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White v. Church

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

May 30, 2017

SAUNDRA WHITE, Appellant,
v.
EMMANUEL BAPTIST CHURCH, ET AL., Respondents.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Sandra Midkiff, Judge

          Before Division Three: Anthony Rex Gabbert, Presiding Judge, Victor C. Howard, Judge and Cynthia L. Martin, Judge.

          OPINION

          Cynthia L. Martin, Judge.

         Saundra White ("Plaintiff") appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Emmanuel Baptist Church ("Church"), Frank Fields, Eddie Slaughter, Ebbie Lee Stanley, and Carlton Strickland (collectively "Defendants") on her claims of conversion, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, failure to produce documents, and an ultra vires act. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the party against whom summary judgment was entered, the uncontroverted facts are as follows. See ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-Am. Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993).

         Plaintiff is the widow of Reverend Willis H. White ("Rev. White"). Plaintiff and Rev. White married on July 10, 1972. Rev. White is survived by Plaintiff, his children with Plaintiff, and children from a previous marriage. Rev. White was the Church's pastor at the time of his death in December 2012, and Plaintiff was an employee. The individually-named defendants are directors of the Church.

         After Rev. White's death, disputes arose between the parties over items and amounts owed to Rev. White, Plaintiff, or both. These disputes led to Plaintiff filing a petition asserting five counts. Plaintiff sought to recover: the value of property allegedly owned by Rev. White; on an alleged employment contract between Rev. White and the Church; on an alleged employment contract between Plaintiff and the Church; the amount of loans allegedly made to the Church by Plaintiff and Rev. White; and the value of investment certificates held by Plaintiff and Rev. White. Plaintiff also alleged that the Church engaged in an ultra vires act in hiring a new pastor, and failed to produce documents on request as required by section 355.826.[1] Defendants' answer asserted a variety of affirmative defenses, including that Plaintiff did not have standing to pursue recovery on behalf of Rev. White, and that Plaintiff's claims for payment of loans and investment certificates were barred by the statute of limitations. Subsequently, Defendants moved for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims.[2] The trial court granted summary judgment against Plaintiff on all of her claims.[3]

         This appeal follows. Additional facts will be discussed as necessary.

         Standard of Review

         An appellate court "reviews the grant of summary judgment de novo." Goerlitz v. City of Maryville, 333 S.W.3d 450, 452 (Mo. banc 2011). The appellate court must apply "the same criteria as the trial court in determining whether summary judgment was proper." Id. "Summary judgment is only proper if the moving party establishes that there is no genuine issue as to the material facts and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id.

         A defending party may establish a right to summary judgment by showing any of the following:

(1) facts negating any one of the elements of the non-movant's claim; (2) "that the non-movant, after an adequate period of discovery, has not been able and will not be able to produce sufficient evidence to allow the trier of fact to find the existence of any one" of the elements of the non-movant's claim; or (3) "that there is no genuine dispute as to the existence of the facts necessary to support movant's properly pleaded affirmative defense."

Id. at 453 (quoting ITT Commercial Fin. Corp., 854 S.W.2d at 381).

         Additionally, an appellate court reviews the record below in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was entered. Id. "[T]hat party is entitled to the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the record." Id. (quoting Hammack v. Coffelt Land Title, Inc., 284 S.W.3d 175, 177-78 (Mo. App. W.D. 2009)).

         "However, facts contained in affidavits or otherwise in support of the [moving] party's motion are accepted as true unless contradicted by the non-moving party's response to the summary judgment motion." Id. (quoting Hammack, 284 S.W.3d at 177-78). "[T]he non-movant must support denials with specific references to discovery, exhibits, or affidavits demonstrating a genuine factual issue for trial." Central Trust and Inv. Co. v. SignalPoint Asset Mgmt., LLC, 422 S.W.3d 312, 320 (Mo. banc 2014) (citing Rule 74.04(c)(2), (c)(4)). "Facts not properly supported under Rule 74.04(c)(2) or (c)(4) are deemed admitted." Id.

         Analysis

         Before addressing Plaintiff's points on appeal, our analysis will benefit from first summarizing the theories for recovery alleged in Plaintiff's petition and the trial court's basis for entering summary judgment on each theory.

         Count I of Plaintiff's petition alleged conversion of Rev. White's personal and intellectual property. Defendants moved for summary judgment on Count I based on Plaintiff's lack of standing to act as the sole heir of Rev. White's estate, and because Plaintiff could not prove each of the essential elements of conversion. The trial court granted summary judgment on Count I on the basis that Plaintiff did not have standing to proceed on behalf of Rev. White's estate.

         Count II of the petition alleged a claim for unjust enrichment based on Rev. White's employment services to the Church, and based on loans and investment certificates alleged to be owed by the Church. Defendants moved for summary judgment on Count II because Plaintiff had no standing to pursue recovery on behalf of Rev. White's estate. Defendants also argued that Count II, to the extent it sought recovery on loans and investment certificates, was barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and specifically sections 516.110 and 516.120. The trial court granted summary judgment on Count II because Plaintiff lacked standing to assert claims belonging to Rev. White's estate, and because all claims seeking repayment of loans or investment certificates were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

         Count III asserted a claim for breach of contract based on alleged employment contracts Plaintiff and Rev. White had with the Church. Count III also asserted a claim for breach of contract based on unpaid loans and investment certificates. Defendants moved for summary judgment on Count III because Plaintiff did not have standing to pursue contract claims on behalf of Rev. White's estate; Plaintiff could not prove a written employment contract existed between she and the Church, or Rev. White and the Church; all loans and investment certificates ever extended by or issued to Plaintiff and Rev. White had been repaid; and Plaintiff's effort to recover on the loans and investment certificates was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The trial court granted summary judgment on Count III because Plaintiff lacked standing to assert claims on behalf of Rev. White's estate. The trial court also granted summary judgment on Count III because Plaintiff's attempt to recover on the loans and investment certificates was barred by the statute of limitations. Finally, the trial court also granted summary judgment on Count III because there were no genuine issues of material fact in dispute that Plaintiff could not establish the existence of employment contracts between Plaintiff and the Church and Rev. White and the Church, or that Plaintiff had not been paid for work performed for the Church.

         Count IV of the petition alleged that the Church failed to produce corporate documents sought pursuant to section 355.826. Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff was not a member of the Church at the time of her request and thus had no standing to assert a claim pursuant to section 355.826. The trial court granted summary judgment on Count IV because there was no genuine issue of material fact that Plaintiff was not a member of the Church at the time of her request. Specifically, the trial court found that Plaintiff had not refuted in the manner required by Rule 74.04 the assertion in Defendant Strickland's affidavit that Plaintiff terminated her membership seven months before requesting records.

         Count V of the petition alleged that the Church committed an ultra vires act because it did not follow its bylaws when selecting a new pastor. Defendants moved for summary judgment on Count V on the basis that Plaintiff was not a member of the Church and thus lacked standing under section 355.141.2 to challenge the Church's power to act. As with Count IV, the trial court granted summary judgment on Count V because there was no genuine issue of material fact in dispute that Plaintiff was not a member of the Church.

         Plaintiff asserts five points on appeal. In Point One, Plaintiff claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on her claims of unjust enrichment and breach of contract (Counts II and III) for lack of standing because Plaintiff had legally protectable interests in the property she sought to recover pursuant to those claims. In Point Two, Plaintiff argues that it was error to grant summary judgment on her claims involving a violation of section 355.826 and an ultra vires action (Counts IV and V) because whether she was a member of the Church is a disputed fact. In Point Three, Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim for conversion (Count I) because Plaintiff sufficiently established a right to possession of the converted property. In Point Four, Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on her claims for recovery of loans and investment certificates (Counts II and III) because Defendants' custom and practice delayed the accrual of her causes of action, and thus the running of the statute of limitations. In Point Five, Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in finding that there were no material facts in dispute as to Plaintiff's inability to establish the existence of employment contracts between she and the Church and Rev. White and the Church (Count III). We address Points One and Three together, and review the remaining points separately.

         Points One and Three

         Points One and Three challenge the grant of summary judgment based on Plaintiff's lack of standing to assert claims to recover property belonging to, or amounts owed to, Rev. White. It is uncontested that Rev. White died intestate in December 2012, leaving behind multiple surviving children in addition to Plaintiff, his surviving spouse. Though Plaintiff's petition alleged that Plaintiff was the "rightful heir" of Rev. White, it is uncontested that at the time Plaintiff's petition was filed, and at the time summary judgment was entered, no probate estate had been opened for Rev. White, and no determination of heirship had been made by the probate court. Thus, Plaintiff was neither the executor nor the personal representative of the estate of Rev. White, nor the determined rightful heir of all or any part of the intestate estate of Rev. White. The trial court granted ...


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