Two weeks after his wife of 52 years unexpectedly died in 2019, Steven M. Skinner sold his house near Sierra Vista to his next door neighbor for $22,000. One of the problems with the deal, according to Skinner’s attorney Robert Stachel, is that Skinner was emotionally distraught at the time of the sale.
Another problem is that the house and four-acre property was worth at least twice the sale price, Stachel argues in a lawsuit filed last month.
Court records show Skinner’s wife Coy died on Jan. 23, 2019 at the age of 70. Just 14 days later, Skinner sold the home they had shared for nearly a decade on Barataria Blvd. to neighbor Steven W. Cervera. He then arrived in Oklahoma on Feb. 8, 2019 to visit his daughter.
It was during that visit Skinner realized the sale had been a mistake and contacted Cervera in hopes of getting the house back. On Feb. 15, just 10 days after the original sale paperwork was signed, Cervera and his wife Josee Morin signed a warranty deed selling the house back to Skinner.
But Skinner, who is now 73, didn’t simply return the $22,000 to the couple. He paid Cervera and Morin their asking price of $35,000.
“While staying with his daughter, the Plaintiff realized just how distraught and depressed he was when he sold the Subject Property, his home, to the Defendant and wanted to return to his home in Arizona where he and his wife shared their lives,” Stachel wrote in the lawsuit. “The Plaintiff believed he had no choice but to pay the Defendant $35,000.00, which he did.”
The lawsuit also argues Skinner could not get his house back unless he agreed no one else can buy his property without Cervera and Morin first being given the chance to buy it again – for $22,000. The “right of first refusal” provision is binding upon Skinner, his heirs, and the property for 99 years, according to the public records.
That agreement, signed by the parties Feb. 15, 2019, was modified a year later to show Cervera and Morin would only have pay $18,000 to purchase Skinner’s property in the future. The $4,000 reduction was to account for a loan the cash-strapped widower obtained from Cervera in 2020.
The lawsuit argues the 99-year right of first refusal provision violates Arizona law. It also accuses Cervera and Morin of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, arguing that Skinner was “inordinately susceptible to the influences of others including to the extent of his personal and financial matters,” such as selling his house 14 days after his wife’s death.
“The Defendant knew or should have known that the Plaintiff was a vulnerable adult suffering with depression and distraught over the loss of his wife and the Defendant used this position to obtain the Plaintiffs property at a fraction of its value,” the lawsuit alleges.
Skinner is asking for a court order voiding any right of first refusal agreement. He also wants a judgment for $9,000, the difference between the $35,000 and $22,000 sale prices minus the $4,000 loan from 2020.
In turn, Cervera and Morin have asked Judge Terry Bannon of the Cochise County Superior Court to dismiss the lawsuit. Their attorney, Andrew Carlson, argues Skinner did not meet the definition of a vulnerable adult when the transactions occurred in 2019 and 2020.
“Plaintiff makes no allegation of mental impairment of the sort recognized by the statutes rendering him unable to protect himself from exploitation,” Carlson argues. “Even if he was emotionally distressed, that does not satisfy the standards of the statutes. He was not incapacitated or impaired as defined by the statutes. He was not a vulnerable adult.”
Carlson also argues in the motion to dismiss that Skinner’s lawsuit fails to allege how Cervera used a “cordial” relationship with his neighbor to inappropriately persuade or otherwise exert pressure on Skinner to pay $35,000 to get the house back.
“Plaintiff asks this court to conclude based only on an unreasonable inference that the difference between $22,000 and $35,000 shows that Cervera’s actions were illegal or improper,” the motion argues.
The motion contends Skinner’s lawsuit only describes “a man who was distraught after his wife s death bought real property from and sold real property to a friend and neighbor for amounts that he later regretted.”
A Cochise County judge will hear arguments on Oct. 7 as to whether the lawsuit should be dismissed as requested by Cerveza and Morin, or if Skinner has put forth a claim upon which a court could grant relief.
It appears none of the parties had the services of an attorney during any of the 2019 or 2020 transactions.