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In re Skipp

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 13, 2016

IN RE SUSAN SKIPP, Debtor.
v.
MARY BRIGHAM, Appellee. SUSAN SKIPP, Appellant,

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Michael P. Shea United States District Judge.

         On August 12, 2015, pro se Appellant Susan Skipp filed this appeal from the Bankruptcy Court's decision and order on Appellee Mary Piscatelli Brigham's Second Amended Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 1.) The Bankruptcy Court held that Ms. Skipp's debt to Ms. Brigham for guardian ad litem (“GAL”) fees was not dischargeable in bankruptcy, based on a determination that principles of collateral estoppel bound it to an earlier state court decision on the issue. Because I disagree that the requirements of collateral estoppel have been satisfied here, the appeal is granted, and the case remanded for further proceedings.[1]

         I. STANDARD

         “The Court reviews the Bankruptcy Court's legal conclusions de novo and its factual findings for clear error.” Rockstone Capital LLC v. Metal, 508 B.R. 552, 558 (E.D.N.Y. 2014) (citing Denton v. Hyman (In re Hyman), 502 F.3d 61, 65 (2d Cir. 2007)). “The application of collateral estoppel to a given case is a question of law that [the court] review[s] de novo.” M.O.C.H.A. Soc'y, Inc. v. City of Buffalo, 689 F.3d 263, 284 (2d Cir. 2012).

         II. BACKGROUND

         In September 2010, the Connecticut Superior Court appointed Ms. Brigham as a guardian ad litem (“GAL”) for Ms. Skipp's two minor children in connection with Ms. Skipp's divorce and child custody proceedings. (ECF No. 10-1 at 17.) Ms. Skipp's marriage was dissolved on March 28, 2011, with an order of joint legal custody of the two children, and primary residence with Ms. Skipp. (Id. at 3.) Post-judgment, the court ordered that the GAL continue to be paid by Ms. Skipp and the father, one half each. (Id. at 22.) Ms. Skipp moved for the appointment of an attorney for the children, then 9 and 12 years old, but the court found “‘[t]hese children are intelligent for their ages, but there is no credible evidence that… they are of sufficient age and maturity to know what is in their best interests.'” (Id. at 11.)

         The father moved to modify the original custody order and, in accordance with the GAL's recommendation, the court awarded him sole legal and physical custody of the two children on October 16, 2012, with Ms. Skipp allowed only supervised visits. (Id. at 3, 17, 23-26.) The court held that “joint legal custody is not in the children's best interest. These parents cannot communicate well together. The mother has no respect for the father, and creates every opportunity she can, most often when not proper, to claim that he is an unsafe person for the children.” (Id. at 20.) The court also found that Ms. Skipp owed $38, 230.30 to Ms. Brigham and that the GAL's rate of $300 per hour was “fair and reasonable.” (Id. at 22.) The court admonished Ms. Skipp for not fully complying with its earlier order to liquidate her teachers' retirement to pay the GAL fees. (Id. at 23.)

         On February 28, 2013, Ms. Skipp filed for bankruptcy, and sought to discharge the GAL fees. (ECF No. 1-1 at 2.) On August 29, 2013, the bankruptcy court stayed its decision “pending a final determination by the Connecticut state court of the Fee Appeal.” (ECF No. 10-1 at 33.) It appears that the “fee appeal” refers to Ms. Skipp's appeal of the Superior Court's October 16, 2012 order, which, as noted, had required Ms. Skipp to pay $38, 230.30 in fees to the GAL. (In that appeal, the Connecticut Appellate Court ultimately affirmed the Superior Court's order. Tittle v. Skipp-Tittle, 150 Conn.App. 64 (2014).)

         In the meantime, on October 8, 2013, the Superior Court issued a new order on three pending post-judgment motions, including a motion for contempt by Ms. Brigham. (ECF No. 10-1 at 56.) In its discussion of the contempt motion, the court explained that Ms. Brigham “requested a finding from the court on the characterization of the fees” and “decided not to proceed with her contempt motion at this time.” (Id. at 57-58.) The court provided Ms. Brigham the opportunity to re-file a contempt motion “if she was successful in both the Connecticut Appellate Court and the United States Bankruptcy Court, meaning that her fees were not discharged.” (Id. at 58.) In addition, apparently as part of the contempt motion, [2] with which Ms. Brigham had “decided not to proceed… at this time, ” the court stated as follows: “[a]fter reviewing the file and listening to the parties, the court makes a finding that the fees awarded to the guardian ad litem are in the nature of child support and not dischargeable in bankruptcy.” (Id. at 57-58.) Ms. Skipp appealed the entire ruling to the Connecticut Appellate Court. (Id. at 59.) That court issued the following order on April 16, 2014:

After a hearing as to why the portion of this appeal challenging the trial court's finding that the fees awarded to the guardian ad litem are in the nature of child support should not be dismissed for lack of a final judgment as the motion for contempt for non-payment of the fees of the guardian ad litem was not decided, see State v. Curcio, 191 Conn. 27, 31 (1983), it is hereby ordered that the portion of the appeal challenging the trial court's finding that the fees awarded to the guardian ad litem are in the nature of child support is dismissed.

(Id. at 60.) As to the remainder of Ms. Skipp's appeal of the Superior Court's October 8, 2013 order, principally regarding alimony issues, the Appellate Court affirmed on December 1, 2015. Tittle v. Skipp-Tittle, 161 Conn.App. 542 (2015).[3]

         On April 24, 2015, the Bankruptcy Court resumed its proceedings and granted Ms. Brigham's motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 1-1.) The Bankruptcy Court held that the Connecticut Superior Court's October 8, 2013 ruling had preclusive effect and that principles of collateral estoppel barred Ms. Skipp from relitigating the issue of whether her debt to Ms. Brigham was dischargeable. (Id.) Ms. Skipp appeals from this decision. Ms. Skipp's Notice of Appeal also included a motion for appointment of counsel, which the Court denied without prejudice on August 19, 2015 (ECF No. 3) and which was re-filed on November 10, 2015. (ECF No. 8.)[4]

         III.DISCUSSION

         Many of the claims raised by Ms. Skipp are outside the scope of the Bankruptcy Court record and this appeal. This Court's authority is limited to determining whether the Bankruptcy Court erred in giving collateral estoppel effect to the Connecticut Superior Court's finding that Ms. Skipp's debt for guardian ad litem fees was not dischargeable in bankruptcy. This appeal is not a ...


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