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7th District vacates Carroll County court’s judgment to quiet title in church property dispute

Legal News Reporter

Published: April 18, 2017

A Carroll County trial court erred by denying a not-for-profit religious corporation’s motion to quiet title of Jewett property that was previously owned by a fugitive of justice, the 7th District Court of Appeals ruled recently.

The court saga began in 1997, when Anthony R. Fernwalt attempted to flee the country to Canada. He had a relationship with a priest, Father John Steger, who resigned from St. Jude Church as pastor in 2008 and died later that year.

According to case summary:

Fernwalt owned property on Post Road. Steger set up a Rochester, N.Y. not-for-profit religious corporation called Our Lady of Kilgore. Fernwalt then transferred his property to the religious corporation.

Our Lady of Kilgore is also registered as St. Jude Church.

In 2013, Fernwalt filed a complaint to quiet title, seeking to set aside the real estate transaction. He argued Steger took advantage of him in his “agitated state” as a fugitive, and claimed it was an invalid transfer due to notarization defects.

A default judgment was awarded to Fernwalt after the church failed to file a timely answer. Our Lady of Kilgore later filed a motion to vacate default judgment.

St. Jude counsel argued that the property had been properly transferred to the church and that the parcel “contained a natural spring which possessed healing powers.”

After a 2014 bench trial, the trial court invalidated the deed that had transferred property to St. Jude, finding undue influence.

The trial court also quieted title in Fernwalt’s name.

At a 2015 evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the church’s motion to vacate the default judgment.

In a 3-0 opinion, 7th District Judge Cheryl L. Waite said the motion to vacate should have been granted and remanded the case to the trial court.

“It is clear from our review that the trial court did not properly adopt Appellee’s findings of fact and conclusions of law,” Waite wrote. “These appear nowhere in the trial court record and were not specifically written into the entry. As such, the trial court has provided no basis for support of its general verdict and has not enunciated findings that are supported by competent, credible evidence nor conclusions of law that are supported by legally sufficient evidence.”

The appellate court also found that mail was not being promptly forwarded to church officials after Steger’s death, preventing the church from receiving notice about legal proceedings.

Seventh District judges Gene Donofrio and Mary DeGenaro concurred.

The case is cited Fernwalt v. Our Lady of Kilgore, 2017-Ohio-1260.