Dowlin v. Dowlin

Decision Date23 July 2007
Docket NumberNo. 06-245.,06-245.
Citation162 P.3d 1202,2007 WY 114
PartiesLori Ann DOWLIN, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. Charles Douglas DOWLIN, Appellee (Defendant).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellant: Steve C.M. Aron and Galen Bruce Woelk, of Aron and Hennig, LLP, Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Aron.

Representing Appellee: William L. Hiser, of Brown & Hiser, LLC, Laramie, Wyoming.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

BURKE, Justice.

[¶ 1] Appellant Lori Ann Walker, (formerly Lori Ann Dowlin) filed a civil suit against her former husband Charles Douglas Dowlin, requesting damages for "Fraud on the Court (Wyo.Stat.Ann. § 1-16-401(a)(iv))," allegedly committed during divorce proceedings. The district court granted Mr. Dowlin's motion to dismiss for failing to state a claim for relief pursuant to W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6).1 Ms. Walker contends the dismissal was in error. We affirm.

ISSUE

[¶ 2] Did the district court err in concluding that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401 (LexisNexis 2007) and W.R.C.P. 60(b) do not create a tort duty that, if breached, gives rise to an independent cause of action for damages?

FACTS

[¶ 3] Ms. Walker initiated this civil tort action while her divorce from Mr. Dowlin was pending. In her original complaint, she alleged several causes of action against Mr. Dowlin and several other parties. Ms. Walker's claims included Conversion, Fraud and Deceit, Negligent Misrepresentation, Interference with Contract and Prospective Advantage, and Fraudulent Practice in the Sale of Securities. The claims alleged misconduct not only on Mr. Dowlin's part, but also on the part of other individuals and companies involved in the sale of Hyland Enterprises, Inc., part of which Ms. Walker claimed as marital property.

[¶ 4] The divorce trial was held on May 12, 2005. On June 7, 2005, the divorce court issued its decision letter distributing the marital assets and debts of the parties. Thereafter, Ms. Walker amended her complaint in the district court to allege a new cause of action for both compensatory and exemplary damages. The new cause of action was entitled "Fraud on the Court (Wyo. Stat.Ann. § 1-16-401(a)(iv))" against Mr. Dowlin and a codefendant, Mr. Howard.2 This new cause of action is the subject of this appeal. In her new cause of action, Ms. Walker alleged the following:

77. By this reference Plaintiff incorporates herein the allegations of paragraphs 1 through 67 of this Amended Complaint as though set forth in their entirety.

78. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Defendants [Messrs.] Dowlin and Howard were both responsible for the preparation and submission to the divorce court of Hyland's 1991 business valuation and [Mr. Dowlin]'s personal financial statements.

79. Defendants [Messrs. Dowlin] and Howard were obligated to testify truthfully under oath at trial and to verify the truth and accuracy of those documents and exhibits provided to the Court; and they were further obligated to include, and not intentionally omit, all material information the Court would rely upon at trial.

80. [Ms. Walker] is informed and believes that prior to and during the divorce trial, [Messrs. Dowlin] and Howard made misrepresentations of material fact by testimony and through exhibits, and omitted providing material information to the divorce court, which statements and information were knowingly false and intentionally omitted. These misrepresentations and omissions include, among others:

a. The false representation that the value of Hyland [Enterprises, Inc.] on December 31, 1991 was $6,173,509.93.

b. The false representation that [Mr. Dowlin]'s net worth on April 30, 2005 was $2,663,494.44.

c. The omission of material information which would have disproved those representations set forth in subparagraphs a and b above.

81. [Messrs. Dowlin] and Howard expected the Court to rely upon those false representations and omissions of material fact as true and correct representations made under oath, and on the basis thereof to determine the allocation of marital property awarded to [Ms. Walker].

82. As a direct and proximate result of the Court's reliance on the defendants [sic] fraud and intentional omissions, [Messrs. Dowlin] and Howard were successful in obtaining a judgment that substantially reduced [Ms. Walker]'s award of marital assets and interests.

Ms. Walker's prayer for relief apparently applies to all her claims, and is somewhat difficult to follow. It is nevertheless clear from her arguments in the district court and this Court that she sought a jury trial, and compensatory and exemplary damages, on all counts, including the claim of fraud on the court.

[¶ 5] In response to Ms. Walker's allegations, both Mr. Dowlin and Mr. Howard moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6), asserting that Ms. Walker had failed to state any claims for which relief could be granted. The district court dismissed all of Ms. Walker's causes of action except for the claim of fraud alleged against Mr. Dowlin. The district court certified its dismissal of the "Fraud on the Court (Wyo. Stat.Ann. § 1-16-401(a)(iv)) by Dowlin" claim as a final judgment under W.R.C.P. 54(b). Ms. Walker appealed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶ 6] The district court granted the motion to dismiss pursuant to W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6), finding that Ms. Walker had failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Our standard for review of [a 12(b)(6)] dismissal is well known: (1) we accept the facts stated in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the appellant; (2) we sustain the dismissal only if it is certain from the face of the complaint that the appellant cannot assert any facts that would entitle him to relief; (3) we employ the same standards and examine the same materials as did the district court; and (4) such review is de novo.

Becker v. Mason, 2006 WY 143, ¶ 5, 145 P.3d 1268, 1270 (Wyo.2006).

DISCUSSION

[¶ 7] Ms. Walker's challenge to the dismissal of her cause of action is rooted in her contention that W.R.C.P. 60(b) and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401 "establish a tort duty that was breached by [Mr.] Dowlin. [Mr.] Dowlin's breach of those duties permits [Ms.] Walker to assert a cause of action at law [for damages], to be determined by a jury of her peers. [McCulloh] v. Drake 24 P.3d 1162 (Wyo.2001)." We disagree. McCulloh is distinguishable and does not support creation of the new cause of action asserted by Ms. Walker. W.R.C.P. 60(b) and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401 are remedial in nature. They provide a mechanism to obtain relief from a judgment obtained by fraud. They do not create a duty that gives rise to an independent tort cause of action for damages to be determined by a jury.

[¶ 8] Preliminarily, we begin with two comments relating to our standard of review and the cause of action at issue here. Although we are required to assume that all factual allegations contained in the complaint are true, we are not required to give that same deference to legal conclusions. Paragraph 17 of the amended complaint contains legal conclusions to which we do not defer. It states:

17. In preparing and presenting evidence as to the amount of [Mr. Dowlin]'s increase in net worth during the marriage, [Ms. Walker] and her attorneys had no alternative except to rely on the truth of evidence presented under oath by the defendants named herein; [Ms. Walker]'s reliance was necessary as a matter of evidence in the divorce proceedings even where [Ms. Walker] personally did not believe in the truth of the evidence presented.

[¶ 9] The complaint contains no factual underpinnings for the allegations contained in paragraph 17. Nowhere in the complaint does Ms. Walker allege that she was prevented from conducting discovery, or limited in any way in her ability to present evidence or cross-examine witnesses. We are not aware of any legal principle, and Ms. Walker has offered none, that would require Ms. Walker and her attorneys "to rely on the truth" of testimony and other evidence provided by the opposing party. Although not pivotal to our decision, we wish to make clear that in conducting our review we do not assume the legal conclusions set forth in paragraph 17 are true.

[¶ 10] Second, for the purposes of this opinion, we use the term "fraud" to refer to Ms. Walker's "Fraud" claim against Mr. Dowlin. That claim is not predicated upon violation of the duties allegedly created by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401 or W.R.C.P. 60(b), but appears to be analogous to common law fraud. The fraud claim was not dismissed by the district court and remains pending. Because her fraud claim is not before us, we make no comment as to whether it is viable under Wyoming law. We use the term "fraud on the court" to refer to Ms. Walker's claim that a tort duty originates from W.R.C.P. 60(b) and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401. We note that some courts in other contexts may mean something different in their use of the term. E.g., Billington v. Billington, 220 Conn. 212, 595 A.2d 1377, 1383 (1991) ("[T]he concept of fraud on the court in the marital litigation context is properly confined to situations where both parties join to conceal material information from the court.").

[¶ 11] We begin our examination by addressing McCulloh v. Drake, 2001 WY 56, 24 P.3d 1162 (Wyo.2001), which is the primary Wyoming case Ms. Walker cites for support. McCulloh does not support her claim. In McCulloh, the plaintiff presented a tort claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against her husband in the divorce action. ¶ 20, 24 P.3d at 1168-69. We simply held that the tort claim should be heard separately from the divorce. Id., ¶ 23, 24 P.3d at 1169. McCulloh does not suggest that we should recognize the new tort cause of action urged by Ms. Walker.

[¶ 12] As mentioned previously, Ms. Walker's "fraud on the court" claim is predicated upon alleged duties created solely by W.R.C.P. 60(b) and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401. We must...

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