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Rocio Esmeralda Mercado Soto Linch v. Linch

Supreme Court of Wyoming

November 10, 2015

ROCIO ESMERALDA MERCADO SOTO LINCH, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
RONALD B. LINCH, Appellee (Plaintiff).

Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable Daniel L. Forgey, Judge

Representing Appellant: C.M. Aron of Aron & Hennig, LLP, Laramie, WY.

Representing Appellee: Jamie M. Woolsey of Fuller, Sandefer & Associates, LLC, Casper, WY.

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

HILL, Justice.

[¶1] In 2014, Rocio Linch filed a W.R.C.P. 60(b)(4) motion in district court seeking to set aside a 1999 default judgment granting her husband, Ronald Linch, a divorce. The district court denied Ms. Linch's motion on the ground that the motion was not filed within a reasonable time. Although the district court erred in denying Ms. Linch's motion solely on the basis of her delay in filing the motion, we find that Ms. Linch has failed to establish that the default judgment is void and we therefore affirm the district court decision denying her Rule 60(b)(4) motion.

ISSUES

[¶2] Ms. Linch states the issues on appeal as follows:

I. Whether the timeliness requirements of Rule 60 apply to a motion under subparagraph (b)(4) alleging that the judgment is void.
II. Whether a default divorce judgment is void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and proper venue, when the court did not find that either party resided in the county as required by Wyoming statutes.
III. Whether a default divorce judgment is void for failure of the trial court to find, or consider any evidence of, the grounds for divorce required by statute.
IV. Whether the disposition of property in a default divorce judgment is void for failure of the trial court to consider the factors required by statute.

FACTS

[¶3] Rocio Linch was born in Mexico City, Mexico and is now a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1991, Ms. Linch was living in Mexico City, working as lawyer, when she began exchanging letters with Ron Linch, who was a resident of Linch, Wyoming in Johnson County. In April 1993, after numerous meetings with Mr. Linch in Mexico and in the United States, Ms. Linch moved from Mexico and began residing with Mr. Linch in Linch, Wyoming. On November 9, 1995, the couple executed a prenuptial agreement, and on November 12, 1995, they were married in Edgerton, Wyoming. After they married, the Linches continued living in Linch, Wyoming.[1]

[¶4] On November 21, 1997, Mr. Linch filed a divorce complaint against Ms. Linch in the Seventh Judicial District Court in Natrona County. The complaint alleged that both parties were residents of Natrona County and that no children were issue of the marriage. It further alleged:

5. That prior to the parties' marriage, Plaintiff and Defendant entered into a Prenuptial Agreement, a copy of which is attached hereto.
6. That irreconcilable differences have arisen between the parties, making it impossible to continue the marital relationship. Plaintiff is the aggrieved party.
7. That there is no marital property to be divided between the parties, and that each party should retain the property, real and/or personal, which they owned prior to the marriage and which they have acquired as their sole and separate property during the marriage.

[¶5] As alleged, the parties' prenuptial agreement was attached to Mr. Linch's divorce complaint. In his prayer for relief, Mr. Linch requested that the district court enter a judgment granting him a decree of divorce and "[d]eclaring that pursuant to the Prenuptial Agreement, each party shall retain their separate property owned prior to the marriage and acquired after the marriage."

[¶6] Rocio Linch was personally served with the complaint by a process server on December 10, 1997. Ms. Linch did not file an answer or any other responsive pleading, and on June 25, 1998, Mr. Linch filed an application for entry of default. On that same date, the clerk of court filed an entry of default. On March 17, 1999, Mr. Linch filed a motion for entry of default judgment, and on March 24, 1999, a default judgment was entered granting Mr. Linch a decree of divorce from Ms. Linch. The default judgment ordered:

1. That the Plaintiff is hereby granted a decree of divorce from the Defendant, and the marriage of the parties is hereby dissolved.
2. That Plaintiff shall retain as his sole and separate property all real and personal property which is held by him individually and separately from the Defendant, and Defendant shall hereafter have no interest in said property.
3. That Defendant shall retain as her sole and separate property all real and personal property which is held by her individually and separately from the Plaintiff, and Plaintiff shall hereafter have no interest in said property.

[¶7] Following Mr. Linch's filing of the divorce complaint in 1997, the Linches continued to live together, and they did so until October 2011, when they finally ended their relationship. Nearly three years later, on April 16, 2014, Rocio Linch filed a W.R.C.P. 60(b)(4) motion to vacate the 1999 default judgment. In support of her motion, Ms. Linch argued that she had not been properly served with the divorce complaint and the district court therefore lacked personal jurisdiction to enter the default judgment against her. She further argued that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because neither party was a resident of Natrona County and the complaint did not allege that Mr. Linch had been a Wyoming resident for the sixty days preceding the filing of the divorce complaint. As additional grounds on which the default judgment should be declared void, Ms. Linch asserted:

--the district court made no finding that there were grounds for a divorce;
--the default judgment was not entered by the presiding judge to whom the case had been assigned;
--no action was taken to prosecute the divorce action for more than ninety days;
and
--the district court made no disposition of the parties' property and took no evidence on the question of how that property should be divided.

[¶8] On October 9, 2014, the district court held an evidentiary hearing on Ms. Linch's Rule 60(b)(4) motion. On December 9, 2014, the court made an oral ruling denying the motion, explaining:

The return of service in this case submitted under oath by a disinterested process server established a presumption that [Ms. Linch] was properly served personally pursuant to Rule 4. [Mr. Linch's] testimony further corroborates that evidence. [Ms. Linch's] recollection appears to be flawed in that she refuses to even acknowledge that the return of service could have been filed with the court in December 2000 – or I'm sorry – December 11, 1997, which is indisputable based on the record before the Court. [Ms. Linch's] evidence on this issue simply does not rise to the level of strong and convincing evidence to overcome the other evidence that she was properly and personally served. This Court therefore had personal jurisdiction over [Ms. Linch] such that it could enter a divorce decree.
Turning then to the other grounds asserted under Rule 60, [Ms. Linch] also sets forth several other arguments pursuant to Wyoming Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4) as to why the decree of divorce the court ...

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