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Sandberg v. Sandberg

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 11, 2014

BRIANNA E. SANDBERG, (n/k/a Brianna E. Whitney), Appellee

Page 880

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Robert B. Downes, Judge. Superior Court No. 4FA-08-02842 CI.

Thomas R. Wickwire, Fairbanks, for Appellant.

No appearance by Appellee.

Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.


Page 881

STOWERS, Justice.


The superior court granted Brianna Sandberg's Alaska Civil Rule 60(b)(6) motion to vacate a divorce settlement agreement, valued and divided the couple's property, and ordered David Sandberg to pay Brianna's attorney's fees. In granting Brianna's Rule 60(b)(6) motion, the superior court found that Brianna was mistaken in her belief at the time of the parties' settlement agreement that the marital home was David's property. David appeals.

No facts in this record support the superior court's finding that Brianna mistakenly believed she held no ownership interest in the couple's marital home. We therefore reverse and remand the case for the superior court's reconsideration of Brianna's Rule 60(b)(6) motion. We address David's arguments on the valuation and division of property with the understanding that these arguments may be mooted by the superior court's resolution of Brianna's Rule 60(b)(6) motion on remand. Because we reverse the court's ruling on Brianna's Rule 60(b) motion, we also vacate the superior court's attorney's fee award.


A. Facts

David Sandberg and Brianna Sandberg (now known as Brianna Whitney) married in 2002 in Fairbanks. The parties have two children, born in 2004 and 2006. David also adopted Brianna's son from a previous relationship. Throughout the marriage David was the primary income earner, while Brianna cared for the children at home.

1. The Blackberry Drive house

Before the parties were married, David began constructing a house on a 1.5-acre lot on Blackberry Drive in Fairbanks. David had an agreement with the former lot owner whereby he acquired one lot and purchased an adjacent 1.5-acre lot. At the time of their marriage in 2002, the house was roofless and not yet inhabitable. David continued to work on the house throughout the parties' marriage. David did the majority of the work involved in building the house, but he acknowledged that " there was some marital effort put into" the house, and Brianna also testified that she did some work on the house both in its construction and decoration. In October 2006 the parties moved into the house, which was then livable although not fully complete.

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The parties continued to live in the house until they separated and Brianna left the home in late 2008. After their separation, David continued to make improvements and repairs. He estimated that his additional, post-divorce work had increased the value of the home by approximately $19,000. David also continued to pay property taxes after the divorce.

In May 2011, during the course of the Rule 60(b) litigation, the court granted Brianna's motion for possession of the marital home. At that time the water system needed repair. At trial in August 2011, Brianna and her fiancé testified that they were working on that repair.

2. Brianna's mental and physical health

Brianna has suffered from depression since at least 2004, about six months after the birth of her second child, and she took prescribed medication for this condition. In spring 2008 she was under a lot of stress because her relationship with David was strained and because a close friend had recently committed suicide. Around this same time, she began experiencing a variety of physical ailments, including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Brianna had her gallbladder removed in May 2008, and she underwent a partial thyroidectomy in July 2008. In addition, she suffered from a " diffuse rash" and was diagnosed with cutaneous mastocytosis. Despite this diagnosis, her medical providers were not able to determine the source of all of her symptoms, nor were they able to develop an effective treatment plan to relieve those symptoms. In October 2008 Brianna was referred to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle for a bone marrow biopsy, the results of which were inconclusive.

Brianna's illnesses and the uncertainty of her diagnosis caused her significant anxiety. She testified that after her October trip to Seattle did not result in a clear diagnosis, she " spiraled more and more into . . . feeling really depressed, feeling really hopeless, feeling really scared."

3. Brianna's second trip to Seattle and return to Fairbanks

In early November 2008 Brianna made a second visit to Seattle. Brianna testified that the purpose of the visit was to " find some better medical care and . . . just take a break for [her] mind for a week or two" to relieve the stress and anxiety resulting from her illness and uncertain diagnosis. Before she left she told David that she wanted a legal separation and perhaps also wanted to see other people. She arranged to stay in Seattle with a man she had met during her first visit in October with whom she had been corresponding. Shortly after Brianna arrived in Seattle, she received divorce papers from David. She quickly ran out of the money she had brought with her and did not have access to any other marital funds.[1] Brianna testified that she felt stuck in Seattle because she had no money and did not have a return ticket home. She remained in Seattle for four months; she testified that during this time " I got so sick, I was so scared, I didn't know when I'd talk to my kids again and I just couldn't function at all."

In March 2009 Brianna returned to Fairbanks. David and the children moved out of the house before Brianna arrived and she moved in. Brianna testified that she had difficulty living at the house alone because she did not have a vehicle, she lacked sufficient heating fuel, and she quickly ran out of food. Further, upon her return to Fairbanks she felt she had " no support system anymore because [she had] been completely ostracized" from family and friends.

In mid-March the superior court granted David's motion for temporary orders, awarding David primary physical custody of the children and sole use of the family home. As a result Brianna departed the home in late March. Before doing so she negotiated with David's attorney, John J. Connors, to receive a $3,000 advance on the divorce settlement, as well as possession of the parties' Ford Expedition vehicle. After leaving the home, she used $500 of the $3,000 advance to pay

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for " a few months [of] rent with a roommate."

Brianna visited a health clinic in March 2009 with a variety of symptoms apparently caused by a flare-up of her cutaneous mastocytosis, but by April her health had improved and she found a job as a waitress. However, by June she had to leave her job because she " started to get really sick" again and had been missing days at work.

On May 28, 2009, Brianna admitted herself to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for four days due to anxiety. Brianna testified that throughout the summer of 2009, after leaving her job at the restaurant, she " was basically homeless," staying with friends, in her car, or at a rescue mission.

B. Proceedings

1. The initial settlement agreement

David filed for divorce in November 2008. Between January and March 2009, Connors prepared a first draft of a settlement agreement between David and Brianna. When she returned to Fairbanks in March, Brianna read the draft agreement and asked that several modifications be made. Connors prepared a second draft, and again Brianna requested changes. When the parties reached the third and final draft, Brianna sat in Connors's office and read through the agreement before signing ...

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