Carlson v. Carlson

Citation836 P.2d 297
Decision Date29 June 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-143,91-143
PartiesCarl O. CARLSON, Jr., Appellant (Plaintiff), v. E. Leva CARLSON and Citizens National Bank and Trust Company, a National Bank, Appellees (Defendants).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Julie Nye Tiedeken, Cheyenne, for appellant.

Raymond B. Hunkins of Jones, Jones, Vines & Hunkins, Wheatland, for appellee.


CARDINE, Justice.

In this long-standing dispute concerning a lease and potential option to buy a family farm we review the district court's refusal to vacate a default judgment entered against appellant and whether the district court erred in granting the appellee a new trial.

We affirm in part and reverse in part.

The appellant asks us to review the following issues:

I. Was it an abuse of discretion to grant a new trial to E. Leva Carlson?

A. Did Appellee, by filing a Motion to Bifurcate the Trial, waive her right to complain that the bifurcation was prejudicial?

B. Was it error to allow testimony from the Bank employees?

C. Was the jury verdict supported by substantial and sufficient evidence?

D. Did the trial court improperly substitute its Judgment for that of the jury?

II. Did the trial court abuse its discretion when it denied Carl Carlson, Jr.'s Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment?

Carl Carlson, Jr. (Carl) worked on his parents' farm, known as the Carlson place, as he was growing up. After he finished high school, he worked in an iron mine while his father and one brother remained on the family farm. His father's health deteriorated and his brother had not taken care of the farm properly, so Carl and his wife moved back and began operating the farm in 1969. In 1970, Carl executed a lease agreement with his mother, E. Leva Carlson (Mrs. Carlson). Mrs. Carlson agreed to accept a percentage of the crops, a percentage of the cow-calf operation, and some pasture rent as compensation for the lease to Carl. In 1970, Mr. and Mrs. Carlson left the farm and moved into a home near Yoder. Carl's father passed away in 1971.

In 1973, Carl decided that in order to run the farm properly he would need to build some hog sheds. When he spoke to his mother about the hog sheds, she indicated that she could not afford them, but he could build them because the farm would

be his someday. Mrs. Carlson decided that, in order to be fair to Carl and protect his investments and improvements on the farm, they should have an agreement in writing. Mrs. Carlson and Carl both visited an attorney and had an agreement prepared which they signed. In the "1973 agreement," Mrs. Carlson granted Carl "an exclusive option to purchase" the farm in the event of her death

In 1985, Mrs. Carlson had a second written lease drawn up which she and Carl signed to set out their agreement in more detail and to clarify the parties' respective rights and duties. This agreement was the third document prepared in reference to the farm. Instead of providing clarity, the agreements created inconsistencies and have become the focus of this protracted and much-litigated dispute.

Citizens Bank carried a loan on Mrs. Carlson's farm. From time to time Mrs. Carlson would ask the bank to rewrite her note and extend her more credit. Citizens would renew the note and advance her additional funds or credit.

Sometime during 1985, Citizens Bank became aware that Mrs. Carlson had granted her son Carl an option allowing him to buy the farm in the event she decided to sell it. In a letter dated January 4, 1985, Citizens advised Mrs. Carlson that she should pursue one of the three alternatives listed in the letter, one of which included selling the farm, before March 11, 1985, the due date of the note. In March of 1985, Mrs. Carlson gave the bank a mortgage on her farm to secure their loan. The bank's records contained a notation that "[Mrs. Carlson] has retained an attorney from Wheatland to begin to break the agreement that she has with her son and then sell the land."

Departing from their usual practice, Citizens Bank applied all of Mrs. Carlson's 1986 payment ($14,000.00) from the sale of her cattle to principal rather than interest. In 1986 Citizens would not renew the note for Mrs. Carlson because the interest was not current. The next entry in the bank's loan records indicates "New to list. [Mrs. Carlson] is attempting to get her son to buy some of her land so this debt is paid in full. We have talked foreclosure as a possibility. This family unit does not get along with one another."

Citizens Bank said it wanted full payment by 1987. Mrs. Carlson lived on a fixed income from social security and was concerned about meeting her obligations. Eventually, Mrs. Carlson's attorney, at her request, sent a letter to Carl which informed him of her intention to sell the farm and terminate the lease.

Faced with losing nearly 20 years of personal and financial investment in the farm, Carl retained counsel and eventually filed suit against Mrs. Carlson and Citizens Bank. In his complaint, appellant alleged that his mother had agreed to lease the farm to him for her life; gave him an option to purchase the farm at her death; and that his mother had breached their agreement by terminating the lease and trying to void the option. Appellant also claimed that Citizens Bank had wrongfully interfered with the contractual relationship between he and his mother and that Citizens had engaged in a conspiracy with his mother. The complaint sought compensatory damages, punitive damages, and a declaratory judgment to establish the respective rights of the parties under the agreements. Both Mrs. Carlson and Citizens Bank denied the allegations in the complaint and asserted various affirmative defenses.

Before the case went to trial, an appeal was taken to this court after the district court denied a motion to disqualify the attorney representing Citizens Bank who had also represented Carl and his mother in the past. The attorney withdrew after this court reversed the ruling of the district court and entered an order disqualifying that attorney. Carlson v. Langdon (Carlson I), 751 P.2d 344, 351 (Wyo.1988).

This case next appeared before this court in 1989 after the district court entered summary judgment in favor of Mrs. Carlson and Citizens Bank. Carlson v. Carlson (Carlson II), 775 P.2d 478, 479 (Wyo.1989). After deciding that ambiguity was present in the agreements which made their construction as a matter of law inappropriate,

we reversed the summary judgment entered by the district court. Carlson II, 775 P.2d at 484

The resident district judge became ill, and Judge Raper was assigned to try the case. When presented with the issue of whether the trial should be bifurcated, Judge Raper determined that "the entire case should be tried in one piece." However, the resident district judge recovered from his illness, was re-assigned to the case, and decided that the issues in the trial should be bifurcated because "perhaps a good deal of judicial economy would be obtained by first determining whether or not there was a contract between the Carlsons." On remand, the trial was bifurcated. The first part of the trial was to decide whether the agreements afforded Carl contractual rights. The second part was to address whether Citizens Bank and Mrs. Carlson had interfered or deprived Carl of the rights causing damages. The first portion of the trial ended with a special verdict in favor of Carl and a finding that Mrs. Carlson did not have a right to terminate the 1985 lease and thereby terminate the option in the 1973 agreement.

After the verdict, Citizens Bank filed a motion to empanel a new jury prior to trial of the second phase, contending that the first jury was biased against Citizens because it had heard evidence against Citizens during the first phase without the benefit of Citizens' response. Appellant filed a motion in opposition to empaneling a new jury stating that Citizens had agreed to the bifurcation and consented to not actively participating in the first trial phase. The second phase of the trial (damages) was delayed because of district court scheduling conflicts.

Partial judgment upon special verdict was entered by the district court. Mrs. Carlson filed a motion for a new trial which the district court did not rule upon at that time. Subsequently, the district judge discharged the jury. Appellant filed a motion asking the district court to refrain from discharging the jury. Next appellant filed a petition with this court seeking a Writ of Mandamus and a Writ of Prohibition preventing the district judge from releasing the jury and ordering him to proceed with the second phase of the trial.

We issued a Writ of Prohibition ordering the district judge to refrain from discharging the jury until both phases of the bifurcated trial had been completed and a Writ of Mandamus ordering the district judge to complete the second phase of the trial. Nevertheless, the jury was not recalled; a different jury was empaneled. The second phase of the trial was held, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Citizens and Mrs. Carlson. It found that Citizens did not wrongfully interfere with Carl's contractual rights, that Citizens and Mrs. Carlson did not conspire to deprive Carl of his property or contractual rights, and that Carl should recover no damages. Mrs. Carlson renewed her motion for a new trial on the first phase on the same day judgment was entered on the second phase. Her motion for new trial was granted.

On March 13, 1991, the new trial of the first phase was set for May 14, 1991. At this point in time, it seems clear that the lengthy proceedings, which include removal of attorney, three appeals to the supreme court, and two separate jury trials, have, except for Citizens, consumed the parties' financial resources and sapped appellant's strength to proceed with resolution of this dispute. It is a sad commentary on the civil justice system. And...

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