University of Vermont AAHS

Felling v. Buerger

Iowa Court of Appeals
UNPUBLISHED, 2002 WL 31015660
September 11, 2002

Summary of Opinion

Buerger left a large number of her horses in the care of Felling.  A dispute arose about possession and care of the horses.  The trial court ruled that Felling was entitled to return of her horses upon payment of $9,000 to Buerger to reimburse her for their care.  Felling returned the horses, but Buerger objected that not all of the horses had been returned and that those that were returned had not properly been cared for.  In this opinion, the Court of Appeals affirms the trial courtís decision.  It upholds the trial court determination against the credibility of Buergerís testimony about the number and condition of the horses returned.

Text of Opinion

Michelle Buerger appeals from the district court's ruling denying her motion to enlarge or amend a prior ruling by the court, which determined that Denise Felling had complied with a post judgment stipulation and consent order. We affirm the district court.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The parties met at a horse show in Des Moines in October 1997. At that time, Buerger raised and bred horses in Wisconsin. Felling is a veterinarian from Iowa County.

In response to an apparent threat of litigation in Wisconsin concerning Buerger's horses, the animals were brought to Felling's sister's farm in Iowa County. The horses were transported between November 1997 and mid-January 1998. It was anticipated the parties would reside together and look after the horses together. Buerger was to pay for food and water for the animals. Felling became an involuntary bailee for the herd of horses when Buerger left Iowa apparently intending to move to Kentucky.

Felling filed a petition in equity in April 1998 seeking damages and injunctive relief. Among other things, she claimed Buerger failed to reimburse her for expenses she incurred in caring for the horses. Buerger counterclaimed alleging breach of contract and fraud. The matter proceeded to trial and was tried as a law action. In a ruling filed July 21, 1999, the district court entered judgment in favor of Felling against Buerger for $9000. The court granted Felling a lien pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 579 [FN1] and attached the lien to Buerger's horses in the possession of Felling. The court ordered that Felling could proceed to auction to satisfy the lien. Neither party appealed from the court's ruling.

FN1. Iowa Code Chapter 579 provides that caretakers of stock have a right to a lien on such stock for unpaid expenses of keeping the stock. The lien may be satisfied through public auction of said stock.

Following the ruling, the parties entered into an agreement and filed a joint application for a consent order. A judge entered a consent order on August 12, 1999. The order provided that Felling would transfer possession of Buerger's horses to her on August 13, 1999. The transfer was to include at least thirty-one horses. Upon transfer, Felling was entitled to the sum of $9000 which Buerger had deposited with the clerk of court.

On August 14, 1999, Felling transferred the horses to Buerger's possession. A few days later, Buerger filed an objection to the release of the funds she deposited with the clerk. She alleged Felling transferred too few horses and many of the horses transferred were diseased and injured. A few months later, Buerger filed for bankruptcy in the State of Wisconsin and the proceedings were stayed. Hearing on the release of funds was eventually held on May 23, 2001. Following hearing, the court ruled Felling had complied with the post judgment stipulation and consent order. The court ordered the funds deposited with the clerk released to Felling.

Buerger then moved to enlarge or amend the court's findings and conclusions pursuant to Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 179(b).

The court overruled Buerger's motion and she appealed.

II. Scope of Review.

Our review is governed by how this case was tried in district court. Howard v. Schildberg Constr. Co., 528 N.W.2d 550, 552 (Iowa 1995). Although this case was filed in equity, the parties agreed to try it as a case at law. Our scope of review in a case tried at law is for correction of errors at law. Iowa R.App. P. 6.4; Drew v. Lionberger, 508 N.W.2d 83, 85 (Iowa Ct.App.1993). The district court's findings of fact have the effect of a jury verdict and are binding on us if supported by substantial evidence. Grinnell Mut. Reins. Co. v. Voeltz, 431 N.W.2d 783, 785 (Iowa 1988); Drew, 508 N.W.2d at 85. Evidence is substantial when a reasonable mind would accept the evidence as adequate to reach the same findings. Drew, 508 N.W.2d at 85.

III. Discussion.

On appeal, Buerger contends the trial court improperly ignored the testimony she gave at the hearing on her objection to release of funds. She claims her testimony establishes that (1) not all of the foals were accounted for and/or delivered and (2) the horses were not properly cared for by Felling. She asks us to reverse the district court and remand for consideration of the amount of damages she suffered. We decline her invitation do so.

The consent order entered by stipulation of the parties on August 12, 1999 required Felling to transfer all of the horses Buerger had any ownership or possessory interest in. This included any horses born to Buerger's horses. The order also provided that Felling was to give reasonable care to Buerger's horses until transfer. Significantly, the order noted that there were "at least thirty-one horses to be transferred."

At the hearing on her objection to release of funds, Buerger admitted she received thirty-one horses on August 14, 1999; however, she claimed there were unaccounted for horses and that Felling had not provided reasonable care for the horses she received. Buerger claimed a video of the injured and diseased horses was taken, but failed to offer the video into evidence.

In its ruling on Buerger's objection to the release of funds, the court noted the language of the consent order, which provided that there were at least thirty-one horses to be transferred. The court found that thirty-one horses were indeed transferred to Buerger on August 14, 1999. The court also concluded that the horses had been reasonably cared for by Felling. The court determined "that Felling has complied with the post judgment stipulation and consent order." Unsatisfied, Buerger filed her motion to amend or enlarge. The district court overruled the motion.

Upon review of the record, we find no reason to disagree with the district court's conclusions. Substantial evidence exists to conclude Felling complied with the consent order. As earlier noted, Buerger admitted she received thirty-one horses from Felling. Furthermore, in its original ruling granting a lien to Felling on Buerger's horses, the trial court found Buerger had already removed ten horses from a farm in Iowa County where they were pastured without Felling's knowledge. Buerger's testimony is not corroborated by other witnesses or exhibits. Nothing in the record before us documents her assertions of unaccounted for horses or unreasonable care. The trial court was free to accept or reject Buerger's testimony. It obviously did not find her testimony believable. We affirm the district's ruling of June 1, 2001, finding that Felling complied with the post judgment consent order, and we affirm the court's ruling of June 15, 2001, denying Buerger's motion to enlarge or amend its findings and conclusions.

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