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Mendoza v. Mendoza

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

June 6, 2018


          APPEAL FROM ST. BERNARD 34TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT NO. 88-049, DIVISION "D" Honorable Kirk A. Vaughn, Judge



          Court composed of Judge Terri F. Love, Judge Roland L. Belsome, Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano, Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins, and Judge Regina Bartholomew-Woods


         In this community property partition suit, appellant Lisa Allen Mendoza ("Lisa") seeks reversal of the trial court's July 27, 2016 judgment denying Lisa's demand for reimbursement from her ex-husband, appellee Wayne J. Mendoza, Sr. ("Wayne"), of Road Home funds she used to rebuild their co-owned house that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


         On July 21, 1989, the Mendozas were married in St. Bernard Parish, where they established their matrimonial domicile. On August 22, 1993, during their marriage, the Mendozas purchased immovable property located at 3716 Gallo Drive in Chalmette, Louisiana (the "Property") for $73, 395.00. In January 1995, the Mendozas paid off their mortgage loan on the Property using settlement funds that Wayne received from a work-related injury.

         On June 24, 1999, Lisa filed a Petition for Divorce, and she was awarded the temporary exclusive use and occupancy of the Property. On January 28, 2000, the court entered a Judgment of Divorce. More than five years later, on August 29, 2005, the Property was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. At the time, Lisa was the sole occupant of the Property; Wayne was living in Metairie, Louisiana.

         After Hurricane Katrina, Lisa applied for a grant from the Road Home program to rebuild the Property.[1] The Road Home program requires applicants to provide documents verifying ownership, such as a title policy, deed, mortgage, or tax bill.[2] The record does not reflect which documents Lisa submitted to Road Home to verify ownership of the Property.

         As part of the grant process, Lisa signed a series of documents: (1) a "Road Home Grant Recipient Affidavit" ("Road Home Affidavit"); (2) a "Road Home Program Grant Agreement" ("Grant Agreement"); and (3) a "Road Home Declaration of Covenants Running With the Land" ("Covenants").

         In the Road Home Affidavit, Lisa attested that she was the sole "owner-occupant" of the Property on the date of Hurricane Katrina, that the Property was her primary residence, and that she was currently the owner of the Property. Although the Property was community property acquired during their marriage, Lisa did not identify Wayne as an "owner." In the Road Home Affidavit, Lisa certified that all information provided in the grant application and closing documents was true to the best of her knowledge.

         At the grant closing on May 8, 2007, Lisa executed a Grant Agreement in which she is again identified as the sole "homeowner." The Grant Agreement specifies that its purpose is to "provide compensation for damages incurred by the Homeowner(s) due to Hurricane Katrina." The Grant Agreement states that "[t]he proceeds of the Grant will be disbursed in one lump sum directly to the Homeowner(s)." Although the agreement contains a space to identify any "co-homeowner, " this space is left blank. Again, Lisa certified that all information that she provided to Road Home was true to the best of her knowledge.

         In the Covenants, Lisa is again identified as the sole owner of the Property. The Covenants provide as follows:

NOW, THEREFORE, for and in consideration of receipt of all Grant proceeds as compensation for damages incurred by the Owner due to the Hurricanes, and in order to mitigate further future damage from hurricanes and similar natural disasters, Owner hereby makes the following Covenants and agreements with respect to the Property, which Covenants and agreements shall constitute covenants and restrictions running with and encumbering the Property. (Emphasis added.)

         The Covenants include: (1) an agreement not to sell, assign, transfer or otherwise dispose of the Property for three years unless the transfer is made pursuant to the Covenants, and the transferee agrees to abide by the Covenants and assume the owner's obligations under the Covenants and the Grant Agreement; (2) an agreement not to use or occupy the Property except as a primary residence; (3) an agreement to obtain hazard insurance on the Property for three years; and (4) an agreement to obtain flood insurance if the Property is located in a Special Flood Hazard Area.

         The Covenants further provide:

Covenants Running With the Property: These Covenants shall constitute covenants running with the Property and shall be binding upon the Owner, and are intended to create negative predial servitudes, predial servitudes, and restrictions on alienation. (Emphasis added.)

         If the owner does not comply with the Covenants, "the entire amount of the Grant shall be immediately due and payable, without notice or demand." The Covenants further provide that any judgment obtained against a defaulting owner for breach of the Covenants "shall act as a judicial mortgage against the Property from and after the date of recordation." The Covenants are to be recorded in the parish in which the property is located.

         After the closing, the Road Home program disbursed $128, 180.00 in grant funds to Lisa. At trial, Lisa submitted a list of repairs she made to the Property totaling $125, 136.00. Lisa testified that she did not pay any money "out of pocket" for these repairs.

         On March 11, 2015, Wayne filed a "Petition to Partition Immovable Property by Licitation" ("Petition") naming Lisa as the defendant. Wayne filed a detailed descriptive list declaring the Property as the only community asset, which he valued at $200, 000.00. Wayne also requested rental reimbursement from Lisa. Lisa filed a detailed descriptive list valuing the Property at $140, 000.00, and requesting reimbursement of $75, 000.00 in "separate funds" she used to repair the Property.

         A partition trial was held on March 9, 2016. On July 27, 2016, the trial court rendered a judgment: (1) ordering a partition by licitation of the Property; (2) denying Wayne's request for rental payment; and (3) denying Lisa's request for reimbursement of one-half of the Road Home funds she used to repair the Property. In its judgment, the trial court concluded that Lisa had "failed to prove any expenditures of funds for which she is entitled to reimbursement." Lisa suspensively appealed the judgment.


         Standard of Review

         A trial court's rulings regarding the partitioning of community property are reviewed under the "manifest error" standard, granting great discretion to the trial court. Smith v. Smith, 15-1231, p. 2 (La.App. 4 Cir. 9/14/16), 200 So.3d 1007, 1009. "Applying this standard requires that 'we must first find from the record that there is a reasonable factual basis for the lower court's findings of fact; second, the record must establish that the lower court's findings are not manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong.'" Id., 15-1231, p. 2, 200 So.3d at 1009-10 (quoting Mazzini v. Strathman, 13-0555, p. 3 (La.App. 4 Cir. 4/16/14), 140 So.3d 253, 256). We review the trial court's legal conclusions in a partition action de novo. Noel v. Noel, 04-0105, p. 7 (La.App. 4 Cir. 9/8/04), 884 So.2d 615, 619.

         Ownership of Road Home Funds

         Lisa contends that the trial court erred in finding that the money from the Road Home program was a "grant to both owners of the property to restore the property." [3] According to Lisa, the Road Home money was her "separate property" because she was the "only party that went through the application process, met the qualifications, received the funds, contractually obligated herself to either pay back the funds or fulfill certain conditions, and then satisfied her contractual obligations."

         We must decide, therefore, whether the Road Home grant money is Lisa's "separate property" or whether Wayne has an ...

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