Wittner v. Phillips

Unpublished, No. A15-1681
Minnesota Court of Appeals, May 16, 2016

This case involved contentious litigation between Ms. Jessica Wittner and Mr. Joshua Phillips.  The two had lived together and been romantically involved from about August 2012 to March 2013.  Ms. Wittner alleged that, during their relationship, Mr. Phillips had been physically and verbally abusive.  After their relationship had ended, Ms. Wittner filed a civil lawsuit against Mr. Phillips for breach of contract and several torts including negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, and conversion.

The district court granted a motion by Mr. Phillips to dismiss two of the counts for breach of contract related to payment of rent, utilities, and loans.  Ms. Wittner ultimately voluntarily dismissed the other counts.  The district court also granted Mr. Phillips’ motion for sanctions against Ms. Wittner for issues related to discovery and for being a frivolous litigant.  Ms. Wittner appealed the district court’s sanctions and dismissal of her claims for breach of contract.

The appellate court first considered the district court’s dismissal of Ms. Wittner’s contract-based claims.  The court discusses Minnesota Statute 513.075-.076, which essentially prohibits breach-of-contract claims between unmarried people who were living together, unless they had a written agreement.  Ms. Wittner alleged that she and Mr. Phillips had had an oral contract regarding payment of their rent and utilities, and as to money that she alleged that she had lent to Mr. Phillips.  However, the court notes that the purpose of the statute is to prevent one person from asserting rights to property owned by the other person.  In this case, the courts notes that Ms. Wittner was only seeking to preserve and protect her own property.  Also, the oral agreement did not involve their sexual relationship which, the court notes, was also a requirement under the statute.  As such, the court held that the district court erred in dismissing Ms. Wittner’s claims for breach of contract.

The court next considered whether the discovery sanctions applied by the district court were proper.  Ms. Wittner argued that, although she had answered discovery late, it had not harmed Mr. Phillips.  However, the district court had found that Ms. Wittner’s late responses had cost Mr. Phillips time and money and, as such, he was entitled to a remedy.  The appellate court agreed and found that the district court had not abused its discretion in imposing sanctions.

Finally, the court considered whether the district court had erred in imposing sanctions against Ms. Wittner for frivolous litigation.  Ms. Wittner argued that the district court had erred for five reasons.  However, the appellate court rejected all of Ms. Wittner’s arguments and found that the district court had not abused its discretion.

The court then went so far as to caution Ms. Wittner from continuing to advocate too zealously.  The court referenced Ms. Wittner’s written pleadings and motions and noted that she had attacked the district court in unreasonable and unproductive ways.  The court even referenced the rules of professional conduct and recommended Ms. Wittner tone down her legal arguments.

DISCLAIMER:  As always, the above legal summary is not intended to be relied upon and is solely the opinion of the author.

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