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Puff v. Puff

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

October 10, 2017

CLAUDIA PUFF
v.
GREGORY PUFF

          Argued March 16, 2017

         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, where the court, Grogins, J., rendered judgment dissolving the marriage and granting certain other relief in accordance with the parties' separation agreement; thereafter, the court, Emons, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for modification; subsequently, the court, Emons, J., granted the plaintiff's motion to open; thereafter, the court, Heller, J., issued certain orders in accordance with the parties' stipulation; subsequently, the court, Heller, J., denied the plaintiff's motion to reargue, and the plaintiff appealed to this court; thereafter, the court, Tindill, J., granted the defendant's motion for contempt, and the plaintiff filed an amended appeal. Reversed in part; judgment directed.

          Samuel V. Schoonmaker IV, with whom, on the brief, was Wendy Dunne DiChristina, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Edward M. Kweskin, with whom were Sarah Glea-son and, on the brief, Zachary J. Phillipps and Leonard M. Braman, for the appellee (defendant).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Beach and Bishop, Js.

         Syllabus

         The plaintiff, whose marriage to the defendant previously had been dissolved, appealed to this court from certain postjudgment orders of the trial court modifying alimony and finding her in contempt. The plaintiff had filed a motion seeking an upward modification of alimony on the basis of, inter alia, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. At a subsequent hearing, counsel for the defendant orally presented an agreement between the parties. Pursuant to the agreement, the defendant was to pay $10, 000 per month for 120 months in periodic alimony and the plaintiff could, in turn, choose to assign those payments to a special needs trust. The agreement indicated that the defendant was to be named a residual beneficiary to the trust and that the plaintiff was required to secure, or endeavor to secure, a legal opinion that such an arrangement would not affect the defendant's federal tax deductions. Finally, the agreement contained a nondisparagement clause and required the defendant to retract certain statements. The parties also indicated that, after consulting with experts on trust formation and taxation, they intended to submit a written document embodying the agreement to the court. The court then canvassed the parties, entered a finding that the terms presented were fair and equitable under the circumstances, and approved the oral agreement. The plaintiff subsequently filed a motion to open the court's orderon the agreement, arguing that the trust contemplated by the parties would not qualify as a special needs trust under the law and that the defendant would not be able to deduct payments from his taxable income as alimony. Following certain subsequent disagreements between the parties, the court reviewed the transcript of the hearing and reduced the terms of the parties' previous oral agreement into a written decision. The defendant subsequently filed a motion for contempt asserting, inter alia, that the plaintiff had failed to obtain an opinion letter regarding the tax deductibility of the defendant's alimony payments as required by the agreement. In response, the plaintiff argued that she had tried but was unable to obtain such a letter because the defendant's status as a residual beneficiary likely jeopardized his right to deduct alimony payments. The trial court subsequently granted the motion for contempt, concluding that the plaintiff had wilfully violated its order. On the plaintiff's appeal to this court, held:

         1. The trial court did not err in concluding that the parties' oral agreement was an enforceable, binding agreement and not merely an agreement to agree: the parties had expressed an intent to resolve the matter at the hearing and, notwithstanding the provision requiring consultation with experts, sought to have the court approve their oral agreement as an enforceable order; moreover, the parties had reached an agreement on the relevant material terms including the amount of alimony, the method of payment, the retraction of statements by the defendant, and the nondisparagement clause.

         2. The plaintiff could not prevail on her claim that the trial court improperly modified the parties' oral agreement when reducing it to a written decision; the court's written decision did not modify or improperly rewrite the oral agreement between the parties, but simply memorialized the terms expressed at the hearing, and the court did not act improperly by not including in its written decision a term requiring the plaintiff to receive tax free alimony because such a term was not included in parties' original oral agreement.

         3. The plaintiff could not prevail on her claim that the trial court did not adequately canvass her, as required by statute (§ 46b-66), at the hearing at which the parties presented the oral agreement and at the proceeding at which the court had reduced the oral agreement to a written order: the court's canvass following presentation of the oral agreement was sufficient to satisfy the requirements of § 46-66, which required the court to ensure that the terms were fair and equitable under the circumstances, as the financial affidavits were set forth in the record, the transcript of the hearing was replete with references to the plaintiff's disability, the plaintiff's counsel had the opportunity to present additional information to the court, and the court's canvass revealed that the plaintiff had knowingly entered into the agreement; moreover, the court was not required by § 46-66 to conduct an additional canvass after issuing its written decision, which merely summarized the parties' previous oral agreement and did not alter its terms.

         4. The trial court improperly granted the defendant's postjudgment motion for contempt; given that the plaintiff was required under the agreement to secure, or endeavor to secure, an opinion letter regarding the tax deductibility of the defendant's alimony payments, and given the undisputed fact that the plaintiff had made at least some effort to secure the opinion letter required under the agreement, this court was left with the definite and firm conviction that the trial court's finding of contempt was clearly erroneous.

          OPINION

          BEACH, J.

         The plaintiff, Claudia Puff, appeals from the orders of the trial court entered in connection with various motions following the dissolution of her marriage to the defendant, Gregory Puff. The plaintiff claims that the court erred in (1) approving a stipulated agreement between the parties, (2) modifying the parties' agreement, (3) approving the parties' agreement without first conducting an adequate canvass pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-66, and (4) granting the defendant's motion for contempt. We agree with the plaintiff's fourth claim and disagree with her other claims. Accordingly, we affirm in part, and reverse in part, the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts, as they appear in the record, and procedural history are relevant. The parties were married in 1988. There were no children issue of the marriage. In September, 2002, the plaintiff commenced an action for dissolution of the marriage. On December 19, 2002, the court, Grogins, J., rendered judgment dissolving the parties' marriage. The judgment of dissolution incorporated by reference a separation agreement, which provided that the defendant was to pay the plaintiff periodic alimony of $5900 per month, and an additional $5000 each August and December, for ten years, subject to earlier termination for reasons not relevant here.

         In March, 2009, the plaintiff filed a motion for an upward modification of alimony as to amount and duration, on the bases of increases in the defendant's income and in her living expenses. In June, 2010, the plaintiff filed an amended motion for modification of alimony on the additional basis of her deteriorating health; she recently had received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. On February 28, 2012, the court, Emons, J., granted the motion for modification, but ordered that the increase in duration and amount was nonmodifiable. The plaintiff filed a motion to open and set aside the February 28, 2012 decision. On April 9, 2013, the court, Emons, J., granted the plaintiff's motion to open and vacated its February 28, 2012 decision for the purpose of hearing additional evidence.

         On February 19, 2014, a hearing was held before Judge Heller. During that hearing, the defendant's attorney stated the terms of a stipulated agreement regarding the plaintiff's motion to modify and other motions. The plaintiff's attorney stated that the parties were relying on experts to create a special needs trust into which the defendant would pay alimony, but that ‘‘[there are] some terms that we are just unfamiliar with . . . so the concept will be put on the record, but the actual term of how that's [going to] take place is not [going to] be put on the record.'' He explained that the parties would ‘‘work on the details of the writing, and . . . submit it at a later date.'' The defendant's attorney said, ‘‘This is . . . a postjudgment stipulation. It comes upon the plaintiff's motion for modification of alimony. And so the agreement is as follows . . . .'' He proceeded to state the agreement, which contained twelve paragraphs, on the record.

         The court then canvassed both parties. The plaintiff indicated that she had reviewed the terms of the agreement with her attorney, that she understood all of the provisions and that she believed the agreement to be fair and equitable. The court stated that it found the stipulated agreement to be fair and equitable and approved the agreement.

         The defendant filed a motion on May 16, 2014, requesting the court to approve his proposed draft reducing, into writing, the terms of the oral stipulation presented at the February 19, 2014 hearing. The court, Heller, J., held a hearing on the defendant's motion on June 17, 2014. The plaintiff objected on the ground that the stipulation presented at the February 19, 2014 hearing should be vacated because it was impossible to execute. The court stated that it would compare the draft of the agreement with the transcript of the February 19, 2014 proceedings, and it continued the matter to a later date.

         On June 18, 2014, the plaintiff filed a motion to open and vacate the February 19, 2014 order. In that motion, the plaintiff argued that the trust contemplated in the February 19, 2014 oral stipulation could not qualify under the law as a special needs trust in the circumstances presented and that the defendant would not be able to deduct the $10, 000 monthly payment required under the agreement from his gross income for the purpose of reducing his taxes.

         The defendant's attorney presented a revised draft of the stipulation at a hearing before Judge Heller on August 18, 2014. The plaintiff's attorney argued that the revised draft stipulation was inconsistent with the February 19, 2014 oral stipulation, and that the terms of the February 19, 2014 oral stipulation could not be implemented according to trust and tax law. The court stated: ‘‘I think what the parties believed at the time [of the February 19, 2014 hearing] may not be what they believe today. But what I will do is enter an order and turn the stipulation into a written order of the court. . . . And then we'll proceed with [the plaintiff's motion to open and vacate the February 19, 2014 order].''

         On November 17, 2014, the court, Heller, J., reduced the February 19, 2014 oral stipulation to a written order entitled ‘‘memorandum of decision on postjudgment motions resolved by stipulation approved and so ordered on February 19, 2014.'' The document set forth the terms of the stipulated agreement stated on the record at the February 19, 2014 hearing. Several para- graphs are especially germane to the issues on appeal. Paragraph one provided that the defendant was to pay to the plaintiff as periodic alimony $10, 000 per month for 120 months and that the plaintiff had the right to assign the alimony to a special needs trust, subject to the defendant's ability to deduct the alimony from his gross income under the Internal Revenue Code. Paragraph six provided that the defendant was to be a residual beneficiary of the special needs trust in the same proportion as the sum of the alimony payments made or assigned to the special needs trust was to the total contributions to the special needs trust from all sources. Paragraph eight provided that the plaintiff was to prepare a list of the defendant's statements that she deemed ‘‘hurtful or nasty, '' that the defendant was to retract those statements, that those retractions would not be deemed admissions, and that neither party was to disparage the other personally or professionally. Paragraph nine provided that the plaintiff ‘‘shall immediately secure, or endeavor to secure, a legal opinion to the effect that any action taken by the plaintiff to assign the alimony payments to the special needs trust does not affect the deductibility of such payments by the defendant under the tax laws of the United States.'' Paragraph ten gave the defendant the ability to recoup certain amounts from the special needs trust in the event that he was unable to deduct the alimony payments from his gross income. Paragraph eleven provided that the parties' February 19, 2014 oral stipulation was to supersede all prior orders in the case.

         The court's recitation of the agreement was made available to the parties at a hearing on November 18, 2014, in connection with the plaintiff's motion to open and vacate the February 19, 2014 order. At the hearing the court stated the following: ‘‘I thought it would be helpful to the parties to have a written opinion of the court that tracked all of the orders that were put on the record on February [19, 2014].'' The court said that ‘‘there was a binding agreement that was approved and ordered by the court on February [19, 2014]. It was not contingent. There were provisions that needed to be addressed relating to the terms of the special needs trust. But the parties had put the terms of their agreement on the record, and that agreement was approved and so ordered by the court.'' At the hearing, the plaintiff said that, on further consideration, her motion to open was ‘‘superfluous'' and that she would not proceed with it. In her view, there had been no meeting of the minds on February 19, 2014, sufficient to form a settlement agreement on which a stipulation could be based. The plaintiff asserted that there was, then, no valid postjudgment order and, thus, nothing to open. The court disagreed with the plaintiff. This appeal followed.

         On December 22, 2014, the defendant filed a motion seeking sanctions and a finding of contempt. On March 23, 2015, the court held a hearing on the defendant's motion. On March 27, 2015, the court, Tindill, J., granted the ...


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