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Szymonik v. Szymonik

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 23, 2016

STEPHANIE SZYMONIK
v.
PETER SZYMONIK

          Argued date April 5, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Epstein, J. [dissolution judgment]; Carbonneau, J. [motion for modification]; Bozzuto, J. [certain orders concerning payment of guardian ad litem fees].

          David V. DeRosa, for the appellant (defendant).

          Adam J. Teller, for the appellee (intervenor guardian ad litem).

          Lavine, Mullins and Harper, Js.

          OPINION

          MULLINS, J.

         This appeal concerns the court’s judgment and orders related to a postjudgment motion for modification of custody filed by the defendant, Peter Szymonik.[1] On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court improperly: (1) ordered him to pay the post-judgment fees of the guardian ad litem without legislative authorization; (2) characterized the fees as being ‘‘in the nature of child support, ’’ such that there would be no appellate stay and he, thereafter, could be held in contempt and incarcerated if he failed to pay those fees during the appeal process;[2] and (3) issued new postjudgment financial orders without first holding an evidentiary hearing. We reverse in part and affirm in part the judgment of the trial court; additionally, we dismiss as moot the portion of the defendant’s appeal challenging the court’s characterization of guardian ad litem fees as being ‘‘in the nature of child support.’’

         The following relevant facts and procedural history inform our review. The court rendered a judgment dissolving the defendant’s marriage to the plaintiff, Stephanie Szymonik, on April 30, 2008. On May 5, 2009, the parties were granted joint legal custody of their children, with a shared parenting plan.

         On June 15, 2012, the defendant filed a postjudgment motion for modification of custody, seeking sole legal custody and primary physical custody of the children. On May 7, 2013, the plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions for alleged egregious litigation conduct, asking the court to order the defendant to pay her attorney’s fees and all fees related to the appointment of a guardian ad litem for the children. She also filed a motion for contempt on the basis of the defendant’s alleged failure to comply with discovery orders. The court held a hearing on these motions.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the plaintiff and the defendant requested the opportunity to cross-examine each other with regard to their respective financial affidavits. After some discussion, the court told the parties to schedule final argument on the custody matters, and it stated that a separate hearing would be required on the financial matters. The court explained that it wanted to address the custody and child support issues before it decided the financial issues.[3] That subsequent hearing, however, did not occur before the court rendered its judgment on all issues, including financial matters.[4]

         In a written memorandum of decision, the court, on October 11, 2013, denied the plaintiff’s motions for sanctions and contempt. The court, however, did find a substantial change in circumstances in reference to the defendant’s motion for modification of custody, and it issued new orders regarding custody and child support.

         The court found that the parties had agreed with the recommendation of the guardian ad litem, Attorney Rhonda Morra, that they continue to share joint legal custody, with a shared parenting plan that provides that the children’s time is divided equally between the parties. The court doubted that these parents effectively and cooperatively could coparent their children, [5] and it agreed with Morra’s recommendation that there be instituted a detailed parenting plan. The court stated: ‘‘[A]fter struggling with the question of custody for a long time, [the court] now understands the minute and intricate design of [Morra’s] recommendations. A strict and detailed parenting plan must be imposed on these parties because of their toxic, irreparable relationship. They cannot be trusted to timely agree on the simplest of decisions in the best interests of their sons. Because of this, in effect, they have abdicated their parental responsibility and ceded it to the family court. Having the court make family decisions is cumbersome, inefficient, costly and time-consuming, but these parents have left the court no other reasonable choice.’’ The court then set forth a detailed parenting plan for the parties.

         Notwithstanding the fact that the court had not conducted a separate hearing on financial issues, the court also issued its financial orders. The court ordered the defendant to pay two-thirds of the cost of unreimbursed health care expenses and work related child care expenses. It also ordered the defendant to pay the sum of $200 per week in child support to the plaintiff. The court ordered the defendant to pay attorney’s fees in the amount of $7500 to the plaintiff within ninety days of its decision. The court found that Morra’s fees were $23, 375, and that the plaintiff previously had paid $4400 and the defendant had paid $2300. The remaining balance was $16, 675. The court ordered that the defendant pay two-thirds of the remaining balance and that the plaintiff pay one-third of that balance. It also ordered that the parties make immediate arrangements for payment of those fees with Morra.

         On October 30, 2013, the defendant filed a motion to reconsider and reargue. In his motion, he asserted, in relevant part, that the court improperly had issued financial orders without affording the parties a promised hearing, which caused the court to make certain inaccurate assumptions, and to ignore relevant clauses of the parties’ dissolution judgment. On November 21, 2013, the court denied this motion. On December 9, 2013, the defendant filed an appeal.

         On December 11, 2013, the trial court issued an order that the parties’ obligation to pay Morra’s fees was not stayed by the defendant’s filing of an appeal. The court explained that the obligation to pay those fees was not stayed because guardian ad litem fees are ‘‘in the nature of child support.’’ Thus, the court ordered the defendant to begin paying $981.60 per month beginning on January 1, 2014. On December 27, 2013, the defendant filed an amended appeal to include the December 11, 2013 order, but he did not file a motion for review of the court’s order that there was no appellate stay because the fees were ‘‘in the nature of child support.’’ Thereafter, the court appointed an attorney to represent Morra and ordered the defendant to pay a $2500 retainer for that attorney.

         On May1, 2014, the defendant file dasecond amended appeal. This second amended appeal included the court’s order appointing an attorney for Morra and ordering that the defendant pay that attorney a retainer.

         On October 15, 2014, the trial court issued an order permitting Morra to withdraw as guardian ad litem and granting her permission to file a motion for contempt for the defendant’s failure to pay the balance of her fees. Morra then filed a motion for contempt, alleging that the defendant owed her $9627.24. The defendant sought to quash Morra’s subpoena in connection with the motion for contempt and to obtain a protective order. On November 4, 2014, the trial court denied the motions to quash and for a protective order.

         On November 12, 2014, the defendant filed a motion to stay the proceedings relating to Morra’s motion for contempt, which the trial court denied on November 21, 2014. On that date, the court also found the defendant in contempt, in absentia, for failing to pay Morra’s fees, and it issued a capias. The court also set a purge amount of $9600.25, which equated to the amount the court found the defendant still owed to Morra.

         On December 1, 2014, the defendant filed with this court a motion for review of the trial court’s denial of his motion to stay the contempt proceedings.[6] On December 3, 2014, the defendant presented himself to the marshal for service of the capias, and he was presented to the trial court that same day. The trial court ordered the defendant released from custody and continued the matter until the next day. On December 4, 2014, the trial court ordered the contempt proceedings stayed pending the decision of this court on the defendant’s motion for review of the trial court’s denial of his motion to stay the contempt proceedings.

         On December 9, 2014, the defendant filed a third amended appeal, to include the trial court’s November 21, 2014 judgment of contempt. On January 28, 2015, this court dismissed the defendant’s motion for review of the trial court’s denial of his motion to stay the contempt proceedings.

         Subsequently, on May 29, 2015, the trial court held a hearing regarding the defendant’s contempt. The defendant and Morra then entered into a stipulation in which they agreed that the defendant would pay a purge amount of $5500 for the guardian ad litem fees, that contempt proceedings would be continued to a later date, and that the defendant would ‘‘withdraw all appeal issues involving Attorney Morra or the amount and calculation of her fees . . . .’’[7] The defendant then withdrew the third amended appeal, leaving intact the original appeal, as amended by the first and second amended appeals.

         A purge review hearing occurred on July 23, 2015. At that hearing, the trial court determined that the defendant substantially had complied with the stipulation. The court, however, found that he had not complied fully with the stipulation because he had not withdrawn the appeal with respect to his claims that his obligation to pay part of Morra’s fees improperly had been characterized as being ‘‘in the nature of child support, ’’ such that the obligation to ...


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