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In re Estate of Nohle

Supreme Court of North Dakota

April 25, 2017

In the Matter of the Estate of Charlotte C. Nohle, deceased
v.
Timothy A. Bruun and Sharla Faye Bruun, Successor Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Charlotte C. Nohle, deceased, Respondents and Appellees Dori Lentz, Petitioner and Appellant

         Appeal from the District Court of McKenzie County, Northwest Judicial District, the Honorable Robin A. Schmidt, Judge.

          Jordon J. Evert, for petitioner and appellant.

          Lisa M. Six (Argued) and Jennifer M. Nasner (on brief), for respondents and appellees.

          Tufte, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Dori Lentz appeals from an order and judgment denying her request to modify the distribution decrees of the Estate of Charlotte C. Nohle and ordering her to pay the estate's attorney's fees. We affirm, concluding the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the requested modification or by awarding attorney's fees.

         I

         [¶ 2] Charlotte Nohle died in 1957. Her 1951 will provided for distribution of mineral interests:

I direct my executors that all such gas, oil and mineral rights are to be distributed, share and share alike, between my living brothers and sisters, and further direct that should William Freeman and Flossie Engel be deceased at the time of my death, that their natural born children should take in their stead, and further direct that the naturalborn [sic] children of my deceased brother, Thomas Freeman, shall take in his stead his share that he would have received had he been living at the time of my death. This provision, however, does not hold true with the daughter of Victoria Davis, as I have otherwise taken care of Victoria Davis.

         Nohle's deceased brother Thomas Freeman had several children. Four of his children were living when Nohle died, but one child, Margaret Hanger, died in 1941 before Nohle executed the will. Margaret Hanger had multiple children, including Louella Bricker and Lentz's mother, Ruth Dorfner. In short, Nohle was a sister of Lentz's great-grandfather.

         [¶ 3] In 1957, a petition to probate the will was filed, and a final decree distributing Nohle's estate was entered in 1961. In 1965, a supplemental final decree was entered distributing certain mineral interests that were not conveyed by the original final decree. The final and supplemental decrees did not distribute any property to Margaret Hanger's children.

         [¶ 4] In June 2015, Timothy Bruun and Sharla Bruun petitioned to be appointed successor co-personal representatives of the estate, stating the previous personal representatives were deceased, the Bruuns had been appointed successor co-personal representatives in a similar Montana proceeding, and there might be information about newly discovered assets in North Dakota. Lentz, representing herself, also petitioned to be appointed the estate's personal representative, alleging there was new information about the "actual heirs" and there were "newly discovered assets." The Bruuns objected to Lentz's petition. After a hearing, the district court appointed the Bruuns as co-personal representatives of Nohle's estate. The court reopened the estate for the purpose of distributing newly discovered assets and directed Lentz to provide any information about newly discovered assets to the Bruuns.

         [¶ 5] In September 2015, Lentz moved under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6) to modify the 1961 final decree of distribution and the 1965 supplemental final decree. Lentz argued Margaret Hanger's children were devisees, the mineral interests had been improperly distributed, and the devisees who received the improper distribution were liable to return the property improperly received and the income it had earned since distribution. She requested the court amend the final and supplemental decrees of distribution to include Margaret Hanger's children. The motion said Lentz, John Dorfner, Louella Bricker, and others were requesting that the court modify the final decree. Lentz signed the motion as the petitioner. Lentz represented herself throughout these proceedings and is not a licensed attorney in North Dakota.

         [¶ 6] The Bruuns moved to strike Lentz's motion, arguing Lentz is not an heir at law to Nohle, she is not a proper party in interest, and she cannot bring the action on behalf of any other person or entity because she is not a licensed attorney. The Bruuns also opposed the motion, arguing Margaret Hanger's children were not required to be parties to the original estate proceedings, the doctrine of laches bars any claims Margaret Hanger's children had against the estate, Lentz's claim that the distribution decrees improperly distributed the property is without merit, and relief under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) is not appropriate.

         [¶ 7] Lentz filed an amended motion to modify the decrees of distribution, signed by John Dorfner, Louella Bricker, and Lentz. The amended motion stated it was merely adding Louella Bricker and John Dorfner's signatures to the original September 2015 motion. Lentz also moved to dismiss the Bruuns as co-personal representatives of the estate. The Bruuns moved to strike the motion. Lentz later moved to "strike" her motion to dismiss the Bruuns as co-personal representatives.

         [¶ 8] In February 2016, the district court held a hearing on Lentz's motion to modify the distribution decrees, Lentz's motion to dismiss the personal representatives, and the Bruuns' motions to strike. Lentz withdrew her motion to dismiss the personal representatives. The Bruuns requested an award of attorney's fees, arguing the filings were unwarranted and not allowed by law, the allegations were not made in good faith, and Lentz is not authorized to practice law in this state. The Bruuns also informed the court that they had requested information about the "newly discovered assets" multiple times but Lentz had never provided the requested information. The court stated it was planning to grant the Bruuns' motion to strike Lentz's motion to modify the decrees because Lentz is not a proper party, but it was also planning to alternatively rule on the merits of the motion to modify. The court advised Lentz that she was required to have an attorney if she wanted to file any further documents in the case, including responding to the Bruuns' request for attorney's fees. Through counsel, Lentz objected to the estate's itemized claim for attorney's fees and costs. The district court concluded the requested attorney's fees were reasonable and ordered Lentz to pay $26, 170.50 in attorney's fees and costs to the estate for the fees it had incurred by Lentz's continual and unauthorized filings in the case.

         [¶ 9] In May 2016, the district court entered an order, striking the motion to modify the decree of distribution, affirming the final and supplemental decrees of distribution, ordering Lentz to pay the estate's attorney's fees, and ordering Lentz to deliver the real property descriptions for any and all newly discovered assets. The court ruled Lentz was not a proper party, she engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by representing others in the action, N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) was procedurally inappropriate, the doctrine of laches forever barred any claims by Margaret Hanger's children or grandchildren, and Lentz had not ...


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