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Murphy v. Rossow

August 23, 2010

THOMAS J. MURPHY, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT
v.
NAOMI ROSSOW, F/K/A NAOMI MURPHY, DEFENDANT AND APPELLEE



Appeal from the District Court of Dunn County, Southwest Judicial District, the Honorable Zane Anderson, Judge. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART AND REMANDED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Crothers, Justice.

[¶1] Thomas Murphy appeals the district court's amended divorce judgment granting his ex-wife, Naomi Rossow, a one-half interest in mineral rights omitted from the original divorce decree. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand for further proceedings.

I.

[¶2] In 1978, members of Murphy's family created a trust and assigned to it mineral rights located in Dunn County. Murphy was a named beneficiary of the trust until its dissolution in May 2008. The dissolved trust was in litigation at the time of trial, and Murphy acknowledged a portion of the trust's minerals would eventually be distributed to him outright. These minerals are referred to as the trust minerals.

[¶3] In 1980 Murphy's uncle conveyed real property in Dunn County to Murphy and to Murphy's brother ("Red"), as tenants in common. Murphy and Rossow married in 1982, and Red died in 1994. In 1999, a series of property transactions were executed between Murphy and Sheila Murphy, the personal representative of Red's estate. In one transaction, Murphy conveyed three sections of land to Red's estate by quitclaim deed. Both Murphy and Rossow were listed as grantors on the quitclaim deed, and the deed reserved the conveyed property's mineral rights "unto Grantor and Grantor's heirs and assigns." These minerals are referred to as the Sheila Murphy minerals.

[¶4] Murphy and Red also were cotenants of a separate parcel of property in Dunn County as a result of the 1980 conveyance from their uncle. Sheila Murphy conveyed this property to Murphy by a 1999 quitclaim deed, but she reserved the property's mineral rights. Despite this reservation, Murphy claims ownership of ten mineral acres in the parcel. These minerals are referred to as the ten acre minerals, and for purposes of this appeal, we assume Murphy's ownership claim is valid.

[¶5] In 2004, Murphy leased a portion of the Sheila Murphy minerals to Diamond Resources. The lease listed Murphy as a married man, and the income from the lease was reported on the parties' joint 2004 tax return. Diamond Resources' leased interest was eventually assigned to Continental Resources, which began operating a well on the property.

[¶6] When the parties divorced in 2005, Murphy was operating the parties' ranch and Rossow was operating a real estate business. The divorce judgment was entered on the parties' stipulation, granting Murphy the ranch with its associated real and personal property and granting Rossow the real estate business with its associated real and personal property. The judgment also contained reciprocal provisions awarding the parties their separately owned property. The judgment did not expressly mention the trust minerals, the Sheila Murphy minerals or the ten acre minerals.

[¶7] In 2007, a landman contacted Rossow seeking to lease her interest in the Sheila Murphy minerals. Nothing came of this inquiry. In late 2008, Continental Resources asked Murphy to clear a cloud on his title to the Sheila Murphy minerals created by the 1999 reservation listing both him and Rossow as grantors. Rossow refused when Murphy asked her to execute a quitclaim deed relinquishing any existing rights to the Sheila Murphy minerals. Murphy moved in April 2009 to open the divorce judgment and to conclusively determine ownership of the trust minerals, the Sheila Murphy minerals and the ten acre minerals. Rossow opposed the motion to open, arguing in the alternative that if the judgment was opened the court should equitably divide the mineral interests not addressed by the original judgment.

[¶8] A hearing was held on June 2, 2009. The district court ruled that the minerals were marital property and that the divorce decree mistakenly omitted the minerals. The court opted against relitigating the entire property division, instead evenly dividing the trust minerals, the Sheila Murphy minerals and the ten acre minerals between Murphy and Rossow. Murphy timely filed this appeal.

II.

[¶9] Murphy argues the district court erred by opening the divorce judgment because the disputed mineral interests were not omitted from that judgment. Under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(i), a district court may revisit a prior judgment when that judgment was the product of "mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect." The use of Rule 60(b) to modify a divorce decree's property distribution is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Manning v. Manning, 2006 ND 67, ¶ 15, 711 N.W.2d 149. "A district court abuses its discretion when it acts arbitrarily, capriciously, or unreasonably, or if it misinterprets or misapplies the law." Waldie v. Waldie, 2008 ND 97, ¶ 11, 748 N.W.2d 683.

[¶10] Here the same judge who entered Murphy's divorce decree presided over his motion to open. The district court found the mineral interests should have been part of the marital estate but were mistakenly omitted from the divorce decree. We give substantial deference to a district court's interpretation of its own judgment. See Orvedal v. Orvedal, 2003 ND 145, ¶ 5, 669 N.W.2d 89 (allowing district court considerable deference in clarifying its previously entered divorce judgment). An additional factor weighing in favor of opening the divorce decree is this case's procedural posture. Murphy initiated this action, specifically moving the district court "to Reopen the Judgment... for the purpose of amending the same so that certain mineral interests that were neglected to be included in it can be distributed by the Court." Murphy cannot now object to the ...


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