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Arnold v. Villarreal

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 6, 2017

Jonathan Arnold, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Leticia Villarreal, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued March 29, 2016.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 09 C 7399 - Amy J. St. Eve, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Easterbrook, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         In the fall of 2004, Jonathan Arnold and Leticia Villarreal exchanged marriage vows in California in a ceremony solemnized by a priest and a rabbi. But they failed to file their marriage license with the county recorder within 10 days of the ceremony as required by California law. Shortly before the license expired, the county recorder sent a letter informing them that the license had not yet been filed and reminding them that they needed to file it to complete the legal process. The couple did nothing and the license expired unfiled.

         Although they were not legally married, the couple remained together for about three years, had a child, and purchased a condo in California. By the summer of 2007, their relationship had deteriorated, and they separately filed for divorce-she in California, he in Illinois. The divorce proceedings were terminated when they stipulated that they were never married.

         Arnold then sued Villarreal in federal court in Chicago on various fraud theories. He claimed that she tricked him into believing the two were legally married to induce him to give her gifts, including the California condo. The district court entered summary judgment for Villarreal, characterizing the suit as "frivolous." Frivolous is an apt description. First, the undisputed facts show that Villarreal told Arnold early on that she suspected they weren't legally married. Indeed, she insisted that they get a new marriage license and do the whole thing over. They obtained a new license but did nothing further.

         Second, even if we accept that at some point along the way Villarreal lulled Arnold with reassurances that they were legally married, Arnold was not justified in relying on her representations. He knew, because the county recorder had told them in writing, that the marriage license had not been filed as required by California law. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's judgment. We also grant Villarreal's motion for sanctions against Arnold for filing a frivolous appeal.

         I. Background

         Arnold and Villarreal met in 2003. In January 2004 Arnold proposed marriage and Villarreal accepted. On October 1, 2004, the couple applied for and received a marriage license from the Los Angeles County recorder's office. The license was valid through December 30, 2004. On November 21 they held a wedding ceremony in the picturesque resort town of Dana Point. Father Erwin Castro, one of two clergymen who participated in the ceremony (the other was a rabbi), signed the couple's marriage license but failed to complete and file it. He did not fill in the date and location of the ceremony; he did not obtain a witness's signature; and he failed to perform his statutory duty to return the completed license to the county recorder within 10 days of the ceremony. See Cal. Fam. Code § 359(e) (requiring the person solemnizing the marriage to return the license to the county recorder "within 10 days after the ceremony"). Arnold accuses Villarreal of taking the marriage license away from Castro. Villarreal disputes this, but the key fact is undisputed: the completed marriage license was never filed with the recorder's office.

         On December 27 the couple received a letter from the recorder's office informing them that their license had not yet been returned for filing and would expire on December 30. The letter urged them to immediately address the matter and reminded them that filing a completed license was essential to protect their "marital and property rights." The couple took no action in response to the letter.

         In mid-2005 as the couple anticipated the birth of their first child, Villarreal grew uneasy about the validity of their marriage and told Arnold that she thought their failure to file the marriage license meant that they weren't legally married. Arnold dismissed her concerns. Nevertheless, in an attempt to appease her, Arnold agreed to a do-over. In August 2005 they applied for and received another marriage license. Remarkably, they again failed to follow through, and a completed marriage license was never filed.

         Villarreal gave birth to their baby on August 21, 2005. About eight months later Arnold signed a power of attorney in favor of Villarreal, which she used to obtain financing and purchase a California condominium in both their names. The loan and purchase documents refer to the pair as a married couple. Arnold later transferred his interest in the condo to Villarreal. He claims he gave her the condo-as well as other gifts-only because he believed they were married.

         After nearly three years, the couple's relationship began to disintegrate and they separated. In the summer of 2007, they filed separate divorce petitions-Arnold in Illinois and Villarreal in California. They eventually stipulated that they ...

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