Blondeau v. Baltierra

Decision Date24 September 2020
Docket NumberSC 20282
Citation337 Conn. 127,252 A.3d 317
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
Parties Sophie BLONDEAU v. Michael BALTIERRA

Peter J. Zarella, Hartford, with whom, on the brief, was Gary I. Cohen, Stamford, for the appellant (defendant).

Scott T. Garosshen, with whom were Kenneth J. Bartschi, Hartford, and, on the brief, Michael T. Meehan, Bridgeport, for the plaintiff (appellee).

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

ECKER, J.

This appeal requires the resolution of a series of jurisdictional and merits related issues arising from the arbitration of a marital dissolution action involving an unusual choice of law provision contained in the parties’ arbitration agreement. The dispute focuses primarily on the validity of the arbitrator's award dividing the equity in the parties’ marital home and assigning responsibility for certain expenses related to child support. The defendant, Michael Baltierra, appeals from the judgment of the trial court granting the motion of the plaintiff, Sophie Blondeau, to vacate the arbitration award and denying the defendant's corresponding application to confirm the award. The trial court's decision rests on its determination that (1) the arbitrator exceeded her authority under the arbitration agreement by dividing the equity in the marital home under Connecticut law rather than French law, as prescribed by the parties’ premarital agreement, (2) the arbitrator, for the same reasons, also manifestly disregarded the law controlling her decision making, and (3) the award improperly included issues related to child support. We conclude that the arbitrator did not exceed her authority under the arbitration agreement or manifestly disregard the law, but we agree with the trial court that the inclusion of issues related to child support in the award was improper. Accordingly, we reverse in part the judgment of the trial court.

The following facts and procedural history are relevant to the issues on appeal. The plaintiff and the defendant were married on June 23, 1999, in Paris, France. The parties executed a premarital agreement providing in relevant part that "the future spouses ... designate, as the law to be applicable to their matrimonial regime, the French law, as being the law of the state of the wife's nationality. ... The [f]uture [s]pouses declare that they are adopting as the basis for their union the regime of the separation of property, as such is established by Articles 1536 to 1543 of the [French] Civil Code ...." The premarital agreement also provided that "[e]ach one of the spouses shall establish the ownership of his or her property by all means of proof provided by the [l]aw. However, unless there is legal proof to the contrary ... [r]eal property and business assets shall be presumed to belong to the one of the spouses in whose name the acquisition is made, and to both, if the acquisition is made in both of their names."1

The plaintiff and the defendant had three children during their marriage. In 2008, the parties purchased a home in Westport with title held jointly in both of their names. The plaintiff commenced the present action to dissolve the marriage in January, 2016. Both parties sought to enforce the premarital agreement. On August 31, 2017, the parties executed a binding agreement to arbitrate the dissolution action, which the trial court approved. The parties agreed to appoint a retired judge of the Superior Court, Lynda B. Munro, as the arbitrator. Among its provisions, the arbitration agreement provided: "The parties agree to be guided by the laws ... of Connecticut during the arbitration process and with respect to the substantive issues submitted for resolution by the [a]rbitrator, except that the [a]rbitrator shall be guided by the French Civil Code with regard to any claim by the parties that the [a]rbitrator either vacate their premarital agreement or effectuate their premarital agreement and if effectuated determine what property is included within the scope of the premarital agreement pursuant to [the] French Civil Code." The arbitration agreement further provided: "The parties shall arbitrate the dissolution of marriage action, including, but not limited to issues of ... property division for both assets and liabilities, [and] ... determine the validity and effectuation of the parties’ premarital agreement; and if effectuated determine what property is included within the scope of the premarital agreement pursuant to [the] French Civil Code ...."

After arbitration hearings, the arbitrator issued the written arbitration award. As we discuss in greater detail later in this opinion, the arbitrator's award designated the parties’ Westport home as joint property and then applied Connecticut law to determine how the equity in the home would be distributed between the parties. See part III A of this opinion. The arbitrator awarded the home to the plaintiff and ordered her to pay the defendant $212,000, an amount representing approximately 40 percent of the equity in the home.2

The arbitrator also issued orders regarding the payment of child care expenses, health insurance and expenses for the children, and ordered the defendant to maintain life insurance for the benefit of the children.

On January 4, 2018, the plaintiff submitted a motion for "articulation/clarification/reargument" of the arbitration award, in which she argued, inter alia, that the arbitration award violated the terms of the premarital agreement by ordering the plaintiff to pay to the defendant $212,000 of the equity in the home. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that the arbitrator should have applied French law to determine that she owned, as separate property, equity equal to her original contribution of $429,000 used to purchase the home, which would have resulted in a substantially lower amount subject to equitable distribution. The arbitrator denied the plaintiff's motion.3

On January 9, 2018, the defendant filed an application to confirm the arbitration award. Two days later, on January 11, 2018, the plaintiff filed a motion to vacate the award. On December 17, 2018, the trial court granted the plaintiff's motion to vacate the arbitration award and denied the defendant's application to confirm the award. The court concluded that, pursuant to General Statutes § 52-418 (a) (4),4 "the arbitrator exceeded her powers and failed to issue an arbitration award that conformed to the parties’ arbitration agreement. ... The arbitration agreement directed the arbitrator to ‘determine the validity and effectuation of the parties’ premarital agreement; and if effectuated determine what property is included within the scope of the premarital agreement pursuant to [the] French Civil Code.’ The arbitrator instead applied Connecticut law and awarded a property distribution payment to the defendant that contravened the provisions of the arbitration agreement." (Citation omitted.) The trial court also concluded that "the arbitration award failed to effectuate the parties’ premarital agreement, which provided that each party's separate property would remain his or her separate property in the event of a dissolution of the marriage," and that "the arbitration award violated General Statutes §§ 46b-66 (c) and 52-408 (c), which specifically prohibit the arbitration of issues relating to child support." The defendant appealed, and we transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199 (c) and Practice Book § 65-1.

On appeal, the defendant claims that (1) the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider the plaintiff's motion to vacate the arbitration award because it was untimely, (2) the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider the plaintiff's arguments regarding child support because the plaintiff was not aggrieved and her arguments were moot, (3) the trial court improperly vacated the arbitration award under § 52-418 (a) (4) because the arbitrator neither exceeded her authority under the arbitration agreement nor manifestly disregarded the law, and (4) the trial court improperly vacated the arbitration award on the ground that the award arbitrated issues related to child support in violation of § 46b-66 (c) or, alternatively, that the portion of the award containing orders related to child support was severable. The plaintiff disputes each of the defendant's claims and also argues that the defendant's appeal must be dismissed for lack of a final judgment.

IAPPELLATE JURISDICTION

We must first address the plaintiff's contention that we lack appellate jurisdiction over the present appeal. The plaintiff claims that there is no final judgment from which to appeal because General Statutes § 52-423,5 which provides a statutory right of appeal from an order vacating an arbitration award, is inapplicable to arbitration awards that include "issues related to child support" pursuant to § 46b-66 (c).6 This argument is without merit.

Underlying our analysis is the fundamental precept that "[t]he right of appeal is purely statutory. It is accorded only if the conditions fixed by statute and the rules of court for taking and prosecuting the appeal are met. ... The statutory right to appeal is limited to appeals by aggrieved parties from final judgments." (Citations omitted.) State v. Curcio , 191 Conn. 27, 30, 463 A.2d 566 (1983). "The lack of a final judgment is a jurisdictional defect that mandates dismissal." In re Michael S ., 258 Conn. 621, 625, 784 A.2d 317 (2001). This limitation would not appear to present an obstacle to the defendant's ability to obtain appellate review in the present case because § 52-423 expressly confers on parties the right to appeal from orders related to the judicial enforcement of arbitration awards: "An appeal may be taken from an order confirming, vacating, modifying or correcting an award, or from a judgment or decree upon an award, as in...

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5 cases
  • Renstrup v. Renstrup
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • January 17, 2023
    ... ... and our Supreme Court have held that, under some circumstances, a child support award may be severable from the other financial orders; see Blondeau v. Baltierra , 337 Conn. 127, 17475, 252 A.3d 317 (2020) ; Misthopoulos v. Misthopoulos , supra, 297 Conn. at 390, 999 A.2d 721 ; 287 A.3d ... ...
  • Clinton v. Aspinwall
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • September 20, 2022
    ... ... that, because the right of appeal is purely statutory, "[t]he lack of a final judgment is a jurisdictional defect that mandates dismissal." Blondeau v. Baltierra , 337 Conn. 127, 135, 252 A.3d 317 (2020). Connecticut law therefore governs whether the defendants appealed from a final judgment in ... ...
  • Clinton v. Aspinwall
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • September 20, 2022
    ... ... a final judgment is a jurisdictional defect that mandates ... dismissal." Blondeau v. Baltierra, 337 ... Conn. 127, 135, 252 A.3d 317 (2020). Connecticut law ... therefore governs whether the defendants appealed from ... ...
  • Gerald Metals, LLC v. Davidson
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
    • October 27, 2021
    ...276 Conn. 599, 613-614 (2006). “Manifest disregard of the law is an extremely deferential standard of review.” Blondeau v. Baltierra, 337 Conn. 127, 161 (2020). The petitioner must prove three elements: “(1) the error was obvious and capable of being readily and instantly perceived by the a......
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