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Ponson v. Ponson

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

March 14, 2018

RONNICE TRAINOR PONSON
v.
AARON PONSON, SR.

         ON APPEAL FROM THE TWENTY-FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF JEFFERSON, STATE OF LOUISIANA NO. 715-424, DIVISION "F" HONORABLE MICHAEL P. MENTZ, JUDGE PRESIDING

          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, RONNICE TRAINOR PONSON Theon A. Wilson

          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT, AARON PONSON, SR. Hester R. Hilliard

          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Marc E. Johnson, and Robert A. Chaisson

          MARC E. JOHNSON JUDGE

         In this domestic matter, Defendant appeals the trial court's judgment pertaining to the partition of community property and various reimbursement claims. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The parties, Ronnice Trainor Ponson and Aaron Ponson, Sr., married in July 1997 and had two children. On May 31, 2012, Ronnice filed a petition for divorce seeking a joint custody order with her being named as the domiciliary parent, exclusive use and possession of the family home and a BMW automobile, and permission to sell a Mercedes Benz automobile owned by the community. She also sought child support and a temporary restraining order prohibiting Aaron from disposing of, alienating, concealing or encumbering any of the community property, which she sought to partition at a later date. Aaron answered the petition for divorce on July 6, 2012, and asserted a reconventional demand in which he sought to be designated the domiciliary parent, child support, exclusive use and possession of the family home, and an order prohibiting Ronnice from disposing of or encumbering community property.

         The parties appeared before a hearing officer on July 10, 2012, at which time several preliminary matters were addressed.[1] During the hearing officer conference (HOC), the parties stipulated that Aaron was to have interim use and occupancy of the family home located on Bellaire Street in Harvey. As such, Ronnice withdrew her motion for use of the family home. It was also stipulated that Ronnice was to maintain insurance on and have use of the BMW, and that Ronnice had authority to sell the Mercedes.

         On the same day, at 12:52 p.m., Ronnice filed a motion for fair rental value for the use and occupancy of the family home by Aaron, which was set before the hearing officer on the same day at 11:30 a.m.[2] The "Stipulations and/or Recommendations of Hearing Officer" form from the July 10, 2012 HOC shows that both the "R" for Recommendation and the "S" for Stipulation were circled regarding the issue of rental reimbursement, which stated "Rental Reimbursement should be reserved to/deferred as follows: to the partition of the community." Additionally, both the "R" and "S" were circled indicating Aaron should pay the mortgage payments for the family residence in the amount of $1, 200/month. The form was signed by Ronnice, her counsel, and Aaron who was unrepresented at the time. The stipulations and recommendations were made the judgment of the court by signature of the district court judge on the same day.

         Three days later, Aaron timely filed an objection to the hearing officer's recommendations and interim judgment, specifically objecting to the rental reimbursement issue. The matter was set to be heard by the district court judge on August 30, 2012, but according to the parties was continued because of Hurricane Isaac. The matter was re-set for November 14, 2012, but again continued to January 29, 2013. The minute entry on January 29, 2013 indicates the matter was continued and was to be reset per a status conference held in chambers with counsel for both parties. The record shows that Aaron's objection to the July 10, 2012 hearing officer's recommendations and interim judgment regarding rental reimbursement was never reset or heard by the district court.[3]

         A judgment of divorce was rendered on September 27, 2013. Thereafter, on July 14, 2014, Ronnice filed a petition to partition community property. The parties subsequently filed their respective descriptive lists of assets and liabilities and both parties filed motions to traverse the other's descriptive list. During a HOC on July 17, 2015, the parties stipulated that four immovable properties - Elizardi St., Bellaire St., Monroe St. and East Velvet Lane - and the contents of the Bellaire St. home were to be appraised by the appointed appraisers. At a later HOC on August 3, 2016, the hearing officer recommended that the community property partition proceed to trial before the district court judge because he had been unable to move the matter to resolution. The matter was set for trial on October 25, 2016.

         Also at the August 3, 2016 HOC, the hearing officer recommended Aaron be sanctioned in the amount of $250.00 for failing to file a completed descriptive list. Aaron filed an objection to the hearing officer's recommendation for sanctions, which was set before the district court on October 6, 2016. A minute entry of that date indicates the parties, via a telephone conference, were ordered to another HOC prior to October 25, 2016, which was the trial date for the partition of community property.[4] The parties were ordered to provide descriptive lists with values at the HOC. According to the parties, the district court judge ordered this HOC for one last attempt to resolve the community property partition prior to trial.

         The parties appeared for one last HOC prior to trial on October 20, 2016, during which numerous stipulations were entered and several recommendations were made. The parties stipulated that "[t]he mortgage reimbursement claim of Mr. Ponson set against the rental value claim of Ms. Ponson results in an equalizing payment due Mr. Ponson by Ms. Ponson of $1, 776.50." Additionally, the hearing officer recommended that all immovable property, except the Elizardi property, be sold and that Aaron owed Ronnice reimbursement for her payment of the timeshare loan and maintenance fee.

         On October 24, 2016, Aaron filed an objection to the hearing officer's October 20, 2016 recommendations; specifically objecting to the hearing officer's recommendation that all real estate be sold and that he pay reimbursement associated with the timeshare loan. He fax-filed a second objection on October 25, 2016, the same day the community partition trial was held, followed by the filing of the original objection on October 31, 2016, objecting to the judgment signed by the district court on October 21, 2016, relating to the October 20, 2016 HOC; specifically objecting to the rental reimbursement claim in favor of Ronnice, asserting that he did not stipulate that his mortgage reimbursement claim offset Ronnice's rental reimbursement claim with an equalizing payment owed by Ronnice.

         Trial on the community property partition was held on October 25, 2016. Both Aaron and Ronnice testified and offered various exhibits into evidence. At the conclusion of trial, the district court rendered judgment, which was reduced to writing and signed on November 7, 2016. Parts of that judgment which are at issue in this appeal include the district court's order that (1) the October 20, 2016 stipulations made by the parties at the HOC be made the judgment of the court; (2) Aaron's mortgage reimbursement claim offsets against Ronnice's rental value claim, resulting in an equalizing payment due by Ronnice to Aaron in the amount of $1, 776.50; (3) the real estate located on Bellaire St., East Velvet Lane and Monroe St. be sold; (4) Aaron's reimbursement claims related to Bowden St. be denied; and (5) Aaron's reimbursement claim for the maintenance of Bellaire St. be denied. It is from this November 7, 2016 judgment that Aaron appeals.

         ISSUES

         Aaron first argues the district court erred in ordering the immovable property sold instead of distributing the assets between the parties as required by the procedures outlined in La. R.S. 9:2801(A)(4). Second, he alleges the district court erred in failing to follow pre-trial procedures for the partition of community property. Third, he challenges the district court's adoption of the alleged stipulation regarding Ronnice's claim for rental reimbursement. Fourth, Aaron asserts the district court erred in denying his claim for reimbursement for payments made on the Bowden property, which was Ronnice's separate property. Fifth, he contends the district court erred in denying his reimbursement claim for repairs he made to the Bellaire property. Finally, he avers the district court erred in holding the objection hearing to the October 20, 2016 HOC at the community partition trial on October 25, 2016.

         DISCUSSION

         Order to Sell Immovable Property

         Aaron first argues the district court erred in ordering the immovable property belonging to the community be sold. He contends the district court failed to follow the procedure set forth in La. R.S. 9:2801(A)(4); specifically, Aaron avers the district court failed to determine and equally divide the assets and liabilities of the parties before resorting to an order that the property be sold. He asserts the evidence in the record is insufficient to ascertain the value of the assets and liabilities of the community and, therefore, the matter must be remanded for completion of the proceedings.

         La. R.S. 9:2801 provides the specific procedure for the judicial partition of community property and the settlement of claims arising after the dissolution of the marriage. Vedros v. Vedros, 16-735 (La.App. 5 Cir. 10/25/17); 229 So.3d 677, 680. The trial court has broad discretion in adjudicating issues raised by divorce and partition of the community and is afforded great latitude in arriving at an equitable distribution of assets between spouses. The allocation or assignment of assets and liabilities in the partition of community property is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. Id. Factual findings and credibility determinations made in the course of valuing and allocating assets and liabilities in the partition of community property may not be set aside absent manifest error. Benoit v. Benoit, 11-376 (La.App. 1 Cir. 3/8/12); 91 So.3d 1015, 1019, writ denied, 12-1265 (La. 9/28/12); 98 So.3d 838.

         Prior to trial on the community partition, the parties had entered into several stipulations regarding the partition of much of the community property. At the time of trial, only a few issues of partition remained. Among those issues was the partition of three immovable properties - Bellaire St., East Velvet Lane, and Monroe St. According to the parties' sworn detailed descriptive lists that were filed into the record, the parties valued each of the properties differently and disagreed on the mortgage owed for each. Aaron's descriptive list identified the mortgages on East Velvet Lane and Monroe St. as liabilities but did not list the value of the outstanding mortgages; however, Aaron specifically testified that he did not agree with the amount of the mortgages listed on Ronnice's descriptive list. Even though the parties agreed to have the properties appraised, the appraisal reports for each property were never introduced into evidence by either party, and with the exception of the appraised value for the Bellaire St. property, [5] there was no evidence of the appraised values for the properties at issue.[6]

         Aaron maintains there was not enough evidence for the district court to ascertain the value of the assets and liabilities and, thus, the district court did not and could not follow La. R.S. 9:2801 in order to properly partition the property. As such, he ...


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