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Lederle v. Spivey

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 18, 2017

CATHERINE LEDERLE
v.
STEVAN SPIVEY

          Argued January 9, 2017

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, Abery-Wetstone, J. [dissolution judgment]; Emons, J. [motion for attorney's fees].

         Procedural History

         Action for the dissolution of a marriage, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk and tried to the court, Abery-Wetstone, J.; judgment dissolving the marriage and granting certain other relief; thereafter, the court, Emons, J., denied the defendant's motion to open, and the defendant appealed to this court, which affirmed the judgment; subsequently, the court, Emons, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees, and the defendant appealed to this court. Reversed; further proceedings.

          David DeRosa, with whom was Paul Greenan, for the appellant (defendant).

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

          DiPentima, C. J., and Beach and Danaher, Js. [*]

         Syllabus

         The defendant, whose marriage to the plaintiff previously had been dissolved, appealed to this court from the judgment of the trial court granting the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees. Following the dissolution of the parties' marriage, the defendant had filed a motion to open the dissolution judgment, which the trial court denied, and the defendant appealed from that judgment to this court, which upheld the denial of that motion. The plaintiff thereafter filed a motion for attorney's fees incurred in defending that appeal. In granting the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees, the trial court concluded that the appeal concerning the motion to open lacked any indicia of a colorable claim and was brought in bad faith, and, therefore, it awarded attorney's fees pursuant to the bad faith exception to the general rule that attorney's fees are not allowed to the successful party in the absence of a contractual or statutory exception. Pursuant to the bad faith exception, in order to impose sanctions pursuant to its inherent authority, the trial court must find both that the litigant's claims were entirely without color and that the litigant acted in bad faith, and the court must make those findings with a high degree of specificity. Held that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding attorney's fees to the plaintiff pursuant to the bad faith exception: although that court found that the defendant had acted in bad faith and supported that finding with a high degree of specificity, it failed to delineate its finding that the defendant's appeal concerning the motion to open lacked any indicia of a colorable claim with clear evidence and a high degree of specificity; moreover, there was no indication in the trial court's memorandum of decision that it applied the correct standard for colorability applicable to a party, as opposed to an attorney, and that it therefore considered whether the defendant's principal claim in his previous appeal was so lacking in factual and legal support that a reasonable person could not have concluded that the basis of the claim might be established; accordingly, a new hearing is required at which the trial court must apply the proper standard for colorability determinations applicable to a party, and its factual findings thereon have to be made with a high degree of specificity.

          OPINION

          DiPENTIMA, C. J.

         The defendant, Stevan Spivey, appeals from the judgment of the trial court awarding $30, 000 in attorney's fees to the plaintiff, Catherine Led-erle. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court abused its discretion in (1) awarding attorney's fees based on its conclusion that his claims in a prior appeal were entirely without color and that he acted in bad faith, and (2) finding that an award of $30, 000 in attorney's fees was reasonable under the circumstances of this case. We agree with the defendant's first claim that the court abused its discretion in awarding attorney's fees. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment awarding the plaintiff $30, 000 in attorney's fees and remand the matter for a determination of whether the defendant's claims in his previous appeal were entirely without color.

         The following facts and procedural posture, as outlined in Lederle v. Spivey, 151 Conn.App. 813, 814-16, 96 A.3d 1259, cert. denied, 314 Conn. 932, 102 A.3d 84 (2014), are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. ‘‘The parties were married in Darien on December 31, 1998. One child was born of the marriage in 2000. Thereafter, the marriage broke down irretrievably, and, in March, 2005, the plaintiff commenced an action seeking to dissolve the marriage. On May 2, 2007, the court, Abery-Wetstone, J., rendered a judgment of dissolution. As part of this decision, the court acknowledged the plaintiff's claim that she needed to move to Virginia in order to remain competitive in her employment with Lexmark, and found that it was in the best interest of the child to relocate with her to Virginia. The defendant appealed from the judgment, arguing, inter alia, that the court improperly permitted the plaintiff to relocate with their minor child to Virginia. We affirmed the judgment of the court, and our Supreme Court denied certification to appeal. Lederle v. Spivey, 113 Conn.App. 177, 965 A.2d 621, cert. denied, 291 Conn. 916, 970 A.2d 728 (2009).

         ‘‘The defendant subsequently filed an amended motion to open the judgment, in which he claimed that [t]he plaintiff, in her trial testimony committed fraud with respect to the issue of her Lexmark employment and specifically whether or not [her Lexmark employment position] was available in Virginia on the dates testified to.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Led-erle v. Spivey, supra, 151 Conn.App. 814-15. According to the defendant, ‘‘[t]he plaintiff had a continuing duty to disclose the status of her job situation with Lexmark after [the May 2, 2007] judgment [of the trial court], and before the Appellate Court issued a memorandum of decision in [March] 2009.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 815. The defendant further argued that the plaintiff's failure to disclose the status of her job situation with Lexmark constituted fraud ‘‘with respect to a material fact or facts which ultimately led to [the trial] court's conclusion that [the] plaintiff and the minor child should be permitted to relocate from the state of Connecticut to the state of Virginia for primarily employment purposes.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id.

         ‘‘The court, Emons, J., heard oral argument on the motion and, after receiving a memorandum of law from counsel for each party in support of their position, issued a memorandum of decision denying the motion to open on January 28, 2013. In reaching its decision, the court found that [a]fter the May 2, 2007 judgment, on June 5, the plaintiff lost her employment at Lexmark. . . . On or about August 20, 2007, the plaintiff relocated to Virginia and at or about the same time, began a new job at Xerox, also located in Virginia. The court noted that Judge Abery-Wetstone found numerous reasons why relocation was in the best interest of the minor child and that no single factor controlled the decision of the court. On the basis of the foregoing, the court held that while the plaintiff did have a duty to disclose that she lost her Lexmark job and ...


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