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Casablanca v. Casablanca

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 18, 2019

HECTOR L. CASABLANCA
v.
ANOLAN CASABLANCA

          Argued March 19, 2019

         Procedural History

         Action for the dissolution of a marriage, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford and tried to the court, Suarez, J.; judgment dissolving the marriage and granting certain other relief; thereafter, the court, Nastri, J., granted the plaintiff's motion in limine, denied the defendant's motion to open the judgment, and granted the plaintiff's motion to compel; subsequently, the court, Nastri, J., denied the defendant's motion to reargue, and the defendant appealed to this court; thereafter, the court, Nastri, J., granted in part the defendant's motion for articulation; subsequently, this court granted the defendant's motion for review but denied the relief requested therein. Reversed; further proceedings.

          Brandon B. Fontaine, with whom, on the brief, was C. Michael Budlong, for the appellant (defendant).

          Steven R. Dembo, with whom were Caitlin E. Koz-loski and, on the brief, P. Jo Anne Burgh, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Alvord, Keller and Beach, Js.

          OPINION

          ALVORD, J.

         In this marital dissolution action brought by the plaintiff, Hector L. Casablanca, the defendant, Anolan Casablanca, appeals from the judgment of the trial court resolving certain postjudgment motions. On appeal, the defendant claims that the court erred by (1) granting the plaintiff's motion to compel the defendant to execute the plaintiff's proposed qualified domestic relations order (QDRO)[1] and (2) granting the plaintiff's motion in limine to preclude the defendant from offering parol evidence in support of her motion to open the dissolution judgment. We conclude, contrary to the decision of the trial court, that the provision of the dissolution settlement agreement at issue in this case is ambiguous. Thus, we determine that the court should have considered extrinsic evidence of, and made additional factual findings regarding, the parties' intent in agreeing to this provision before it denied the defendant's motion to open the judgment and adjudicated the plaintiff's motion to compel the defendant to sign the proposed QDRO. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court and remand this case for further proceedings.

         The record reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. The parties were married on July 23, 2005. The parties' marriage was dissolved on January 21, 2016. On that date, the parties entered into a separation agreement (agreement). Article 11 of the agreement (retirement asset provision), titled ‘‘Retirement/Stock Accounts, '' provided: ‘‘The husband shall transfer to the wife, via QDRO, fifty (50%) percent of the value of the marital portion of his benefit under the City of Hartford Municipal Retirement fund, valued as of date of dissolution, minus the amount of the wife's Social Security Benefit. The assigned benefit shall be paid as a separate interest payment over the life of the wife. The husband shall retain his Mass. Mutual 457 Plan and wife shall make no claim to same. Attorney Jeffrey Winnick shall prepare said QDRO(s) and the parties shall be equally responsible for the cost of same.'' The court, Suarez, J., found the agreement fair and equitable and incorporated its terms into the dissolution judgment. Attorney Winnick subsequently prepared a proposed QDRO and transmitted it to the parties. The defendant refused to sign it.

         On May 23, 2016, the defendant filed the first of a series of motions to open the dissolution judgment.[2] On October 25, 2016, the plaintiff filed a motion captioned ‘‘motion to compel, '' which sought a court order requiring the defendant to execute the proposed QDRO.[3] On February 14, 2017, the defendant filed the operative motion to open the dissolution judgment on grounds of mutual mistake and unilateral mistake, and on the basis of equitable principles. Specifically, she contended that the relevant part of the retirement asset provision, the phrase ‘‘ ‘minus the amount of the wife's Social Security Benefit,' was entered upon mutual mistake of the parties.'' In her memorandum of law in support of the motion, the defendant maintained that the intent of the parties was to equalize the plaintiff's retirement pension benefits and the defendant's social security benefits. According to the defendant, she was to receive 50 percent of the marital portion of the plaintiff's monthly pension benefit until she became eligible to receive social security benefits some thirty years in the future, whereupon her assigned portion of the monthly pension benefit would be reduced by the amount of her monthly social security benefit she was then receiving.

         Under the proposed QDRO, however, the defendant's share of the pension benefit was reduced by immediately subtracting her anticipated future social security benefit amount of $1479 a month at her full retirement age (sixty-seven years old), which resulted in a current monthly retirement asset payment to the defendant of $242.75. She argued that because she was not entitled to receive her social security benefit until age sixty-five, approximately thirty years in the future, the proposed QDRO provided the plaintiff with ‘‘an inequitable and unconscionable windfall of $1479 per month . . . .''

         On February 22, 2017, the parties appeared for a hearing on the defendant's motion to open the judgment and the plaintiff's motion to compel. On the day of the hearing, the plaintiff filed a motion in limine seeking to preclude the defendant from presenting parol evidence, including testimony of the defendant herself, in support of her motion to open the judgment.[4] According to the plaintiff, the agreement was fully integrated and therefore no evidence could be introduced to vary or contradict its terms. The plaintiff also argued that even if the defendant was permitted to testify that she was mistaken as to the language of the retirement asset provision, her claim of mutual mistake would necessarily fail on the basis that the plaintiff would testify in opposition that the provision accurately reflected the parties' intent. After hearing oral argument on the motion in limine, the court, Nastri, J., granted the motion in part, stating: ‘‘The parol evidence rule prohibits the use of extrinsic evidence to vary [or] to contradict the terms . . . of a fully integrated written contract. The parties' separation agreement is a fully integrated written contract, therefore the motion in limine is granted, the court will not hear parol evidence.'' As to the second ground challenging the merits of the defendant's mutual mistake claim, the court stated: ‘‘I'm not going to grant the motion in limine on that basis.'' The court then asked whether the defendant's counsel was prepared to proceed, to which counsel replied: ‘‘I'm not quite sure then, the court will not accept testimony from my client?'' The court responded: ‘‘Well the court will not accept testimony that is contrary to the written contract. I don't know what your client is prepared to testify to or what the substantive evidence is, but the court will not hear parol evidence.''

         The court then held an evidentiary hearing, during which the defendant presented the testimony of the defendant, Attorney Winnick, Attorney Kim Duell (who represented the plaintiff during the dissolution proceedings), and the plaintiff. The attorney who represented the defendant during the dissolution proceedings did not testify. See footnote 4 of this opinion. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court issued an oral ruling denying the motion to open. It stated: ‘‘The court finds that there was no mutuality of mistake, there's no mutual mistake or any unilateral mistake and [it] is not unconscionable or inequitable to enforce the contract. The parties entered the agreement knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently with the assistance of competent counsel. Judge Suarez canvassed the parties and made a finding that the agreement was fair and equitable.'' Without hearing further evidence, the court thereafter granted the plaintiff's motion to compel and, affording the defendant sufficient time to take an appeal from the decision, ordered the defendant to sign the QDRO on or before March 24, 2017. The court subsequently issued a written order to the same effect.

         On March 14, 2017, the defendant filed a motion to reargue the court's February 22, 2017 rulings. In her motion, she argued that the court's granting of the motion in limine improperly precluded her from eliciting testimony as to the intent of the parties, which would have been offered in support of her claims of mutual and unilateral mistake.[5] She further argued that the testimony she sought to introduce in support of her motion to open did not constitute parol evidence because, as evidence of the parties' intent, it was not introduced to vary or contradict the terms of the agreement. The plaintiff filed an objection on March 21, 2017. The court denied the motion to reargue on the papers without comment, and this appeal followed.

         The defendant sought articulation of the court's decision denying the motion to reargue and its February 22, 2017 orders. The defendant's fifth request asked the court to articulate ‘‘whether, when granting the plaintiff's motion in limine . . . to exclude parol evidence and when enforcing that ruling during the February 22, 2017 hearing, the court: (a) considered whether article 11 of the parties' separation agreement contained any relevant ambiguities, particularly regarding its proper application, and (b) determined that article 11 of the separation agreement is clear and unambiguous.'' The plaintiff objected on the basis that the defendant had not raised the issue of ambiguity during the hearing. Over the plaintiff's objection, the court granted the request for articulation in part. Answering question five in the affirmative, the court stated: ‘‘After carefully considering the arguments advanced in the defendant's motion to open, the testimony of the witnesses, [6] the well-articulated arguments of counsel and applicable case law, the court found no ambiguities in Article 11. In the absence of any ambiguity or ...


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