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COA: Tractor sale contract not enforceable

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The Indiana Court of Appeals says it’s against public policy to uphold any civil contract that’s based on an illegal action, and so the court says it won’t create a rule allowing that transaction agreement to be enforced.

An 18-page ruling came May 19 in James S. Tracy v. Steve Morell, et al., No. 59A01-1009-PL-488, affirming in part and reversing in part an Orange County judge’s decision about a tractor transaction where the identification number appears to have been illegally removed.

This case involves a fraud and counter-claim stemming from the 2002 sale of a used Ford Holland farm tractor with an altered identification number, which James Tracy agreed to buy for $12,500 and set up payments on. Tracy paid $8,500, but stopped making payments in 2003 and left about $4,000 outstanding. A few months after that, prosecutors charged Steve Morrell with four counts of receiving stolen tractors and farm equipment. Tracy learned of the situation and contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to inform them of the tractor he’d purchased and had been paying on. Police inspected the tractor and found the ID number had been illegally altered, but after impounding it they closed that investigation because of prohibitive costs in determining who might have owned the tractor. Morrell pleaded guilty to the pending felony stolen property counts that also involved altered numbers, but it didn’t involve Tracy’s tractor.

That led to Tracy’s fraud allegations, and a counter-claim by Morrell that Tracy had defaulted on the promissory note the two had exchanged as part of the sale. Following a bench trial, Circuit Judge James Blanton dismissed Tracy’s complaint with prejudice for failing to meet his burden of proof on fraud and concluded that he owed Morrell $4,000 because it was an enforceable contract.

On appeal, the three-judge appellate panel determined enough evidence existed for the trial judge to rule on the merits and that there was no reason why he should have dismissed Tracy’s claim. Though Judge Blanton didn’t err when he held Tracy failed to meet his burden of proof on the fraud claim, the appellate court found that the contract is unenforceable because of a mutual mistake of fact between the parties and the contract violates public policy.

Specifically, the appeals judges looked to Indiana Code 35-43-4-2.3 that made it a crime to deal in altered property. Even though the state abandoned its attempt to prove that Morrell had stolen the specific tractor at issue here and Tracy didn’t prove to the trial court’s satisfaction that a crime had been committed or that there had been a violation of the Crime Victim’s Relief Act, the court said that doesn’t end the inquiry about whether this contract is enforceable.

“The tractor’s identification number was destroyed, and we can think of no lawful reason why the number was ground down, filled in with putty and painted over,” Judge Edward Najam wrote. “Rather, the only purpose for concealing the true identity of the tractor was to move the property outside the stream of lawful commerce into a secondary or ‘black market.’ We decline to adopt a rule that someone may sell altered property with impunity and then claim ignorance as a complete defense in a civil action from the sale. Such a rule would violate public policy because in the sale of personal property, unless otherwise agreed, the seller’s ownership free and clear of liens and encumbrances is presumed. Here, the tractor was encumbered by an altered identification number. Whether or not a crime occurred, and whether or not statutory relief is available under the Crime Victim’s Relief Act, the law should not permit a seller to transfer property with an altered identification number without being held accountable for it.”

The appellate court ordered that Tracy has no further obligation on the promissory note and he’s entitled to a rescission of the tractor sale contract and monetary judgment in the amount he’d paid with interest.

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  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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