Humboldt County court 'amply justified' in declaring plantiff a vexatious litigant, appeals court rules

By Karen Kidd | Mar 27, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO – A state appeals court affirmed a Humboldt County court's decision to order a man seeking to overturn the divorce between him and his late wife to be a vexatious litigant, according to a state appeals court ruling issued earlier this month.

"Plaintiff has relentlessly pursued litigation in these related matters, despite his continued lack of success," California's 1st District Court of Appeal, Division One, said in its ruling issued March 16. "... While our ruling here is unlikely to put a complete stop to plaintiff's efforts, we conclude the [trial court's] vexatious litigation orders are amply justified."

The plaintiff in the case, John H. Stewart, challenged Humboldt County Superior Court's earlier decision to declare him a vexatious litigant and to bar Stewart from filing future cases "in propria persona," or on his own behalf, without the court's permission, according to the appeals court's ruling. 

"We conclude substantial evidence supports the orders and affirm," the appeals court's ruling said.

Justice Robert L. Dondero wrote the appeals court's 15-page ruling while Justice Sandra L. Marguiles and Justice Kathleen M. Banke concurred.

The case is rooted in Stewart's October 1994 marriage to a woman identified in the ruling only as Patricia, who months before had purchased a ranch and deeded it under her name "as a single woman," according to the background portion of the ruling. In May 2005, the couple prepared an interspousal deed to place the deed in both their names but that deed was not recorded until after her death, according to the ruling.

In November 2007, Patricia filed for divorce in Humboldt County Superior Court and the following January, Stewart "filed a conservatorship petition seeking to become Patricia's conservator," the ruling said. The following August, Stewart's petition was rejected by a jury, which found "the appointment of a conservator for Patricia to be unnecessary," according to the ruling.

In November 2008, Stewart filed a notice of appeal, "purportedly from a judgment entered August 29 in the conservatorship case, though no judgment had been entered," the ruling said.

The following month, a family court granted Patricia her divorce, which became valid the following February, and "found Patricia competent and able to participate in the proceeding," the appeals court's ruling said. "The court also found the 2005 interspousal deed to be invalid under principles of undue influence."

Shortly after her divorce was valid, Patricia sold the Ranch to William and Ronda Rolff and the deed transferring title to the Rolffs was record, according to the appeal court's ruling.

Patricia died four days later, according to the ruling.

"On Feb. 24, 2009, the day after Patricia died, plaintiff recorded the interspousal transfer deed that the family court had previously declared to be unenforceable," the appeals court's ruling said. 

In the weeks that followed, Stewart filed a probate petition based on a "purported" will dated April 9, 2007, appeal the family court's judgment of dissolving his marriage to his late ex-wife, according to the appeals court's ruling.

The month following Patricia's death, her caretaker also filed a probate petition based on a purported will dated a few days before her death and the two probate proceedings were consolidated, according to the appeals court's ruling. That April, Stewart filed his first amended complaint against the public administrator of Patricia's estate in his breach of contract case and that summer filed for a preliminary injunction, which was denied the following October, according to the ruling.

That first denial set a pattern for Stewart's filings until October 2016, which were all denied, according to the ruling. In previous rulings, the appeals court denied Stewart's preliminary injunction request, dismissed as untimely two appeals filed by Stewart, and affirmed a judgment against Stewart in the conservatorship and marriage dissolution action, according to the ruling.

In March 2016, William Rolff filed a motion, joined a month later by Patricia's caretaker, for the court to declare Stewart a vexatious litigant, a motion Stewart opposed, according to the ruling.

Humboldt County Superior Court declared Stewart a vexatious litigant the following October and the next November entered a prefiling order that prohibited Stewart from filing new litigation without the court's permission, which Stewart appealed, according to the ruling. The appeals court found against Stewart and affirmed the trial court's order, according to the appeals court's ruling.

Among his numerous arguments on appeal, Stewart contended "that the two appeals dismissed for untimeliness do not 'count' for purposes of vexatious litigation determinations," the appeals court's ruling said. "We disagree."

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