Gardiner v. Taufer

Decision Date09 December 2014
Docket NumberNo. 20120554.,20120554.
Citation342 P.3d 269,2014 UT 56
CourtUtah Supreme Court
PartiesJanetta J. GARDINER, Petitioner and Appellant, v. Nedra V. TAUFER; Janice V. Dobbins; Connie V. Morgan; and John M. Vanderwerff, Respondents and Appellees.

Robert J. Fuller, Eden, for appellant.

Samuel A. Hood, Ogden, for appellees.

Associate Chief Justice NEHRING authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice DURRANT, Justice DURHAM, Justice PARRISH, and Justice LEE joined.

Associate Chief Justice NEHRING, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 This case involves a challenge by relatives of Mr. Kenneth Vanderwerff to an action for a posthumous declaration of unsolemnized marriage brought by Mr. Vanderwerff's romantic partner and personal representative of his estate—Ms. Janetta Gardiner. We are asked to determine when and how service of process is to be made in the unusual circumstance where a petitioner seeks a declaration of marriage between herself and someone who has died. This case was certified to us by the court of appeals and comes to us with a complicated procedural history. Ms. Gardiner appeals from the court's sua sponte order dismissing the case approximately two years after the petition was granted for untimely service under rule 4(b)(i) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. On appeal, Ms. Gardiner challenges the grant of intervention to Mr. Vanderwerff's four cousins, the setting aside of the declaration of marriage under rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, and the court's subsequent dismissal of the marriage case. We reverse on all three issues and reinstate the declaration of marriage.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 Appellant Ms. Gardiner and the late Mr. Vanderwerff were in a romantic relationship from approximately November 2007 until Mr. Vanderwerff's death at age 78 on April 22, 2010. Ms. Gardiner and Mr. Vanderwerff's relationship was not solemnized as a marriage in any state during Mr. Vanderwerff's lifetime. Mr. Vanderwerff had no children. About a month after Mr. Vanderwerff's death, on May 18, 2010, Ms. Gardiner filed a petition for a “judicial declaration of common law marriage” under Utah Code section 30–1–4.5 (marriage case). The following day, William Francis, Mr. Vanderwerff's step-grandson (a descendant of Mr. Vanderwerff's first wife), filed a probate action concerning Mr. Vanderwerff's estate (probate case). That same day, Mr. Francis was appointed special administrator of the estate. After Ms. Gardiner was served with notice of the probate action on May 20, 2010, she sought to have Mr. Francis removed from his position as special administrator and to have herself appointed as the estate's personal representative.

¶ 3 On June 8, 2010, Mr. Francis sought to intervene in the marriage case, both in his individual capacity and as special administrator of Mr. Vanderwerff's estate. He objected to Ms. Gardiner's petition for a judicial declaration of unsolemnized marriage and styled his motion in the form of an answer. Ms. Gardiner timely opposed Mr. Francis's motion. However, Mr. Francis did not file a reply or request to submit the motion for decision. As a result, the court did not rule on Mr. Francis's motion.

¶ 4 Subsequently, in the probate case, on August 2, 2010, the court held a hearing on Ms. Gardiner's motion to remove Mr. Francis as the special administrator. Ms. Gardiner produced a copy of Mr. Vanderwerff's will. Based on the terms of the will, Mr. Francis and Ms. Gardiner stipulated to Mr. Francis's removal and Ms. Gardiner's appointment as personal representative of the estate.

¶ 5 That September, the court held a hearing in the marriage case. The hearing was held without formal notice to Mr. Francis or any members of Mr. Vanderwerff's family. The only individuals present were Ms. Gardiner, her counsel, and Ms. Gardiner's two witnesses. The court granted the marriage declaration the same day.

¶ 6 Two months later, on November 9, 2010, Mr. Francis moved to set aside the declaration of marriage under Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) on the basis of surprise, fraud, and “any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.” Mr. Francis's primary argument under rule 60(b) was that he had not been served with notice of the original petition or of the hearing.

¶ 7 Instead, on March 10, 2011, the court concluded that Mr. Francis had no standing to move to set aside the marriage determination. In so deciding, the court noted that Mr. Francis is a “step grandson not having been adopted by decedent [Mr. Vanderwerff] nor is he a child or adopted child of a natural child [of] the decedent.” “As such,” the court continued, Mr. Francis “lacks standing to contest the determination by the court as to whether the relationship between Kenneth J. Vanderwer[ff] and Janetta J. Gardiner constituted a marriage at common law.”

¶ 8 Then in August 2011, four of Mr. Vanderwerff's cousins, Nedra Taufer, Janice Dobbins, Connie Morgan, and John Vanderwerff (Cousins), moved to set aside the judgment under rule 60(b) on grounds of surprise, fraud, and for “any other reason justifying relief.” In an affidavit accompanying the motion, one of the Cousins, Ms. Taufer, declared that she “was aware of [Mr. Francis's] petition to be appointed special administrator, as well as his agreement that Janetta Gardiner would be appointed as personal representative of the estate.” She went on to say that she “was also aware of Ms. Gardiner's petition to be made a common law spouse.” Ms. Gardiner filed a motion to strike and argued that the Cousins, as nonparties, could not make a motion in the case.1 She argued that because the Cousins were not parties to the marriage action, they therefore could not file any substantive motions other than a motion to intervene. In response, on October 11, 2011, the Cousins filed a motion to intervene—over a year after the marriage petition was granted. Both the motion to strike and the motion to intervene were fully briefed and submitted to the court for decision, but the Cousins' rule 60(b) motion to set aside the judgment was not.

¶ 9 On February 27, 2012, the court heard oral argument on the motions. At the hearing, the court orally granted a “limited” motion to intervene and provisionally set aside the declaration of marriage to take further evidence on the issue of whether Ms. Gardiner and Mr. Vanderwerff's relationship satisfied the statutory elements for a determination of marriage. The Cousins submitted a proposed order setting aside the determination of marriage and granting the motion to intervene. Ms. Gardiner objected to the proposed order, in part because she was never given an opportunity to brief the merits of her opposition to the Cousins' rule 60(b) motion to set aside the declaration of marriage.

¶ 10 At a hearing on March 12, 2012, the court acknowledged Ms. Gardiner's objection to the motion to set aside the declaration of marriage and set a hearing date. Nevertheless, three days later the court signed the Cousins' proposed order, setting aside the declaration of marriage and granting intervention to the Cousins.

¶ 11 Then, about a month later, on April 18, 2012, the court, on its own initiative, ordered the marriage case dismissed in its entirety and without prejudice under rule 4(b)(i) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure on the basis of Ms. Gardiner's alleged failure to serve process within 120 days of the filing of the marriage petition.

¶ 12 On May 21, 2012, Ms. Gardiner filed a motion to extend her time to appeal under rule 4(e) of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. The court granted the motion and Ms. Gardiner timely appealed. We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A–3–102(3)(b).

ISSUES AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 13 The Cousins challenge our jurisdiction on appeal. They argue that we lack jurisdiction because the district court abused its discretion when it granted Ms. Gardiner a time extension under Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(e). “Whether this court has jurisdiction over an appeal is a question of law that can be raised for the first time on appeal.”2 Because we conclude that we have jurisdiction, we address the three issues that Ms. Gardiner brings before us on appeal. First, she challenges the court's sua sponte dismissal of her marriage action for failure of service under rule 4 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. [T]he interpretation of a rule of procedure is a question of law that we review for correctness.”3 Second, Ms. Gardiner argues that the district court improperly set aside the judgment of marriage. The district court has broad discretion to decide whether to set aside a judgment, and thus we “will not reverse ... absent an abuse of discretion.”4 Third and finally, Ms. Gardiner challenges the district court's decision to allow the intervention of the Cousins. “As a general matter, the factual findings underpinning an intervention ruling are subject to a clearly erroneous standard” while the district court's legal conclusions are reviewed for “correctness.”5

ANALYSIS

¶ 14 As a threshold matter, we address the Cousins' contention that we lack jurisdiction on appeal. The Cousins argue that the district court abused its discretion when it granted Ms. Gardiner a time extension to file her notice of appeal. They contend that “confusion, advanced age, and a desire for more time ... do not constitute good cause,” and thus the district court abused its discretion when it granted Ms. Gardiner extra time to file her appeal under rule 4(e). A party may move to dismiss an appeal at any time “on the basis that the appellate court lacks jurisdiction.”6

¶ 15 The district court's discretion to grant a party additional time to file an appeal is “very broad and fundamentally equitable in nature.”7 Here, the district court did not abuse its discretion when it determined that Ms. Gardiner's advanced age and the complex issues involved8 constituted “good cause” to allow her additional time to decide whether to appeal.9 Accordingly, Ms. Gardiner's appeal was...

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1 books & journal articles
  • Utah Law Developments
    • United States
    • Utah State Bar Utah Bar Journal No. 28-2, April 2015
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    ...to address its concerns over the procedural fairness and efficiency of new charges arising in screening panel hearings. Gardiner v. Taufer, 2014 UT 56 (Dec. 9, 2014) A woman petitioned for and obtained a declaration of unsolemnized marriage between herself and her deceased partner. The dist......

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