Stender v. Blessum, 15-2016

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation897 N.W.2d 491
Docket NumberNo. 15-2016,15-2016
Parties Melissa STENDER, Appellant, v. Anthony Zane BLESSUM, Appellee, Minnesota Lawyers Mut. Ins. Co., Intervenor-Appellee.
Decision Date16 June 2017

Roxanne Barton Conlin of Roxanne Conlin & Associates, P.C., Des Moines, and

Laurie Anne Stewart of Stewart Law & Mediation, P.L.L.C., Panora, for appellant.

David L. Brown and Alexander E. Wonio of Hansen, McClintock & Riley, Des Moines, for appellee.

Richard J. Thomas of Burke & Thomas, PLLP, Arden Hills, Minnesota, for intervenor-appellee.

ZAGER, Justice.

A plaintiff brought claims against her former attorney for legal malpractice, assault and battery, and punitive damages. At the close of the plaintiff's case, the district court granted the defendant's motion for directed verdict on two legal malpractice claims: one regarding the preparation of a will and the other for breach of fiduciary duty. The district court submitted to the jury two claims of alleged legal malpractice: representation of the plaintiff in her divorce and representation of the plaintiff in pursuing a claim for assault against her former spouse. The jury returned verdicts for the defendant on the two submitted legal malpractice claims and returned verdicts for the plaintiff on the assault and battery claim and on the punitive damages claim. The jury awarded the plaintiff combined damages of $498,562.44. The plaintiff appeals the district court's order granting the motion for directed verdict on the two additional claims of legal malpractice. The plaintiff also appeals various evidentiary rulings made by the district court. The defendant cross-appeals on the issue of damages. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the district court. While we find that the defendant's cross-appeal was untimely, we reject on the merits the defendant's challenge to the amount of the jury award.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

In September 2008, Melissa Stender met with attorney Anthony Zane Blessum for legal assistance in a divorce proceeding against her then-husband, Phillip Stender.1 Blessum had previously represented Phillip in a separate legal matter. In October, Blessum filed a petition for dissolution of marriage on Stender's behalf. As noted in the petition, the parties were married in 1993. Blessum did not conduct any written discovery, take depositions, or obtain financial affidavits in the case.

In February 2009, Blessum drafted a proposed divorce decree and sent it to both Stender and Phillip. On March 4, Blessum sent a second proposed divorce decree that included changes that Blessum had not discussed with Stender. Stender was unaware that Blessum had made changes in the second proposed divorce decree and believed the changes unfairly favored Phillip. When Phillip received the second proposed decree, he went to the couple's home and physically and sexually assaulted Stender.

On March 25, Stender signed the second proposed decree upon the advice of Blessum. Stender testified at trial that she was a homemaker for most of her marriage to Phillip. She testified she was unaware of the amount in Phillip's retirement accounts, the state of the household finances, or the amount of alimony to which she might be entitled. She signed the decree based on Blessum's advice that the contents of the decree represented everything she was entitled to receive in the divorce. The final divorce decree awarded Stender $110,000 from Phillip's retirement account, half of the home furnishings, and $400 per week in spousal support for a period of four and one-half years. The decree awarded Phillip all of the other accounts and the majority of the other assets of the marriage including the family home, a number of vehicles and motorcycles, and farm equipment. Blessum filed the decree on March 30. However, Blessum failed to prepare or file a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to document Stender's interest in Phillip's retirement account. Stender was unaware that Blessum had not prepared or filed the QDRO.

Approximately two years later, in mid-March 2011, Blessum called Stender. Blessum informed Stender that Phillip had called to ask if he would receive the entire balance of his retirement account if "something happened" to Stender. Stender was afraid of Phillip after the assault and asked Blessum if he believed Phillip's call was threatening. Blessum told her that was exactly how he took the call. Stender became concerned about how her assets would be divided among her three children if she were to pass away and asked Blessum if she needed a will. Blessum responded in the affirmative.

Stender met with Blessum on March 22 to discuss drafting a will. Stender told Blessum that she wanted all of her estate assets divided equally between her three children. Based on Blessum's advice, Stender believed that Phillip would get all of her assets after her death if she did not draft a will. This was inaccurate because, even if Stender had died intestate, Stender's probate assets would have been equally divided between her three children.2 However, the issue of Stender's interest in Phillip's retirement account had still not been addressed by entry of a QDRO.

After the meeting, Blessum called Stender and asked if she wanted to meet and catch up. She agreed, and they met at a local restaurant. During this meeting, Blessum told Stender he was unhappy in his marriage. At the end of the evening, Blessum kissed Stender. After Stender got in her car but before she left the parking lot, Blessum sent her a text message asking if they could meet again. Over the next two weeks, Blessum and Stender continued to meet and talk about intimate topics such as Stender's childhood trauma and her marital and sexual abuse. Within two or three weeks, they began a sexual relationship.

While this sexual relationship continued, Blessum performed several other legal services for Stender. On June 28, Stender executed the will that Blessum had prepared. On August 9, Blessum sent a demand letter to Phillip. In the letter, Blessum demanded that Phillip agree to three changes in the divorce decree in exchange for Stender's refraining from filing a civil suit against him for the physical and sexual assault Phillip committed against her in 2009. Blessum was aware the assaults occurred in 2009, and either knew or should have known the statute of limitations had run by the time he sent the letter to Phillip.3 On August 23, Blessum filed the QDRO formalizing Melissa's interest in Phillip's retirement account. In January 2012, while the relationship was still ongoing, Blessum assisted Stender with another legal matter.

On June 10, Stender went to Blessum's house to confront him about rumors he was seeing other women. When she arrived, she went into the kitchen where she noticed a bottle of wine with two glasses set on the counter and a frying pan with food on the stove. She picked up the pan from the stove and confronted Blessum by asking if he was cooking for another woman. While Stender was holding the pan, Blessum was standing in front of her. At some point, the pan spilled onto Stender's shoulder and hot grease caused burns on her back. Because the grease went through her clothing, Blessum began taking off Stender's shirt.

Stender became anxious from the confrontation and the grease burn. Blessum went outside to retrieve Stender's purse from her vehicle that contained her anxiety medication. When Blessum came back inside with Stender's purse, she told him she was done with the relationship and bent down to get the pills out of her purse. While Stender was bent over, but before she could take the pills, Blessum began hitting her arm, forearm, head, and neck. After Blessum hit her, Stender grabbed some of the pills that had spilled on the floor and swallowed them. Stender tried to run out of the house, but Blessum caught her and dragged her back inside. Blessum threw her into the corner and started calling her a "subservient slave." He pulled her through the living room onto the couch and threatened to sexually assault her. Blessum told Stender if she thought the "other men have hurt [her], ... just wait and see what [he] do[es] to [her]." He told her he was going to make her vomit her pills so she would remember the entire assault.

Blessum went to the kitchen to get a glass of water to force Stender to vomit. After he left the room, Stender grabbed Blessum's home phone and called 911. She was unaware whether the call went through but left it under a pile of papers when she heard Blessum returning to the living room. The call connected and the remainder of the assault was recorded. Police were dispatched to Blessum's house. Before the police responded, Blessum pinned Stender to the couch and strangled her. He then poured water down her throat and put his fingers in her mouth in an attempt to make her vomit. Stender kept screaming in hopes that the call had connected to the 911 operator. Blessum again pinned Stender with his knees and bound her arms over her head. He began to forcefully remove her jeans. Blessum had removed her jeans past her hips when the police knocked on the door. Stender began screaming for help. The police arrested Blessum at the scene. The police also called an ambulance, and Stender was transported to the hospital for medical treatment.

Later in June, Blessum began sending letters to Stender. In the letters, he acknowledged that he had dated other women at the same time as Stender and that he gave her a sexually transmitted disease

. The letters also acknowledged the assault and included an apology for all of his misdeeds. Stender also received anonymous items in the mail during this time. On September 19, Stender filed a petition for relief from domestic abuse against Blessum. The district court granted a temporary restraining order that same date. On October 29, the district court entered a protective order by consent agreement between the parties.

Stender obtained new counsel in October and her new counsel...

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