Marriage of Steyh, 2015 MT 193 (July 7, 2015) (Cotter, J.) (5-0, rev’d)
Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in holding that William’s statements made in the March 2012 dissolution hearing were judicial admissions; and (2) whether the district court erred in precluding William from presenting evidence of the value of the real property based on the judicial admissions.
Short Answer: (1) Yes, and (2) yes.
Reversed and remanded
Facts: Julie petitioned for dissolution and included a proposal for distribution of the marital assets, under which William would have been awarded the couple’s house and property on Hobson Street in Butte. William elected to default.
The district court held a final dissolution hearing at which both parties appeared pro se. The court inquired of William the value of the house. No appraisal reports were offered into evidence. The court found Julie’s proposed property division unfair to her, and required William to pay her $30,000 over three years. William appealed and this Court reversed in July 2013, holding the lower court had not given William a meaningful opportunity to contest the distribution of assets.
On remand, the parties were ordered to submit proposed findings and conclusions at least one week before trial. The consolidated pretrial order submitted by the parties focused only on the equitable division of the property. William disclosed expert and lay witnesses, while Julie did not identify any witnesses beyond herself, William, and William’s witnesses.
William contended that when Julie made her initial proposal, she knew the house’s foundation required substantial repairs costing $88,000-$124,000, and asked Julie to pay for half of the estimated repairs, or $50,000.
Procedural Posture & Holding: At a bench trial, Julie’s counsel argued for the first time that William’s statement regarding the value of the house made during the 2012 dissolution hearing constituted judicial admissions, precluding him from introducing contradictory evidence. The court agreed. In its final decree, it adopted its previous order from April 2012. William appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.
Reasoning: (1) William’s statements were neither unequivocal statements of fact nor made for the purposes of conceding the truth of an alleged fact. He was taken by surprise by the court’s inquiry at the 2012 hearing, and struggled to recall the details of appraisal reports prepared months earlier. His “sketchy recollection” is insufficient to constitute a judicial admission.
(2) The parties must be given a meaningful opportunity to present evidence regarding the value of the Hobson Street property.