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Erving v. Erving

Supreme Court of Montana

July 16, 2019

DANIEL R. ERVING and STEFANIE L. ERVING, Plaintiffs, Appellees, and Cross-Appellants,
MARY FLORENCE ERVING, Defendant, Appellant, and Cross-Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: May 22, 2019

          Appeal From: District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis and Clark, Cause No. CDV 2018-26 Honorable Kathy Seeley, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: Michelle H. Vanisko, Hinshaw & Vanisko, PLLC, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Daniel R. Erving, Stefanie L. Erving, Self-Represented, Helena, Montana


          Beth Baker Justice.

         ¶1 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 Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Daniel R. Erving and his wife, Stefanie L. Erving, filed suit in Lewis and Clark County Justice Court against Mary Florence Erving, alleging that she wrongfully occupied an apartment that Daniel had the right to occupy. Mary Florence appealed the Justice Court's adverse ruling to the First Judicial District Court. Mary Florence now appeals the District Court's order asserting jurisdiction over the interpretation of the Ralph A. Erving Revocable Trust and rendering a final decision after it found that the Justice Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case. We affirm.

         ¶3 In 1997, Mary Florence's and Daniel's father, Ralph Erving, created a trust that provided in pertinent part, "Since I have provided for my son, Daniel R. Erving, during his lifetime I give him the sum of $1, 000.00 and also give him the right to occupy for his lifetime an apartment in either of the premises located at 311 9th Avenue or 424 N. Davis Street in Helena, Montana. Both of these properties are owned by my Trust at this time." The property on 9th Avenue has three apartments and the property on Davis Street has four apartments. The trust provided for a 30% share in the remainder of the trust to Mary Florence and 70% to Thomas Q. Erving. Mary Florence and Thomas were named as successor trustees in the event Ralph was no longer able to act. Ralph died in 1998, and Daniel moved into one of the Davis Street apartments. The parties dispute when Daniel stopped using the apartment as his primary residence but agree that Daniel has not so used the apartment for numerous years.

         ¶4 In December 2016, Daniel received notice that Mary Florence was moving into the Davis Street apartment. Mary Florence claimed that she sent Daniel the notice because he had left the apartment vacant for several years and he had been renting out the apartment and keeping the rental proceeds for himself. In May 2017, Daniel filed his complaint with the Justice Court, alleging that Mary Florence wrongfully possessed the apartment and demanding return of the same, along with $12, 000 in loss of rental income and personal property. A month later, representing herself, Mary Florence filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Justice Court did not issue an order, and the case went to trial in June 2017. After the trial, the Justice Court ordered the parties to mediate. When mediation did not succeed, Mary Florence filed a document in support of renewing her motion that the Justice Court dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. Mary Florence also submitted an Order Dismissing Complaint and Notice of Eviction, and Vacating Trial to the Justice Court's clerks. Daniel maintains that he received a copy of the Order, but not of the document supporting the renewal motion.

         ¶5 Daniel responded by filing a Petition for Status, notifying the court that he had received Mary Florence's paperwork and claiming that the unsigned order was "fictitious paperwork." The Justice Court found that Mary Florence attempted to mislead the court and the plaintiffs by submitting a "fraudulent" document that was "not prepared, signed or submitted by the [Justice] Court." The court ordered a show cause hearing as to why Mary Florence should not be held in contempt. Mary Florence argued before the Justice Court that she had filed the order as a proposed order. The Justice Court held Mary Florence in contempt for attempting to mislead the plaintiffs and the court by filing the order without a motion for or a brief in support of its adoption. Shortly after the hearing, the Justice Court issued its order, allowing Daniel the right to choose the apartment that he would occupy.

         ¶6 Mary Florence appealed to the District Court. The District Court held that the Justice Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to consider the parties' respective rights under the terms of Ralph's trust. The District Court considered the parties' arguments and held that Mary Florence must vacate the Davis Street apartment. The court concluded further that Daniel is not the owner of the apartment and may not rent out the apartment, but that he is entitled to occupy the residence and one of the garages.

         ¶7 Mary Florence argues on appeal that because the Justice Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction, the District Court did not gain jurisdiction merely because it would have had original jurisdiction over the parties' claims. Mary Florence maintains that the District Court should have dismissed the complaint "outright" and directed Daniel and Stefanie to file a new action in the District Court. Mary Florence claims also that her due process rights were violated when she was not given the opportunity to be heard at the show cause hearing, reasoning that the Justice Court "talked over her attempts" to explain herself. Mary Florence argues that even if the District Court had jurisdiction, the court's finding that Daniel had the right to choose which apartment he lived in was clearly erroneous.

         ¶8 Section 72-38-201(1), MCA, provides exclusive subject matter jurisdiction to the district courts over proceedings concerning the internal affairs of trusts. When a judgment from a justice court is reversed on a question of law, the district court must either try the case anew or render a final judgment. Section 25-33-302, MCA. In concluding that the Justice Court did not have jurisdiction, the District Court correctly held that it has "exclusive" subject matter jurisdiction over the proceedings concerning interpretation of the trust. Section 72-38-201, MCA. The District Court did not have to try the case anew, as it had the option to render a final judgment from the record. Section 25-33-302, MCA. In proceeding to consider the case on its merits, the court reasoned that "Mary Florence ask[ed] [the District Court] to render a final judgment. She asserts that a final judgment will provide greater judicial economy and there are no new or other material facts to support Daniel's claims."

         ¶9 Mary Florence argues that she requested the District Court to render a decision without a new trial only on issues that did not involve trust interpretation: (1) Daniel's claim of personal property loss; (2) the award of costs or expenses; (3) whether Daniel owns the apartment; and (4) whether Daniel is named a trustee of the trust. Neither party objected to the District Court rendering a final decision on the interpretation of the trust and Daniel's right to occupy the Davis Street apartment. Mary Florence argued to the District Court that the trustees had the right to choose which apartment Daniel could occupy and that Daniel did not have the right to occupy an apartment of his choice. Mary Florence maintained that "[c]learly, this is an issue regarding legal rights as they relate to a trust. Trust[] . . . matters must be held in a district court." Mary Florence argued further in her District Court reply brief that "[t]his case is essentially about interpreting the terms of a trust and determining the rights of the trust[']s beneficiaries." To render a decision on who has the right to choose the apartment Daniel occupies, the District Court had to interpret the trust. Mary ...

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