Rogone v. Sasser (CA1 9/25/14)

In the context of a nasty family feud the court mentions a couple of things worth pointing out about judgments and homesteads.

This was an action to enforce a California judgment. It is one part of a dispute about trust assets the details of which are fortunately unimportant since no one involved, including the legal types, comes out looking very good. (The problems begin with the caption, which tells us that the lead plaintiff is “John Rogone, aka Johnny Rogone, now Bingo Bada Bing.” In other words, it appears that the gentleman had changed his name to an alliterative phrase, which his lawyers then masked by reversing the normal “aka” sequence – legal name first – so as not to compromise their client’s gravitas. Not too serious, perhaps – but that’s apparently not the only document somebody played games with.)

The defendants reacted to the California judgment with some real-property transactions that the Arizona court, after trial with an advisory jury, deemed fraudulent as to creditors and set aside. After signing a form of judgment the court had to “clarify” it with an amended judgment. One of the defendants then moved onto one of the properties and claimed a homestead exemption (the trial court eventually denied it on equitable grounds), which resulted in motions culminating in a second amended judgment. Then (apparently; the sequence isn’t entirely clear) the court set aside the second amended judgment. Both sides took the case up and it bounced around the appellate system awhile, eventually going back to the trial court for the entry of a third amended judgment. (Of this and other things the Court of Appeals spares us details; this is wise and merciful since the factual and legal records are likely of the read-it-and-weep variety). Then both sides appealed again.

The plaintiffs argued that the trial court shouldn’t have set aside the second amended judgment. They made some procedural arguments; those are stupid desperate unenlightening, so we will skip them. Substantively, the question was whether the court had discretion to set aside under 60(c)(6). The Court of Appeals holds that it did.

The problem with the second amended judgment was that someone had slipped into it “multiple, material and surreptitiously added provisions not authorized by any prior court ruling.” For example, it included a slanted factual description of the California lawsuit. The Court of Appeals notes that “[e]ven if this were a fair characterization of the evidence (a question we do not decide), a judgment should not recite details of the proceedings.” The language was “superfluous to the required description of the court’s decision.”

The judgment also included rulings not made and relief not prayed for. The court concludes summarily that this justifies relief, which is fine since that should go without saying.

(Who slipped the junk into the judgment? Why did it get past the other side? The opinion needn’t and doesn’t – and we’re glad of it – give quite enough background to clarify some of those things, though the reader can draw conclusions. So this is mostly a monument to our oft-repeated proposition that judges will sign anything. That the judge will remember the case, read the document, comprehend the document, or even know how such documents should be drafted is, on one or more of those points, expecting too much. It is apparently the courts’ official position that judges are free to sign anything if no objection is filed. Some of us remember stricter days but of course things are much better now in this, the best of all possible worlds.)

The defendants argued that the trial court erred by denying the homestead exemption. The Court of Appeals agrees. “’The Arizona homestead statute is not ambiguous.’ Nowhere does the statute [33-1101] require a person to satisfy notions of equity to qualify for the exemption.” The plaintiffs relied on a bankruptcy case and a 1928 case that arguably applied equity; the court distinguishes them because they concerned “a conveyance or wrongdoing involving the homestead property itself.” Although the defendants did commit a fraudulent conveyance, the plaintiffs “did not seek damages arising out of that conduct. Instead, they sought to collect on a judgment that was based on mishandling of unrelated trust assets.”

(There were also arguments – variously fact-specific or silly – about fee awards. The court affirms them.)

(link to opinion)