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Norberg v. Norberg

Supreme Court of North Dakota

February 16, 2017

Jon David Norberg, M.D. & Jon Norberg, M.D., P.C., Plaintiffs and Appellants
v.
Alonna Knorr Norberg, Defendant and Appellee

         Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Frank L. Racek, Judge.

          Bruce A. Schoenwald (argued) and Randolph E. Stefanson (on brief), for plaintiffs and appellants.

          Charles A. Stock, for defendant and appellee.

          OPINION

          SANDSTROM, SURROGATE JUDGE.

         [¶ 1] Jon Norberg appeals the district court order denying his motion for judgment as a matter of law or new trial. He argues collateral estoppel established as a matter of law Alonna Knorr Norberg's ("Knorr's") liability for his abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and defamation claims, and it should not have been redecided by the jury. He further argues Knorr's dismissal of her lawsuit prevented her from raising affirmative defenses to his claims. Concluding collateral estoppel precluded relitigation of matters previous determined, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I

         [¶ 2] This case is the result of a long history between Jon Norberg and Alonna Knorr. Once married, they divorced after Knorr alleged Norberg sexually abused her after drugging her with Propofol. Knorr's allegations resulted in criminal charges against Norberg, and a jury acquitted him of all charges in 2012.

         [¶ 3] In the subsequent divorce case, the parties relitigated much of the same evidence included in Norberg's criminal trial. The divorce court found Knorr's allegations to be "untrue" and "nothing more than her attempt to get primary residential responsibility of the parties' children." The court awarded the father primary residential responsibility of the children. In distributing marital assets, the court further found the husband's financial ruin was a result of Knorr's false allegations. Knorr appealed, and we affirmed in Norberg v. Norberg, 14 ND 90');">2014 ND 90, 845 N.W.2d 348.

         [¶ 4] Shortly before the divorce trial concluded, Knorr sued Norberg and other parties for medical malpractice, among other claims. Norberg counterclaimed for abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and defamation. Knorr eventually dismissed her claims against the other parties, and she later also dismissed her claims against Norberg. Norberg, however, continued pursuing his counterclaims against his former wife. Before trial, Norberg moved the court to prohibit Knorr from presenting evidence contrary to facts found in the divorce case and to order a directed verdict on Norberg's counterclaims establishing Knorr's liability as a matter of law. He argued his former wife was attempting to relitigate facts that had already been decided in the earlier criminal and divorce cases. The court denied Norberg's motion, and the case went to trial. On all claims, a jury found Knorr not liable.

         [¶ 5] After trial, Norberg moved for judgment as a matter of law or new trial. He reasserted his earlier arguments, and the district court again denied his motion. Norberg appeals, arguing the district court should have granted his motion for judgment as a matter of law because collateral estoppel established Knorr's liability on his abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and defamation claims. He also argues Knorr's dismissal of her claims effectively prevented her from asserting affirmative defenses against his claims.

         [¶ 6] The district court had jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 8, and N.D.C.C. § 27-05-06. Norberg's appeal is timely under N.D.R.App.P. 4(a). This Court has jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 6, and N.D.C.C. § 28-27-01.

         II

         [¶ 7] A denial of a motion for new trial is reviewed under the abuse-of-discretion standard. Grager v. Schudar, 2009 ND 140, ¶ 3, 770 N.W.2d 692. "A court abuses its discretion when it acts in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or unconscionable manner, or when it misinterprets or misapplies the law." Id.

         [¶ 8] Norberg argues two issues in which he contends the district court erred in denying his motion for new trial. First, he contends the district court erred by misapplying the doctrine of collateral estoppel. He contends the district court allowed the jury to find facts that were already found by the divorce court in the Norberg-Knorr divorce. Second, he argues Knorr's dismissal of her claims precluded her from asserting affirmative defenses against his claims. Norberg first raised these issues before the district court in a pre-trial motion to prohibit Knorr from presenting evidence contrary to facts found in the divorce case and to direct a verdict on the issue of liability. He raised these issues again in his post-trial motion for directed verdict or new trial, and he adequately briefed these issues on appeal. Finally, Norberg conceded during oral argument he must succeed on both of these arguments for us to conclude the doctrine of collateral estoppel establishes Knorr's liability on his claims of abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and defamation.

         A

         [¶ 9] The first issue is whether the district court erred by misapplying the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Whether the district court misapplied the doctrine of collateral estoppel is a "question of law, fully reviewable on appeal." Hanneman v. Nygaard, 2010 ND 113, ¶ 12, 784 N.W.2d 117. Norberg argues the jury was allowed to find facts that were already litigated and found in the earlier criminal and divorce cases.

         [¶ 10] "Courts bar relitigation of claims and issues to promote the finality of judgments, which increases certainty, discourages multiple litigation, wards off wasteful delay and expense, and conserves judicial resources." Riemers v. Peters-Riemers, 2004 ND 153, ¶ 9, 684 N.W.2d 619. "[C]ollateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, generally forecloses the relitigation, in a second action based on a different claim, of particular issues of either fact or law which were, or by logical and necessary implication must have been, litigated and determined in the prior suit." Id. (quotation marks omitted).

         [¶ 11] Collateral estoppel may apply to bar the relitigation of factual and legal issues that were already established in an earlier divorce proceeding. E.g., Hofsommer v. Hofsommer Excavating, Inc., 488 N.W.2d 380, 386 (N.D. 1992); Riemers, 2004 ND 153, ¶ 10, 684 N.W.2d 619. For example, in Riemers, a husband and wife litigated during divorce proceedings whether domestic violence had occurred during the marriage. Id. The divorce court found the husband had committed a pattern of domestic violence against the wife. Id. The divorce court also found the wife had not committed domestic violence against the husband. Id. After the divorce, the husband sued his former wife, claiming she committed torts against him during the marriage and the divorce proceedings. Id. at ¶ 3. The former wife moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted her motion. Id. at ¶ 4. The court concluded collateral estoppel applied to bar the husband from relitigating whether his former wife had committed physical and emotional abuse against him during the marriage and divorce, because the divorce court had earlier found she had not committed such abuse against him. Id. On appeal, we held collateral estoppel applied to bar the husband's tort claims and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment. Id. at ¶¶ 17, 40.

         [¶ 12] For collateral estoppel to bar relitigation of an issue in a new ...


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