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Dockter v. Dockter

Supreme Court of North Dakota

October 1, 2018

Brandon Dockter, individually and as Co-Trustee and a beneficiary of the Dockter Brothers Irrevocable Trust, Plaintiffs and Appellees
v.
Shane A. Dockter, Co-Trustee, Defendant and Appellant and Blueball Farms, LLLP, and the Dockter Brothers Irrevocable Trust, Defendants

          Appeal from the District Court of Stutsman County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable Cherie LaVonne Clark, Judge.

          Peter W. Zuger (argued) and Timothy G. Richard (on brief), Fargo, ND, for plaintiffs and appellees.

          James A. Teigland (argued), Fargo, ND, for defendant and appellant Shane A. Dockter, Co-Trustee.

          OPINION

          JENSEN JUSTICE.

         [¶ 1] Shane Dockter appeals from orders denying his N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b) motion to vacate a default judgment asserting that the default judgment was either void or should be vacated for excusable neglect. Applying the limited standard for reviewing denial of motions to vacate default judgments, we conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion and we affirm the orders denying the motion.

         I

         [¶ 2] Brandon and Shane Dockter are brothers. In 2007, the brothers formed a partnership to facilitate a joint farming operation. In conjunction with the formation of the partnership the brothers also created a trust, the Dockter Brothers Irrevocable Trust, to hold farmland located in Stutsman County. The brothers were co-trustees of the trust.

         [¶ 3] Shane has mental health and chemical dependency problems. By 2012, Shane's mental health and chemical dependency had escalated and caused him to be absent from the farm. In 2015, Shane was detained by law enforcement after he was found walking down a public road carrying a Bible while wearing a church robe and claiming to be Jesus. The incident resulted in Shane's admission to the North Dakota State Hospital for a period of approximately one month. Around the same time, Shane developed an addiction to opioids and methamphetamine. He was readmitted to the State Hospital in late 2016 after threatening his mother. In February 2017, Shane was arrested for various offenses and was readmitted to the State Hospital.

         [¶ 4] On February 24, 2017, Brandon commenced a lawsuit against Shane seeking "dissolution" of the partnership and "dissolution" of the trust. Brandon alleged that "Shane's mental health and chemical dependency problems" made him unable to participate in partnership activities and made it impossible to achieve the purpose of the trust. Shane was served while in custody at the sheriff's office. Shane did not answer the complaint, and he was readmitted to the State Hospital from April 14, 2017 to May 8, 2017.

         [¶ 5] On May 2, 2017, while Shane was at the State Hospital, Brandon moved for default judgment. Shane was served with the motion for default judgment at the State Hospital. Shane did not respond to the motion for default judgment, and the district court granted the default judgment "expell[ing]" Shane from the partnership and removing him as co-trustee of the trust.

         [¶ 6] In his motion for a default judgment Brandon asserted, in his supporting affidavit, that he had made contributions to the partnership without any reciprocal compensation. Brandon's affidavit stated the value of his contributions exceeded the value of Shane's interest in the partnership. Relying on the evidence provided by Brandon's affidavit, the district court did not include any compensation to Shane for his interest in the partnership in the default judgment.

         [¶ 7] On June 23, 2017, Shane received notice of entry of the default judgment. On November 7, 2017, Shane filed a motion to vacate the default judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Shane's motion to vacate the default judgment asserted that the default judgment was void because the relief provided by the default judgment exceeded the relief requested in the complaint by failing to compensate Shane for his interest in the partnership. Shane also asserted that the motion to vacate should be granted on the ground of excusable neglect. Shane submitted an affidavit stating in part:

I have a vague recollection of receiving legal papers from Brandon's attorneys. They were served by the Sheriff. Because of my mental state in February 2017, I recall thinking that Brandon's attorneys thought I was Jesus and that's why they were sending me documents. I also recall thinking the papers were fake.
Until about late-May of this year, this was my predominant thought about the current lawsuit. In June I started to realize that Brandon was suing me. However, I was incarcerated, with no money, and no one that was willing or able to help me.
I felt like there was nothing I could do and until June or July 2017 when Scott Sandness gave me a list of attorneys I could call and my cousin, Amy, started helping me contact attorneys. Amy and I called in excess of 20 attorneys in July and August 2017.
Finally, on September 13, 2017, I was able to find an attorney willing to represent me.

         [¶ 8] Shane also provided a report of a psychologist who evaluated him shortly before the motion to vacate was brought, which ...


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