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Thomasi v. Thomasi

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

May 15, 2018


          Argued December 5, 2017

         Procedural History

         Action for the dissolution of a marriage, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven at Meriden and tried to the court, Klatt, J.; judgment dissolving the marriage and granting certain other relief; thereafter, the court, Klatt, J., enforced the parties' domestic relations order, and the plaintiff appealed to this court; subsequently, the court, Klatt, J., denied the plaintiff's motion for contempt; thereafter, the court, Klatt, J., denied the defendant's motion to modify alimony, and the defendant appealed to this court; subsequently, the court, Harmon, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for order. Reversed in part; further proceedings.

          Timothy J. Fitzgerald, with whom was Douglas T. Barall, for the appellant in AC 39452 and appellee in AC 39814 (plaintiff).

          Maria F. McKeon, for the appellee in AC 39452 and appellant in AC 39814 (defendant).

          Keller, Prescott and Bishop, Js.


          BISHOP, J.

         These appeals arise from the dissolution of marriage between the plaintiff, Tracy M. Thomasi, [1]and the defendant, Edward J. Thomasi, Sr. In AC 39452, the plaintiff appeals from the postdissolution order of the trial court regarding the division of the defendant's defined benefit pension plan. In her appeal, the plaintiff argues that the court erred in determining that the term "marital portion, " as used in the parties' marital dissolution agreement regarding a division of the defendant's defined benefit pension plan, clearly and unambiguously provided for the coverture method to be utilized in calculating the marital portion. We conclude that the term, under the limited circumstances of this case, contains a latent ambiguity, and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the trial court.

         In AC 39814, the defendant appeals from the trial court's postdissolution orders denying his motion for alimony modification and interpreting the dissolution agreement to require him to make payments to the plaintiff from his pension plan retroactive to the date of the marital dissolution. On this claim, he makes four arguments that the court erred (1) by finding that he did not experience a substantial change in his financial circumstances justifying a downward modification in his alimony obligation; (2) by declining to consider the plaintiff's receipt of settlement proceeds from a personal injury lawsuit; (3) by improperly taking into consideration his receipt of a pension; and (4) by determining that the dissolution agreement requires him to make pension payments to the plaintiff as of the date of the marital dissolution even though the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) contemplated by their agreement was not then in place. We agree with the trial court that a fair reading of the agreement requires the defendant to begin making payments from his pension to the plaintiff as of the date of the dissolution. We do not believe, however, that the record supports the court's finding that the defendant's loss of employment was due to his own fault. Accordingly, we reverse in part, and affirm in part, the orders of the trial court.

         The following facts pertain to both appeals. The defendant began working for the state of Connecticut in November, 1967, and, as a state employee, he participated in the Connecticut state employees retirement system, which features a defined benefit pension pro-gram.[2] The parties were married on April 5, 1991, by which time the defendant had accrued twenty-four years and four months of state service. The defendant retired from state employment on June 1, 2003, after thirty-seven years and six months of service. The marriage of the parties was dissolved on July 22, 2015. Thus, the parties were married for a total of approximately twenty-four years and three months. Although the defendant was employed by the state for a total of 426 months, the parties' marriage spanned 145 months within this period, or approximately 34 percent of the defendant's total period of employment with the state.

         As part of the parties' property settlement agreement, paragraph 9B of the dissolution agreement provided: "Husband shall immediately transfer one-half of the marital portion of [h]usband's [s]tate of Connecticut [p]ension [p]lan that is currently in pay status to [w]ife valued as of the date of dissolution and including cost of living over the payment period. This transfer shall be by a QDRO[3] that shall be drafted by Attorney Elizabeth McMahon, with the parties splitting Attorney McMahon's fees equally. The [c]ourt will retain jurisdiction over this entire [p]aragraph to effectuate the intent of the parties." (Footnote added.)


         AC 39452

         In this appeal, the parties do not dispute that the term "marital portion" refers to the amount of pension benefit earned during the course of the marriage, and agree that the plaintiff is entitled to one half of that amount. Thus, the term "marital portion" is not patently ambiguous.[4] The question remains, however, whether the term, as used in the parties' marital dissolution agreement, contains a latent ambiguity because there is more than one method for calculating the marital portion of a defined benefit pension.

         The following additional facts and procedural history are relevant to the resolution of this appeal. Following the marital dissolution, Attorney McMahon sent a letter dated September 17, 2015, along with a drafted domestic relations order to both parties. In the letter, Attorney McMahon stated in relevant part: "Since the judgment does not specify how to determine the marital portion, I have used a coverture fraction . . . . If this approach is not acceptable to [either party], please let me know and then contact your attorneys for guidance." The September 17, 2015 domestic relations order prepared by Attorney McMahon was signed by the defendant, but not by the plaintiff. On October 26, 2015, Attorney McMahon recirculated a revised domestic relations order, dated September 26, 2015, which corrected a miscalculation in the coverture formula. Later, on December 2, 2015, Attorney McMahon sent a letter to the parties and their prior attorneys stating in relevant part: "The judgment does not specify how the marital portion is to be calculated, and there is more than one way to do so. My role is to craft an order that is consistent with the judgment; I do not advocate for either party. If the parties cannot reach an agreement on their own, they will have to return to court for clarification of the judgment." Pursuant to a request from the defendant's prior counsel, Attorney McMahon drafted a revised domestic relations order on January 11, 2016, that utilized the subtraction method to calculate the marital portion.

         Following the marital dissolution and over a period of several months, the parties, through counsel, exchanged correspondence regarding their disagreement on how to calculate the marital portion of the defendant's pension in accordance with the terms of the marital dissolution agreement, and both parties filed several motions reflecting their disagreement. In conjunction with these exchanges, the plaintiff received a correspondence from the State of Connecticut Retirement Services Division dated December 9, 2014, which had been sent to the defendant.[5] This letter outlined the defendant's participation in the state employees retirement system. The correspondence indicates that as of April 5, 1991, the date of the parties' marriage, the defendant had accrued the right to receive $1833 as a monthly pension benefit upon the normal retirement age of sixty-five. The letter states, as well, that by the time the defendant retired on June 1, 2003, his monthly benefit had risen to $5227.49. As of the date of the parties' marital dissolution, his monthly benefit had risen to $6937.92 due to cost of living increases built into the pension plan. Neither the contents nor accuracy of this letter is disputed by the parties.

         A hearing on the parties' motions was scheduled for May 23, 2016. At the hearing, and in response to arguments that there are different methods to calculate the "marital portion" of the defendant's pension benefits, the court stated the following: "[A]s far as the court is concerned, if Attorney McMahon, the person preparing the qualified domestic relations order says the word marital portion is ambiguous to her, [t]hen, I think you have an argument. The bottom line . . . you are going to have to have [Attorney McMahon] in here, to testify, that [the] term is ambiguous." The court further opined that it would not permit testimony from other individuals until it heard from Attorney McMahon.

         Consequently, on July 7, 2016, the court heard testimony from Attorney McMahon. She stated that when she first reviewed the dissolution agreement, to her, "marital portion meant one thing. . . . I have seen other approaches in other cases. That's not how I do it. So I didn't see an ambiguity initially, but . . . when a discussion arose and I saw the parties were . . . taking different approaches, then I thought either approach could fit what the judgment [stated]." When the plaintiff's counsel asked Attorney McMahon "if marital portion, standing alone without any further formula or description, was ambiguous, " she replied in the affirmative.

         On cross-examination by the defendant's counsel, the following exchange occurred:

"Q. [W]hen you get no other instruction from the court or from the parties or you see the agreement as you did in this, do you . . . normally use the coverture method?
"A. I do.
"Q. Okay. The subtraction method, is that a method you ever use?
"A. Only if it's specified in the judgment."

         On that same day, the court issued an order, stating: "The court heard evidence on the motions in limine and finds the contract in the separation agreement is clear and unambiguous regarding [paragraph] 9B, ‘marital portion.' The last sentence of the paragraph, the court determines means the enforcement of the signing of the [QDRO] by the parties. The other motions are moot. See transcript . . . for the elaboration of the court's ruling and findings."

         The transcript of the July 7, 2016 hearing reveals that the court stated: "I see nothing ambiguous or hear nothing and determine nothing ambiguous about the language. It is the typical language that you see . . . in a situation such . . . as this. . . . [T]estimony from Attorney McMahon established just that, there is nothing ambiguous. The parties agreed to use Attorney McMahon, therefore, they agreed to use her method of calculation and she clearly testified as to what her method of calculation was. Moreover, [paragraph] 9C of the parties' agreement uses the same . . . term, marital portion, and there's no claim of ambiguity there."[6] Finding no ambiguity in the language of the agreement, the court concluded that the September 26, 2015 domestic relations order which employed the coverture method of determining the marital portion of a monthly pension benefit was the appropriate version to be enforced. This appeal followed.

         We begin with our standard of review. "It is well established that a separation agreement, incorporated by reference into a judgment of dissolution, is to be regarded and construed as a contract. . . . Accordingly, our review of a trial court's interpretation of a separation agreement is guided by the general principles governing the construction of contracts. . . . A contract must be construed to effectuate the intent of the parties, which is determined from the language used interpreted in the light of the situation of the parties and the circumstances connected with the transaction. . . . If a contract is unambiguous within its four corners, the determination of what the parties intended by their contractual commitments is a question of law. . . . When the language of a contract is ambiguous, [however] the determination of the parties' intent is a question of fact, and the trial court's interpretation is subject to reversal on appeal only if it is clearly erroneous." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Remillard v. Remillard, 297 Conn. 345, 354-55, 999 A.2d 713 (2010).

         "[T]he intent of the parties is to be ascertained by a fair and reasonable construction of the written words and . . . the language used must be accorded its common, natural, and ordinary meaning and usage where it can be sensibly applied to the subject matter of the contract. . . . Where the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous, the contract is to be given effect according to its terms. A court will not torture words to import ambiguity where the ordinary meaning leaves no room for ambiguity . . . . Similarly, any ambiguity in a contract must emanate from the language used in the contract rather than from one party's subjective perception of the terms." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Watkins v. Watkins, 152 Conn.App. 99, 104, 96 A.3d 1264 (2014). "A word is ambiguous when it is capable of being interpreted by reasonably well informed persons in either of two or more senses. . . . Ambiguous can be defined as unclear or uncertain, or that which is susceptible of more than one interpretation, or understood in more ways than one." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Flaherty v. Flaherty, 120 Conn.App. 266, 269, 990 A.2d 1274 (2010).

         As noted, the plaintiff asserts that she believed the parties intended to calculate the domestic relations order by utilizing the subtraction method. Attorney McMahon testified that determination of the marital portion by this method involves taking "the benefit earned as of the date of marriage and subtract[ing] it from the benefit earned as of the date of divorce. . . . [T]he difference would be what they call the marital portion." See generally E. Brandt, "Valuation, Allocation, and Distribution of Retirement Plans at Divorce: Where ...

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