Niemitalo v. Seidel, #29653

CourtSupreme Court of South Dakota
Writing for the CourtDEVANEY, Justice
Parties Julie NIEMITALO, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Richard SEIDEL, Defendant and Appellee.
Docket Number#29653
Decision Date02 March 2022

972 N.W.2d 115

Julie NIEMITALO, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
Richard SEIDEL, Defendant and Appellee.

#29653

Supreme Court of South Dakota.

ARGUED JANUARY 12, 2022
OPINION FILED March 2, 2022


MICHAEL C. LOOS, MICHAEL K. SABERS of Clayborne, Loos & Sabers, LLP, Rapid City, South Dakota, Attorneys for plaintiff and appellant.

STACY R. HEGGE of Gunderson, Palmer, Nelson & Ashmore, LLP, Pierre, South Dakota, TIMOTHY J. BARNAUD, Belle Fourche, South Dakota, Attorneys for defendant and appellee.

DEVANEY, Justice

972 N.W.2d 117

[¶1.] This appeal concerns whether Julie Niemitalo and Richard Seidel's divorce agreement released Julie's right to bring a civil suit against Richard for conduct that occurred while the parties were separated and in the process of obtaining a divorce. The circuit court, on a motion for summary judgment by Richard, determined that the divorce agreement is unambiguous and interpreted it to be a broad release and full and final settlement of all claims. The court therefore granted Richard summary judgment, concluding that Julie released her right to bring this civil suit against Richard. Julie appeals, and we reverse and remand.

Factual and Procedural Background

¶2.] Julie and Richard had been married for 23 years when, in September 2017, she filed for divorce based on Richard's adultery. In late 2018, Julie and Richard reached a settlement agreement and executed a "Property Distribution and Divorce Agreement" (Agreement). The Agreement was incorporated into a judgment and decree of divorce filed on December 4, 2018.

[¶3.] Julie filed the civil lawsuit at issue here in September 2019, alleging tort claims based on conduct that occurred while the divorce action was pending. She asserts that on November 2, 2017, Richard physically attacked her at Bison Grain, a company owned and operated by Julie and Richard, then bound her with zip ties, and drove her to their marital home where he raped her. Richard was indicted on alternative counts of kidnapping, and one count each of rape, aggravated assault, and commission of a felony with a firearm based on these alleged events. After a jury found him guilty of all four offenses in July 2019, he was later sentenced to a total of 75 years in the penitentiary. Richard appealed, and in December 2020, this Court affirmed his convictions and sentence. See State v. Seidel , 2020 S.D. 73, 953 N.W.2d 301.

[¶4.] In Julie's pending civil suit, she alleges claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and civil battery. In her prayer for relief, she seeks compensatory and punitive damages, past and future medical expenses, prejudgment interest, and reasonable attorney fees and costs. Richard has asserted as an affirmative defense that Julie's "claims are barred by release pursuant to the divorce judgment and settlement."

[¶5.] In February 2021, Richard filed a motion for summary judgment in the civil suit, asserting that pursuant to the terms of the Agreement, Julie released all claims and causes of action against him that arose prior to the date she signed the Agreement. According to Richard, the Agreement constitutes a broad release because the parties "agree[d] to a full, complete and final property settlement of all the property of the parties" and that "Julie shall have no claim against any property of [Richard] either now hold [sic] or afterwards acquired." Richard also directed the circuit court to the absence of language in the Agreement indicating that Julie reserved her right to bring a civil suit against him.

[¶6.] In response, Julie asserted that she was not required to specifically reserve her right to bring suit. She further claimed that no language in the Agreement supports that she in any way waived or released her right to bring a civil tort action against Richard because, in her view, the

[972 N.W.2d 118

Agreement unambiguously pertains only to the property of the parties and "nothing more." She alternatively alleged that if the Agreement were to be deemed ambiguous, her current counsel's trial testimony solicited by Richard at his criminal trial reflects that Richard and Julie did not intend for the Agreement to include a release by Julie of her right to bring this civil suit against Richard.

¶7.] After a hearing and in consideration of briefing, the circuit court granted Richard summary judgment. The court determined that "the settlement agreement and subsequent divorce decree that dissolved the marriage between the parties is unambiguous in its statement that ‘Julie shall have no claim against any property of the Defendant either now held or afterwards acquired ... and that this Agreement shall be in full and final settlement of all the property rights of the parties.’ " (Emphasis added by the circuit court.)

[¶8.] Julie filed a motion for reconsideration. She directed the circuit court to testimony from the criminal trial in which Richard's counsel argued during closing argument that Julie retained her right to bring a civil suit against Richard and his further suggestion that she had a motive to lie in the criminal proceeding because she hoped a guilty verdict would support her later civil claims. Julie asserted that this argument by counsel was a judicial admission on behalf of Richard that she had retained her right to bring suit, and further asserted that judicial estoppel would preclude Richard from now taking a contrary position.

[¶9.] Julie additionally requested that the circuit court reconsider its ruling because, in her view, the court's interpretation of the Agreement created "a contract for the parties with implications that no party to the contract ever understood or expected." She emphasized that the Agreement lacked any language releasing all claims, demands, rights, obligations, etc. She also asserted that based on the plain language of the Agreement, the parties only released and settled their claims against each other's property , not claims against a person. Alternatively, Julie alleged that the Agreement could not release Richard of responsibility for his intentional conduct because SDCL 53-9-3 prohibits contracts that exempt anyone from responsibility for willful injury.

[¶10.] The circuit court held a hearing on Julie's motion and issued a letter decision reaffirming, but expanding on, the basis for its prior ruling. The circuit court noted that it had previously granted Richard summary judgment after finding the Agreement to be unambiguous. It then explained that "the [Agreement] is replete with language that this was a release[,]" including "but not limited to the provisions that [Julie] agrees to pay all of her medical bills for her treatment without reservation." The court also pointed to language in other provisions in the Agreement as evidence of a release of Julie's claims:

Further, [Julie] received a lump sum nonmodifiable alimony amount of $750,000 "intended as a final adjustment of mutual rights and obligation[s] and is an absolute judgment." Next, there is language under the heading "ENTIRE AGREEMENT" that this "constitutes the sole, exclusive, and entire agreement between the parties ...." Under the heading MODIFICATION AND PERFORMANCE of the Agreement the language provides "each party acknowledges that this Agreement has been entered into of his or her own volition, with full knowledge of the facts and full information as to the legal rights and liabilities of each. Each party believes the Agreement to be reasonable under the circumstances."

[972 N.W.2d 119

Finally, the court noted that the Agreement did not contain a "reservation of any further claims." The court denied Julie's motion for reconsideration.

¶11.] Julie appeals, asserting that the circuit court erred in granting Richard summary judgment.

Standard of Review

[¶12.] "We review a summary judgment de novo." Henning v. Avera McKennan Hosp. , 2020 S.D. 34, ¶ 14, 945 N.W.2d 526, 530 (citation omitted). Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." SDCL 15-6-56(c). This Court similarly reviews the circuit court's interpretation of a divorce settlement agreement de novo. See Hisgen v. Hisgen , 1996 S.D. 122, ¶ 4, 554 N.W.2d 494, 496.

Analysis and Decision

Contract Interpretation

[¶13.] Julie contends the circuit court erred in interpreting the Agreement to be a release of her right to bring a civil suit against Richard for his conduct toward her on November 2, 2017. The plain language of the Agreement, she argues, establishes that the parties did not intend it to be a broad release and settlement of all claims against each other, but rather, intended it to be a final and full settlement of their property rights. In her view, the circuit court rewrote the parties’ Agreement to include a release of tort claims , when the Agreement unambiguously provides that Julie only released and settled claims against Richard's property.

[¶14.]...

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