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Biedenfeld v. Estate of French

Court of Appeal of Iowa

June 26, 2013

STEVE BIEDENFELD, Plaintiff-Appellant,
THE ESTATE OF DORIS B. FRENCH and JOHN H. COOK, JR., Executor, Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Clay County, David A. Lester, Judge.

Steve Biedenfeld challenges the district court's order denying his claims against the estate of Doris French.

Stephen F. Avery, Jill M. Davis, and Andrea M. Smook of Cornwall, Avery, Bjornstad & Scott, Spencer, for appellant.

Richard A. Cook of Herrick, Ary, Cook, Cook, Cook & Cook, Cherokee, for appellees.

Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Vaitheswaran, Doyle, and Tabor, JJ.


A farm tenant alleges he entered an oral contract with his elderly, disabled landlady, agreeing to care for her in her home until the time of her death in exchange for receiving eighty acres of land in her will. The tenant, Steve Biedenfeld, sued the estate of Doris French when he did not receive the bequest he expected.

At trial, Steve testified he assumed Doris would decide the care arrangement she contracted for in 2004 was not working, "at the time she's 97 years old, you know, how long do people live?" As it turns out, Doris lived to be almost 104. Because she lived the last two years of her life at a nursing home, the district court held Steve breached the contract and was not entitled to recover from the estate.

Steve raises three arguments in opposition to the district court's ruling. First, he contends Doris breached their contract first by changing her will to remove the eighty-acre devise. Second, he claims Doris's medical condition rendered the performance of his contractual duty impossible. Third, he urges if the oral contract is not enforceable, he still has a valid claim for recovery under an implied contract for services.

We hold Steve did not offer clear and convincing evidence he and Doris entered an oral contract. But even if the district court correctly found an oral contract existed, Steve cannot show repudiation or impossibility excused his non-performance. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's determination he breached his contract with Doris by returning her to the nursing home in September 2008. We also reject his alternative claim for reimbursement under an implied contract for services.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

Doris French died on November 6, 2010, three weeks shy of her 104th birthday. Much to her dismay, she spent her last two years of life in a nursing home. Described as strong-willed, Doris sought to avoid liquidating her Clay County farmland assets to pay for her long-term care needs. Doris suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002. To continue living at home, she enlisted help from her long-time tenant, Steve Biedenfeld.

Steve first became acquainted with Doris in 1976 when he was just sixteen years old. Doris hired Steve to grind grain for her cow-calf herd. Soon after that Doris's husband, Harry French, agreed to a farm lease with Steve on a "50/50 crop share" basis. The oral lease continued until Doris's death.

But Steve was more than a tenant to Doris. Doris moved off the farm and into a residence in Peterson, Iowa around 1980. Doris and Harry also owned the house next door, which they used as a museum to showcase her many antiques. After Harry's death in 1984, Doris came to depend on Steve to assist with projects at her home and the museum, and she called him in emergencies. For instance, in 1991 when she needed surgery, he rushed her to the hospital in his truck. Doris reciprocated with financial aid for Steve. In 1997, Doris pledged certificates of deposit and property she owned as collateral to back Steve's bank loans. Doris told Steve she was willing to back him financially because she thought of him as a son.[1]

In late summer 2002, Doris suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side. She was first admitted to the Cherokee Hospital, and then underwent rehabilitation at a care center in Sioux Rapids. She used a wheelchair and had no bladder or bowel control. During that time, Doris appointed Steve as her attorney in fact.

When care center administrators told Doris in November 2002 that she would transition from Medicare coverage to private pay, she called Steve to take her home. Her lawyer convinced her to stay at the care center for another month. But on January 1, 2003, she called Steve again, threatening: "If you want to keep farming that farm, you come down here and get me out of here." The next day, Steve took her home from the center against medical advice. About one month later, she was readmitted to the hospital after a fall from her wheelchair. That stay lasted only a few weeks, until February 23, 2003, when she again cajoled Steve into checking her out against medical advice.

During that spring, Steve commenced his practice of stopping by Doris's house each morning to check on her. He kept disposable rubber gloves in his pickup truck:

She was always usually soaked every morning and BM. And she had a pad on her bed so that it wouldn't soak into the mattress. And what I would do is I would get her stripped down and put a new Depend diaper on her and new sweat pants on her, and the dirty stuff went into the washing machine.

Steve would sometimes stop by a second time during the day. On occasions when Steve found Doris in a particularly bad mess, he struggled to lift her in and out of her small shower: "Dead weight. Don't help you at all. I'm trying to figure out how to get a wet, naked hundred-year-old lady, and how do you handle her?"

For Doris's nutritional needs, Steve would provide her with a stock of frozen meals she could microwave. He also left her with a bowl of Froot Loops for her to snack on during the day. On occasion, Steve would take Doris out to lunch.

This daily routine persisted from February 2003 until September 2009, with respites in 2003 and 2007 when Doris needed rehabilitation at care centers. The first of those incidents occurred in October 2003 when Doris fell forward out of her wheelchair, cracking several ribs. During those six years, an ambulance crew responded to calls at Doris's house more than thirty times.

Steve recalled having a crucial conversation with Doris after one such ambulance call to her residence in early 2004. Doris had fallen and the medics tended to her until Steve arrived. He cleaned her up and then they sat down for a cup of tea. She told him about "befriending an old maid" in Storm Lake and expecting to receive 400 acres of property when the friend died. Doris was disappointed she only received a "measly $5, 000" in the friend's will.

Steve viewed that conversation as an opening and turned the topic to his relationship with Doris, asking "what am I getting out of this?" Doris responded: "what do you think you ought to have?" Steve said he would "settle for 80 acres." Doris said she would think about it, and the next morning she agreed, asking Steve to give her a ride to her lawyer's office to change her will.

Steve summarized the agreement as follows:

Well, I says, if you're giving me 80 acres, and I understand that you don't want to give the nursing home any ground, and she says well, I would rather give you 80 acres than a nursing home. And I ...

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