This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C2-01-824

 

 

In the Matter of the Marriage (Now Dissolved):

Dino Bonanno, petitioner,

Respondent,

 

vs.

 

Kathryn Grace Porter,

Appellant.

 

Filed November 20, 2001

Reversed and remanded

Lansing, Judge

 

Nobles County District Court

File No. FX00855

 

 

Ruth A. Webster, Gislason & Hunter LLP, 2700 South Broadway, PO Box 458, New Ulm, MN 56073-0458 (for respondent)

 

Maryellen Suhrhoff and Elizabeth White Cummins, Muske, Muske, Cummins & Suhrhoff, Ltd., 937 Third Avenue, PO Box 397, Windom, MN 56101 (for appellant)

 

Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Stoneburner, Judge, and Hanson, Judge. 

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N

LANSING, Judge 

Kathryn Porter appeals a district court order denying her motion to reopen a judgment entered on a stipulated dissolution agreement.  Porter based the motion on affidavits stating that the agreement was the product of duress caused by years of mental and physical abuse in her relationship with Dino Bonanno.  The district court denied Porter's request for an evidentiary hearing to present testimony on the nature of the duress and expert testimony on its effect.  Because Porter's affidavits raise a material issue of fact on whether she was under duress when she signed the stipulation, we reverse and remand to the district court for an evidentiary hearing.

F A C T S

Kathryn Porter and Dino Bonanno were married in 1996, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, after living together for 11 years.  In April 1999, the couple and their two children moved to Worthington, Minnesota, where Porter accepted a job as a physician.  In November 2000, after what Porter characterizes as years of both mental and physical abuse from Bonanno, they decided to dissolve their marriage.  In anticipation of the dissolution, a stipulation was prepared that divided the marital assets, determined custody of the children, and set maintenance and support amounts to be paid by Porter to Bonanno. 

Near the end of November, Porter, Bonanno, and an attorney representing Bonanno appeared in Nobles County District Court and presented the signed stipulation attached to proposed findings and an order for judgment.  The court took no testimony but asked Porter whether she had reviewed the amount she was to pay and whether  that was agreeable to her.  Porter answered "yes" to both questions.  The district court entered judgment incorporating the stipulation.

            In January 2001, Porter obtained an attorney and moved to vacate the judgment on the ground that she signed the stipulation under duress caused by the abuse she sustained during her relationship with Bonanno.  Porter requested that she be allowed to present oral testimony on the nature of the abuse and threats and have an expert witness testify to how the abuse affected her judgment and capacity to make decisions.  The district court denied the request for an evidentiary hearing and decided the motions on affidavits and argument.  Porter submitted a personal affidavit and affidavits from her family, friends, and colleagues stating that Bonanno was both mentally and physically abusive.  Bonanno submitted a personal affidavit and an equivalent number of affidavits from friends and family attesting to Bonanno’s good character and refuting Porter's accusations of abuse.

Following the motion submissions, the district court issued an order concluding that Porter had failed to meet her burden of proof and denying the motion to reopen the judgment.  The court observed that the stipulation was an "astonishingly lopsided property and support agreement" and that Bonanno seemed to have obtained "most, if not all, of the parties' assets."  The court also stated that, for purposes of its analysis, it accepted Porter's statements of physical and mental abuse. But the court weighed a number of factors against Porter's claims.  These factors included the court's belief that a person of Porter's education and intelligence would have reported any physical and mental abuse and she had not, that Porter worked in a profession in which she was required to report abuse and would understand how to do it, and that Porter had not provided sufficient evidence of a connection between the abuse and her capitulation in the agreement and thus had not demonstrated that the abuse resulted in duress. 

The district court acknowledged that it had declined Porter's request to present oral testimony from a psychologist who would testify to the effect of the long-term abuse on Porter's acquiescence to the agreement.  But the court observed that Porter could have submitted the expert's testimony through an affidavit.

On appeal, Porter claims that the district court erred in making its findings and abused its discretion in failing to give her an evidentiary hearing.

D E C I S I O N

A court may relieve a party from a judgment and decree for reasons including fraud,  misrepresentation,  or   "other  misconduct  of  an  adverse  party.”    Minn.  Stat.  § 518.145, subd. 2(3) (2000).  Although duress is not specifically listed as a basis for reopening a judgment, we have previously held that duress can “nonetheless constitute other misconduct of an adverse party.”  Haefele v. Haefele, 621 N.W.2d 758, 762 (Minn. App. 2001) (listing duress as basis for reopening judgment), review denied (Minn. Feb. 21, 2001); Hestekin v. Hestekin, 587 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Minn. App. 1998) (noting that statutory grounds include situation where one party takes improper advantage of another).

A motion to reopen under Minn. Stat. § 518.145, subd. 2, is an alternative to an independent action to relieve a party from judgment.  Doering v. Doering, 629 N.W.2d 124, 130 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Sept. 11, 2001).  Thus, the motion is procedurally equivalent to a summary judgment motion in which the court does not weigh evidence but determines whether the movant has raised a material issue of fact.  Id.  Demonstrating a genuine issue of material fact likewise satisfies the good-cause standard for an evidentiary hearing under Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 303.03(d).  Id. (establishing procedure  on   motion  to   reopen  dissolution  judgment  for  fraud   under   Minn.  Stat.

§ 518.145, subd. 2).

Porter requested an evidentiary hearing and provided affidavits in support of her duress claim.  Because Doering was released after Porter's January 2001 request for an evidentiary hearing, the district court did not have the benefit of Doering's analysis and holding to apply to the procedural problems raised by Porter's motion.  The court denied the evidentiary hearing for reasons not stated in the record but accepted, for purposes of analysis, Porter's statements relating to the long-standing abuse and its effects. 

Accepting Porter's factual statements as true essentially establishes that Porter has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of duress.  See Wise v. Midtown Motors, Inc., 231 Minn. 46, 51, 42 N.W.2d 404, 407 (1950) (stating that duress in a contract is found when a person is coerced by physical force or unlawful threats that destroy the person's free will and compel compliance with some demand of the party exerting the coercion).  But the court then discounted the evidentiary force of the affidavits by finding that the statements were not credible in light of Porter's education, intelligence, knowledge of reporting procedures, and failure to report the abuse.  Thus, the court prematurely weighed the evidence and evaluated Porter's credibility without permitting her to testify or to present expert testimony on whether the described abuse could affect free will and result in a coerced agreement.  This procedure does not comply with the hearing requirements set forth in Doering. 

Porter has demonstrated good cause for a hearing under Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 303.03(d) because she has raised a genuine issue of material fact on whether she was under duress  when she signed  the  stipulation.  We  therefore  reverse and remand to the district court for an evidentiary hearing on whether Porter was under duress when she signed the stipulation.

Reversed and remanded.