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Johnson v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 19, 2017

CYNTHIA A. JOHNSON, Appellant,
v.
ROBERT N. JOHNSON, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court No.3PA-12-02502CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Vanessa White, Judge.

          Appearances: Cynthia A. Johnson, pro se, Chugiak, Appellant.

          Notice of nonparticipation filed by Kenneth J. Goldman, Kenneth J. Goldman, P.C., Palmer, for Appellee.

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

          OPINION

          MAASSEN, Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         As the superior court announced its ruling at the close of a divorce trial, the wife physically assaulted the husband's attorney. The incident led to criminal charges against the wife, and the judge who presided over the divorce case testified at the criminal trial about what she had witnessed of the assault.

         The property distribution in the divorce allocated the marital home to the wife on condition that she refinance it in her name. She was ultimately unable to do so, and the husband exercised an option to refinance it himself and take possession of it. The wife then filed several motions asking the court to reopen the case, order that certain items of personal property be delivered to her, and redistribute the marital estate because of the change in the home's ownership. She also filed a motion for change of venue, which she now characterizes as a motion to recuse the judge. The court denied all her motions.

         The wife appeals. She argues that the superior court erred when it denied her motions to redistribute the marital estate and that the judge should have recused herself after witnessing the assault in the courtroom and testifying about it at the wife's criminal trial. But because the superior court did not abuse its discretion in any of its challenged rulings, we affirm.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Robert Johnson and Cynthia Johnson married in 1998, and Robert filed for divorce in December 2012. Superior Court Judge Vanessa White presided over the divorce trial in March 2014. At the close of trial, while the judge was placing her oral decision on the record, there was an altercation in the courtroom. The details of the incident are not clear from our record, but Cynthia admits that she struck Robert's attorney. The State of Alaska brought criminal charges against her. In October 2014 Judge White was called by the defense to testify at Cynthia's criminal trial as a fact witness.

         In the meantime, in April 2014, Judge White issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law memorializing her decision of the divorce case. The findings and conclusions addressed in detail the disposition of the marital home and how the property allocation would be equalized under different scenarios. The home was awarded to Cynthia on condition that she refinance it in only her name by December 31, 2014. If she met the deadline and retained the home, she would make an equalization payment to Robert of $18, 983, while Robert would receive the full value of his "SBS rollover" account. On the other hand, if Cynthia failed to meet the deadline, Robert would have until June 30, 2015, to refinance the home in only his name and take possession. In that event, Cynthia would receive 56% of Robert's "SBS rollover" account "to achieve a 50/50 division of property." If neither party could refinance the home, it would be sold.

         In late 2014, on Cynthia's motion, the court extended her refinancing deadline to March 31, 2015. On March 10 Cynthia filed another motion to extend the deadline, which the court denied. Cynthia did not refinance by March 31, and in April the court directed that Robert receive a clerk's deed to the marital home.

         Both parties had been represented by counsel up to this point, but Cynthia's attorney withdrew in May 2015. Beginning in September 2015 and continuing through February 2016, Cynthia, now representing herself, filed a series of motions asking the court to reopen the case for the purpose of redistributing the marital estate now that Robert had the marital home.

         The court denied Cynthia's motions and warned that if she filed "similar motions... in the future, " the court would entertain a motion from Robert for attorney's fees. Cynthia then filed a "Motion for Change of Venue, " in which she argued that Judge White and "the court system... in Palmer" could not "give [her] a fair trial." The court denied this motion in a brief handwritten order that read: "This matter is closed. There is no need for further proceedings. Even if further proceedings were warranted, Palmer is the proper venue."

         Cynthia appeals. She argues that (1) the superior court erred when it denied her motions to reopen the case and redistribute the marital property and (2) Judge White should have recused herself after witnessing the assault in the courtroom and testifying about it at Cynthia's criminal trial. Robert is not participating in this appeal.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Cynthia seeks both to enforce and to modify the divorce decree. "We review questions regarding a trial court's response to a motion to enforce a [divorce decree] under the abuse of discretion standard."[1] We also review for abuse of discretion decisions on motions for relief from final judgments, [2] motions for change of venue, [3] and motions to recuse the trial judge.[4] We will find an abuse of discretion only if the trial court's decision was "manifestly unreasonable."[5]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. The Superior Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion In Denying Cynthia's Motions To Reopen The Case And ...


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