Law School Case Brief
Howe v. Palmer - 80 Mass. App. Ct. 736, 956 N.E.2d 249 (2011)
It is well established that the obligations of documents such as deeds, wills, and contracts can be avoided by showing that they were procured by means of fraud or undue influence. The obligations of documents such as deeds, wills, and contracts can be avoided by showing that they were procured by means of fraud or undue influence. Fraud and undue influence are separate and distinct grounds for invalidating such documents, and their proof proceeds from different theories. Undue influence creates a situation where the victim's own free will is destroyed or overcome such that what he does, his action, is contrary to his true desire and free will. The party challenging the validity of the document, on the ground that it was procured and executed as a result of undue influence, bears the burden of proving the allegation by a preponderance of the evidence.
Plaintiff Howe, who had severe dyslexia and intellectual disabilities, was convinced by defendants Palmer, who were a husband and wife, to transfer a half interest in the plaintiff's farm to them in payment for their work in cleaning up the property. Plaintiff sought rescission of the deed. The jury verdict found that the deed from plaintiff to defendants was the product of undue influence and that defendants had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on plaintiff. Defendants appealed.
Does the plaintiff's claim of emotional distress sufficiently establish a cause to rescind the deed between the parties?
The appellate court affirmed the rescission of the deed. The court ruled that the intentional infliction of emotional distress conducted by defendant Palmers were not simple insults or mere displays of anger or overzealousness. Plaintiff Howe suffered several years of torment caused by the intentional, or reckless, conduct. The jury were warranted in finding that defendants' conduct was extreme, outrageous, and beyond the bounds of decency in a civilized community and that the distress experienced by Howe was severe.
As for the undue influence claim, the court looked to a four-factor test. The Palmers argued that even if one of them unduly influenced Howe, the deed should be enforceable by the other because they each have separate enforceable legal rights in the deed. Rejecting the argument, the court held that an instrument procured by undue influence is voidable by the person who was unduly influenced. Howe had not ratified the deed, so neither of the Palmers would have any right to its enforcement if the statute of limitations is determined not to prevent the claim of undue influence. The court declined to toll the running of the statute based on a claim of undue influence. Howe did not wait on his legal rights because of personality traits such as a desire to avoid confrontation. Rather, Howe was unaware that he had been injured because he had been influenced to believe that execution of the deed was the correct, moral action to take.
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