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Estate of Gravis v. Michael Coffee

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Ninth District, Summit

July 10, 2019

MICHAEL COFFEE, et al. Appellants


          MARK W. BERNLOHR and SUSAN K. ZERRUSEN, Attorneys at Law, for Appellants.

          MICHAEL J. KAPLAN, Attorney at Law, for Appellee.




         {¶1} Michael Coffee and Thomas Coffee appeal the judgment of the Summit County Court of Common Pleas, Probate Division, dismissing their counterclaim. We affirm.


         {¶2} Mr. William O. Gravis passed away on August 16, 2016. Prior to his death, Vanessa Wollet filed an application to be the guardian of his person and estate. Mr. Gravis, as the proposed ward, was served with notice of the application on June 8, 2015. A second application for guardianship was filed by Jacki Lynn Hastings on June 17, 2015. A hearing was held before the magistrate on July 21, 2015, with the magistrate issuing a decision on July 27, 2015, finding Mr. Gravis incompetent, recommending the appointment of Ms. Wollet as guardian of the person, and recommending Attorney John Greven to be appointed as guardian of the estate.

         {¶3} On August 20, 2015, the trial court entered judgment finding Mr. Gravis to be incompetent by reason of mental and physical disability, and incapable of taking proper care of his self or property, thereby appointing Ms. Wollet as the guardian of his person. On November 25, 2015, Mr. Greven applied for guardianship of the estate and the trial court entered judgment appointing him as such.

         {¶4} The matter before us for review was initiated in September 2016 by the estate of William O. Gravis ("the Estate"), which filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, unjust enrichment, and constructive trust. Michael Coffee and Thomas Coffee filed their joint answer and counterclaims in October 2016. The trial court granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of the estate as to all but one of the counterclaims. The remaining counterclaim sought declaratory judgment on the issue of the ownership of real property located in Bath, Ohio.

         {¶5} The dispute over the ownership of the real property arose out of the challenged validity of a transfer on death designation affidavit executed by Mr. Gravis on November 23, 2015, to transfer certain real property to Michael and Thomas Coffee. The affidavit was prepared and notarized by the attorney for the Coffees: Mark Pirozzi. At the time the affidavit was signed, Mr. Pirozzi was aware that Ms. Wollet had been appointed as the guardian for the person of Mr. Gravis. The Coffees sought to have the transfer on death designation declared valid and motioned the trial court for summary judgment in their favor both on the Estate's claims and on their remaining counterclaim for declaratory judgment. Conversely, the Estate argued the designation was invalid due to the trial court having previously declared Mr. Gravis to be incompetent. Initially the trial court denied summary judgment, finding that there were "genuine issues of material fact" concerning the decedent's competence. However, on September 20, 2017, the court sua sponte entered a judgment entry (followed by an amended judgment entry on September 21, 2017, which attached the property description), citing to its inherent powers under R.C. 2104.24(C). In dismissing the remaining counterclaim, the trial court found that there was "no genuine issue of fact" and that the Estate was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. We note that the Coffees do not raise any potential procedural errors by the trial court in their assignment of error, and we decline to raise the argument for them. See Pascual v. Pascual, 9th Dist. Medina No. 12CA0036-M, 2012-Ohio-5819, ¶ 6. (stating that "[i]t is the appellant's burden to affirmatively demonstrate error on appeal * * * [and] where an appellant has failed to develop an argument on appeal, complete with citations to law, it is not this Court's duty to create an argument for them").

         {¶6} Following the trial court's amended judgment entry, the Estate filed a voluntary dismissal of the second and third counts of the complaint "pursuant to Rule 41." The Estate also filed a motion for a judgment entry concluding the litigation, arguing that the trial court's September 20, 2017, entry dismissing the remaining counterclaim had also resolved the first count of the Estate's complaint, and that the litigation was complete. On September 21, 2017, the trial court granted the Estate's motion and issued a final judgment. Michael and Thomas Coffee now appeal, raising one assignment of error.


         {¶7} As a preliminary matter, we are obligated to raise sua sponte the question of our jurisdiction. See Whitaker-Merrell Co. v. Geupel Constr. Co., 29 Ohio St.2d 184, 186 (1972). This Court has jurisdiction to hear appeals only from final judgments. Article IV, Section 3(B)(2), Ohio Constitution; R.C. 2501.02. "In the absence of a final, appealable order, this Court must dismiss the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction." Smirz v. Smirz, 9th Dist. Lorain No. 13CA010408, 2014-Ohio-3869, ¶ 8. Although not raised by the parties, this case implicates two issues concerning the matter of jurisdiction that we will consider at the outset. The first issue involves the finality of the trial court's entry purporting to resolve the Estate's claim for declaratory judgment; the second issue is with regard to the Estate's voluntary dismissal of its second and third causes of action.

         {¶8} R.C. 2721.02(A), setting forth the force and effect of declaratory judgments, provides: "[C]ourts of record may declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed." "The declaration may be either affirmative or negative in form and effect [and] has the effect of a final judgment or decree." Id.

         {¶9} "[I]n the context of a declaratory judgment action, merely entering judgment in favor of one party, without further elaboration, does not constitute a final judgment sufficient to give this Court jurisdiction over an appeal." Peavy v. Thompson, 9th Dist. Summit No. 25440, 2011-Ohio-1902, ¶ 10. "In order to properly enter judgment in a declaratory judgment action, the trial court must set forth its construction of the disputed document or law, and must expressly declare the parties' respective rights and obligations." Miller Lakes Community Assn. v. Schmitt, 9th Dist. Wayne No. 11CA0053, 2012-Ohio-5116, ¶ 8. "If the trial court fails to fulfill these requirements, its judgment is not final and appealable." Id. However, we have also stated: "Where the denial of a motion for summary judgment in the context of declaratory judgment gives rise, however, to the ...

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