This opinion will be unpublished and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
Irving Bird, individually and as
Personal Representative of the Estate of Richard Bird, et al.,
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded
Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge
Roseau County District Court
File No. C1-02-372
Alan B. Fish, Rita Fish-Whitlock, Alan B. Fish, P.A., 109 Second Street Northeast, Roseau, MN 56751 (for appellant)
Steven A. Anderson, Law Office of Steven A. Anderson, P.A., 115 Roberts Avenue Northeast, P.O. Box 430, Warroad, MN 56763 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge; Shumaker, Judge; Crippen, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge
Appellant lived in an unmarried relationship with a farm owner for many years and helped with the farm operations. Appellant held no title to any farm property. When the farm owner died intestate and the assets were distributed in probate to his surviving siblings, appellant sued the siblings on theories of fraud and unjust enrichment. The district court granted summary judgment on both claims and also ruled that a probate statute of limitations barred appellant’s unjust-enrichment action. Because there are no genuine fact issues respecting appellant’s fraud claim, we affirm that claim. Because there are genuine fact issues regarding the unjust-enrichment claim and because that claim is not barred by the statute of limitations, we reverse as to that claim.
For more than 20 years of their 30‑year unmarried relationship, appellant Violet Pilgrim and Richard Bird lived together on Bird’s farm. When they began to live together, Pilgrim brought $10,000 and a car into the relationship. Throughout the years, Pilgrim helped Bird operate the farm. She received no wages or other monetary compensation from Bird for this work. In 1988 Pilgrim began receiving social security disability payments and medical assistance from Roseau County. She used this income to pay living expenses for herself and Bird.
Pilgrim and Bird never had a formal business agreement, and the farm and all its assets were owned solely by Bird. Bird also held all of his financial accounts in his own name.
Bird died intestate on June 2, 2000. He was survived by three siblings who claimed entitlement to his estate. Pilgrim lived in the farm homestead, but did not operate the farm, for nearly two years after Bird’s death. She was aware of a probate proceeding of Bird’s estate but she filed no claim against the estate. She was also aware that Bird’s siblings claimed ownership of the farm and all assets. After the estate was closed and the assets distributed to Bird’s siblings, Pilgrim brought this lawsuit against the siblings. Pilgrim claims that the farm business had been a joint venture between her and Bird and that the distribution of the farm assets to the siblings unjustly enriched them. She also alleges that the siblings defrauded her out of a share of Bird’s assets.
The siblings answered and moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, holding that the probate statute of limitations barred Pilgrim’s claim; that Pilgrim’s unjust-enrichment claim was barred because of her “unclean hands”; and that the siblings did not make fraudulent representations to Pilgrim. This appeal followed.
On appeal from summary judgment, this court must determine whether any genuine issues of material fact exist and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. In re Estate of Palmen, 588 N.W.2d 493, 495 (Minn. 1999). When making those determinations, this court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. Offerdahl v. Univ. of Minn. Hosps. & Clinics, 426 N.W.2d 425, 427 (Minn. 1988). Summary judgment is not a trial of issues of fact, but is a proceeding designed to determine if issues of fact exist. Vieths v. Thorp Fin. Co., 305 Minn. 522, 525, 232 N.W.2d 776, 778 (1975).
A reviewing court is not bound by and need not give deference to the district court’s decision on a purely legal issue. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass’n v. Minn. Pub. Utils. Comm’n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984). The construction of a statute presents a question of law subject to de novo review. Palmen, 588 N.W. 2d at 495.
Pilgrim argues that respondents committed fraud by misrepresenting that she would be provided for financially from Bird’s estate. The elements of fraud are: (1) a representation (2) which is false, (3) has to do with past or present fact, (4) is material, and (5) susceptible of knowledge, (6) the representer must know it to be false or must assert it as of his own knowledge without knowing whether it is true or false, (7) the representer must intend to have the other person induced to act, or justified in acting upon it; (8) that person must be so induced to act or so justified in acting, (9) his action must be in reliance upon representation, and (10) he must suffer damage, (11) which is attributable to misrepresentation. Davis v. Re-Trac Mfg. Corp., 276 Minn. 116, 117, 149 N.W.2d 37, 38-9 (1967).
Pilgrim alleged in her complaint that, on December 5, 2000, respondents “agreed to reimburse . . . her contributions and property interests out of the Estate of Richard Bird.” But, during her deposition, Pilgrim admitted that respondents “never did say they were going to give me anything.” She corroborated her understanding that respondents had made no promises to her when she acknowledged that a probate notice she read in the newspaper meant that respondents “could put me out any time they wanted to” and that she “could live at the [farm] until they wanted me to pay rent or move out.” She also admitted that she received a letter from an attorney informing her that “decedent’s home is not your permanent residence.” Thus, Pilgrim’s own admissions demonstrate that respondents did not represent to her that she would receive contributions from Bird’s estate.
Pilgrim also alleges that respondent Irving Bird, the personal representative of Bird’s estate, told her friends that Pilgrim would receive a portion of the estate. She claims that her friends were her agents and that Irving Bird made the misrepresentations to them. As noted above, Pilgrim admitted that respondents never said they would give her anything. Even if her friends were her agents—and there is nothing in the record to support that contention—Pilgrim’s reliance on representations made to her friends would not be reasonable because she knew that respondents had never told her they would give her anything. There are no genuine issues of material fact for trial on Pilgrim’s claim of fraud and, thus, the district court properly granted summary judgment on this claim.
Pilgrim argues that the district court clearly erred in finding that she came into this action with unclean hands. The equitable defense of unclean hands is premised on withholding judicial assistance from a party guilty of illegal or unconscionable conduct. Fred O. Watson Co. v. U. S. Life Ins. Co., 258 N.W.2d 776, 778 (Minn. 1977). The doctrine of unclean hands will be invoked only against a party whose conduct has been unconscionable by reason of a bad motive, or where the result induced by his conduct will be unconscionable. Creative Communications Consultants, Inc. v. Gaylord, 403 N.W.2d 654, 657-58 (Minn. App. 1987) (quotation omitted). The doctrine of unclean hands is limited to misconduct involved in the action at hand. Everett v. Wallin, 150 Minn. 148, 154, 184 N.W.2d 958, 960 (1921).
In her affidavit, Pilgrim stated:
[M]any times Richard would ask me if I wanted to place a piece of equipment or real property in my name. I always told him ‘no’. I did not know whether having the asset titled in my name would have interfered with my medical benefits. I was named the pay on death beneficiary on an account. I never lied to social services in applying for my benefits and the financial workers were well aware that I worked at the farm, and, in fact, told me to keep my name off of the titles of everything.
In her deposition, Pilgrim was asked whether she reported that she was a farm employee. She responded that she was not considered an employee, that she and Richard worked side by side, and that she was considered his “helpmate.”
The district court found that Pilgrim had been collecting government benefits for a number of years, that she stipulated that she “never reported any income from the farming operation or any ownership interest in the assets of the estate to any federal, state, or county government agency,” and that she declined to have assets titled in her name in order to make her eligible for public assistance. Based on these findings the district court concluded that it would not consider Pilgrim’s unjust-enrichment claim because Pilgrim had “unclean hands.”
Pilgrim does not dispute that she collected government assistance benefits, that she did not report income from or ownership interest in the farm, and that she declined to take title to assets because she was concerned that doing so would make her ineligible for public assistance. But these undisputed facts do not support the district court’s conclusion that Pilgrim had unclean hands.
There is nothing in the record to show that Pilgrim received any income from her farm work. There is nothing in the record to indicate what precisely her reporting obligations were. The record is incontrovertible that Pilgrim did not own farm assets, and we are aware of no legal principle to suggest that she did anything wrong by declining an owner’s offer to give some assets to her. There exist genuine issues of material fact respecting Pilgrim’s unjust-enrichment claim and the unclean hands defense. The district court erred in granting summary judgment on this claim, we reverse the district court and remand for trial.
The district court found that Pilgrim’s claim was barred by the four-month limitation in Minn. Stat. §§ 524.3-801, 803(a)(1) (2002). We disagree. Pilgrim argues that her unjust-enrichment action is not a “claim” as defined in the probate statutes and that under Minn. Stat. § 524.3-1006 (2002) she had three years to bring her action. The facts are undisputed that Richard Bird died in June 2000 and Pilgrim started her lawsuit in June 2002.
In support of her argument that her action is not a “claim” under section 524.1-210(6), Pilgrim cites Minn. Odd Fellows Home v. Pogue, 245 Minn. 539, 73 N.W.2d 615 (1955). In that case the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that
[i]t is well established that the probate court has no general equitable or common-law jurisdiction to determine a contested claim or title to real estate (whether arising out of a contract or not) between the representatives, devisees, or heirs on the one hand, and strangers to the administration proceedings on the other. Not all classes of claims are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the probate court. Clearly, a claim by a third party to all or to a part of the assets in the hands of the representative is not a claim against the estate as such but is a claim to specific property and does not constitute a claim within the meaning of [the probate statutes setting forth time limitations].
Id. at 542-43, 73 N.W.2d at 618-19.
Pilgrim argues that because her action is not a “claim” under section 524.1-210(6), the statute of limitation is three years under Minn. Stat. § 524.3-1006, which provides that a claimant may recover improperly distributed property from a distributee three years after the decedent’s death or within one year after the distribution.
In interpreting this statute this court has stated that
[s]eparate provisions exist for situations where a property interest was distributed to the wrong party. See Minn. Stat. § 524.3-909 (1998); Minn. Stat. § 524.3-1006 (1998). Under these statutes the right of any devisee to recover improperly distributed property from a distributee is barred at the later of either three years after the decedent’s death or one year after the distribution of the property.
In re Estate of Nordlund, 602 N.W.2d 910, 913 (Minn. App. 1999) (citing Minn. Stat. § 524.3-1006), review denied (Minn. Feb. 15, 2000).
Thus, Pilgrim’s claim is not a claim in probate but rather is an action against the distributees. But Pilgrim’s unjust-enrichment claim is limited to personal property in which she is able to prove her ownership interest. She is barred from a claim to real estate because Bird held sole title to the real property and title passed in accord with the law. She is also barred from claiming the value of her services because such a claim would be a debt of the estate and she failed to file a probate claim within the time limit provided by law.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.