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Gabriel v. Gabriel

Supreme Court of Connecticut

December 28, 2016

RICHARD P. GABRIEL
v.
DIANA K. GABRIEL

          Argued October 11, 2016

          Kenneth J. Bartschi, with whom were Brendon P. Levesque and, on the brief, Joseph T. O'Connor, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Norman A. Roberts II, with whom, on the brief, was Tara C. Dugo, for the appellee (defendant).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, Robinson, Vertefeuille, Js.

          OPINION

          EVELEIGH, J.

         The plaintiff, Richard P. Gabriel, appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which reversed the judgment of the trial court granting his motion for modification of unallocated alimony and support, and denying the motion for contempt filed against him by the defendant, Diana K. Gabriel. On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly reversed the judgment of the trial court. Specifically, the plaintiff asserts that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court improperly: (1) denied the defendant's motion for contempt, which was based on the plaintiff's unilateral reduction in the unallocated alimony and child support; and (2) granted the plaintiff's motion for modification of unallocated alimony and child support. We agree with the plaintiff's claim regarding the motion for contempt, but disagree with his claim regarding the motion for modification. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the Appellate Court.

         The Appellate Court opinion sets forth the following facts and procedural history: ‘‘The plaintiff and the defendant were married on July 1, 1995, and three children were born of the marriage. On April 7, 2011, the court dissolved the parties' marriage. The court incorporated the parties' separation agreement into its judgment. The parties' separation agreement also incorporated a July 21, 2010 parenting plan, in which the parties agreed to share joint physical and legal custody of the children, with primary physical custody also shared. The agreement also provided for unallocated alimony and support from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2015. The alimony was nonmodifiable by the defendant as to amount and duration. The plaintiff, however, had the right to seek a modification of alimony on the basis of a substantial change in circumstances, so long as those circumstances were not based on the defendant's cohabitation or an increase in the defendant's earnings up to $100, 000.

         ‘‘On May 1, 2012, the parties entered into a postjudgment parenting plan because the defendant was relocating to California, and the plaintiff did not want the defendant to take the children with her. Pursuant to this plan, which the court accepted, both parties continued to share ‘joint legal and physical custody of the minor children, ' but the children primarily would reside with the plaintiff in Connecticut. The parenting plan also granted the defendant liberal visitation, including either the children's February or April vacation and a substantial portion of their summer vacation. The parenting plan was contingent on the defendant moving to California and was void if she stayed in Connecticut. The parenting plan did not address the issue of child support, and the court did not raise that issue during the hearing on the parenting plan.

         ‘‘On June 28, 2012, the plaintiff filed a motion for modification of child support, asserting that ‘[t]he financial circumstances of the parties have changed as a result of the defendant's relocation. [The defendant] no longer has primary residential custody of the children and is no longer primarily responsible for their financial needs. The [plaintiff] now has custody and primary responsibility for all three minor children.' On October 5, 2012, without permission from the court, the plaintiff unilaterally decreased his payments to the defendant from $54, 666.66 per month to $20, 000 per month. In response, the defendant filed a motion for contempt, alleging that the plaintiff improperly had engaged in self-help by reducing his unallocated support payments in violation of the existing orders of the court.

         ‘‘On November 5, 2013, the court granted the plaintiff's postjudgment motion for modification of child sup-port, [1] finding that the parties had stipulated that there had been a substantial change in circumstances. The court also found that the defendant's financial needs had been reduced significantly by her move to California and her cohabitation with a man who was paying a portion of her household expenses. Accordingly, the court reduced the plaintiff's alimony payments to $20, 000 per month. On the basis of the plaintiff having assumed primary physical custody of the children, the court, citing General Statutes § 46b-224, [2] also found that the plaintiff was not in wilful contempt for unilaterally reducing his unallocated payments to the defendant.'' (Footnotes altered.) Gabriel v. Gabriel, 159 Conn.App. 805, 807-10, 123 A.3d 453 (2015).

         Thereafter, the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, claiming that the trial court improperly modified her alimony award and denied her motion for contempt. Id., 807. The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court improperly modified the unallocated alimony and child support award without considering what portion of the original award constituted child support and what portion constituted alimony, improperly failed to consider the child support guidelines when fashioning the new award, and ‘‘focused on the fact of the defendant's cohabitation in modifying the alimony portion of the unallocated award.'' Id., 818. The Appellate Court further concluded that the trial court improperly denied the defendant's motion for contempt because the trial court had incorrectly concluded that § 46b-224 suspends child support payments ‘‘by operation of law . . . .'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 820. Accordingly, the Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the matter for a new hearing on the plaintiff's motion for modification and for reconsideration of the defendant's motion for contempt.

         Thereafter, we granted the plaintiff's petition for certification to appeal, limited to three issues. ‘‘Did the Appellate Court properly conclude that: [1] The trial court improperly modified the unallocated alimony and child support order without first making specific findings under the child support guidelines, when the award was modified to an alimony award because the obligor became the primary custodial parent and the recipient no longer receives child support? [2] The trial court improperly considered the financial impact of the defendant's cohabitation in fashioning a modified alimony award, despite the fact that a substantial change in circumstances was established on a different basis? [3] The trial court improperly relied on . . . § 46b-224 in concluding that the plaintiff had not acted wilfully in unilaterally reducing the unallocated alimony and support payments to the defendant after he became the primary custodial parent?'' Gabriel v. Gabriel, 319 Conn. 948, 125 A.3d 527 (2015). Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         I

         The plaintiff first claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly reversed the judgment of the trial court denying the defendant's motion for contempt because, at the time the plaintiff unilaterally reduced the unallocated alimony and support payment, there was no clear order of the trial court regarding his support obligation. The defendant responds that the Appellate Court properly reversed the judgment of the trial court denying the motion for contempt filed against the plaintiff. Specifically, the defendant asserts that the trial court should have found the plaintiff in contempt for unilaterally reducing the unallocated alimony and support payments to the defendant after he became the primary custodial parent because the court had not modified its previous order requiring the plaintiff to pay unallocated alimony and child support. We agree with the plaintiff and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court with respect to the contempt order.

         We begin with general principles and the applicable standards of review. ‘‘Contempt is a disobedience to the rules and orders of a court which has power to punish for such an offense. . . . A contempt judgment cannot stand when, inter alia, the order a contemnor is held to have violated is vague and indefinite, or when the contemnor, through no fault of his own, was unable to obey the court's order. . . .

         ‘‘Consistent with the foregoing, when we review such a judgment, we first consider the threshold question of whether the underlying order constituted a court order that was sufficiently clear and unambiguous so as to support a judgment of contempt. See Blaydes v. Blaydes, 187 Conn. 464, 467, 446 A.2d 825 (1982) (civil contempt may be founded only upon clear and unambiguous court order); Dowd v. Dowd, 96 Conn.App. 75, 79, 899 A.2d 76 (first inquiry on review of judgment of contempt for failure to abide by separation agreement was whether agreement was clear and unambiguous), cert. denied, 280 Conn. 907, 907 A.2d 89 (2006). This is a legal inquiry subject to de novo review. . . .''

         ‘‘Second, if we conclude that the underlying court order was sufficiently clear and unambiguous, we must then determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in issuing, or refusing to issue, a judgment of contempt, which includes a review of the trial court's determination of whether the violation was wilful or excused by a good faith dispute or misunderstanding. See Ramin v.Ramin, 281 Conn. 324, 336, 915 A.2d 790 (2007); Eldridge v.Eldridge, 244 Conn. 523, 526-27, 529, 710 A.2d 757 (1998); see also McGuire v.McGuire, 102 Conn.App. 79, 82, 924 A.2d 886 (2007) ([a] finding of contempt is a question of fact, and our standard of review is to determine whether the court abused its discretion in failing to find that the actions or inactions of the ...


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