Making the Remedy Fit the Circumstances

In some circumstances, courts have the power to order people to do things in order to correct problems they may have caused. For example, early in my career, I was involved in an important case about what someone needs to prove to have the legal description in a deed modified. The power is not, however, unlimited. Two recent cases, one from Oregon and one from Idaho, illustrate the principles that the remedy ordered by the court should roughly correspond to the relief requested and arguments presented by the people involved, and should fit the facts of the dispute.

The Oregon case involved a dispute over a trust. A couple’s estate plan involved transferring their assets into two trusts, Each trust provided that on the death of one of the couple, the maximum amount that could pass without taxes would be left in the trust and the remainder passed to the other spouse. The part remaning in the trust would pay income to the surviving spouse for his or her lifetime, and the balance would then be distributed to their children. When the wife died, the value of her trust was less than the maximum nontaxable amount. Instead of leaving the property in the trust, the husband, acting as trustee, transferred the assets of her trust to his trust, and then amended his trust to disinherit one of the children. When he died, the disinherited child sued, asking for the successor trustee to submit an accounting of the funds transferred out of the mother’s trust, after which the father’s trust would be expected to refund anything misappropriated to the mother’s trust.

The trial court declined to order the accounting. Instead, it effectively found that if it had been known there would be no need to take advantage of tax protections, the tax provisions would not have been written into the trust agreements. As a result, the judge thought it would be unfair to require the accounting even though it ruled that normally the disinherited child would be eneitled to one. The judge ordered the trust modified to remove the requirement that the nontaxable property remain in the trust.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. It ruled that because nobody had requested the trust agreement be modified, and nobody had presented arguments discussing that possibility, the trial court had unfairly surprised the parties with its ruling. The issue that had been presented to the trial court was whether the trust agreement allowed the trustee to transfer funds out of the trust, and the trial court had ruled that he was not allowed to do so.

Courts, in cases in which orders like these are requested, are allowed to give different relief than the parties request. This case, however, confirms and applies the principle that the order has to be within the general scope of the issues presented.

The Idaho case involved a dispute between two pairs of neighbors who owned adjacent rural properties. One couple decided to erect a very large indoor riding arena on their property. This took the form of a permanent tent, covering over 31,000 square feet and rising 40 to 50 feet at its highest point. The other couple complained that dust, odor, flies, noise, and nighttime lighting resulting from the increased activity and traffic interfered with their ability to use their property, including an existing business growing and selling hay. They sued for damages and to have the tent removed.

The trial court ordered the tent removed, and the owners appealed. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the size and location of the tent, in itself, could not be held an improper interference, but did approve the trial court’s finding that the activities associated with the tent were an interference. Because the tent itself was not considered an interference, the court ruled that the trial court should not have ordered it removed. Instead, the activities should have been restricted to alleviate the interference, and the case was sent back to the trial court to decide the appropriate restrictions. Effectively, the court’s ruling embodied the maxim, “The punishment must fit the crime.”

Not all cases involve relief other than an award of money. When they do, often the question of an order similar to the ones in these cases may arise. As can be seen, a careful discussion with a lawyer of what might be ordered, in light of what is happening, might be worth considering.

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