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Bouton v. Byers

Court of Appeals of Kansas

March 14, 2014

Ellen Byers Bouton, Appellant,
v.
Walter Byers, Appellee

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Appeal from Pottawatomie District Court; Jeffrey R. Elder, judge.

SYLLABUS

BY THE COURT

1. The standards for granting summary judgment and appellate review of those judgments are stated and applied.

2. Promissory estoppel is an equitable doctrine designed to promote some measure of basic fairness when one party makes a representation or promise in a manner reasonably inducing another party to undertake some obligation or to incur some detriment as a result. Promissory estoppel may be applicable when: (1) a promisor reasonably expects a promisee to act in reliance on the promise; (2) the promisee, in turn, reasonably so acts; and (3) a court's refusal to enforce the promise would countenance a substantial injustice.

3. Promissory estoppel and contract law are closely related and serve the same fundamental purposes by providing means to enforce one party's legitimate expectations based on the representations of another party.

4. To the extent a promisee relies on equity to specifically enforce a promise or recover damages equivalent to a promised performance, the promise itself must define with sufficient particularity what the promisor was to do. In some circumstances, however, promissory estoppel might permit a remedy compensating the party changing position in reliance on the promise for any detriment or loss incurred notwithstanding a degree of indefiniteness in the promise. A court could fairly determine the remedy without having to parse the promise, since the award would be restitutionary--restoring the promisee, as nearly as possible, to the position he or she had occupied before relying on the promise.

5. Reasonable reliance under promissory estoppel is a question of fact. In that respect, the indefiniteness of the purported promise becomes a factor in assessing reasonableness for purposes of applying promissory estoppel.

6. As customarily defined in Kansas caselaw, promissory estoppel requires a promise inducing reliance--there need not be any misrepresentation.

7. Equity in general and promissory estoppel in particular do not concern themselves with fixing technicalities or trivialities.

8. The 3-year limitations period in K.S.A. 60-512(1) applies to promissory estoppel claims based on oral promises.

9. The sale of real property has been subject to the statute of frauds or the requirement for a written memorial of the transaction because a parcel of land is, by its very nature, unique and because land tends to be a particularly valuable commodity, the transfer of which should be marked with solemnity and formality. Courts, therefore, refrain from specifically enforcing oral promises or agreements transferring interests in real property.

10. The statute of frauds is intended to prevent fraud or injustice, so it may not be invoked as a shield for conduct that would produce injustice. The statute of frauds yields to compelling equitable circumstances. Under the facts of this case developed in the summary judgment record, the statute of frauds would not trump a promissory estoppel claim for restitution.

Robin G. Maxon, of Maxon Law Office, of Topeka, for appellant.

Norbert C. Marek, Jr., of Westmoreland, and Russ Roe, of Wakefield, for appellee.

Before Powell, P.J., Atcheson, J., and Ernest L. Johnson, District Judge Retired, assigned.

OPINION

Page 784

[50 Kan.App.2d 35] Atcheson, J.

This case revolves around a disputed million-dollar promise between father and daughter. Plaintiff Ellen Byers Bouton has appealed on the grounds the Pottawatomie County District Court precipitately entered summary judgment, improperly cutting short her action for equitable relief on the broken promise. We agree. The district court erred in dismissing the promissory estoppel claim Bouton brought against Defendant Walter Byers, her father, for breaching a promise she says he made to bequeath valuable ranchland to her--a promise that induced her to leave the Washburn University faculty so she could help him manage his cattle business. Byers denies ever having made that promise to Bouton and has since sold the land. The record demonstrates [50 Kan.App.2d 36] disputed issues of material fact precluding the district court's legal conclusion that the promise could not have been reasonably intended or relied upon in the way Bouton suggests. Byers has cross-appealed on various arguments he asserts would otherwise bar Bouton's action. Those arguments also fail at this stage. We, therefore, reverse the judgment and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

Summary Judgment Review, Factual Record, and Procedural History

Because the governing standard of review shapes how a district court must look at the evidence on a motion for summary judgment and, in turn, similarly drives appellate consideration of the contested issues, we start there. As the party seeking summary judgment, Byers had the obligation to show, based on appropriate evidentiary materials, there were no disputed issues of material fact and judgment could, therefore, have been entered in his favor as a matter of law. Thoroughbred Assocs. v. Kansas City Royalty Co., 297 Kan. 1193, Syl. ¶ 2, 308 P.3d 1238 (2013); Shamberg, Johnson & Bergman, Chtd. v. Oliver, 289 Kan. 891, 900, 220 P.3d 333 (2009); Korytkowski v. City of Ottawa, 283 Kan. 122, Syl. ¶ 1, 152 P.3d 53 (2007). In essence, the movant argues there is nothing for a jury or a trial judge sitting as factfinder to decide that would make any difference. A factual dispute is material if its resolution would make a difference in how a contested issue must be resolved. Zimmerman v. Brown, 49 Kan.App.2d 143, 149, 306 P.3d 306, rev. denied 298 Kan. __ (October 30, 2013).

As the party opposing summary judgment, Bouton had to point out evidence calling into question one or more material facts presented in support of the motion. See Shamberg, 289 Kan. at 900; Korytkowski, 283 Kan. 122, Syl. ¶ 1, 152 P.3d 53. If the party resisting summary judgment does so, the motion should be denied so a factfinder

Page 785

may resolve those disputes. In addressing a request for summary judgment, the district court must view the evidence most favorably to the party opposing the motion and give that party the benefit of every reasonable inference that might be drawn from the evidentiary record. Thoroughbred Assocs., 297 Kan. 1193, Syl. ¶ 2, 308 P.3d 1238; Shamberg, [50 Kan.App.2d 37] 289 Kan. at 900. An appellate court applies the same standards in reviewing the entry of a summary judgment. Thoroughbred Assocs., 297 Kan. 1193, Syl. ¶ 2, 308 P.3d 1238.

We now look at the facts presented in the summary judgment record in the best light for Bouton, as the party opposing the motion. For purposes of that task, much of the background leading up to the operative events seems to be undisputed and of no direct legal significance to the points on appeal. So we outline that history briefly, recognizing it to be more detailed than our narrative and if recounted at trial almost certainly more contentious. We then focus on the events material to the issues joined on summary judgment and flag the pertinent procedural markers in the district court.

Byers acquired and owned substantial tracts of ranchland through what we understand to be a number of closely held corporations. A tract in Pottawatomie County included what the parties generally refer to as the family ranch where Byers lived. For some time, Byers' son (and, thus, Bouton's brother) managed most of the ranching operations. In 2003, Byers became concerned about his son's conduct and how he was handling some of the business matters entrusted to him. Byers asked Bouton to help in assessing the status of the operations. At the time, Bouton held a tenure-track teaching position on the Washburn University School of Law faculty and earned about $100,000 a year. Bouton's review revealed that her brother had not only mismanaged the business but had embezzled from it. Bouton oversaw civil litigation against her brother to recoup the losses. We also gather he was criminally prosecuted.

Bouton continued to help Byers with the ranching enterprise. She went to the ranch several times a week and wrapped work on her father's business around her teaching duties. In late 2003, Byers showed Bouton a revised will and trust he had prepared leaving the ranch operations to her. According to Bouton, Byers said he wanted her to carry on the ranching business after his death. Byers retained the legal authority to change the testamentary instruments.

[50 Kan.App.2d 38] During the next 2 years or so, Bouton continued to work at straightening out the financial mess that had enveloped Byers' corporations and the ranching business. Loans had been neglected and had to be refinanced. Taxes had gone delinquent. And other problems had to be dealt with. Bouton found it increasingly difficult to handle both the obligations Byers' businesses imposed and the duties of a law school professor. Again, based on the summary judgment record, Bouton was also concerned about Byers' physical wellbeing. He had suffered a stroke and lived alone on the family ranch. There were also two unoccupied homes on the family place.

In late 2004 and early 2005, Bouton and Byers discussed the situation and the possibility that she and her family might move to the ranch so she could devote more time to the business. Byers encouraged the move, since that would permit Bouton to become involved with the ranching business on a day-to-day basis and would give her direct experience in the quotidian tasks necessary to its success. According to Bouton, she and her husband met with Byers in March 2005 to address more formally how best to accommodate the conflicting demands on her time and energy. Bouton expressed concern about leaving a well-paying and professionally fulfilling job at the law school. Byers reassured her that she needn't worry about money because he was bequeathing her land worth more than a million dollars. In his summary judgment papers, Byers denied that any such meeting happened or that he otherwise made representations of the sort Bouton attributed to him.

Bouton, in reliance on Byers' promise that she would inherent the valuable land, resigned from the law school faculty after the spring 2005 semester. She and one of ...


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