Surprisingly, a recorded deed of title may not be proof of ownership to real property in Oregon depending, among other things, on the cultural idiosyncrasies of the transferor and transferee as disclosed by the expert testimony of an anthropologist. At least that’s the upshot of the recent holding by the Oregon Court of Appeals in Hughes v. Ephrem, 275 Or. App. 477 (2015).
In Hughes the plaintiff obtained a judgment against its debtor and had judicially foreclosed its lien against the residential real property its debtor owned by sheriff’s sale. The creditor then sought to evict its debtor’s mother who resided in that home. The debtor’s parents had transferred title to the debtor’s home through a quit claim deed without any apparent reservation of rights. In other words, the debtor’s parents didn’t explicitly reserve a life estate or any other interest in that property when they transferred it to their daughter, the judgment debtor.
Yet neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeals held that the creditor could evict the debtor’s mother who occupied the home. Instead, the Court of Appeals said that there was still a factual issue of whether the debtor’s mother had intended to reserve a right to continue living in the home when she quit claimed title to her daughter.
Both the debtor and her mother were Romani. Both the trial court and Court of Appeals found their ethnicity significant for some unexplained reason. In fact, the trial court had actually received testimony from an anthropologist about Romani culture before concluding that the mother was not subject to eviction. There’s no indication that the quit claim deed was written in any language other than English or that there was any ambiguity in the words of the quit claim deed itself.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether the debtor’s parents had really intended to retain an undisclosed life estate in the property or whether, perhaps, the property had been transferred to the debtor in order to avoid several tax liens and other debts the mother owed.
Neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeals showed any respect for the virtues of certainty, predictability and judicial efficiency in reaching their outcomes in this case. Instead, the Court of Appeals in Hughes fumbled about to convert what should have been an objectively obvious outcome into a judicial guess about the grantors’ past state of mind. A quick reading of the quit claim deed alone should have been sufficient to resolve the case. But in the hands of these courts, the case became a psychological mystery. Meanwhile, both courts ignored the steadily increasing costs imposed on the innocent creditor who simply sought payment for its debt from assets which the public records showed the debtor owned.