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Botteicher v. Becker

Supreme Court of North Dakota

May 8, 2018

Sandy Botteicher, Plaintiff and Appellant
v.
Pam Becker and Darwin Becker, Defendants and Alexandra Botteicher, Plaintiff and Appellees and St. Benedict's Health Center, Defendant

          Appeal from the District Court of Stark County, Southwest Judicial District, the Honorable Dann Edward Greenwood, Judge. AFFIRMED.

          Theresa L. Kellington (on brief), Bismarck, ND, for plaintiffs and appellant.

          Allison R. Mann (argued) and Randall N. Sickler (appeared), Dickinson, ND, for defendants and appellees Pam Becker and Darwin Becker.

          OPINION

          Jensen, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Sandy Botteicher ("Botteicher") appeals from a judgment dismissing her claims against Pam and Darwin Becker (collectively "Beckers") and awarding the Beckers $5, 000 for their attorney fees. Botteicher challenges the district court's determination that some of her claims were previously resolved in separate probate proceedings and were barred by res judicata, that her claim for interference with the right of burial and her claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress could be dismissed as a matter of law, and that the Beckers were entitled to an award of attorney fees. We affirm the judgment.

         I

         [¶ 2] Botteicher and Pam Becker are sisters and heirs to their mother's estate. Following the death of their father in January 2015, Pam Becker was appointed legal guardian for their mother who was residing in a nursing home. Their mother died in July 2015. A third party was appointed personal representative of their mother's estate ("the estate").

         [¶ 3] As part of the process to close the probate court proceedings, the personal representative compiled and provided to the court an inventory and appraisement for the estate. Following the filing of the closing documents by the personal representative, Botteicher filed a number of petitions or motions. In her petitions, Botteicher sought to set aside what the parties refer to as the "Warehouse" transaction, a real property transfer in Dickinson that occurred in 2010 and 2011. Botteicher also requested an evidentiary hearing, objected to the final accounting, sought formal testacy proceedings, sought the disqualification of the attorney representing the personal representative, moved for the appointment of herself as the personal representative and sought to keep the estate open by alleging that numerous items of her mother's personal property were missing from the inventory and appraisement.

         [¶ 4] The probate court denied all of the petitions or motions filed by Botteicher. The court denied the petition seeking to set aside the Warehouse transfer after concluding the personal representative, not Botteicher, had "standing" to assert an action to challenge the Warehouse transfer in the probate proceedings, and that the request to set aside the property transfer was "not properly in front of the Court." In the probate proceedings, Botteicher was attempting to personally initiate an action against the Beckers to set aside a transfer made by the decedent. On December 30, 2016, the probate court issued an order approving the inventory and appraisement as well as the final account and distribution. Botteicher did not appeal the final decree of distribution.

         [¶ 5] Approximately one month after the probate proceedings were closed, Botteicher and her daughter, Alexandra Botteicher ("Alexandra"), brought this action against the Beckers. Botteicher and her daughter alleged the Beckers had a conflict of interest and took advantage of a vulnerable adult when the Warehouse and other property were transferred. Botteicher alleged that all of the transactions between Pam Becker and their father should be voided because Pam Becker violated her fiduciary duties under a power of attorney. Botteicher alleged Pam Becker was guilty of misrepresentation in relation to warranty deeds for the property. Botteicher alleged Darwin Becker converted personal property that was not included in the probate inventory. Botteicher alleged "Intentional Infliction of Emotional Harm and Interference with Right of Burial" because Pam Becker had their father cremated without informing Botteicher and by denying Botteicher access to the ashes. Alexandra also alleged personal claims against the Beckers.

         [¶ 6] The Beckers moved to dismiss the claims and requested an award of attorney fees asserting that the claims were frivolous. The district court concluded all claims relating to the Warehouse and other property were barred by res judicata because those claims either were or could have been raised during the probate proceedings. The court alternatively held that Botteicher lacked standing to bring those claims. The court rejected the interference with burial rights claim after concluding that Pam Becker had the legal right to make burial decisions regarding their father and that Botteicher lacked standing because she had no right to control or to participate in the burial. The court dismissed the intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action on the ground that Botteicher had failed to state a claim because Botteicher did not allege conduct that satisfied the threshold element of the tort. The court dismissed without prejudice Alexandra's claim for conversion for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court found that Botteicher's claims were frivolous and awarded the Beckers $5, 000 in attorney fees. Botteicher appealed, but Alexandra did not appeal.

         II

         [¶ 7] Botteicher argues the district court erred in ruling res judicata barred the claims relating to the Warehouse and other property.

         [¶ 8] Res judicata is a question of law, which we review de novo. See, e.g., Chapman v. Wells, 557 N.W.2d 725, 728 (N.D. 1996). Res judicata prevents the litigation of claims that were raised, or could have been raised, in a prior action between the same parties or their privies and were resolved by a final judgment in a court of competent jurisdiction. See, e.g., Williams Cty. v. Don Sorenson Invs., LLC, 2017 ND 193, ¶ 9, 900 N.W.2d 223. Res judicata applies even if subsequent claims are based on different legal theories. See, e.g., Simpson v. Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co., 2005 ND 55, ¶ 11, 693 N.W.2d 612. We have indicated that res judicata and collateral estoppel do not apply unless the matter has been fully decided on its merits. See Hager v. City of Devils Lake, 2009 ND 180, ...


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