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Vo v. Pham

filed: May 28, 1996.


Superior Court County: King. Superior Court Cause No: 91-2-222921-0. Date filed in Superior Court: April 19, 1994. Superior Court Judge Signing: Hon. Dale Ramerman.

Written by: Judge Cox, Concurred by: Judge Kennedy, Judge Ellington

Author: Cox

COX, J. -- Susan Partridge appeals a judgment and decree that quiets title to two properties in her, Tal V. Vo, and Le Ngoc Pham. Partridge's conduct at trial raised significant and unresolved questions as to her mental competency. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment and decree and remand this case to the trial court for a hearing to determine whether she is competent or requires a guardian ad litem.

Vo and Partridge met in 1983. Both are Vietnamese, but speak and read English. Vo worked for the United States Postal Service. He and Partridge maintained an account

at the Seattle Postal Employees Credit Union to which both contributed funds.

In December 1986, Vo and Partridge's sister, Le Ngoc Pham, along with two others not involved in this case, signed a real estate contract to buy a house. Vo testified at trial that Partridge used Pham's name on the contract solely to avoid affecting her welfare status. According to Vo, owning real estate would have jeopardized Partridge's welfare benefits. Vo and Partridge moved into this property and lived there together for several years.

In May 1987, Vo and Partridge (in Pham's name) acquired a second house. They assumed an existing mortgage balance as part of this transaction.

In September 1990, Vo and Partridge stopped living together. On October 24, 1990, Partridge recorded two quit claim deeds purporting to transfer all of Vo's interest in both properties to Pham, Partridge's sister. At trial, Vo denied signing these deeds. On November 5, 1991, Partridge recorded two more quit claim deeds purporting to transfer all of Pham's interest in the two properties to Partridge.

Vo brought a quiet title action against Pham and Partridge. At the bench trial of the case, Vo was represented by counsel. Partridge was not, but she appeared and participated in the trial. Pham did not appear at trial.

During the opening statement of Vo's counsel, Partridge began to exhibit bizarre behavior. Notwithstanding the concerns of the court and Vo's counsel about that behavior, the trial court decided the trial should proceed.

During trial, Partridge's behavior became increasingly bizarre. She manifested extreme vocal outbursts and wild gestures. She also claimed she had two personalities.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court issued its written decision and also entered its findings, conclusions, and a judgment and decree quieting title. The court awarded Vo an undivided 50 percent interest in each of the two properties and awarded the remainder of each property to

Partridge and Pham. Finally, the court retained jurisdiction for further proceedings in this case.

Partridge filed her own notice of appeal. She is now represented by counsel in this appeal.


Mental Competency

Partridge contends that the trial court erred by failing to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent her interests. We hold that the trial court erred by failing to conduct a hearing to determine whether Partridge was mentally competent or required a guardian ad litem.

In In re Mignerey,*fn1 our Supreme Court stated that "in appointing a guardian, the trial court is called upon to exercise a wide discretion, and the conclusion of the court carries great weight when its action is reviewed before an appellate tribunal." We therefore review a trial court's determination of the need for a guardian ad litem for an abuse of discretion. "A trial court abuses its discretion only when its decision is manifestly unreasonable or based on untenable grounds."*fn2

A trial court has the inherent power to appoint a guardian ad litem for a litigant upon finding that he or she is incompetent. Mental competency is presumed.*fn3 In Graham v. Graham,*fn4 our Supreme Court stated that

it is proper and desirable for courts to appoint guardians ad litem for parties litigant when reasonably convinced that a party litigant is not competent, understandingly and intelligently, to comprehend the significance of legal proceedings and the effect and relationship of such proceedings in terms

of the best interests of such party litigant. . . . This jurisdiction is part of, and incidental to, the general jurisdiction of a court over a case and the parties properly before it.

The court further noted its concern for the rights of the alleged incompetent: "There is something fundamental in the matter of a litigant being able to use his personal judgment and intelligence in connection with a lawsuit affecting him, and in not having a guardian's judgment and intelligence substituted . . . ."*fn5

Notwithstanding the presumption of competency and the fundamental right of a party to use his or her personal judgment and intelligence in connection with his or her lawsuit, the court has a duty to act to protect the rights of a litigant who appears to be incompetent. In Shelley v. Elfstrom,*fn6 this court stated that "'the welfare of incompetent persons and the care of their property are objects of particular care and attention on the part of the courts.'" The Shelley trial court had dismissed a suit for damages by a person who had previously been found incompetent. The trial court had opened Shelley's sealed file and learned that he had not been discharged from the hospital "as recovered by either the hospital superintendent or the court," although he had been released.*fn7 Because RCW 4.08.060 requires that an insane person be represented either by a guardian or a guardian at litem and Shelley had neither, the trial court dismissed his complaint without prejudice.*fn8

Reversing that decision, this court held that the prior adjudication had created a rebuttable presumption of insanity and that the ...

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