Wednesday, November 19, 2014
C.A. Dismisses Appeal in Suit Over Fraud in Sale of Ranch
Panel Invokes Disentitlement Doctrine After Defendant Shifts Assets
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Fifth District Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal by a Central Valley couple after finding that they have repeatedly violated court orders in an effort to avoid paying a $1.5 million judgment.
The court yesterday ordered publication of its Nov. 3 opinion citing the disentitlement doctrine as authority for denying Dr. Michael Weilert and his wife, Genevieve de Montremare, the right to appeal the Fresno Superior Court judgment.
Dr. Brian Gwartz, a Glendora anesthesiologist, and his wife, Orange attorney Cheryl Skigin, filed suit in 2009, claiming that the defendants misrepresented numerous facts regarding a Parlier horse ranch they sold to the plaintiffs in 2008.
The litigation drew a good deal of publicity in the region, as details about the defendants, particularly de Montremare, became known. It was reported that while she had represented herself as a member of a royal French family that had been breeding horses for 1,000 years, her accent was phony and she was a native of Central California, the daughter of a onetime Tulare County supervisor and the stepdaughter of a mayor of her hometown of Lindsay.
A onetime national raisin queen, Genevieve Sanders changed her name legally in 1991, the same year she married Weilert, a pathologist who admitted on the witness stand that he went along with the false claims, although he said he believed his wife had some relationship to French royalty.
Her first husband testified that she was a waitress during their marriage, and that she began studying French language and history because she believed she could get bigger tips by convincing customers she was French.
The story grew even more bizarre in 2007 when Weilert informed the couple’s friends and members of the Friesian horse community—his wife had founded the International Friesian Show Horse Association—that she had died of leukemia. The plaintiffs claimed her “death” was a misrepresentation designed to inflate the sale price of the ranch, and that there were told other falsehoods, including that the construction of the residence had cost close to $2 million, marble lions imported from the wife’s ancestral home in France came with the house, and that the property had a private beach and had been permitted for a boat dock.
Weilert claimed that his wife was ill and wanted the world to think she was dead so that she would be “left alone.”
De Montremare claimed to be too sick to be deposed, refusing to comply with a court order that she appear. Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan imposed sanctions, including an order barring de Montremare from testifying at trial.
The defense urged jurors to look past the strange history and focus on the fact that the plaintiffs agreed to buy the property “as-is.” But Kapetan ruled that the written contract between the parties was not fully integrated and allowed the plaintiffs to present evidence of Weilert’s oral misrepresentations.
Jurors took three hours of deliberations after the first phase of the trial to find that the defendants committed fraud and award $700,000 in compensation—essentially the $2.3 million the plaintiffs paid for the property, less the appraised value. After the second phase, the jury added another $850,000 in punitive damages.
The defendants did not post a supersedeas bond, and the plaintiffs have been trying to collect the judgment while the appeal has been pending. They obtained several orders requiring the defendants to turn assets over to the sheriff and barring them from transferring assets among themselves and entities related to Weilert’s medical practice.
47 Violations Cited
In moving to dismiss the appeal, the plaintiffs cited 47 violations of those orders. Weilert did not deny the barred transfers took place, but claimed he had acted “at all times…in good faith.”
Justice Donald Franson Jr., writing for the Court of Appeal, said it was inconceivable that Weilert could have been acting in good faith since he could not explain how he could have made the transfers without violating the orders or “how he acted with a pure heart and a head so empty that he did not realize he was violating the orders.”
Those circumstances support application of the disentitlement doctrine. Analogous to the fugitive disentitlement doctrine in criminal law, the doctrine in its civil application permits dismissal of appeals where the appellant has impeded enforcement of the orders being appealed from.
“The record shows that defendants are seeking the benefits of an appeal while willfully disobeying the trial court’s valid orders and thereby frustrating defendants’ legitimate efforts to enforce the judgment,” the justice wrote. “Therefore, we conclude the equitable considerations relevant to the disentitlement doctrine favor dismissal of this appeal.”
Those considerations support dismissal of the defendants’ appeal from the post-judgment orders, as well as the appeal from the judgment, he added.
The case is Gwartz v. Weilert, 14 S.O.S. 5169.
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