Masters v. Masters

Decision Date12 August 1986
Citation513 A.2d 104,201 Conn. 50
PartiesCarole Ann MASTERS v. Samuel Saunders MASTERS.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Bruce S. Beck, Manchester, for appellant (defendant).

Carole Ann Masters, pro se, appellee (plaintiff).

Before PETERS, C.J., and HEALEY, SHEA, SANTANIELLO and CALLAHAN, JJ.

PETERS, Chief Justice.

The principal issues in this appeal are the validity of a separation agreement allegedly procured by fraud and the enforceability of one provision in that agreement authorizing arbitration for disputes over child support. The plaintiff, Carole Ann Masters, and the defendant, Samuel Masters, were granted a decree dissolving their marriage on June 2, 1983. Subsequently, when a dispute arose over the defendant's compliance with the terms of the child support provision contained in a separation agreement which had been incorporated into the judgment, the plaintiff, pursuant to another provision of the agreement, filed a demand for arbitration. Following a hearing, the arbitrator entered an award on January 16, 1985, granting the plaintiff most of the relief she had requested. The defendant then filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award, which the trial court denied on March 4, 1985. The defendant has appealed from the denial of this motion. 1

The underlying facts are undisputed. In early 1983, in preparation for a mutually agreed-upon divorce, the plaintiff and the defendant contacted an attorney for assistance in drawing up a separation agreement. 2 This agreement, signed by both parties on May 31, 1983, provided for a distribution of assets, joint custody of two minor children, the payment of various expenses relative to the children's upbringing, and the arbitration of "[a]ny controversy or claim arising out of our [sic] relating to [the] agreement or the breach thereof."

Two days after the signing of the agreement, the plaintiff, herself an attorney, and the defendant's attorney appeared before the trial court, Kelly, J., for a hearing on the dissolution action. The trial court expressed concern that the separation agreement appeared to provide that the children would have separate residences, the son to live with the defendant and the daughter to live with the plaintiff. In response to the court's inquiry, the plaintiff testified that it was the parties' intention to continue to share the family residence with the children for "as long as we are able to continue that relationship," and to "do everything to prevent separating the children." At the request of the defendant's attorney, the court then passed the matter to permit the parties to amend the agreement to provide for a common primary residence for both children. 3

During the recess, the parties inserted a sentence into the agreement stating that "the primary residence of both children shall be with the wife." When the parties returned to court shortly thereafter, the trial court found the amended agreement to be fair and equitable. See General Statutes § 46b-66. 4 The court then rendered judgment dissolving the marriage, granting the parties joint custody of the children with their primary residence with the plaintiff, and incorporating the provisions of the separation agreement into the judgment.

Immediately after the hearing, the parties, without the court's knowledge, inserted yet another sentence into the agreement deleting the earlier reference to the children's primary residence. Approximately one month later, the defendant and the minor son moved out of the parties' joint home, where the plaintiff and the minor daughter continued to reside.

In September, 1984, the plaintiff filed with the American Arbitration Association a demand for arbitration, claiming that the defendant had failed to comply with provisions of the agreement relating to child support, alimony, and property division. Following the trial court's denial of the defendant's motion for an injunction staying the arbitration, an arbitration hearing was held on December 13, 1984. On January 16, 1985, the arbitrator entered an award granting the plaintiff most of the relief she had requested. The defendant subsequently moved, pursuant to General Statutes § 52-420, to vacate the award, claiming that the underlying separation agreement had been procured by fraud and that the arbitrator had exceeded his powers. 5 After a hearing on March 4, 1985, the trial court, Kelly, J., denied the defendant's motion, holding that the defendant had not "shown [anything] that would ... suggest that the Court should not confirm the award."

On appeal from this ruling, the defendant raises three claims of error. He claims that the trial court should have vacated the arbitration award because: (1) the court's approval of the underlying separation agreement on which the award was based had been procured by fraud; (2) the disputed issues relating to child support were not properly arbitrable as a matter of law and public policy; and (3) the arbitrator had exceeded his authority by issuing an award which did not conform either to the submission or to the agreement. We find no error.

I

The defendant first claims that the trial court erred in refusing to vacate the arbitration award because the court's approval of the underlying separation agreement had been induced by the parties' "fraudulent misrepresentation" that the children would share the same primary residence. The defendant argues that, as a result, the entire underlying agreement should be voided, and the arbitration award which was premised upon that agreement should be declared a nullity. The defendant first raised this claim in a motion for an injunction to stay the arbitration proceedings, and again in a motion to vacate the arbitration award. Both motions were denied.

Details of the alleged fraud were brought to the court's attention during the March, 1985, hearing on the defendant's motion to vacate the award. At this hearing, the defendant testified that the parties had never intended the children to live together after the dissolution of the marriage. He stated that the parties' contrary representations to the court and their amendment to the original agreement had been motivated solely by their desire to obtain court approval of the agreement in the face of the court's express reluctance to separate the children. He argued therefore that, since the court's approval of the agreement as fair and equitable; see General Statutes § 46b-66; Costello v. Costello, 186 Conn. 773, 776, 443 A.2d 1282 (1982); Hayes v. Beresford, 184 Conn. 558, 567-68, 440 A.2d 224 (1981); had been predicated on a false assumption, the entire agreement should be voided. The trial court denied the defendant's motion, holding that, even if the alleged misrepresentation to the court was sufficient to vitiate the primary residence provision, it did not affect the agreement as a whole or the individual unrelated provisions at issue in the arbitration.

On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court's ruling is erroneous both in its holding that the alleged fraud had not vitiated the agreement as a whole, and in its finding that the provision concerning the children's residence was unrelated to the support provisions at issue in the arbitration proceedings.

We begin our analysis of the defendant's claim by agreeing with his basic proposition that any intentional misrepresentation made in the context of a court proceeding is a serious matter with potentially serious repercussions. We have frequently stated that the trial court's ability to conduct a meaningful inquiry into the substance, fairness, and equity of a separation agreement depends upon the "absolute accuracy of the ... information furnished by the parties to one another and to the court." Jucker v. Jucker, 190 Conn. 674, 677, 461 A.2d 1384 (1983); Baker v. Baker, 187 Conn. 315, 321-23, 445 A.2d 912 (1982); Monroe v. Monroe, 177 Conn. 173, 183-84, 413 A.2d 819, appeal dismissed, 444 U.S. 801, 100 S.Ct. 20, 62 L.Ed.2d 14 (1979). We do not take lightly, nor can we, any misrepresentation or concealment of essential information upon which the trial court must rely in fashioning a decree; Kenworthy v. Kenworthy, 180 Conn. 129, 131, 429 A.2d 837 (1980); Casanova v. Casanova, 166 Conn. 304, 305, 348 A.2d 668 (1974); and have not hesitated to order an opening or modification of a judgment induced by fraud when the circumstances have warranted it. See Jucker v. Jucker, supra, 190 Conn. 677, 461 A.2d 1384; Baker v. Baker, supra, 187 Conn. 323, 445 A.2d 912; Kenworthy v. Kenworthy, supra, 180 Conn. 131, 429 A.2d 837; Varley v. Varley, 180 Conn. 1, 4, 428 A.2d 317 (1980).

Nevertheless, not every allegation of fraud is sufficient to justify the setting aside of all or part of a separation agreement. Jucker v. Jucker, supra, 190 Conn. 677-78, 461 A.2d 1384. In this case, for the defendant to prevail on his claim, he must establish first, by clear and satisfactory proof; see Alaimo v. Royer, 188 Conn. 36, 39, 448 A.2d 207 (1982); Miller v. Appleby, 183 Conn. 51, 55, 438 A.2d 811 (1981); that a fraud was perpetrated on the court, and then, if so, that this fraud induced the trial court to approve the agreement. Jucker v. Jucker, supra, 190 Conn. 677, 461 A.2d 1384; Varley v. Varley, supra, 180 Conn. 4, 428 A.2d 317.

The defendant contends that the first requirement has been satisfied by the trial court's finding of fraud at the hearing on the motion to vacate. A review of the transcript of the hearing as a whole, however, reveals that, contrary to the defendant's assertion, the trial court made no express finding of fraud. Although at several points the court did discuss the ramifications of such a misrepresentation, most of the references to fraud were couched in conditional or hypothetical terms. Significantly, the trial court ruled on the defendant's motion before the plaintiff had even presented her side of the case. 6

The defendant appears...

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