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Dixon v. Dixon

Supreme Court of North Dakota

January 22, 2018

John W. Dixon, Petitioner and Appellant
Billie Dixon, Respondent and Appellee

         Appeal from the District Court of Burleigh County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Bruce B. Haskell, Judge.

          Greg W. Hennessy, Williston, ND, for petitioner and appellant.

          Spencer D. Ptacek, Bismarck, ND, for respondent and appellee.



         [¶ 1] John Dixon appeals from a summary judgment dismissing his action to remove Billie Dixon as trustee of the Shirley A. Dixon Trust and seeking reimbursement, an accounting and court supervision of the trust. We conclude the case is not moot and genuine issues of material fact preclude disposition by summary judgment. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         [¶ 2] Billie Dixon and John Dixon are two of Shirley Dixon's four children. In 1972 the Shirley A. Dixon Revocable Trust was created and her husband, William Dixon, was appointed trustee. The trust was amended three times over the years. The trust agreement provided that, if William Dixon did not survive Shirley Dixon, the four children would become remainder beneficiaries of the trust and the trust property would be allocated equally to them upon her death. In her 1984 amendment to the trust agreement, Shirley Dixon provided: "The Trustee shall render annual accountings to the Grantor while living, and to the beneficiaries during the term of this Trust, showing in detail receipts, disbursements, and distributions of both principal and income of the trust property." The 1984 amendment also prohibited the trustee from "dispos[ing] of the principal or income of the Trust for less than an adequate or full consideration in money or money's worth." In 2009 William Dixon resigned as trustee and Billie Dixon was appointed successor trustee. William Dixon died in 2010.

         [¶ 3] In 2013 Billie Dixon, as trustee, sued John Dixon to reform a warranty deed their father executed conveying a tract of McKenzie County real property to John Dixon. Billie Dixon contended William Dixon intended to reserve the mineral interests as property of the trust. The district court agreed and reformed the warranty deed to reserve and except the minerals and retain the mineral interests as property of the trust to be distributed in accordance with the trust's terms and conditions. We affirmed the court's decision in Dixon v. Dixon, 2017 ND 174, ¶ 1, 898 N.W.2d 706.

         [¶ 4] Shortly after the reformation action was commenced in 2013, John Dixon sued Billie Dixon seeking an accounting of the trust, her removal as trustee, court supervised administration of the trust, reimbursement of the trust for unauthorized distributions, and his attorney fees expended in the action. During multiple trial postponements, Shirley Dixon died in 2015. About two months before the scheduled February 2017 trial, Billie Dixon moved for summary judgment dismissal of the lawsuit. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the action. The court ruled: 1) Billie Dixon, as trustee, acted properly in bringing the 2013 reformation action against John Dixon; 2) John Dixon "provided no evidence that any gifts from the Trust were not provided pursuant to the wishes of Shirley A. Dixon"; 3) the failure to provide annual accountings did not justify Billie Dixon's removal as trustee because John Dixon "has not established that this violation results in danger of loss of trust property" and Shirley Dixon "is deceased and the Trust is being wound up"; and 4) the lawsuit was moot because the 2013 reformation action had been resolved and Shirley Dixon had died.


         [¶ 5] John Dixon argues the district court erred in ruling his lawsuit is moot.

         [¶ 6] A case becomes moot when, because of the lapse of time or the occurrence of events, a court is unable to render effective relief. See Schwartzenberger v. McKenzie Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 2017 ND 211, ¶ 6, 901 N.W.2d 64; Simpson v. Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co., 2003 ND 31, ¶ 7, 657 N.W.2d 261; Bland v. Comm'n on Med. Competency, 557 N.W.2d 379, 381 (N.D. 1996). "A trial court properly dismisses a case for mootness if the case 'has lost its character as a present, live controversy of the kind that must exist if we are to avoid advisory opinions on abstract questions of law.'" Tibert v. City of Minto, 2004 ND 97, ¶ 10, 679 N.W.2d 440 (quoting St. Louis Fire Fighters Ass'n v. City of St. Louis, 96 F.3d 323, 329 (8th Cir. 1996)). Mootness is a threshold issue we decide before reaching the merits of an appeal, see Simpson, at ¶ 7, and we review de novo a district court's legal conclusion of mootness. See Tibert, at ¶ 9.

         [¶ 7] The district court's reasoning that this case has been mooted by resolution of the 2013 reformation action and Shirley Dixon's death is puzzling. The mineral interests determined to be trust property through the reformation action are irrelevant to the mootness question here. Billie Dixon's argument that the case is mooted by Shirley Dixon's death because a determination of her "best interests" would be "academic" and effective relief could no longer be granted also misses the point. Actions against a trustee for breach of trust are authorized under N.D.C.C. ch. 59-18 of the North Dakota Uniform Trust Code (U.T.C.). A violation by a trustee of a duty owed to a beneficiary is a breach of trust. See N.D.C.C. § 59-18-01(1) (U.T.C. § 1001). A "beneficiary" is a person who has a "present or future beneficial interest in a trust, vested or contingent." N.D.C.C. § 59-09-03(3)(a) (U.T.C. § 103). "A trustee who commits a breach of trust is liable to the beneficiaries affected for the greater of the amount required to restore the value of the trust property and trust distributions to what they would have been had the breach not occurred or the profit the trustee made by reason of the breach." N.D.C.C. § 59-18-02(1) (U.T.C. § 1002). This action was commenced ...

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