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Baker v. Autos Inc.

Supreme Court of North Dakota

September 20, 2017

Darilyn Baker, individually, and on behalf of all persons similarly situated, Plaintiff and Appellant
v.
Autos Inc., a North Dakota Corporation, d/b/a Global Auto; RW Enterprises Inc., a North Dakota Corporation; Randy Westby, an individual, James Hendershot, an individual, and Robert Opperude, an individual, Defendants and Appellees

         Appeal from the District Court of Ward County, North Central Judicial District, the Honorable Gary H. Lee, Judge.

          Larry M. Baer (argued), West Des Moines, IA, and Robert G. Ackre (on brief), Cando, ND, for plaintiff and appellant.

          Sean Marrin (argued), and Kraig A. Wilson (on brief), Grand Forks, ND, for defendants and appellees Autos Inc., a North Dakota Corporation, d/b/a Global Auto, Robert Opperude and James Hendershot.

          Bryan L. Van Grinsven, Minot, ND, for defendants and appellees RW Enterprises Inc., a North Dakota Corporation and Randy Westby, an individual.

          OPINION

          Crothers, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Darilyn Baker appeals from a partial summary judgment in her class action against Autos, Inc., Robert Opperude, James Hendershot, RW Enterprises, Inc., and Randy Westby after the district court adopted the parties' stipulation to resolve certain factual and legal issues and to grant certification under N.D.R.Civ.P. 54(b). We conclude the court abused its discretion in granting certification under Rule 54(b) and dismiss the appeal.

         I

         [¶ 2] In 2007, Baker purchased a car from Autos. She financed the purchase of the car by trading in a car and entering into a retail installment sales contract with Autos. Baker failed to make some of her required monthly payments for the car and it was repossessed. Before Baker defaulted on her loan, Autos assigned her retail installment sales contract to RW Enterprises. After the car was repossessed, Baker sued Autos, RW Enterprises, and their individual owners, alleging they failed to comply with state statutory requirements for retail installment sales contracts and violated state usury laws. Baker moved to certify her lawsuit as a class action for all purchasers of cars from Autos who may have suffered an injury as a result of the defendants' business practices. After the district court denied her motion for class certification, a majority of this Court reversed and remanded for reconsideration. Baker v. Autos, Inc., 2015 ND 57, 860 N.W.2d 788.

         [¶ 3] The district court subsequently granted Baker's motion for class certification and thereafter partially granted and partially denied her motion for summary judgment. The court ruled two simultaneously executed documents, a "buyer's order" and a "retail installment contract and security agreement, " constituted the buyer's retail installment sales contract. The court denied Baker's motion for summary judgment on her claim that Autos failed to disclose a "document administration fee" and a "loan fee" as finance charges, concluding that those fees were disclosed when the two documents were read together. The court also concluded all class members who were charged and paid a $25 late fee on any delinquent installment payment due under their retail installment sales contract were entitled to a refund because the amount of that late fee was not authorized by N.D.C.C. § 51-13-02(2)(e). The court decided the excessive late fee was not an additional finance charge and did not deprive the defendants of protection as a regulated lender under usury laws in N.D.C.C. ch. 47-14. The court said N.D.C.C. § 51-13-07 provided the remedy for a violation of statutes prohibiting excessive late fees. The court reserved ruling on which defendant was liable for repayment of any excessive late fees, and whether the excessive late fees invoked statutory sanctions for violating laws pertaining to the requirements for retail installment sales contracts, for regulated lender status and for state usury laws.

         [¶ 4] The parties thereafter stipulated to the resolution of certain remaining legal and factual issues and to a certification that there was no just reason for delay and entry of judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 54(b). The district court adopted the parties' stipulation and certified the partial summary judgment as final under Rule 54(b). The court's partial summary judgment concluded: (1) the imposition of the $25 late fee violated statutory limitations for late fees; (2) all class members who were actually assessed and paid a late fee in excess of the statutory limitation were entitled to a refund of all fees paid; and (3) all other claims were dismissed. The partial summary judgment identified the following issues remaining to be decided: (1) the identity of class members entitled to recover excessive late fees; (2) the individual liability of Hendershot and Opperude; and (3) the potential liability of RW Enterprises and Westby.

         II

         [¶ 5] Before addressing the merits of Baker's appeal, we consider whether the district court appropriately directed entry of a final judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 54(b) without first deciding the unresolved issues.

         [¶ 6] Rule 54(b), N.D.R.Civ.P., authorizes a district court to direct entry of a final judgment adjudicating fewer than all the claims, or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all of the parties, upon expressly determining there is no just reason for delay. In Capps v. Weflin, we explained our review of a Rule 54(b) certification:

"'We "will not consider an appeal in a multi-claim or multi-party case which disposes of fewer than all claims against all parties unless the trial court has first independently assessed the case and determined that a Rule 54(b) certification is appropriate."' Pifer v. McDermott, 2012 ND 90, ¶ 9, 816 N.W.2d 88 (quotation omitted). However, '[e]ven if the trial court does make the requisite determination under Rule 54(b), we are not bound by the court's finding that "no just reason for delay exists."' Pifer, at ¶ 9 (quotation omitted). 'We will sua sponte review the court's certification to determine if the court has abused its discretion.' Id. (quotation omitted). 'A district court abuses its discretion if it acts in an unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable manner, ...

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