Monday, July 23, 2007

Summary 2007 WY 114

Summary of Decision issued July 23, 2007

[SPECIAL NOTE: This opinion uses "Universal Citation" and was given an "official" citation when issued. You should use this citation whenever you cite the opinion, with a P.3d parallel citation. You will note that all of the paragraphs are numbered. When you need to provide a pinpoint citation, the universal portion of the citation will use that paragraph number. The pinpoint citation in the P.3d portion should include the reporter page number. If you need assistance, please contact the Wyoming State Law Library.]

Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Case Name: Dowlin v. Dowlin

Citation: 2007 WY 114

Docket Number: 06-245

Appeal from the District Court of Carbon County, the Honorable Wade E. Waldrip, Judge

Representing Appellant (Plaintiff): Steve C. M. Aron and Galen Bruce Woelk, of Aron and Hennig, LLP, Laramie, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee (Defendant): William L. Hiser, of Brown & Hiser, LLC, Laramie, Wyoming.

Issue: Whether the district court erred in concluding that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-402 and W.R.C.P. 60(b) do not create a tort duty that, if breached, gives rise to an independent cause of action for damages.

Facts/Discussion: Lori Ann Walker (Walker, f/k/a Lori Ann Dowlin) filed a civil suit against her former husband, Charles Dowlin (Dowlin), requesting damages for “Fraud on the Court” allegedly committed during divorce proceedings. Her challenge was rooted in her contention that W.R.C.P. 60(b) and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401 establish a tort duty that was breached by Dowlin. Walker cited McCulloh v. Drake. The Court stated that in McCulloh, their holding was that the tort claim should be heard separately from the divorce. It did not suggest that the Court should recognize the new tort cause of action urged by Walker.
The Court then turned their attention to cases from other jurisdictions that Walker suggested supported her claim. They stated there was a wealth of authority from other jurisdictions that contradicted her claim. In addition, all of the cases she cited demonstrated that the appropriate remedy for alleged fraudulent conduct is to set aside the judgment, whether in the same or a different proceeding. The Court specifically noted MacArthur v. Miltich in which the Court held that once the time to file a motion had expired, the plaintiff was required to proceed in an independent action to set aside the judgment. The common thread through the cases was that the remedy provided was setting aside the judgment, not an award of damages.

Walker also argued the Court should follow the decision in Cresswell v. Sullivan & Cromwell, where the plaintiffs in an independent fraud suit alleged that the defendant failed to produce all documents requested during a prior suit’s discovery process. This failure to disclose allegedly induced the plaintiffs to settle for less than they otherwise could have negotiated. Apparently, Walker overlooked the subsequent history which held that plaintiff’s action was not one at law but was instead equitable in nature. Cresswell supports the Court’s conclusion that Walker’s only appropriate remedy was relief from the original divorce court judgment.
The Court stated they were troubled by Walker’s position that she was entitled to bring a tort claim to recover compensatory damages based on a property division in a divorce. Walker wished to have a jury in her tort proceeding decide the fundamentally equitable issue of dividing property in a divorce which would improperly remove the question from the judge’s hands where it belongs. To allow such a tort claim would allow a jury to become a de facto appellate court reviewing the divorce court’s decision. The Court stated they were aware of no legal principle that would allow or justify such an approach. The Court stated their decision was also supported by their policy of the finality of judgments.

Walker knew of some of the alleged fraudulent behaviors at the time of the divorce hearing because she filed her first complaint before the divorce trial. She filed her amended complaint between the time the divorce court issued its decision letter and the final divorce decree. The Court does not allow litigants to “sit on” useful information in one proceeding in order to collaterally attack the result in a subsequent action.

Holding: Both W.R.C.P. 60(b) and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-16-401 provide a remedy to a litigant alleging that a judgment has been obtained fraudulently. The litigant may seek relief from the judgment in the form of modification or revocation of that judgment. For reasons that are not clear from the record, Walker chose not to seek that relief. Instead she sought an award of damages from a jury. There is no language in the rule or the statute that establishes a duty giving rise to a tort cause of action for damages, nor do any cases from Wyoming or other jurisdictions support the result she desires.


J. Burke delivered the decision.

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