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CHS Inc. v. Riemers

Supreme Court of North Dakota

April 17, 2018

CHS Inc., Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Roland Riemers, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Grand Forks County, Northeast Central Judicial District, the Honorable John A. Thelen, Judge.

          James M. Cailao (argued) and Jon R. Brakke (on brief), Fargo, N.D., for plaintiff and appellee.

          David A. Garaas, Fargo, N.D., for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          Tufte, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Roland Riemers appeals from a district court judgment awarding CHS Inc. attorney's fees and costs, and from an order denying Riemers' motion to reopen the case and close judgment. Riemers also moves for vacation of the district court's "Corrected Amended Judgment." Because the district court did not abuse its discretion by awarding CHS attorney's fees and costs on the basis of a frivolous motion, we affirm the district court judgment. However, because the order denying Riemers' motion to reopen the case and close judgment reflects that the amount owing to CHS is $679.08, instead of the correct amount of $549.08, we modify the order, stating that $549.08 is the outstanding principal balance on the Amended Judgment. Because the district court lacked jurisdiction, we vacate the Corrected Amended Judgment.

         I

         [¶ 2] In March 2016, CHS was awarded a money judgment against Riemers in the amount of $38, 889. In April 2016, Riemers deposited $41, 100 into an Alerus Bank account, apparently to be used for garnishment by CHS. In May 2016, on the motion of CHS, the district court entered an amended judgment ("Amended Judgment") in the sum of $41, 793.72 to reflect the prejudgment interest accrued. We summarily affirmed the Amended Judgment as modified, reducing the prejudgment interest amount by $70.07. See CHS Inc. v. Riemers, 2016 ND 233, ¶ 1, 888 N.W.2d 205. CHS began collecting on the Amended Judgment by garnishing funds that Riemers held at Alerus Bank and Citizens Community Credit Union.

         [¶ 3] In March 2017, Riemers moved to reopen the case and close judgment ("Motion to Reopen"), arguing that the Amended Judgment had been fully satisfied. In its brief opposing the motion ("Return to Riemers' Motion to Reopen"), CHS moved for attorney's fees and costs. After a hearing, the district court denied Riemers' motion and awarded CHS attorney's fees and costs in the sum of $1, 628.55, concluding the motion and arguments made therein were frivolous ("Sanction Order").

         [¶ 4] Riemers filed a notice of appeal on August 30, 2017. Oral argument was heard on February 13, 2018. On February 12, 2018, the district court entered into the record a proposed judgment from CHS, which stated Riemers owed $549.08 on the Amended Judgment. The district court adopted that judgment ("Corrected Amended Judgment") on February 14, 2018.

         II

         [¶ 5] Riemers argues that the district court abused its discretion in awarding CHS attorney's fees and costs. "The district court has authority to stem abuses of the judicial process, which comes not only from applicable rules and statutes... but 'from the court's inherent power to control its docket and to protect its jurisdiction and judgments, the integrity of the court, and the orderly and expeditious administration of justice.'" Estate of Pedro, 2014 ND 237, ¶ 14, 856 N.W.2d 775 (quoting Federal Land Bank v. Ziebarth, 520 N.W.2d 51, 58 (N.D. 1994)).

         [¶ 6] CHS requested attorney's fees under N.D.C.C. § 28-26-01(2), which provides:

In civil actions the court shall, upon a finding that a claim for relief was frivolous, award reasonable actual and statutory costs, including reasonable attorney's fees to the prevailing party. Such costs must be awarded regardless of the good faith of the attorney or party making the claim for relief if there is such a complete absence of actual facts or law that a reasonable person could not have thought a court would render judgment in that person's favor, providing the prevailing party has in responsive pleading alleged the frivolous nature of the claim. This subsection does not require the award of costs or fees against an attorney or party advancing a claim unwarranted under existing law, if it is supported by a good-faith argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of the existing law.

         The district court has discretion to determine whether a claim is frivolous and to determine the reasonable amount of an award of attorney's fees. Tillich v. Bruce, 2017 ND 21, ¶ 7, 889 N.W.2d 899. "A district court abuses its discretion if it acts in an arbitrary, unreasonable, or unconscionable manner, its decision is not the product of a rational ...


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