Darak v. Darak

Citation556 A.2d 145,210 Conn. 462
Decision Date21 March 1989
Docket NumberNo. 13530,13530
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
PartiesHarold Jeffrey DARAK v. Robyn Gale DARAK.

Dominick J. Thomas, Jr., with whom was Catherine E. Teitell, Derby, for appellant (defendant).

Deborah S. Chang, with whom, on the brief, was David J. Elliott, Hartford, for appellee (plaintiff).

Before PETERS, C.J., and ARTHUR H. HEALEY, CALLAHAN, GLASS and HULL, JJ.

PETERS, Chief Justice.

The principal issue in this appeal is whether a statutory change in the principles governing modification of matrimonial financial orders applies immediately to any motion for modification filed after the effective date of the act or applies only prospectively to dissolution decrees entered after its effective date. Subsequent to the effective date of Public Acts 1987, No. 87-104 1 (the act), the defendant, Robyn Gale Darak, moved the trial court to modify her award of alimony and child support in light of the changed financial circumstances of the plaintiff, Harold J. Darak. This motion was initially granted, but ultimately denied, on the trial court's ruling that the parties had contemplatedthe changed circumstances and that the new act, which eliminated this consideration, applied prospectively only. The defendant appealed to the Appellate Court and we transferred the appeal here pursuant to Practice Book § 4023. We find error in part of the trial court's judgment.

The underlying facts are undisputed. The trial court, Nash, J., dissolved the three and one-half year marriage between the plaintiff and the defendant on December 3, 1986. Pursuant to the parties' dissolution agreement, the trial court granted custody of the couple's minor child to the defendant and directed the plaintiff to pay the defendant $125 per week in unallocated alimony and child support. At the time of the dissolution, the plaintiff earned $798.08 weekly ($549.14 net) and the defendant earned $125 weekly ($122.18 net).

On October 23, 1987, the defendant moved the trial court to modify its alimony and child support order because of a substantial improvement in the plaintiff's financial situation. After a hearing at which the parties submitted financial affidavits, the trial court, Damiani, J., found that a substantial change in financial circumstances had indeed occurred, the plaintiff's earnings having significantly risen, while those of the defendant had diminished. 2 The court also found, however, that the parties had contemplated the income increase at the time of the dissolution.

The trial court initially ruled that, by virtue of the enactment of Public Acts 1987, No. 87-104, the defendant was entitled to a modification, despite the fact that the change in financial circumstances had been contemplated at the time of the dissolution. The court acknowledged that, under this court's interpretation of General Statutes § 46b-86(a), prior to its 1987 amendment, 3 no such modification would have been allowable. Grinold v. Grinold, 172 Conn. 192, 195, 374 A.2d 172 (1976). As amended by the new act, however, § 46b-86(a) now permits a modification without regard to prior contemplation of financial changes. The court held the new act to be procedural and remedial and hence applicable to the defendant's motion for modification because her motion had been filed after the effective date of the new act. The court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the act should only apply to dissolution decrees entered after its effective date. In accordance with its ruling granting the motion for modification, the court, on December 18, 1987, entered new monetary orders for child support of $150 per week and alimony of $100 per week. Thereafter, the court awarded the defendant an allowance of $2000 in attorney's fees to defend against an appeal taken by the plaintiff from the trial court's ruling. 4

During the pendency of the plaintiff's appeal, he moved the trial court to reconsider its ruling that the act applies retrospectively. 5 In response, the defendant moved for reconsideration of the finding that the parties had contemplated the change in financial circumstances.

On March 31, 1988, the trial court granted the plaintiff's motion for reconsideration and, upon reconsideration, reversed its previous decision and denied the defendant's motion for modification. Relying on the Appellate Court's intervening decision in LaBow v. LaBow, 13 Conn.App. 330, 537 A.2d 157, cert. denied, 207 Conn. 806, 540 A.2d 374 (1988), the trial court concluded that the act should apply only prospectively. 6 The trial court denied the defendant's motion to reconsider its finding of contemplation. The court further ordered that the plaintiff was entitled to a credit of $5 per week to make up for the amounts he had paid to the defendant pursuant to the previous court order.

This case is now before us on appeal by the defendant. 7 She claims that the trial court erred in: (1) ruling that the act applies prospectively only to dissolution judgments entered after the act's effective date; (2) concluding that the parties had contemplated the substantial change in financial circumstances; and (3) making financial awards that retroactively denied the defendant attorney's fees during the pendency of the plaintiff's motion for reconsideration, and prospectively diminished the defendant's financial support by the increased amount of alimony and child support awarded to the defendant by its December 18, 1987 decision.

I

The defendant's argument about the applicability of the amended § 46b-86(a) encompasses three claims. She maintains that the new act should apply to all motions for modification filed after its effective date because: (1) even applied prospectively, the act encompasses her motion; (2) the act represents a clarification of the legislature's original intent rather than a substantive change in § 46b-86(a); and (3) any contrary construction would impair her constitutional rights to equal protection of the laws. We are unpersuaded by any of these claims.

A

The rules of statutory construction that govern the applicability of new legislation to preexisting transactions are well established. Our point of departure is General Statutes § 55-3, which states: "No provision of the general statutes, not previously contained in the statutes of the state, which imposes any new obligation on any person or corporation, shall be construed to have a retrospective effect." "The 'obligations' referred to in the statute are those of substantive law." Nagle v. Wood, 178 Conn. 180, 186, 423 A.2d 875 (1979). Thus, we have uniformly interpreted § 55-3 as a rule of presumed legislative intent that statutes affecting substantive rights shall apply prospectively only. 8 Westport v. State, 204 Conn. 212, 219, 527 A.2d 1177 (1987); Schieffelin & Co. v. Department of Liquor Control, 194 Conn. 165, 174, 479 A.2d 1191 (1984); Enfield Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. Bissell, 184 Conn. 569, 571, 440 A.2d 220 (1981). The legislature only rebuts this presumption when it "clearly and unequivocally" expresses its intent that the legislation shall apply retrospectively. State v. Lizotte, 200 Conn. 734, 741, 517 A.2d 610 (1986); Schieffelin & Co. v. Department of Liquor Control, supra, 194 Conn. at 174, 479 A.2d 1191; Enfield Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. Bissell, supra, 184 Conn. at 572, 440 A.2d 220.

The amended § 46b-86(a) falls within the rubric of legislation that affects substantive rights because it increases statutory liability. Hunter v. Hunter, 177 Conn. 327, 332, 416 A.2d 1201 (1979); Little v. Ives, 158 Conn. 452, 457, 262 A.2d 174 (1969). The new act increases the plaintiff's statutory exposure by subjecting him to the risk of modified financial orders even for previously contemplated salary increases, when prior law would have afforded him immunity from such liability. Thus, because the act is substantive in nature, we presume that the legislature intended it to have prospective applicability. Westport v. State, supra, 204 Conn. at 219, 527 A.2d 1177; Schieffelin & Co. v. Department of Liquor Control, supra, 194 Conn. at 174, 479 A.2d 1191. The defendant has directed us to no "clear and unequivocal" language in the act, and we have found none, that would support a contrary inference in favor of retrospective application. Accordingly, we hold that the act applies prospectively only. 9 Cf. Schieffelin & Co. v. Department of Liquor Control, supra, at 174, 479 A.2d 1191 (use of the words "has had" denotes retrospective application); Enfield Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. Bissell, supra, 184 Conn. at 572, 440 A.2d 220 (statute explicitly directs application to pending appeals).

Although at trial the defendant maintained that the new act made only procedural changes that could be applied retrospectively, she now concedes that the act can have only prospective application. The question that presently divides the parties is what prospective applicability means in this case. The defendant argues that it includes all motions for modification filed after the effective date of the act, while the plaintiff argues that it must be confined to dissolution decrees entered after that date. We agree with the plaintiff.

As a matter of common sense, the defendant's argument cannot prevail. Accepting her interpretation of prospective applicability would leave pre-act dissolutions vulnerable to modifications that would previously have been disallowed. The ineluctable result would be to apply the act retrospectively. See Muha v. United Oil Co., 180 Conn. 720, 729, 433 A.2d 1009 (1980). "Strict construction to prevent retroactive operation has often been applied in order that the statute would not violate contract obligations or interfere with vested rights." 2A J. Sutherland, Statutory Construction (4th Ed. Sands 1986) § 41.04, p. 349. The parties in this case negotiated their dissolution agreement well aware, as the trial court found, of the...

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