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In re Estate of Stanford

Supreme Court of Wyoming

September 11, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF: GEORGE W. STANFORD, a/k/a GEORGE WILLIAM STANFORD, deceased.
v.
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Respondent). ANDREW J. JOHNSON, Appellant (Petitioner),

          Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Robert P. Schuster and Bradley L. Booke of Robert P. Schuster, P.C., Jackson, Wyoming; Thomas N. Long and Aaron J. Lyttle of Long Reimer Winegar Beppler LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Schuster.

          Representing Appellee: Bridget Hill, Wyoming Attorney General; Michael J. McGrady, Deputy Attorney General; Daniel E. White, Senior Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Mr. White.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

          DAVIS, Chief Justice.

         [¶1] Andrew Johnson filed federal civil rights claims against the City of Cheyenne and several of its law enforcement officers for wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Because one of the named detectives was deceased, Mr. Johnson filed a petition for probate of his estate and appointment of an administrator. The probate court granted the petition, but it reversed itself when the State of Wyoming objected to the appointment. Because we find that the State did not have standing to object to the appointment of the administrator, we reverse.

         ISSUES

         [¶2] Mr. Johnson presents several issues, but we find his first issue dispositive and restate it as:

Did the probate court err in finding that the State of Wyoming had standing to object to the appointment of an administrator for George W. Stanford's estate?

         FACTS

         [¶3] Andrew Johnson was convicted of aggravated burglary and first-degree sexual assault in 1989. In 2013, his convictions were vacated, and an order of actual innocence was entered based on testing of DNA found on the victim. On April 17, 2017, Mr. Johnson filed a complaint in federal court against the City of Cheyenne and several of its law enforcement officers, alleging civil rights violations in the investigation and prosecution of the charges against him.

         [¶4] One of the detectives named in the federal complaint was George W. Stanford, who died in 2007. On May 31, 2017, Mr. Johnson filed a petition in probate court for the probate of Mr. Stanford's intestate estate and for appointment of an administrator. The petition identified the deceased's right to indemnification from the State Self Insurance Account and his right to possible coverage under a state-procured professional liability policy as assets of the estate. On June 12, 2017, the probate court issued an order admitting the estate to probate and appointing an administrator.

         [¶5] On June 19, 2017, Mr. Johnson filed a creditor's claim against the Stanford estate for unknown amounts to be awarded in his federal action, and the administrator rejected the claim. On July 10, 2017, the State filed a document in probate court entitled "Objections of the State of Wyoming to the Appointment of [an] Administrator for the Above-Captioned Estate." The State cited the following as its interest in the administrator's appointment:

3. The State is affected by the appointment . . . because the appointment purports to create potential duties and obligations of the State to defend [the administrator], in his capacity as administrator, in a civil rights action brought by Andrew Johnson against the City of Cheyenne, George W. Stanford, deceased, Alan W. Spencer, a former Cheyenne Police Department officer, and various Doe defendants. . . .
4. Pursuant to Wyo. Stat. § 2-1-103, the State has the right to object to the appointment . . . and the State herewith requests that the time limitations specified therein be waived in view of the fact that the State did not receive notice of the petition filed in this matter until after [the] appointment. In addition, the State has standing to contest the appointment . . . pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act . . . .

         [¶6] Mr. Johnson and the State stipulated to a stay of the probate proceedings, and that stay was lifted on November 3, 2017. On October 15, 2018, the probate court entered an order vacating the ...


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