A recent unpublished opinion from the Court of Appeals reminds us to consider unconscionability in some cases of vulnerable adult exploitation.
In In Re Conservatorship of Blossom Lanier, the trial court sets aside a deed purportedly executed by the ward several years earlier, based on a finding that the deed was the product of an unconscionable bargain. [Click on the name to read the case.] The COA affirms.
Blossom Lanier was not subject to court protection in 2014 when she purportedly signed a deed conveying her home to herself and Yvonne Cross as joint tenants with full rights of survivorship, and when she purportedly received a $10,000 cash payment in return. The conservatorship and diagnosis of dementia arose in 2018.
In the context of the conservatorship proceeding, Blossom’s child, who was appointed conservator, was notified of the 2014 deed and contested it.
The trial court held an evidentiary hearing. Ms. Cross, the party claiming the validity of the deed, testified that Blossom needed money and that she (Cross) loaned her $10,000 which was apparently secured by the deed. The $10,000 was purportedly given to Blossom in cash.
The child/conservator said that Blossom didn’t need the money, and would certainly have told her (the child) if she had done anything like borrow $10,000 or deed her house to this acquaintance.
The child testified that as early as 2012 Blossom showed signs of memory loss. Apparently, the trial court was provided evidence that the house was worth substantially more than $10,000, although it never really says how much more.
In fact, of course, the opinion more than hints at the possibility that the whole story about a $10,000 cash payment was made up. The trial court found that Ms. Cross was not a credible witness, and that some of what she said just didn’t add up. However, by deciding the case on unconscionability the trial court avoided having to decide that the event simply didn’t happen – a finding that might have been more difficult to defend on appeal.
As the COA explains, unconscionability requires evidence that the bargain at issue was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. In this case, the fact that Blossom was 85, experiencing some memory loss and unsophisticated about real estate dealings, was sufficient to meet the requirement of procedural unconscionability. The fact that the property was worth substantially more than what was paid for it, was sufficient to support the requirement of substantive unconscionability.
And so we are reminded that, when pleading such matters, it might be smart at times (when the facts allow), to include a claim that the arrangement we seek to nullify was unconscionable.