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Lederle v. Spivey

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 27, 2019

CATHERINE LEDERLE
v.
STEVAN SPIVEY

          Argued January 24, 2019

         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 referred to the judicial district of Middlesex, Regional Family Trial Docket; thereafter, the case was tried to the court, Abery-Wet-stone, J.; judgment dissolving the marriage and granting certain other relief; subsequently, the court, Emons, J., denied the defendant's motion to open the judgment, and the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, DiPentima, C. J., and Alvord and Harper, Js., which affirmed the trial court's judgment; thereafter, the court, Emons, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees, and the defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, DiPentima, C. J., and Beach and Danaher, Js., which reversed the trial court's award of attorney's fees and remanded the case for further proceedings, from which the plaintiff, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Reversed; judgment directed.

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

          David V. DeRosa, for the appellee (defendant).

          Robinson, C. J., and Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Ecker, Js.

          OPINION

          KAHN, J.

         In this dissolution of marriage action, the plaintiff, Catherine Lederle, appeals, following our grant of certification, [1] from the judgment of the Appellate Court reversing the decision of the trial court, which had awarded appellate attorney's fees to the plaintiff under the bad faith exception to the American rule.[2] The plaintiff contends that the Appellate Court did not accord the proper level of deference in determining that the trial court's findings lacked sufficient specificity. The defendant, Stevan Spivey, responds that the Appellate Court properly applied the abuse of discretion standard and also correctly concluded that, in determining that the appellate claims lacked color, the trial court improperly assessed the conduct of the defendant's attorney rather than that of the defendant. The defendant claims that the amount of the award was unreasonable and excessive because (1) the plaintiff's success in the appeal for which fees were awarded was not due to the efforts of the plaintiff's counsel, and (2) the defendant's attorney charged him a significantly lower amount of fees for representing him in that appeal.[3] We reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court and conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in setting the amount of the fees.

         The Appellate Court opinions in the present case have set forth the following relevant facts and procedural history. ‘‘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 [2007 decision]. 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. [The Appellate Court] affirmed the judgment of the court, and [the] Supreme Court denied certification to appeal. Lederle v. Spivey, 113 Conn.App. 177, 965 A.2d 621');">965 A.2d 621 [(Lederle I)], cert. denied, 291 Conn. 916, 970 A.2d 728 (2009).'' Lederle v. Spivey, 151 Conn.App. 813, 814-15, 96 A.3d 1259 (Lederle II), cert. denied, 314 Conn. 932, 102 A.3d 84 (2014). The defendant subsequently learned that the plaintiff had not started her employment at Lexmark because she lost that position but had started a position at a different company in Virginia.

         ‘‘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. . . . 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 . . . decision in [March] 2009. . . . 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. . . .

         ‘‘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 [2013 decision]. 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 procured a new one at Xerox, prior to the Appellate [Court's] decision, her failure to disclose [did] not constitute fraud.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lederle v. Spivey, 174 Conn.App. 592, 594-95, 166 A.3d 636 (2017) (Lederle III).

         The defendant appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, claiming that the court ‘‘(1) improperly held a portion of the hearing on the motion to open in chambers and off the record; and (2) abused its discretion by deciding the motion toopen, which was based on a claim of fraud and therefore involved a question of material fact, without the benefit of sworn testimony or other evidence.''[4] Lederle II, supra, 151 Conn.App. 814. The Appellate Court did not directly address either of the defendant's claims. It held that the record was inadequate to review the defendant's first claim. Id., 816. The court rejected the defendant's second claim on the basis of its conclusion that, once the final judgment of dissolution had been rendered, as a matter of law, the plaintiff had no continuing duty to disclose the loss of her Lexmark employment.[5] Id., 819.

         While the defendant's appeal from the denial of his motion to open was pending before the Appellate Court, the plaintiff filed the motion that gave rise to the present appeal, seeking appellate attorney's fees for the then pending appeal. The trial court held a hearing on the motion on October 30, 2013, but, because the appeal before the Appellate Court was still pending, continued the matter until after the defendant's appeal was resolved. On February 10, 2015, after the Appellate Court had affirmed the judgment of the trial court denying the motion to open the judgment of dissolution; Lederle II, supra, 151 Conn.App. 814; the trial court resumed the hearing on the motion for appellate attorney's fees and, subsequently, issued a memorandum of decision, granting the plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees on the basis of its finding that the defendant's appeal was taken in bad faith and was entirely without color (2015 decision).[6]

         The defendant appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court, which held that the trial court had abused its discretion in awarding attorney's fees because ‘‘its decision lacked the ‘high degree of specificity' as to its finding that the defendant's appeal was entirely without color.'' Lederle III, supra, 174 Conn.App. 598. Specifically, the Appellate Court explained that the trial court, in its 2015 decision, (1) did not properly set forth separate, subordinate findings to support each of its ultimate findings as to lack of colorability and bad faith; id., 603-604; and (2) in determining that the defendant's claims lacked color, improperly failed to apply the proper standard for color-ability, which, according to the Appellate Court, should have been the standard that applies to a party rather than an attorney. Id., 604. This appeal followed.

         We begin by setting forth the general principles governing the application of the bad faith exception to the American rule. ‘‘[T]his state follows the general rule that, except as provided by statute or in certain defined exceptional circumstances, the prevailing litigant is ordinarily not entitled to collect a reasonable [attorney's] fee from the loser. . . . That rule does not apply, however, where the opposing party has acted in bad faith. . . . It is generally accepted that the court has the inherent authority to assess attorney's fees when the losing party has acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly or for oppressive reasons. . . . This bad faith exception applies, not only to the filing of an action, but also in the conduct of the litigation. . . . It applies both to the party and his counsel.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Maris v. McGrath, 269 Conn. 834, 844-45, 850 A.2d 133 (2004).

         We have explained that, in order to impose sanctions under the bad faith exception, ‘‘the trial court must find both that the litigant's claims were entirely without color and that the litigant acted in bad faith.'' (Emphasis in original.) Berzins v.Berzins, 306 Conn. 651, 663, 51 A.3d 941 (2012). The court must make these findings with ‘‘a high degree of specificity . . . .'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 662. The requirement of an independent finding that the challenged actions or claims are entirely without color ensures that ‘‘fear of an award of [attorney's] fees against them will not deter persons with colorable claims from pursuing those claims . . . .'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Maris v.McGrath, supra, 269 Conn. 845. The requirement of that independent finding means that, if a court concludes that a claim is colorable, it cannot award attorney's fees, even if the court were to conclude that the person against whom sanctions are sought acted in bad faith. When, as in the present case, the ...


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