This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Lurie Besikof Lapidus &
Timothy T. Childs,
Lorraine A. Childs,
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 01-16279
Michael A. Rozman, 800 Washington Avenue North, Suite 502, Minneapolis, MN 55401 (for respondent)
Timothy T. Childs, Lorraine A. Childs, 1411 West River Road North, Minneapolis, MN 55411 (pro se appellants)
Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Lansing, Judge; and Minge, Judge.
Appellants, tax clients of respondent accounting firm, challenge the judgment recovered by the firm for fees for services. Appellants raise numerous grounds for reversal, including insufficient evidence, prior payment, malpractice, and improper conduct by the district court. Because the record supports the district court’s determination and because there is no evidence of improper conduct by the district court, we affirm.
In the early 1990’s, the accounting firm of Lurie Besikof Lapidus & Company, L.L.P. (Lurie), the respondent in this appeal, performed accounting services for a business owned by appellants Timothy and Lorraine Childs. From August 1996 to November 2000, Lurie provided professional personal tax services for the Childs. The amount due for the personal tax services was $11,293.81, including interest. The Childs failed to pay, and Lurie initiated a collection action. The Childs denied liability on several grounds claiming that Lurie’s error led to an IRS audit and subsequent tax liabilities for the Childs, that they had not authorized Lurie to perform services related to the audit, that they had already paid for the services, and that Lurie arbitrarily increased the amount due.
A default judgment was entered against the Childs but was vacated pursuant to the Childs’ request. Next a trial date was set and the parties were given almost two-months advance notice of that date by the court administrator. After notice to the parties, the judge moved the proceeding from the morning to the afternoon of the same day. The Childs did not object to the time of the trial or file a witness list prior to the time of the trial. At the trial, however, they objected that the time change inconvenienced them, reported that three of their witnesses were unavailable and requested a continuance. Since they appeared pro se, the district court judge questioned them closely about the missing witnesses. They explained what testimony they expected each witness to provide and the judge concluded that two witnesses would have only addressed matters not in dispute or would have provided only hearsay evidence. The Childs could not explain why the third witness failed to appear. The district court judge decided to proceed and informed both parties that evidence regarding Lurie’s work for the Childs’ business, and payment for those services, was not relevant and would not be admitted unless specifically related to the personal account.
After trial, the district court ordered judgment for the Lurie firm for the full amount. It found that the Childs signed personal-engagement letters each year authorizing Lurie to prepare their tax returns, that Lurie sent the Childs monthly invoices showing the time spent and the services performed and their running balance, that the hourly rates charged were reasonable, that the number of hours billed was no greater than the total number of hours worked, that the Childs failed to present evidence supporting their allegations that Lurie was at fault for the IRS audit, that the statements were never paid, and that the contested charges were due and owing.
The Childs appeal the district court’s findings of fact, the trial procedures used, and claim that the district court acted prejudicially and unfairly in the conduct of the trial.
The appeal in this case is on numerous questions of law and fact, ranging from sufficiency of the evidence to misconduct of the district court. The case is troubling. The Childs cite no legal authority for their claims, their arguments are difficult to identify, and it is more difficult to follow their line of analysis. Generally, this court has declined to reach issues in the absence of adequate briefing. State, Dep’t of Labor and Indus. v. Wintz Parcel Drivers, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 480, 480 (Minn. 1997). Further, this court has deemed claims of error waived unless the appellant’s brief presents reasoned arguments or references to legal authority, or prejudicial error is obvious on inspection of the record. State v. Modern Recycling, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 770, 772 (Minn. App. 1997). But in an effort to assure the Childs that their claims have been considered, we attempt to identify and analyze their arguments.
The Childs first appear to argue that the evidence does not support the district court’s decision. As a general rule, evidence on appeal is viewed in the light most favorable to the judgment of the trial court. Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W.2d 650, 656 (Minn. 1999). The trial court’s factual findings must be clearly erroneous when viewed in the context of the entire record before we will reverse. Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 474 (Minn. App. 2000). Findings of fact are clearly erroneous only if the reviewing court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999) (quotation omitted).
We have carefully read the record, including the trial transcript and the materials the Childs have presented on appeal. The Childs failed to present any persuasive evidence to support their arguments to the district court or identify such evidence on appeal. We conclude that the district court’s findings of fact are not clearly erroneous. The record contains personal-engagement letters signed by the Childs for the tax years 1996 through 2000, authorizing the accounting services and the fees charged. Testimony showed that, prior to performing personal tax services, the Lurie firm had done work for the Childs’ business, that the work was billed on an hourly basis, and that such billing is typical and reasonable for accountants. There was ample evidence to support the court’s decision that the Childs authorized Lurie’s personal tax services, were aware that the work was billed on an hourly basis, and were advised that interest would be charged to any unpaid balance. The Childs offered no contrary evidence.
The Childs argue that Lurie’s invoices did not provide adequate support for its charges, that its fees were excessive, and that they were not aware of the balance due. Testimony shows that worksheets from the Lurie firm provide ample descriptions of the services being performed, the time spent on each service, and the prices charged. Testimony by both the firm’s partner and collection manager showed that Lurie billed the Childs on a monthly basis and sent the Childs monthly statements showing their running balance. The collection manager’s testimony shows that Lurie attempted to negotiate with the Childs and informed them of the amount due. Other than their own assertions and argumentative questions posed to Lurie’s witnesses, the Childs offer no evidence to counter these findings. Additionally, the Childs offered no evidence that Lurie increased the amount they owed. The record indicates that the three witnesses who did not appear would not have filled in this gap in the Childs’ case.
The Childs offered no credible evidence to support their arguments that their business and personal accounts were commingled, that personal tax services had been included in the business billing, or that they overpaid the Lurie firm for tax services for their business and thus covered the amount owed for the personal services. Similarly, there is no evidence that the IRS audit was caused by any fault of Lurie. Rather, the evidence supports the finding that the Childs authorized Lurie to perform the work related to that audit. The Childs gave Lurie the information needed to respond to the audit and signed a power-of-attorney to have it represent them in the matter. Lurie would not have known of the audit had the Childs not informed them or given them the paperwork. Finally, Lurie testified that it was normal practice to do IRS examinations without further engagement letters. After carefully reviewing the record, we conclude that the district court’s findings of fact are not clearly erroneous.
The Childs also argue that the district court was prejudiced against them and abused its discretion in certain rulings. “Evidentiary rulings rest within the sound discretion of the trial court and will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion. On appeal, the appellant has the burden of establishing that the trial court abused its discretion and that appellant was thereby prejudiced.” State v. Amos, 658 N.W.2d 201, 203 (Minn. 2003) (citations omitted).
The Childs claim that the district court did not allow them to present key evidence regarding their defenses that the Lurie firm commingled their business and personal accounts and double billed them for services. The Childs do not identify any such evidence to support their allegations. The district court accepted the Childs’ exhibits when it found them relevant to the personal accounts; it only excluded irrelevant evidence relating strictly to Lurie’s work for the Childs’ business. The Childs were unable to offer a reasoned argument as to how the excluded exhibits related to the personal services. The district court instructed both parties to keep the business account separate from the personal accounts and its instruction was evenhanded. For example, the district court excluded evidence and questioning by Lurie relating solely to the business account, as well. Clearly, the district court has discretion to exclude irrelevant evidence. Minn. R. Evid. 401, 402, 403.
The Childs also argue that the district court committed misconduct by assisting the Lurie firm without being asked, determining what questions Lurie’s witnesses answered, answering questions for Lurie, and taking breaks at crucial moments. The record shows that the district court simply excluded questioning relating to the irrelevant business account and informed the Childs when the witnesses were not qualified to answer particular questions. The record further shows that during the half-day trial the district court took breaks at reasonable and appropriate intervals. The district court even asked the parties at one point if they wished a break. It does not appear that the Childs’ argument that the district court prevented them from presenting their case has any merit. In fact, we note that at several points in the proceeding, the district court explained particular concepts and rules to the Childs, asked questions of the Childs, and provided further assistance to assure them a full and fair trial.
The Childs argue that because of the time change in the trial from the morning to the afternoon of the same date, their witnesses were unavailable. The trial judge has great discretion to determine the procedural calendar of a case. Rice v. Perl, 320 N.W.2d 407, 412 (Minn. 1982). The Childs were given advance notice of the change by the court administrator. Although it had never been given a witness list, the district court tried to ascertain the testimony of each proposed witness. Two of the three proposed witnesses would have testified to hearsay matters or items not in dispute. The district court found that the Childs were unable to give a reason as to why the third witness was not available. Under the circumstances, it does not appear that the scheduling decision was an abuse of discretion by the district court.
In sum, we do not find evidence of any factual or legal error that would support reversal of the judgment. Rather, it appears from the record that the district court judge attempted to conduct the trial so as to assure the Childs, as pro se litigants, that their side of the proceeding was fairly and fully presented and considered. We find no error or abuse of discretion in the district court’s conduct of the trial.