Siegfried v. Torgerson, 2020AP841

CourtCourt of Appeals of Wisconsin
Writing for the CourtGILL, J.
PartiesBruce Raymond Siegfried, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Matt Torgerson and The Torgerson Company LLC, Defendants-Respondents.
Decision Date07 June 2022
Docket Number2020AP841

Bruce Raymond Siegfried, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.

Matt Torgerson and The Torgerson Company LLC, Defendants-Respondents.

No. 2020AP841

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District III

June 7, 2022


This opinion will not be published. See Wis. Stat. Rule 809.23(1)(b)4.

APPEAL from an order of the circuit court for Barron County No. 2019SC1045: J. MICHAEL BITNEY, Judge. Affirmed.

GILL, J. [1]

¶1 Bruce Siegfried, pro se, appeals from an order dismissing his claims against Matt Torgerson ("Matt") and The Torgerson Company LLC

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("Torgerson").[2] Siegfried contends the circuit court was biased in favor of the Defendants based upon the court's alleged familiarity with them. Siegfried also argues the court erred when it ruled that he did not meet his burden of proof and dismissed his claims for fraud and misrepresentation.[3] We reject Siegfried's arguments and affirm.

BACKGROUND

¶2 Siegfried purchased from Torgerson a 2009 white Dodge Durango (hereinafter "the Durango") for $11, 000 in Almena, Wisconsin, on November 14, 2016. The Durango was listed on Torgerson's website as having a "clean" title and a "CLEAN RUST FREE FLORIDA BODY …."

¶3 Siegfried inspected and test drove the Durango prior to purchasing it. After the test drive, he pointed out to a Torgerson salesperson that the Durango had "some type of a wobble in the wheel" and that there was rust on the engine compartment's bolts. Siegfried questioned if it was a "Florida vehicle, "[4] and a Torgerson employee responded, "[I]f you get too close to the ocean, you can get rust." At that point, Siegfried asked for a CARFAX report on the Durango, but he

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was told the dealership did not use CARFAX. Siegfried did, however, note that the sticker in the Durango's window stated that it had a clean Florida title.

¶4 Thereafter, Siegfried purchased the Durango. The purchase agreement contained the following provision in paragraph six:

This transaction is voidable at the option of the dealer or you if the certificate of title … contains information, which materially affects the value of such vehicle and which is not disclosed on the face of this contract, and provided that written notice exercising such option is mailed or personally delivered to the other party within two business days of the date the appropriate certificate of title has first been made available to dealer or you for inspection

¶5 By the time he returned home to Minnesota, Siegfried noticed more wheel wobbling as well as rust on the rear tailgate. After taking the Durango into an auto repair shop, he learned that the right wheel was so badly bent that it could not be balanced.

¶6 In December of that year, Siegfried independently obtained a CARFAX report for the Durango. The report suggested that the Durango was hardly, if it all, driven in Florida and that of its more than 70, 000 miles, most had been driven while the Durango was titled in New York and Ohio. In January 2017, he further learned that the Durango had been declared totaled by an insurance company in 2012 and had a Minnesota salvage title.[5] Within two business days, Siegfried sent a letter to the Defendants, asking "for a significant

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portion of [his] purchase price to be refunded along with the overpaid sales taxes …."

¶7 In November 2019, Siegfried commenced this action against the Defendants raising claims based on his purchase of the Durango and demanding judgment for $6, 215. The Defendants answered, stating that they had "purchased the vehicle as being a clear title and received just that. [The Defendants] used reasonable care on reporting the vehicle[']s history."

¶8 The matter was set for a trial date in February 2020, but Matt called Siegfried five days before the start of the trial stating that he would be asking for an adjournment. In response, Siegfried told Matt to call him back after he spoke to the circuit court regarding the trial adjournment. According to Siegfried, Matt replied that a return call would not be necessary because he was certain the judge would agree with the request, stating further, “I know the judge[.]” Siegfried contends that when he replied, “What?” Matt again said, “I know the judge[.]” According to Siegfried, Matt later clarified and said, “Well, I know of the judge.” Siegfried eventually agreed to the adjournment, and the trial was set for a date in March 2020.

¶9 The Honorable J. Michael Bitney presided over the March 12, 2020 bench trial, where both Siegfried and Matt testified. During Siegfried's testimony, Judge Bitney asked why he did not back out of buying the Durango once he observed the rusted engine bolts and the wobbling back wheel. In response, Siegfried testified that he went through with the purchase because the Defendants-both in person and on its website-stated it was a Florida vehicle, and because the title was listed as "clean," meaning not salvaged.

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¶10 Following Siegfried's testimony, the circuit court questioned Matt, who testified that he had no knowledge of the Durango's salvage title, and that the Defendants had previously purchased "a lot" of vehicles from Florida and from this particular Florida dealership "a fair amount." Further, Matt testified that he "didn't lie to [Siegfried], [he] didn't try to hoodwink him, sell him a bag of goods. [He] sold him what [he] thought [he] had."

¶11 After Matt's testimony, and in response to Judge Bitney's question as to whether Siegfried had anything he would like to add, Siegfried testified that Matt had told him prior to trial that he knew the judge. In response, Judge Bitney said: "I don't know [Matt]. I don't socialize with him, I'm not related to him. If I had any personal connection to [Matt], I would have recused myself and had a different judge assigned to this case."

¶12 At the conclusion of the testimony, the circuit court dismissed Siegfried's claims for fraud and intentional misrepresentation because he failed to meet his burden of proof. Specifically, the court concluded that the Durango was purchased by Matt while it was in Florida. The court reasoned that, "It's only misrepresentation if you prove to my satisfaction that [Matt] knew that [the car was not from Florida] at the time that he sold you the car." According to the court, Siegfried failed to meet his burden on the Durango's origins:

So when he says this is a Florida car, at least to a certain extent, it's true. It spent a few days, at least, in Florida, because that's where he went to the auction and bought it from. It wasn't like he bought it in New York and said I got this car in Clearwater[, Florida, ] when he didn't. He bought it in Clearwater.

Additionally, Siegfried failed to meet his burden to show that the Defendants intentionally misrepresented the Durango's title status, concluding:

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[Matt] has testified in response to [Siegfried's] claims [that] he did not know that this car at one point in time had a salvage title. He did not know that the car had been in an accident; that he had simply purchased the car at an auction in Florida as he has done a number of times, brought it back to Wisconsin on a flatbed and then sold it.

¶13 In all, the circuit court ruled that Siegfried had failed to show by the greater weight of the credible evidence that the Defendants had committed any intentional misrepresentation or engaged in fraud when selling the Durango to Siegfried. Siegfried now appeals, arguing that: (1) Judge Bitney was biased against him at trial; and (2) the court erred by not concluding that the evidence at trial met the elements of misrepresentation and fraud.

DISCUSSION

I. Judicial bias

¶14 The right to an impartial judge is a basic requirement of due process. In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136 (1955). We presume that a judge has acted fairly, impartially, and without bias. State v. Herrmann, 2015 WI 84, ¶24, 364 Wis.2d 336, 867 N.W.2d 772. To overcome that presumption, the burden is on the party asserting judicial bias to show by a preponderance of the evidence that there was bias. Id. Whether the circuit court was objectively biased presents a question of law that this court reviews de novo. Id., ¶23.

¶15 Wisconsin courts apply two tests to determine if the presumption is overcome: one subjective and one objective. Id., ¶26. The subjective test asks judges to disqualify himself or herself if he or she subjectively determines that they are unable to remain impartial. State v. Walberg, 109 Wis.2d 96, 105-06, 325 N.W.2d 687 (1982). At trial, Judge Bitney affirmatively stated that he did not

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know Matt, and Siegfried presented no evidence to the contrary. Therefore, we proceed only under the objective analysis.

¶16 The United States Supreme Court has established that a "serious risk of actual bias" can create a due process violation. Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868, 884 (2009). A serious risk of actual bias analysis focuses "on objective and reasonable perceptions."[6] Miller v. Carroll, 2020 WI 56, ¶24, 392 Wis.2d 49, 944 N.W.2d 542 (quoting Caperton, 556 U.S. at 884). To determine if such a violation occurred, we must "assess whether 'under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,' the interest 'poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.'" Id., ¶22 (quoting Caperton, 556 U.S. at 883-84). In other words, "'[d]ue process requires an objective inquiry' into whether the circumstances 'would offer a possible temptation to the average … judge to … lead him [or her] not to hold the balance nice, clear and true.'" Id., ¶24 (quoting Caperton, 556 U.S. at 885). Situations where there is a serious risk of actual bias are "rare" and require "extreme facts." Id., ¶¶22, 24 (quoting Caperton, 556 U.S. at 887, 890).

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¶17 Siegfried makes a variety of claims against Judge Bitney, which he...

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