STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In Re Special Guardianship of:
Mary E. Mengoni, a/k/a
Mary Mengoni and Mary Ermenia Mengoni, Ward.
Filed October 5, 1999
St. Louis County District Court
File No. P1-98-600070
John G. Westrick, Westrick & McDowall-NIX, P.L.L.P., 400 Minnesota Building, 46 East Fourth Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for appellant Nona Gianlorenzi)
Sam A. Aluni, Paul D. Cerkvenik, Trenti Law Firm, 1000 Lincoln Building, Box 958, Virginia, MN 55792 (for respondent John A. Trenti, Special Guardian)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Anderson, Judge, and Foley, Judge.[*]
Appellant challenges the district court's refusal of her requests for discovery and an additional hearing concerning attorney fees granted for a special guardianship. Because the record does not include evidence that the district court reviewed the issue of attorney fees during the final account hearing, we remand.
First, appellant argues that she was entitled to both discovery and an additional hearing regarding her challenge to respondent's attorney fees. Appellant's individual requests are interdependent. To justify a final hearing, appellant demands discovery to unearth a supposed error in respondent's final accounting for attorney fees.
We begin with the right to a final account hearing, guaranteed at Minn. Stat. § 525.581 (1998), which specifies that:
The court on its own motion may, or upon the petition of the guardian * * * or any person interested in the ward or conservatee or the ward's or conservatee's estate shall, fix the time and place for the hearing on any account, notice of which shall be given to the ward or conservatee and to other persons as the court may direct.
(Emphasis added.) The rationale for an interested party's right to a hearing is well understood:
If it were left solely to the guardian to obtain a hearing in the absence of action by the court, then any guardian who, in fact, intended to dissipate his ward's estate might do so unhampered.
In re Estate of Williams, 254 Minn. 272, 281, 95 N.W.2d 91, 98 (1959). Hence, to guard against the unscrupulous guardian, interested parties are allowed the opportunity to check a guardian's final accounting.
Yet, appellant is not entitled to a "fishing expedition." Although section 525.581 may guarantee the right to a hearing, Minn. Stat. § 525.582 (1998) defers to the district court the scope of such a hearing, including who shall be examined and what other procedures to be employed in settling the account. See Minn. Stat. § 525.582(a) ("Unless otherwise ordered, the guardian or conservator shall, and other persons may, be examined on the hearing.").
We reject appellant's argument that the district court erred in not allowing her discovery or an additional hearing. The district court had been very accommodating to appellant. In addition to the statutory notice requirement complied with under section 525.581, the court provided appellant (1) with copies of the final and amended final accounting, (2) the opportunity to submit written objections to respondent's amended final accounting, and (3) two continuances to secure counsel and submit her objections. Moreover, appellant explicitly agreed in court to the court's limitation to written objections. Generally, "the trial judge has wide discretion to issue discovery orders and, absent clear abuse of that discretion, normally its order with respect thereto will not be disturbed." Shetka v. Kueppers, Kueppers, Von Feldt & Salmen, 454 N.W.2d 916, 921 (Minn. 1990). Moreover, the right to an additional hearing needs to be justified by specific or probative facts. See Williams, 254 Minn. at 281, 95 N.W.2d at 98; see also In re Estate of Kucera, 290 Minn. 501, 504, 186 N.W.2d 538, 540 (1971) (requiring prima facie case to justify regard for probate claims). Appellant did not comply with Williams because she failed to demonstrate questionable conduct regarding the approved attorney fees.
The record, however, does not document any effort by the district court to review the substance of appellant's discovery and hearing requests--the challenge to respondent's attorney fees. The court only implied approval of the attorney fees previously permitted for the special guardianship. No record exists justifying the approved amounts in the present case.
Prior to the final account hearing, the district court had issued an order authorizing respondent to expend the aggregate attorney fee sum detailed in the final accounting. The aggregate was based on the sum and review of amounts previously requested by respondent. Yet, this sum was approved under a separate guardianship account. The special guardian final account hearing did not recognize these separate district court guardianship proceedings. Hence, there is no evidence in the record that in this proceeding the court in fact reviewed these amounts and the services rendered.
While we agree that, on this record, there is no abuse of discretion in the decision to deny discovery to appellant, we remand to provide the district court the opportunity to review those attorney fees associated with the special guardianship. In light of the policy favoring the rights of interested parties seeking oversight of a guardian's control of an estate, see Williams, 254 Minn. at 281, 95 N.W.2d at 98, the district court should also give appellant an opportunity to be heard on her objections.
Finally, we reject appellant's procedural due process challenge to the district court's decision. Appellant's due process argument is misplaced. Appellant's argument and brief rely on the district court's exercise of its discretion, not whether it afforded due process. Appellant had at her disposal the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, see Minn. Stat. § 524.1-304, and the district court provided both adequate notice and a hearing. See Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 266-71, 90 S. Ct. 1011, 1019-22 (1970) (requiring at a minimum notice and a hearing).
[*] Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.