Eldridge v. Eldridge, 15716

Decision Date21 April 1998
Docket NumberNo. 15716,15716
Citation244 Conn. 523,710 A.2d 757
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesStephen C. ELDRIDGE v. Phyllis ELDRIDGE.

Richard L. Albrecht, with whom was Jocelyn B. Hurwitz, Bridgeport, for appellant (plaintiff).

Robert H. Rubin, Westport, for appellee (defendant).

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BORDEN, BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ, PALMER and McDONALD, JJ.

KATZ, Associate Justice.

The plaintiff husband appeals from the Appellate Court's affirmance of an order of contempt for his failure to pay weekly alimony. We conclude that it was not an abuse of the trial court's discretion to hold the plaintiff in contempt but that it was an abuse of its discretion to award the defendant attorney's fees of $15,067.50. Accordingly, we reverse that part of the Appellate Court judgment.

The record discloses the following facts. The parties were divorced on November 14, 1983. As part of the dissolution, the plaintiff, Stephen C. Eldridge, was ordered to pay periodic unallocated alimony and support for the defendant, Phyllis Eldridge, and their two minor children in twelve equal monthly installments. The amount was to be reduced by $15,000 on the eighteenth birthday of each of the two children.

In addition, the trial court ordered that, in the event that the defendant's gross annual earnings exceeded $25,000, one half of the amount by which her earnings exceeded $25,000 should be deducted from the periodic unallocated alimony. Specifically, the divorce decree provides in relevant part: "It is contemplated at this time that the defendant will continue her present part-time employment and that in the future she will be employed full-time, however, such employment shall not be considered a change of circumstances until her gross annual income from earnings shall exceed $25,000. One half of the amount by which her earnings exceed $25,000 shall be deducted from the periodic unallocated alimony and support hereinbefore awarded." The plaintiff appealed from that judgment, which was affirmed by the Appellate Court in Eldridge v. Eldridge, 4 Conn.App. 489, 495, 495 A.2d 283 (1985).

Thereafter, in 1987, the defendant began to earn in excess of $25,000 annually as a teacher in the New York city school system. Nevertheless, it was not until July, 1994, that the plaintiff, as a result of his request for information, first learned of this fact. The defendant never informed the plaintiff of this change in circumstances despite the fact that it would have enabled the plaintiff, under the terms of the dissolution judgment, to seek a modification of alimony. 1

On August 7, 1994, the plaintiff, believing that he was due a credit, began withholding alimony payments, and, on November 1, 1994, he filed a motion for an order to determine the extent of the credit owed him by the defendant. Shortly thereafter, the defendant moved to have the plaintiff held in contempt, and the plaintiff moved for a modification of alimony. During the combined hearing on the motions in June, 1995, the defendant asked the court to order the plaintiff to pay alimony while the motions were pending. The trial court declined to enter such an order, and, on November 13, 1995, determined that the plaintiff owed the defendant $47,708.30 in alimony and that the defendant owed the plaintiff $57,765.28 for overpayments. On the basis of its determination that the plaintiff wilfully had failed to pay alimony beginning in August, 1994, the trial court found the plaintiff in contempt and, pursuant to General Statutes § 46b-87, 2 The plaintiff appealed from the trial court's orders, which were affirmed by the Appellate Court in a per curiam opinion. Eldridge v. Eldridge, 45 Conn.App. 904, 692 A.2d 1320 (1997). We granted the plaintiff's petition for certification as to the following issue: "In the circumstances of this case, did the Appellate Court properly affirm the contempt judgment rendered against the plaintiff for his failure to pay alimony to the defendant even though the alimony payments previously made by the plaintiff exceeded his liability to the defendant?" Eldridge v. Eldridge, 241 Conn. 928, 696 A.2d 1265 (1997). 3

awarded $15,067.50 in attorney's fees to the defendant. The award of attorney's fees was offset by the plaintiff's overpayments, and the court ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant a net amount of $5010.52.

We conclude that the trial court properly determined that the plaintiff was able to obey the court order and that his failure to meet the court ordered obligation was wilful. Although we affirm the trial court's finding of contempt, we, nevertheless, conclude that the trial court abused its discretion with regard to the issue of the defendant's counsel fees, and, therefore, reverse that part of the judgment and remand the case to the trial court for a new determination of counsel fees.

I ANDREA

In reviewing the plaintiff's claimed improprieties concerning the finding of contempt, we are guided by standards that limit our review. "[O]ur review [of a finding of civil contempt] is technically limited to questions of jurisdiction such as whether the court had authority to impose the punishment inflicted and whether the act or acts for which the penalty was imposed could constitute a contempt.... This limitation originates because by its very nature the court's contempt power ... must be balanced against the contemnor's fundamental rights and, for this reason, there exists the present mechanism for the eventual review of errors which allegedly infringe on these rights.... We have found a civil contempt to be improper or erroneous because: the injunction on which it was based was vague and indefinite ... the findings on which it was based were ambiguous and irreconcilable ... the contemnor's constitutional rights were not properly safeguarded ... the penalties imposed were criminal rather than civil in nature ... and the contemnor, through no fault of his own, was unable to obey the court's order." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Papa v. New Haven Federation of Teachers, 186 Conn. 725, 731-32, 444 A.2d 196 (1982); see also Dunham v. Dunham, 217 Conn. 24, 29, 584 A.2d 445 (1991).

" 'Although ... plenary review of civil contempt orders extends to some issues that are not truly jurisdictional, its emphasis on fundamental rights underscores the proposition that the grounds for any appeal from a contempt order are more restricted than would be the case in an ordinary plenary appeal from a civil judgment.' " Commissioner of Health Services v. Youth Challenge of Greater Hartford, Inc., 219 Conn. 657, 666, 594 A.2d 958 (1991), quoting Dunham v. Dunham, supra, 217 Conn. at 29-30, 584 A.2d 445; see Tomasso Bros., Inc. v. October Twenty-Four, Inc., 230 Conn. 641, 658-59, 646 A.2d 133 (1994).

The plaintiff argues first that his conduct was not contemptuous of the court's orders because he held a good faith belief that he was justified in suspending periodic alimony payments. Second, the plaintiff argues that he should not have been held in civil contempt because civil contempt requires that the contemnor be able to purge himself and, in light of the credit he was due, he had no means by which to purge himself. We find neither of the plaintiff's claims to be persuasive.

In order to constitute contempt, a party's conduct must be wilful. Connolly v. Connolly, 191 Conn. 468, 483, 464 A.2d 837 (1983). "The contempt remedy is particularly harsh ... and may be founded solely upon some clear and express direction of the court.... One cannot be placed in contempt for failure to read the court's mind." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Blaydes v. Blaydes, 187 Conn. 464, 467, 446 A.2d 825 (1982). A good faith dispute or legitimate misunderstanding of the terms of an alimony or support obligation may prevent a finding that the payor's nonpayment was wilful. This does not mean, however, that such a dispute or misunderstanding will preclude a finding of wilfulness as a predicate to a judgment of contempt. Whether it will preclude such a finding is ultimately within the trial court's discretion. "It is within the sound discretion of the court to deny a claim for contempt when there is an adequate factual basis to explain the failure to honor the court's order." Marcil v. Marcil, 4 Conn.App. 403, 405, 494 A.2d 620 (1985).

The trial court found that the plaintiff had decided to terminate his alimony payments "based on his belief that Judge Levine's order entitled him to total alimony credits from the defendant's credits of $225,195." 4 In rejecting the plaintiff's claim that this constituted a legitimate basis upon which to justify his behavior, the trial court stated: "The short answer to that claim is that he was required to file a motion for modification before he would be entitled to any credit." Relying on the Appellate Court's opinion in the plaintiff's appeal from the judgment of dissolution; Eldridge v. Eldridge, supra, 4 Conn.App. at 494, 495 A.2d 283; the trial court determined that "[t]he plaintiff knew or should have known that he was not entitled to terminate the order unilaterally himself. The plaintiff is a college graduate, and the court found him to be an intelligent individual with a successful career as a certified public accountant for many years. It is elementary that court orders must be complied with until they are modified by a court or successfully challenged." This rationale was repeated in the trial court's memorandum of decision denying the plaintiff's motion to set aside, correct, articulate and reargue. "[T]he Appellate Court stated that any modification of the alimony order would be subject to a motion for modification by the plaintiff. Eldridge v. Eldridge, [supra, at 489, 495 A.2d 283]. The fact that the court also found the plaintiff ... was entitled to an alimony credit of $57,765.28 from the defendant ... for earnings she made as a school...

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