In the Matter of the Estate of Steven H. Harris Bruce G. Harris, Petitioner and Appellant
Mary K. Harris, Respondent and Appellee In the Trust of Steven H. Harris Testamentary Trust Bruce G. Harris, Petitioner and Appellant
Mary K. Harris, Respondent and Appellee
from the District Court of Burleigh County, South Central
Judicial District, the Honorable David E. Reich, Judge.
Zachary E. Pelham, for petitioner and appellant.
A. Tschider, for respondent and appellee.
1] Bruce Harris appeals a district court's order denying
his N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) motion to vacate a judgment entered
consistent with stipulations Bruce Harris entered into with
the trustee and personal representative of Steven
Harris's trust and estate. Bruce Harris argues the
district court abused its discretion by not vacating the
judgment for lack of mutual assent, misrepresentation, and
fraud. He also argues the district court failed to apply a
rebuttable presumption of undue influence when a trustee
engages in a transaction with a trust beneficiary under
N.D.C.C. § 59-18-01.1. We conclude the district court
did not abuse its discretion by denying Bruce Harris's
motion to vacate, and affirm the district court's order.
2] These cases relate to the estate and trust of Steven
Harris. Steven Harris's Last Will and Testament was
probated in Burleigh County district court in 2001. Steven
Harris's Will created the "Steven H. Harris Trust
A" and the "Steven H. Harris Trust B." Trust A
was funded with various assets including interests in oil and
gas and is the focus of this appeal. Under the terms of the
trust, Mary Harris, Steven Harris's wife, was to receive
all of the income for her support and maintenance and, upon
her death, the remaining principal of the trust would be
distributed to Steven Harris's children or their issue.
Steven Harris's surviving children, Terry, Wayne, and
Bruce Harris, and Kyle Harris, the child of a deceased
sibling, are beneficiaries of the trust. Mary Harris was
nominated and appointed as personal representative of the
estate. Mary Harris was subsequently appointed trustee.
3] In July 2010, Bruce Harris petitioned for a trust
accounting and for the appointment of a successor trustee.
Bruce Harris also started a separate action for a probate
matter involving Steven Harris's estate. In the trust
case, Bruce Harris claimed the trustee failed to provide
trust financial documents to the beneficiaries, Mary Harris
was incompetent to act as trustee, and Terry Harris's
company had engaged in an improper transaction with the trust
by leasing oil and gas interests held by the trust. A hearing
was originally scheduled for December 11, 2013, but it was
continued until December 4, 2014. At the hearing, the parties
put in the record two stipulations entered into pertaining to
Steven Harris's estate and trust. Under the terms of the
stipulations, Bruce Harris was authorized to retain a
professional to review and perform examinations of financial
and other records of the trust, subject to signing a
confidentiality agreement. At the December 4, 2014, hearing,
the district court asked Bruce Harris if he understood and
agreed with the terms of the stipulations he had signed.
Bruce Harris stated on the record he understood the terms and
understood he had the right to review the documents he was
concerned with under the stipulated terms. The district court
entered an order on stipulation for the estate case, and a
judgment on stipulation for the trust case.
4] In February 2015, Bruce Harris, self-represented, moved to
vacate the judgment. After he moved to vacate, Bruce Harris
filed a substitution of counsel on February 24, 2015. At the
June 10, 2015, hearing, represented by new counsel, Bruce
Harris requested the trust and estate cases be heard
together, and the trustee did not object. After the hearing,
the district court denied Bruce Harris's motion to
vacate, stating he failed to provide clear and convincing
evidence of fraud or misrepresentation that induced him to
sign the stipulations. Bruce Harris appealed.
5] Bruce Harris argues the district court abused its
discretion by denying his motion to vacate under N.D.R.Civ.P.
60(b)(3) and (6). According to Bruce Harris, his motion to
vacate should have been granted on the grounds he established
a lack of mutual assent, misrepresentation, and fraud.
6] "[R]elief from judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) is
extraordinary relief and should be granted only in
exceptional circumstances." Grinaker v.
Grinaker, 553 N.W.2d 204, 207 (N.D. 1996) (citing
Soli v. Soli, 534 N.W.2d 21, 23 (N.D. 1995)).
"[A] Rule 60(b) motion 'is not to be used to relieve
a party from free, calculated, and deliberate choices, '
and 'a party remains under a duty to take legal steps to
protect his own interests.'" Kukla v.
Kukla, 2013 ND 192, ¶ 25, 838 N.W.2d 434 (quoting
Follman v. Upper Valley Special Educ. Unit, 2000 ND
72, ¶ 11, 609 N.W.2d 90). "'A mere recitation
of the grounds set forth to Rule 60(b), N.D.R.Civ.P., without
specific details underlying such assertions, is not
sufficient to afford relief.'" Hatch v.
Hatch, 484 N.W.2d 283, 286 (N.D. 1992) (quoting
Fleck v. Fleck, 337 N.W.2d 786, 790 (N.D. 1983)).
"We will not overturn a trial court's decision on a
motion for relief from judgment absent an abuse of
discretion." North Shore, Inc. v. Wakefield,
542 N.W.2d 725, 727 (N.D. 1996). "A court abuses its
discretion when it acts in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or
unconscionable manner, when it misinterprets or misapplies
the law, or when its decision is not the product of a
rational mental process leading to a reasoned
determination." Rebel v. Rebel, 2013 ND 164,
¶ 13, 837 N.W.2d 351.
7] "If the judgment sought to be set aside is entered
pursuant to a stipulation of the parties, the party
challenging the judgment under Rule 60(b), N.D.R.Civ.P., has
the additional burden of showing that under the laws of
contract there is justification for setting the contract
aside." Peterson v. Peterson, 555 N.W.2d 359,
361 (N.D. 1996) (citing Soli, 534 N.W.2d at 23). The
court may vacate a judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(3), if
the stipulation on which the judgment relies was induced by
fraud, misrepresentation or other misconduct of an adverse
party. Id. at 362. The court may also vacate a
judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6) for any other reasons
justifying such relief. Id. In clarifying the
interpretation of the language of a stipulation incorporated
into a consistent judgment, we held: "When a settlement
agreement is merged into a judgment, the agreement is
interpreted and enforced as a final judgment and not as a
separate contract between the parties." Silbernagel
v. Silbernagel, 2011 ND 140, ¶ 11, 800 N.W.2d 320
(citing Silbernagel v. Silbernagel, 2007 ND 124,
¶ 10, 736 N.W.2d 441).
8] "To create an enforceable contract, there must be a
mutual intent to create a legal obligation." Lire,
Inc. v. Bob's Pizza Inn Restaurants, Inc., 541
N.W.2d 432, 434 (N.D. 1995) (citing N.D.C.C. §§
9-01-02; 9-03-01)). "A valid contract requires parties
capable of contracting, consent, a lawful object, and
sufficient consideration." Valentina Williston, LLC
v. Gadeco, LLC, 2016 ND 84, ¶ 16, 878 N.W.2d 397
(citing N.D.C.C. § 9-01-02; Lund v. Lund, 2014
ND 133, ¶ 10, 848 N.W.2d 266). "The parties'
consent must be free, mutual, and communicated to each
other." Valentina, 2016 ND 84, ¶ 16, 878
N.W.2d 397 (citing N.D.C.C. § 9-03-01; Lund,
2014 ND 133, ¶ 10, 848 N.W.2d 266).
9] Under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(3), Bruce Harris had the burden
"to establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that
the adverse party obtained the judgment through fraud,
misrepresentation, or misconduct." See Dvorak
v. Dvorak, 2001 ND 178, ¶ 10, 635 N.W.2d 135. Under his
N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(3) argument, Bruce Harris challenges the
actions of the parties leading up to the formation of the
stipulations, not the language of the stipulations
themselves. Bruce Harris claims he was induced into signing
the stipulations by misrepresentations and fraud. He argues
the district court erred by not concluding he established a
lack of mutual assent to the ...