husband so that she could sell the Cashes two acres of land for their daughter. Instead, Ms. Villenuve signed a document in which she purported to donate all of her property to the Cashes, which was not her intention. Ms. Villenuve had previously executed a will that left all of the property to the Cashes upon her death, but she never intended to donate the property to them while she was still living.

         The Cashes informed Ms. Villenuve later that same day that they now owned all of her property. Upon learning this news, Ms. Villenuve became very upset and returned to the office of the notary, Sandra M. Allen Causey, to attempt to have the donation revoked. She was not successful. Approximately one week later, the Cashes moved into one of the empty houses on the property where Ms. Villenuve still lived. At that point, the previously close relationship between Ms. Villenuve and the Cashes quickly deteriorated, leading to a complete lack of trust and many phone calls to the local sheriffs office concerning harassment and trespassing, as well as threats to evict each other from the property. Ms. Villenuve subsequently revoked her will.

         On September 13, 2013, Ms. Villenuve filed a petition against the Cashes, seeking to declare the act of donation an absolute nullity and to return Ms. Villenuve into full possession and ownership of the property, to cancel and erase the act of donation from the Livingston Parish conveyance records, for an injunction enjoining the Cashes from filing any eviction proceedings against Ms. Villenuve, and for damages, Ms. Villenuve alleged that at the time that she signed the document, she did not understand that she was transferring all of her property to the Cashes, whom she had trusted. She also alleged that at the time she was under duress and the Cashes had perpetrated a fraud in misrepresenting what she was signing. Additionally, Ms. Villenuve alleged that the act of donation document was void and without effect, because it was not executed in the presence of two witnesses as required by law. The Cashes answered the petition, generally denying all of the allegations and requesting that the lawsuit be dismissed.

         The matter proceeded to a bench trial on October 14, 2015. The trial court signed a judgment in favor of Ms. Villenuve on December 30, 2015, granting all of the remedies she sought in her petition, including a declaration that the act of donation was an absolute nullity. In reasons for judgment, the trial court explained that the donation document was void for proper form because one of the witnesses was not present at the execution of the donation and the other witness did not actually observe any of the parties or the notary sign the document. The Cashes filed a motion for new trial, which was denied by the trial court. The Cashes then filed a motion for devolutive appeal, which the trial court granted. The record was lodged in this Court on November 22, 2016.[2]

         On appeal, the Cashes contend the trial court erred in finding that the act of donation: (1) was an absolute nullity; (2) was not an authentic act; and (3) was subject to revocation for the Cashes' acts of ingratitude. Ms. Villenuve maintains that the trial court's judgment should be affirmed since the act of donation was not signed in the presence of two witnesses as required by law for an authentic act.


         Louisiana Civil Code article 1541 requires that donations inter vivos be accomplished by authentic act under the penalty of absolute nullity. An "authentic act" is defined as a "writing executed before a notary public . . ., in the presence of two witnesses, and signed by each party who executed it, by each witness, and by each notary public before whom it was executed." La. Civ. Code art. 1833(A) (emphasis added). Any material deviation from the requirements governing authentic acts is fatal. Hardin v. Williams,468 So.2d 1302, 1304 (La.App. 1st Cir.), affd, 478 So.2d 1214 (La. 1985). To invalidate an act that purports to be authentic on its face, the proof ...

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