Stinson v. Holder, No. S-8286.

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtEASTAUGH, Justice.
Citation996 P.2d 1238
Docket NumberNo. S-8286.
Decision Date17 March 2000
PartiesLarry W. STINSON, Appellant, v. Russell and Judy HOLDER, Appellees.

996 P.2d 1238

Larry W. STINSON, Appellant,
v.
Russell and Judy HOLDER, Appellees

No. S-8286.

Supreme Court of Alaska.

March 17, 2000.

Rehearing Denied April 28, 2000.


996 P.2d 1239
Fleur L. Roberts, Law Offices of Fleur L. Roberts, for Appellant

Gary Foster, Law Office of Gary Foster, Fairbanks, for Appellees.

Before MATTHEWS, Chief Justice, EASTAUGH, FABE, BRYNER, and CARPENETI, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Following a trial he did not attend, real estate agent Larry Stinson was found by the jury to have breached his fiduciary duty to buyers of a home and was held liable for damages. He moved under Alaska Civil Rule 60(b) for relief from the resulting judgment, making a prima facie showing that he had been incompetent at the time of trial. The superior court denied his motion without determining whether Stinson had been incompetent. We hold that it was an abuse of discretion not to make that determination, and therefore remand. If the superior court finds that Stinson was incompetent, he will be entitled to relief from judgment and to a new trial.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Russell and Judy Holder purchased a home through Larry Stinson and his employer, ReMax of Fairbanks.1 Concerned by

996 P.2d 1240
cracked windows which appeared to be caused by settlement, they conditioned their purchase on a satisfactory engineer's report. Engineer Brian Borjesson inspected the house and reported that he foresaw no major future problems

Within four months after the Holders took possession, cracks began to appear in the walls. The problem steadily worsened and the Holders filed suit against the sellers, the Eckerts. The Holders later amended their complaint to add claims against Stinson, ReMax of Fairbanks, and the sellers' real estate agent, Randy Smith.

An attorney represented Stinson during the pleading and discovery phases of the case, but the court permitted the attorney to withdraw with Stinson's consent on March 6, 1997. A few days before the trial commenced on June 10, 1997, Stinson advised the court that he would not be present due to a "serious medical condition" and asked the court to play his videotaped deposition testimony in his absence. He was neither present nor represented at trial.

Judge Charles R. Pengilly presided over the jury trial of the Holders' claims. Midway through the trial, the court addressed Stinson's absence and decided to advise the jury that Stinson was absent because of health reasons and that it should not draw any inference from that fact. ReMax and the Eckerts then sought to impeach Stinson's preserved deposition testimony by proffering evidence of Stinson's current medical problems and alleged memory loss going back to when he gave the first of several depositions. The Holders' attorney objected, claiming the late notice made it impossible for him to effectively address Stinson's alleged memory problems. The court acknowledged that it was a close question, but disallowed testimony from Stinson's treating physicians at the Mayo Clinic and from Stinson's wife, Aviva Stinson. The court noted that its concern was for the parties before it and concluded that the Holders would be substantially prejudiced if they were unable to conduct discovery. Stinson's videotaped deposition testimony was played for the jury.

The jury found that Stinson had failed to disclose relevant information to the Holders, causing them to suffer damages totaling $280,000. Based on its conclusion that ReMax of Fairbanks was vicariously liable, the court entered judgment for the Holders against Stinson and ReMax jointly and severally. ReMax moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial. Stinson, whose wife was by then acting for him under his power of attorney, joined in ReMax's motion after the briefing was complete. The superior court denied the motions.

Meanwhile, in a new superior court proceeding, Aviva Stinson petitioned in August 1997 for appointment of a conservator for Stinson; she alleged that he was unable to manage his property and affairs. She attached copies of Stinson's Mayo Clinic records to support her petition. The records noted that Stinson exhibited mental deficiencies in learning, memory, cognitive speed and flexibility, and confrontation naming, indicating an Alzheimer's type dementia. Following a hearing, Judge Ralph R. Beistline found that Stinson was "unable to manage property and financial affairs because of incapacity" and appointed two conservators, one of whom was Stinson's son, Dr. Lawrence William Stinson, Jr. Aviva Stinson notified Judge Pengilly of the conservatorship action and of the conservators' appointments.

In January 1998 Stinson, through his son, filed a Rule 60(b) motion for relief from the Holders' judgment against him. The motion papers claimed that relief was required because Stinson had been incompetent. Following briefing and the submission of affidavits and transcripts discussing Stinson's mental state, Judge Pengilly denied the motion. The court conducted no hearing to resolve possible fact disputes before denying the motion. We discuss the motion in more detail in Part III.A, below.

Stinson appeals.2

996 P.2d 1241
III. DISCUSSION

Stinson argues that it was error to deny his Civil Rule 60(b) motion without conducting an evidentiary hearing. He also argues that reversal is required because the court committed other alleged errors: (1) failing to include the names of Brian Borjesson and Randy Smith on the special verdict form; (2) excluding evidence of his mental state when ReMax and the Eckerts sought to impeach his deposition testimony; and (3) failing to grant his motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.

A. The Motion for Civil Rule 60(b) Relief

1. Stinson's alleged incompetency

In January 1998 Stinson moved under Civil Rule 60(b) for relief from the judgment entered against him about six months before.3 The motion papers quoted from Mayo Clinic records to support Dr. Stinson's allegation that his father suffered from dementia and was incapable of understanding the consequences of failing to attend the trial or to request a trial continuance. He also argued that Stinson's competence at the time of his depositions was in doubt. Dr. Stinson also informed the court that Stinson had been adjudicated incompetent in the conservatorship proceeding.

Stinson sought relief under Rule 60(b)(1), on the theory his incapacity caused mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect; under Rule 60(b)(4), on the theory his incapacity resulted in entry of a void judgment; or under Rule 60(b)(6), on the theory other reasons justified relief from the judgment.

In opposition, the Holders argued that there was no cognizable evidence that Stinson was legally incompetent when the matter went to trial in June 1997. The Holders filed excerpts of sworn hearing and deposition testimony from a judgment debtor inquiry to support their contention that Stinson was not legally incompetent. Those transcripts, however, also included Dr. Stinson's and Aviva Stinson's testimony that Stinson was impaired before and around the time of the 1997 trial.

Dr. Stinson, a medical doctor, submitted his own affidavit with Stinson's reply memorandum. He stated in it that his father's memory problems began as early as 1993, recurred in 1994, and became "steadily progressive" in 1995. He also stated that Alzheimer's and dementia are not conditions that can be turned off and on but are chronic and progressive. He affied that his father's treating physician, Dr. Janice Onorato, a neurologist, would be available to testify at a hearing, and that he would be filing a sealed report from a neurologist within the week. The reply memorandum again noted the adjudication of incompetence entered in the conservatorship proceeding.

The superior court denied Stinson's motion without conducting an evidentiary hearing. A day after the denial order was distributed the court received the Holders' request for a hearing under Rule 77(e) and Stinson's request for a conference to schedule an evidentiary hearing under Rule 60(b). Because the court had already denied Stinson's motion, it stamped "moot" on the hearing requests.

Stinson argues on appeal that it was an abuse of discretion to deny him a hearing on his motion and to deny his motion.

Rule 60(b) permits the court to grant relief from judgment under certain circumstances.4 The rule "should be liberally

996 P.2d 1242
construed to enable courts to vacate judgments whenever such action is necessary to accomplish justice."5 But we will not disturb a trial court's denial of a Rule 60(b) motion except upon a showing of abuse of discretion.6 To find an abuse of discretion, we must be left with the definite and firm conviction on the whole record that a mistake has been made.7

In Lovell v. Lovell8 we held that the movant made a showing of excusable neglect under Rule 60(b)(1), entitling her to relief, because the record disclosed that her failure to appear at a divorce property division hearing was not the result of her "free, calculated, and deliberate choice."9 We deemed significant the fact that she had a long history of medical and psychological problems which were known to the court.10 Given her absence and her known problems, we had serious doubts concerning the fairness of the proceeding.11 In that case, notice to the trial court that a problem had arisen was "sufficient to trigger an inquiry."12 Her absence and psychological problems justified setting aside the judgment for excusable neglect.13

The motion papers here revealed a genuine dispute about Stinson's competence when he permitted his defense attorney to withdraw, chose not to attend the trial or present a defense, and failed to move for a continuance. These circumstances demonstrated the probable prejudice resulting from any incompetency, and therefore demonstrated the materiality of the dispute. Given the...

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16 practice notes
  • Todeschi v. Sumitomo Metal Mining Pogo, LLC, Supreme Court No. S-15542
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • April 28, 2017
    ...missing from personnel file and "that it was not an abuse of discretion for the superior court to deny sanctions"); Stinson v. Holder, 996 P.2d 1238, 1244 (Alaska 2000) ("The decision whether to include a particular instruction rests with the discretion of the trial court." (quoting Coulson......
  • CENTRAL BERING SEA FISHERMEN'S v. Anderson, No. S-9955.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • September 6, 2002
    ...v. Schwartz, 915 P.2d 632, 636-37 (Alaska 1996). 3. See State v. Gilbert, 925 P.2d 1324, 1326-27 (Alaska 1996). 4. See Stinson v. Holder, 996 P.2d 1238, 1244 (Alaska 2000); Chenega Corp. v. Exxon Corp., 991 P.2d 769, 775 (Alaska 5. See Era Aviation, Inc. v. Lindfors, 17 P.3d 40, 48 n. 40 (A......
  • Brennan v. Brennan, Supreme Court No. S-15576
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • August 10, 2018
    ...v. Williams , 956 P.2d 458, 462 (Alaska 1998) (citing Nelson v. Jones , 781 P.2d 964, 968 (Alaska 1989) ).18 See Stinson v. Holder , 996 P.2d 1238, 1242 (Alaska 2000).19 Beals v. Beals , 303 P.3d 453, 458 (Alaska 2013) (citing Doyle v. Doyle , 815 P.2d 366, 368 (Alaska 1991) ).20 Kessler v.......
  • In re Estate of Fields, No. S-12017.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • September 4, 2009
    ...do not cite to any Rule 60(b) cases regarding denial of an evidentiary hearing or the general standard of review. In Stinson v. Holder, 996 P.2d 1238, 1242 (Alaska 2000), we reviewed the denial of an evidentiary hearing for a Rule 60(b) motion for abuse of 52. Alaska R.App. P. 204(e) (provi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
16 cases
  • Todeschi v. Sumitomo Metal Mining Pogo, LLC, Supreme Court No. S-15542
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • April 28, 2017
    ...missing from personnel file and "that it was not an abuse of discretion for the superior court to deny sanctions"); Stinson v. Holder, 996 P.2d 1238, 1244 (Alaska 2000) ("The decision whether to include a particular instruction rests with the discretion of the trial court." (quoting Coulson......
  • CENTRAL BERING SEA FISHERMEN'S v. Anderson, No. S-9955.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • September 6, 2002
    ...v. Schwartz, 915 P.2d 632, 636-37 (Alaska 1996). 3. See State v. Gilbert, 925 P.2d 1324, 1326-27 (Alaska 1996). 4. See Stinson v. Holder, 996 P.2d 1238, 1244 (Alaska 2000); Chenega Corp. v. Exxon Corp., 991 P.2d 769, 775 (Alaska 5. See Era Aviation, Inc. v. Lindfors, 17 P.3d 40, 48 n. 40 (A......
  • Brennan v. Brennan, Supreme Court No. S-15576
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • August 10, 2018
    ...v. Williams , 956 P.2d 458, 462 (Alaska 1998) (citing Nelson v. Jones , 781 P.2d 964, 968 (Alaska 1989) ).18 See Stinson v. Holder , 996 P.2d 1238, 1242 (Alaska 2000).19 Beals v. Beals , 303 P.3d 453, 458 (Alaska 2013) (citing Doyle v. Doyle , 815 P.2d 366, 368 (Alaska 1991) ).20 Kessler v.......
  • In re Estate of Fields, No. S-12017.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • September 4, 2009
    ...do not cite to any Rule 60(b) cases regarding denial of an evidentiary hearing or the general standard of review. In Stinson v. Holder, 996 P.2d 1238, 1242 (Alaska 2000), we reviewed the denial of an evidentiary hearing for a Rule 60(b) motion for abuse of 52. Alaska R.App. P. 204(e) (provi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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