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Riblett v. Riblett

Court of Chancery of Delaware

March 15, 2018

Riblett
v.
Riblett

          Draft Report: December 14, 2017

          Date Submitted: November 28, 2017

          Bayard J. Snyder, Esquire Snyder & Associates, P.A. Ms. Gail Frances Riblett

         Dear Mr. Snyder and Ms. Riblett:

         In this action, a mother seeks rescission of a deed and title transfers purporting to transfer one-half of her interest in real property, two vehicles, and two trailers to her daughter. The parties agreed to mediate their dispute. The daughter moved to dismiss based on an executed settlement agreement, and in response her mother sought enforcement of a later, superseding settlement agreement that was unsigned.

          In this final report, I recommend the Court deny the mother's request to force the daughter to sign the later, unsigned settlement agreement based on express language in the mediation agreement requiring any final agreement to be signed, and deny the mother's request to fix alleged clerical errors in the executed agreement under Court of Chancery Rule 60(a). I also recommend the Court grant the daughter's motion to dismiss.

         I. Background[1]

         Petitioner JoAnn Marie Riblett ("JoAnn") and her husband Harry C. Riblett ("Harry") owned real property known as 416 Riblett Lane, Wilmington Delaware 19808 ("the Property") as tenants by the entirety. On April 7, 1993, JoAnn executed a will that left all her real and personal property equally to her three children: Respondent Gail Riblett ("Gail"), and JoAnn's two sons. Harry died on December 23, 2012, making JoAnn the sole owner of the Property, as well as a 1929 Ford Model A, a 2004 Dodge Caravan, and two trailers. On April 25, 2013, JoAnn executed a deed conveying the Property to herself and Gail as joint tenants with right of survivorship ("the Deed"). JoAnn also transferred one-half ownership interest in the vehicles and trailers to Gail ("the Title Transfers").

          On September 29, 2016, JoAnn filed a verified petition seeking rescission of the Deed and Title Transfers on the basis of equitable fraud. JoAnn alleges that Gail, a law school graduate, misrepresented to JoAnn that two names were required on the titles to the Property, vehicles, and trailers for JoAnn's ownership to remain valid after Harry's death. JoAnn alleges she wants her property to be distributed as set forth in her will: one-third to Gail, and one-third to each of JoAnn's sons. Gail answered the petition on October 14, 2016, alleging she assisted JoAnn in executing the Deed and Title Transfers at JoAnn's request so that Gail, who was named executrix in JoAnn's will, would have sufficient administrative powers to carry out JoAnn's wishes. Gail also alleged extensive familial strife surrounding these and other issues. JoAnn is represented by counsel; Gail is proceeding pro se.

         Gail and JoAnn voluntarily mediated their dispute on June 12, 2017, subject to a mediation agreement providing, "If a settlement is reached, the agreement shall be reduced to writing and when signed, shall be binding upon all parties to the agreement and become part of the court record."[2] They signed a settlement agreement dated that same day ("the First Agreement"). It states, in relevant part:

Gail Riblett shall execute a Quitclaim Deed and Transfer Tax Affidavits conveying any interest she may have in 416 Riblett Lane (the "Property") back to JoAnn Riblett.
JoAnn Riblett agrees that the Property shall be divided 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 to each of her three (3) children and any references Joann's Trust (sic) or will to the contrary are void.[3]

         On June 13, 2017, the mediator emailed the parties identifying a possible ambiguity in the second quoted paragraph's use of the word "Property, " defined as 416 Riblett Lane, and suggesting replacing that second usage of "the Property" with "her Estate."[4]

         Gail responded, via email, that she agreed to this change.[5] The mediator drafted and circulated another agreement incorporating this change ("the Second Agreement"), but Gail did not sign it.[6] Gail contends that although she initially agreed to the change, she subsequently concluded it had substantive meaning so she refused to sign the Second Agreement incorporating it.[7]

          On September 19, 2017, Gail filed a motion to dismiss alleging she and JoAnn had reached a settlement agreement memorialized in the First Agreement, that Gail had performed her obligations thereunder, and that JoAnn should dismiss her claims. The parties briefed Gail's motion and the mediator provided a submission as well. JoAnn's response asked the Court to "order [Gail] to sign the Amended Settlement Agreement."[8] I issued a draft report on December 14, 2017. JoAnn took exception and the parties briefed those exceptions. This is my final report.

         II. Analysis

         While the issues pending before me were presented in connection with Gail's pro se motion, titled "Motion to Dismiss, " each party requests enforcement of a settlement agreement and has supplied documentary evidence in support, so I apply the legal standard for a motion to enforce a settlement agreement.

         Delaware courts encourage negotiated resolutions to contested cases, and for that reason, among many others, settlement agreements are enforceable as a contract.[9] The party seeking to enforce an agreement bears the burden of proving the existence of a contract by a preponderance of the evidence.[10] In determining whether JoAnn or Gail has met her burden, I must inquire:

whether a reasonable negotiator in the position of one asserting the existence of a contract would have concluded, in that setting, that the agreement reached constituted agreement on all of the terms that the parties themselves regarded as essential ...

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