STAN RATLIFF, Individually and as Trustee of the RATLIFF TRUST, Plaintiff and Appellee,
GLORIA M. SCHLEINZ, SALLIE DRUCILLA ACORD, RICARDA JOHNSON and all other persons, unknown, claiming or who might claim any right, title, estate, or interest in or lien or encumbrance upon the real property described in the Complaint or a part thereof adverse to Plaintiffs' ownership or any cloud upon Plaintiffs' title thereto, whether such claim or possible claim be present or contingent, Defendants, RICARDA JOHNSON, Defendant and Appellant.
Submitted on Briefs: December 14, 2016
FROM: District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, In and
For the County of Missoula, Cause No. DV 13-694 Honorable
Karen Townsend, Presiding Judge
Appellant: Raymond P. Tipp, Tipp & Buley, P.C., Missoula,
Appellee: Donald C. St. Peter, St. Peter Law Offices, P.C.,
Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court
Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum
opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as
precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition
shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of
noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and
Ricarda Johnson (Johnson) appeals the order of the Fourth
Judicial District Court, Missoula County, dismissing her
claim as moot. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.
In June 2013, Stan Ratliff (Ratliff), individually and as
Trustee of the Ratliff Trust, filed a quiet title action to
determine the ownership of real property and the mobile home
situated on it. The defendants named in the action included
Gloria Schleinz, Sallie Drucilla Acord, and Johnson. In
November 2013, Ratliff obtained a default judgment declaring
that he was the sole and rightful owner of the property.
Ratliff sold the property and, on March 5, 2015, a Warranty
Deed transferring title to the real property from Ratliff to
a third-party was recorded.
In January 2016, over two years after the default judgment
was entered and nearly one year after the subsequent property
sale, Johnson filed a M. R. Civ. P. 60 motion for relief from
the judgment. Johnson's motion asserted that Ratliff had
failed to follow service rules set forth in the Montana Rules
of Civil Procedure, and the District Court lacked personal
jurisdiction over her. However, rather than ruling on the
Rule 60 motion, the District Court determined that
Johnson's claim was moot because of the intervening sale.
The District Court reasoned that, "[a]s a result of
transfer of ownership of the subject real and personal
property to a third party, the Court cannot grant effective
relief or restore the parties to their original positions.
Accordingly, the matter is moot . . . ."
Issues of justiciability, including mootness, are questions
of law, which we review de novo. Reichert v.
State, 2012 MT 111, ¶ 20, 365 Mont. 92, 278 P.3d
455; Alexander v. Bozeman Motors, Inc.,
2012 MT 301, ¶ 20, 367 Mont. 401, 291 P.3d 1120.
"'Mootness is a threshold issue which must be
considered before addressing the underlying
dispute.'" Larson Lumber Co. v. Bilt Rite
Constr. & Landscaping LLC, 2014 MT 61, ¶ 29,
374 Mont. 167, 320 P.3d 471 (quoting Povsha v. City of
Billings, 2007 MT 353, ¶ 19, 340 Mont. 346, 174
The mootness inquiry requires courts to determine if "it
is possible to grant some form of effective relief."
Progressive Direct Ins. Co. v. Stuivenga, 2012 MT
75, ¶ 37, 364 Mont. 390, 276 P.3d 867.
[T]he fact that property has changed hands and third-party
interests are involved does not necessarily, in and of
itself, render an appeal moot. If the appellant is requesting
that the parties be restored to their original pre-judgment
positions, the fact that property has already changed hands
and third-party interests are now involved may make this
impossible, in which case the appeal will be deemed moot. But
if the appellant, upon reversal, will have "a claim in
restitution as necessary to avoid unjust enrichment, " .
. . then the effective relief can be granted and the appeal
is not moot.
Progressive, ¶ 44. In quiet title actions, the
court sits in equity and, therefore, "effective
relief" can include forms of equitable relief. The
primary equitable remedy in a quiet title action is a clean,
quiet title and undisputed ownership of the property. 74
C.J.S. Quieting Title §§ 2, 87 (2013) (Section 2
states: "The purpose of an action or remedy to quiet
title, remove an existing cloud on a title, or prevent a
threatened cloud on a title is to clear the title against
future claims and determine the validity of any adverse
claims."). However, it may be possible for a court to
craft additional or alternative equitable relief as
necessary, on a case-by-case basis. See, e.g., 74
C.J.S. Quieting Title §§ 84-89 (explaining the
various equitable remedies available to courts). For example,
where the underlying action is a contest over the title to
real estate, and the party who prevails at trial then sells
the property to a bona fide purchaser, after which the
underlying judgment is set aside, the opposing party has a
restitution claim against the prevailing party or, depending