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Voccola v. Forte

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 13, 2016

Barbara A. Voccola and Edward R. Voccola, in their capacities as Co-Executors of the Estate of Edward E. Voccola
Patricia A. Forte et al.

         Providence County (PC 08-1467), (PC 08-6628), (PC 08-1467) Superior Court Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter

          For Plaintiffs: Lauren E. Jones, Esq. Robert S. Thurston, Esq.

          For Defendants: Barry J. Kusinitz, Esq. Michael J. Kiselica, Esq.

          JUSTICES: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          William P. Robinson III Associate Justice

         Patricia Forte and Red Fox Realty, LLC (Red Fox) (the defendants) appeal from a March 12, 2013 final judgment entered in two consolidated Providence County Superior Court actions in favor of Barbara Voccola and Edward R. Voccola, in their capacities as co-executors of the Estate of Edward E. Voccola (the plaintiffs).[1] In these actions, filed on March 12, 2008 and October 17, 2008, Edward E. Voccola[2] sought to recover his property which he alleged Patricia had wrongfully transferred. On appeal, the defendants contend as follows: (1) that the trial justice erred when she held that Mr. Voccola's signatures authorizing the transfer of the properties at issue to Patricia's company, Red Fox, were not genuine because, according to the defendants, the plaintiffs failed to present sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that Mr. Voccola's signatures were genuine; (2) that the trial justice erred as a matter of law in using "her independent analysis and opinion" of Mr. Voccola's signatures as a basis for concluding that his signatures on the documents at issue were not authentic; (3) that the trial justice erred in refusing to admit into evidence testimony concerning two of the documents at issue; (4) that the trial justice erred in finding the defendants' handwriting expert not to be credible; (5) that this Court should review the testimony of the plaintiffs' handwriting expert de novo and then reject her credibility; (6) that the trial justice erred as a matter of law when she held that the omission of a referenced exhibit to the documents which Mr. Voccola allegedly signed allowing the transfer of the properties at issue rendered those documents legally ineffective; and (7) that the trial justice erred in holding in the plaintiffs' favor on the defendants' claim that Mr. Voccola gifted the properties at issue to Patricia.

         The plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal from the decision of the trial justice awarding Patricia $82, 000 pursuant to her counterclaim. They contend on appeal that the trial justice erred in making that award because: (1) in her counterclaim, Patricia did not seek reimbursement for paying Mr. Voccola's criminal fines, which payment was the act that formed the basis of the trial justice's $82, 000 award; and (2) any "claim of damages as to the criminal fines" was settled in a 2007 Settlement Agreement between various parties, including Mr. Voccola and Patricia.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         This case is, at its core, a family dispute involving Mr. Voccola and his five adult children-Edward, Stephen, Paul, Barbara, and Patricia. On July 11, 2012, prior to trial, the parties entered into an Agreed Statement of Facts. That document establishes the following facts. Mr. Voccola was the sole shareholder of three Rhode Island corporations-Capital City Investments, Inc. (CCI), City View Realty, Inc. (CVR), and West Side Investments, Inc. (WSI). Patricia was the President of all three corporations at the times at issue in this case. Patricia was also the sole member and manager of Red Fox. In 2005, Mr. Voccola filed suit in Providence County Superior Court against Stephen and Barbara seeking to revoke a purported gift of stock in a corporation called Redbrook Investments, Inc. (Redbrook). In March of 2007, a Settlement Agreement, occasioned by Mr. Voccola's suit against Stephen and Barbara, was executed by Mr. Voccola, Barbara, Stephen, Paul, and Patricia. The action commenced by Mr. Voccola against Barbara and Stephen was subsequently dismissed by stipulation. The Settlement Agreement, which was entered as an exhibit at trial, stated in relevant part as follows: "[Patricia, Stephen, Paul, and Barbara] agree forthwith upon the signing of this agreement to discharge and/or release all mortgages and promissory notes which reference [Mr. Voccola], Jere Realty, Inc., Lakeview Realty, Inc., [CCI, WSI, and/or CVR]."

         According to the Agreed Statement of Facts, on or about June 4, 2007, "three documents were signed purporting to be Waivers of Notice of Minutes of a Special Joint Meetings [sic] of the Stockholders and Board of Directors of [CCI, CVR, and WSI] respectively" (hereinafter the CCI waiver, the CVR waiver, and the WSI waiver, or the waivers collectively). Those waivers purported to memorialize a meeting and vote that allegedly took place on May 29, 2007 and are all supposedly signed by Mr. Voccola. On May 31, 2007, pursuant to the waivers to be signed a few days later, Patricia, as President of CCI, CVR, and WSI, signed three warranty deeds conveying the real estate of all three of those corporations to Red Fox.[3] The waivers, which were entered as exhibits at trial, all state that the transfer of property was "in exchange for the assumption of the two mortgages on the property." At the time of the supposed May 29 meeting, at the time of the purported signing of the waivers, and at the time of the transfer of the properties, Patricia still held undischarged mortgages on properties owned by Mr. Voccola or by one of his corporations.

         In his verified complaint, Mr. Voccola alleged that his signature on the WSI waiver had been forged and that the warranty deeds were therefore void. He further stated that the warranty deeds were also void because they were not supported by adequate consideration. The validity of Mr. Voccola's signatures on the waivers and the corresponding conveyance of the properties at issue was the major factual issue to be resolved at trial, [4] and it forms the basis of this appeal. The defendants also filed a counterclaim seeking "reimbursement for all sums expended [by the defendants] for taxes, maintenance, insurance and other charges on the properties which are the subject of [the] action, " which is also an issue on appeal.

         A bench trial was conducted over seven days in July of 2012. We relate below the salient aspects of what transpired at trial.


         The Trial Testimony[5]

         1. The Testimony of Paul Voccola

         Paul Voccola testified that Mr. Voccola and Patricia had "the best relationship between father and daughter that you can imagine for * * * a good 25, 30 years." He further testified that Mr. Voccola said that "Patricia was the only one in his life that has ever done anything for him and that he was leaving all his property to her." By contrast, when asked about his father's relationship with Edward, Paul stated: "Well, for the past 35 years or so, there was actually no relationship at all." He added that "they were not on speaking terms." Moving on to the relationship between Barbara and Mr. Voccola, Paul testified that they had a contentious relationship due to what Paul claimed was the fact that Mr. Voccola gave "all the attention to his mistress's daughter, " who was the same age as Barbara. He added that Barbara "really hated [Mr. Voccola] * * * through her whole life because of it."

         Paul indicated in his testimony that the signature on all three waivers was his father's signature, but he also stated that he was not present when those waivers were signed. He further stated that it was his understanding that under the 2007 Settlement Agreement "various mortgages" "were supposed to be released." He also acknowledged that, in his role as a licensed real estate broker, he had received the "listing" for two properties from Patricia during the pendency of the instant case.

         2. The Testimony of Patricia Forte

         Patricia testified that she opened a business named West Fountain Auto Body and Sales, Inc. (West Fountain) in June of 1997. It was her testimony that her boyfriend, Kenneth Salvatore, was the general manager of West Fountain.

         Patricia acknowledged during her testimony that she signed the Settlement Agreement because her brother, Stephen, told her to sign it. However, she testified that she did not read the document before she signed it. She further stated that, at the time of trial, she understood that she was required, under the Settlement Agreement, to release mortgages "held by [her] or Redbrook given by [her] father." She stated that, when she realized that she was supposed to release the mortgages, she did not do so because her "father told [her] not to release them" due to the fact that he intended to "give [her] the property anyway." She did acknowledge in her testimony that she held mortgages from her father, CVR, CCI, and WSI which had not been discharged at the time of the transfer of the properties at issue in this appeal.

         With respect to a mortgage which her father gave to one Joe Tosoni, Patricia testified that her father was motivated to give the mortgage to Mr. Tosoni so as to obtain the money that he needed to pay some criminal fines. It was her further testimony that she "believe[d]" that she paid Mr. Tosoni $82, 000 on her father's behalf and that Mr. Tosoni was, thus, "paid in full." She added that the mortgage was assigned to her and had not been released. When Patricia was asked at trial where she obtained the money to pay Mr. Tosoni she stated: "I think that was when I took the mortgage out on my house * * *." The mortgage deed given by Mr. Voccola to Mr. Tosoni and the Assignment of Mortgage from Mr. Tosoni to Patricia were both entered as exhibits at the trial.

         Patricia's testimony then turned to the day on which her father purportedly signed the waivers. She stated that, on June 4, 2007, Mr. Voccola came to West Fountain, as he did every day, and that on that day he told her he was "going to sign the property over to [her]." She testified that on that day she saw her father read (or have read to him) all three of the waivers and she saw him sign all three waivers. She further stated that she, Raphael Fernandez, Mr. Salvatore, and an individual by the name of James Levitt, who prepared the waivers, were present when the waivers were signed. She specifically identified her father's signature on each of the waivers at trial. Patricia added that the Exhibit A referenced in the waivers was not attached to them and she had not, at the time of trial, located Exhibit A.

         It was Patricia's further testimony that she executed the warranty deeds transferring the properties at issue from CVR, CCI, and WSI to Red Fox in her capacity as President of CVR, CCI, and WSI. According to her testimony, her father told her "on a million occasions" that she was getting all of his property, and she said that she remained close to him until his death, despite the instant actions. She indicated that he had conflicts with his other children. However, she did read a portion of her father's 2008 will at trial, which provided that she would not inherit since she would be deemed to have predeceased her father unless she transferred back to him the properties conveyed to Red Fox.

         A videotape of a will signing from January of 2004 was played before the jury at trial. In the video, Mr. Voccola was seen signing his January 2, 2004 will; and, in the course of the videotape, he disparaged each of his children, with the exception of Patricia. The videotape revealed him stating that "Patricia [was] going to be the sole owner of everything."

         3. The Testimony of Barbara Voccola

         Barbara Voccola testified that in December of 2007 her father tried to obtain from Patricia "all his corporate records" regarding his properties, but that Patricia resisted providing them for several weeks. She stated that it was only by being told by Paul that Mr. Voccola found out that Patricia had transferred his properties to Red Fox. It was Barbara's further testimony that Mr. Voccola asked Patricia to "give him back all his property" and that, when she did not do so, Mr. Voccola retained an attorney to commence litigation against Patricia. Barbara stated in her testimony that her father knew that "his property had been illegally transferred." It was her testimony on cross-examination that she had an "on and off relationship" with her father "over the ...

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