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In re Louise

Court of Appeals of Nebraska

August 26, 2014


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Appeal from the County Court for Cuming County: RICHARD W. KREPELA, Judge.

Mark D. Fitzgerald, of Fitzgerald, Vetter & Temple, for appellants.

Andre R. Barry and Kara J. Ronnau, of Cline, Williams, Wright, Johnson & Oldfather, L.L.P., for appellee Vicki Schlautmann.

David E. Copple and Michelle M. Schlecht, of Copple, Rockey, McKeever & Schlecht, P.C., L.L.O., for appellees Michael Addison and Renee Wetherelt.

Kenneth W. Hartman and Erin E. Busch, of Baird Holm, L.L.P., for appellee David Steffensmeier.



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[22 Neb.App. 295] Riedmann, Judge.


Pioneer Manor Foundation and Campbell County School District No. 1, Gillette, Wyoming, appeal and David Steffensmeier cross-appeals from an order of the county court for Cuming County. The county court found that Steffensmeier breached his fiduciary duty as the trustee of the Louise V. Steinhoefel Trust, but that no damages resulted from the breach. We affirm these findings, but vacate the order granting interim attorney fees and remand the matter for further findings on this issue.


Steffensmeier is the trustee of the Louise V. Steinhoefel Trust, which was originally established in 1999. The appellants, along with the appellees Michael Addison and Renee Wetherelt, are among the beneficiaries of the trust. The trust was partially funded with approximately 1,471 acres of real property located in Gillette. After Louise V. Steinhoefel passed away in 2004, the trust was to provide funds to take care of her son, Robert Steinhoefel. At the time, the trust had sufficient funds to care for Robert, but his expenses increased when he was moved to a nursing home in 2006. Thus, Steffensmeier determined that he needed to sell some trust assets in order to continue to provide for Robert's care. Robert ultimately died in September 2007.

Steffensmeier contacted a bank in Gillette in the spring of 2007 and asked for the name of a real estate agent who could help him sell the 1,471-acre ranch property. He was given the name of Robert Ostlund, a broker with 30 years of experience selling real estate in Gillette. Steffensmeier spoke to Ostlund about selling the property and then sent him the most recent appraisal of the land, which had been completed in January 2004. Steffensmeier told Ostlund he thought they would need [22 Neb.App. 296] an appraisal done on the property and another on the mineral interests, but Ostlund said no appraisals were necessary. Steffensmeier let Ostlund determine the fair market value of the property because Ostlund had more expertise in that area than Steffensmeier did. After reviewing the 2004 appraisal and conducting some market research in the area, Ostlund determined that an appropriate price for the property was $1,425,000. He was confident in this price and communicated his confidence to Steffensmeier.

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The trust provided that upon the death of Robert, Vicki Schlautmann (Vicki), one of the beneficiaries, had the option to purchase the approximately 735-acre portion of the property described as " parcel A." Steffensmeier mistakenly believed that Vicki had an active option to purchase all of the real property at the time he was putting it up for sale. As a result of this mistaken belief, Steffensmeier gave Vicki the opportunity to purchase the entire property before Robert's death, and she and her husband submitted an offer for the full purchase price on June 8, 2007.

Steffensmeier testified that he signed his acceptance of the Schlautmanns' offer on June 12, 2007, but did not mail the signed offer back to Ostlund until June 25. In the meantime, a Gillette real estate broker, Jim Engel, submitted an offer to purchase the property under the name " BDG, LLC," to Ostlund on June 22 in the amount of $2,100,000. Ostlund testified that he had talked to Engel prior to his making the offer and told Engel that the Schlautmanns had already submitted an offer that had been verbally accepted. BDG's offer indicated that it was a backup offer contingent upon the cancellation of the existing sales contract and that if the existing contract was not canceled, then BDG's offer became null and void. Ostlund testified that he did not think BDG's offer was legitimate, and he told Steffensmeier so. Ultimately, the Schlautmanns' purchase of the property closed in August 2007.

After Steffensmeier filed an application with the trial court for final accounting and discharge, the appellants brought this action claiming that Steffensmeier breached his fiduciary duty as trustee of the trust by selling the property to the [22 Neb.App. 297] Schlautmanns for less than fair market value. During the pendency of this action, the court granted Steffensmeier's applications for interim attorney fees and costs on September 1, 2009, and September 28, 2011.

Trial was held in August 2012. At trial, the appellants' expert witness, Carol McCracken, testified that she appraised the property and concluded that at the time of the sale, the fair market value was $3,480,000. McCracken is from Billings, Montana. She became a certified general real estate appraiser in 2006 and completed 29 ranch appraisals. At the time of trial, she was no longer working as an appraiser and was employed as a correctional counselor at a women's prison.

Steffensmeier also had an expert witness testify, as to his valuation of the property. This expert, Robert Zabel, estimated that the property's value at the time of the sale was $1,477,000. At the time of trial, Zabel had lived in Gillette for 31 years and been a real estate appraiser in Gillette for 20 years. He also worked as a real estate land developer in Gillette from 2002 until 2010. Zabel has been a certificated appraiser since 1994 and is a member of several professional organizations. He estimated that he has performed approximately 1,800 appraisals in his career, completing 1,600 of those prior to 2007.

Zabel did not believe that McCracken reached a reasonable conclusion as to the market value of the property. He did not believe that she was fully aware of the market, including the volume of sales that had occurred and the amount of property that was coming to market. He also recognized immediately that she did not understand which type of appraisal approach she was using. Zabel noted that among her errors, she assumed that if a smaller parcel of property could be sold for a certain price per acre, then a larger parcel could too, but she had no real evidence that that could happen.

After trial, the court concluded that the trust required Steffensmeier to sell the

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property at fair market value and that he failed to ascertain that value at the time of the sale by failing to get an updated appraisal, failing to promptly offer the property for public sale, and mistakenly giving Vicki an opportunity to purchase the property under the assumption that [22 Neb.App. 298] she had an active option. The court determined that BDG's offer had so many contingencies and reservations that it was not a valid offer or true reflection of market value. It also concluded that Zabel's estimate of the property's value was substantially more credible than McCracken's. Consequently, the court held that although Steffensmeier breached his fiduciary duty, the property sold at or substantially close to the market value, and that ...

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