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Accelerated Receivable Solutions v. Hauf

Supreme Court of Wyoming

May 15, 2015

ACCELERATED RECEIVABLE SOLUTIONS, Appellant (Plaintiff),
v.
JUSTIN D. HAUF, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF MARGARET A. HAUF, DECEASED, Appellee (Plaintiff)

Page 732

Appeal from the District Court of Goshen County. The Honorable Keith G. Kautz, Judge.

For Appellant: David W. Brostorm, Scottsbluff, NE.

For Appellee: Nathaniel S. Hibben, Torrington, WY.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, KITE, DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

OPINION

Page 733

HILL, Justice.

[¶1] Accelerated Receivable Solutions (ARS) filed a claim against the Estate of Margaret A. Hauf (Estate). The Estate disallowed the claim and sent notice of the disallowance to ARS via certified mail. The certified mailing was returned to the Estate unclaimed. Months later, ARS learned of its disallowed claim and filed a complaint in district court objecting to the disallowance of its claim and seeking judgment on the claim. The Estate moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely, and the district court granted that motion. ARS appeals the dismissal, asserting both statutory and due process violations. We affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] ARS states the issues on appeal as follows:

1. The personal representative failed to exercise due diligence in providing actual notice to a known creditor of the estate.
2. The notice sent was constitutionally inadequate under the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution, because the estate knew the creditor had not received it.

FACTS

[¶3] On April 17, 2012, a petition for probate of the Estate of Margaret A. Hauf (Estate) was filed in district court in Goshen County. On July 26, 2013, the Estate issued Notices of Time for Filing Creditors Claims to known creditors, including ARS's predecessors in interest. On August 26, 2013, ARS filed its Amended Creditor's Claim.

[¶4] On September 13, 2013, the Estate rejected ARS's amended claim. On that same day, the Estate filed the notice of rejection in district court and mailed the rejection notice to ARS via certified mail. The notice mailed to ARS was returned to the Estate marked " Return to Sender," " Unclaimed," and " Unable to Forward."

[¶5] On December 18, 2013, counsel for ARS telephoned the district court for an update on the status of the ARS claim and was informed that the Estate had filed a rejection of the claim on September 13th. Counsel for ARS immediately contacted counsel for the Estate and was informed that the mailed notice had been returned unclaimed. Counsel for ARS then requested a copy of the claim rejection and received that copy on December 24, 2013, via first class mail. On January 7, 2014, counsel for ARS requested and received a faxed copy of the certified mailing. Upon further investigation and inquiries to the post office, counsel for ARS learned on January 10, 2014, that the postal service had erroneously stamped the certified mailing unclaimed and returned it to the sender.

[¶6] On February 18, 2014, ARS filed a complaint objecting to the rejection of its claim and seeking a judgment on that claim. On March 5, 2014, the Estate filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss seeking dismissal on the ground that ARS's complaint was time barred. On that same date, the district court issued an order setting hearing, which scheduled a hearing on the Estate's motion to dismiss for April 4, 2014.

Page 734

[¶7] On April 3, 2014, ARS filed its opposition to the motion to dismiss. ARS argued that the Estate's failure to strictly comply with the statutory notice requirements and its failure to provide ARS constitutionally adequate notice precluded the running of ARS's time to file its complaint. ARS attached to its response an affidavit from the postmaster at Scottsbluff, Nebraska. That affidavit stated that it appeared the return of the certified mailing unclaimed was the result of mishandling on the part of the postal service in that the postal service had not issued proper notices before returning the mailing unclaimed.

[¶8] On April 4, 2014, the district court held a hearing on the Estate's motion to dismiss. During that hearing, the court ruled that it would not convert the Estate's motion to a summary judgment motion and would not consider the postmaster affidavit attached to ARS's opposition. The court then ruled:

Looking strictly at the pleadings the court has an allegation that the claim was rejected, that notice of the rejection was mailed by certified mail as required by the statute on September 13th, so that's the operative date to begin the time frame. And indeed the plaintiff didn't file a complaint within 30 days from that. Those are probably the only operative facts the court needs to decide this motion. And we have this additional issue of the notice was returned to sender unclaimed. And it sounds like [counsel for ARS] is asserting that, you know, the post office shouldn't have done that. That " They sent it back too quickly" or " They never put it in our mailbox" or something.
The court finds that those are not defenses to this particular issue and so the court will grant the motion to dismiss. Maybe the plaintiff has to take this up with the post office. But anyway, the court will grant the motion to dismiss.

[¶9] On April 4, 2014, the district court entered an Order Dismissing with Prejudice. ARS timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶10] This Court reviews dismissals pursuant to W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) using the following standard of review:

When reviewing W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, we accept the facts stated in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. We will sustain such a dismissal when it is certain from the face of the complaint that the plaintiff cannot assert any fact which would entitle him to relief.

In re Estate of Scherer, 2014 WY 129, ¶ 5, 336 P.3d 129, 131 (Wyo. 2014) (quoting Sinclair v. City of Gillette, 2012 WY 19, ¶ 8, 270 P.3d 644, 646 (Wyo. 2012)).

[¶11] Constitutional questions present issues of law that we review de novo. Circuit Court of Eighth Judicial Dist. v. Lee Newspapers, 2014 WY 101, ¶ 9, 332 P.3d 523, 527 (Wyo. 2014) (citing Operation Save Am. v. City of Jackson, 2012 WY 51, ¶ 17, 275 P.3d 438, 447 (Wyo. 2012)).

DISCUSSION

[¶12] ARS offers two arguments in contending that the district court erred in dismissing the ARS complaint: 1) the Estate failed to comply with the probate code's notice provisions; and 2) the notice provided by the Estate did not comport with the requirements of due process. In addressing these issues, we are mindful of this Court's admonition regarding strict compliance with the probate code's notice provisions:

We hold that, notice having not been given by certified mail as required, the thirty-day period did not begin to run and the action is not barred. We note the rule of law that, generally, actual notice is a sufficient substitute for notice by mail and that defects in complying with technicalities can be ignored when actual notice is proved. However, in this situation, the thirty-day period for filing of a claim is so short, that strict compliance with the requirements of notice by certified mail ought to be required. The statute is clear and precise. The notice of rejection by certified mail to the claimant is not burdensome.

Page 735

There are some practical reasons for requiring notice of rejection by certified mail. One is more likely to pay close attention to a letter that is certified than one received by ordinary mail. In addition, certified mail avoids any question ...

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