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Hickerson v. Vessels

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

January 13, 2014

Alva J. HICKERSON, a/k/a Al J. Hickerson, Petitioner
v.
Thomas J. VESSELS, Personal Representative of the Estate of Mary Walsh Vessels, a/k/a Mary W. Vessels, a/k/a Mary Agnes Vessels, a/k/a Mary Vessels, Respondent.

Page 621

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals, District Court, City and County of Denver, Case No. 09CV532, The Honorable Morris B. Hoffman and William W. Hood III

Andrew M. Low, John M. Bowlin, Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP, Denver, Colorado, Theodore W. Rosen, Lauren E. Mosse, Theodore W. Rosen, P.C., Denver, Colorado, for Petitioner.

J. Nicholas McKeever Jr., Sherman & Howard L.L.C., Denver, Colorado, Clifford L. Beem, A. Mark Isley, Beem & Isley, P.C., Denver, Colorado, William E. Brayshaw Denver, Colorado, for Respondent.

OPINION

HOBBS, JUSTICE

¶ 1 We granted certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' judgment in Vessels v. Hickerson, No. 11CA0317, __ P.3d __, 2012 WL 503664 (Colo.App. Feb. 16, 2012), which held that the doctrine of laches is not available as a defense to an action for collection of a debt that is timely filed within a statute of limitations period.[1] Here, the trial court allowed the laches defense, but the court of appeals ruled that Colorado's separation of powers doctrine prohibits a court from applying laches to shorten the filing period. We determine that the language of the statute of limitations and our case law do not support the court of appeals' decision.

¶ 2 In April 1989, Alva J. Hickerson signed a ten-year promissory note payable to Vessels Oil and Gas Company. Under the terms of the note, the debt was due for full payment as of April 1999. The holder of the note filed this action in January 2009 for collection of the full unpaid amount of the debt, plus interest. The six-year statute of limitations statute would have barred this action after April 2005, but Hickerson made partial payments on the note. Under the partial payment doctrine, the permissible time for filing an action for payment of the remaining unpaid balance is restarted because

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a partial payment operates as a promise to repay the remaining debt.

¶ 3 The court of appeals' judgment would prevent a debtor from invoking the doctrine of laches as a defense to an action filed within the original statute of limitations period or any restarted limitations period. We hold that the separation of powers doctrine does not bar application of the defense of laches to a debt collection action filed within the original or restarted limitations period because laches does not conflict with the statute of limitations; and our case law, since early statehood, recognizes the application of equitable remedies to legal claims. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand this case to it for consideration of issues it did not reach.

I.

¶ 4 Hickerson signed the promissory note at issue on April 12, 1989. The promissory note was payable to Vessels Oil and Gas Company in the amount of $386,063.00. The company later assigned its rights under the note to the owner of the company. Following the owner's death, the note passed to the owner's wife, Mary Vessels, who first initiated this lawsuit. At Mary's death, her son— Thomas Vessels, the Respondent in this case— was substituted as plaintiff at the trial court because of his status as personal representative of Mary's estate.[2]

¶ 5 The promissory note was due in full on April 12, 1999, and, until then, the note provided that the monthly payments on the note would be paid out of the proceeds from Hickerson's overriding royalty interest in an oil and gas lease in Louisiana. As part of the deal, the payments from the royalty interest were made directly to Vessels, and Hickerson had no part in the payment process. These payments continued, in varying amounts, until the filing of this lawsuit in January 2009. As of August 2010, there was still $335,441.72 in principal and $385,222.91 in interest due on the note.

¶ 6 In determining that the lawsuit was timely filed, the trial court found that the six-year statute of limitations had started anew under the partial payment doctrine each time a royalty payment was made to Vessels. The trial court then entered judgment for Vessels in the amount of $720,664.63. On a motion for reconsideration on the issue of the laches ...


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