Nastro v. D'ONOFRIO

Decision Date20 May 2003
Docket Number(AC 22941).
Citation76 Conn. App. 814,822 A.2d 286
CourtConnecticut Court of Appeals
PartiesVINCENT NASTRO v. ARTHUR M. D'ONOFRIO, JR.

Dranginis, Bishop and Peters, Js.

Gary J. Greene, for the appellant (defendant).

Edwin L. Doernberger, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Opinion

PETERS, J.

The full faith and credit clause of the United States constitution "requires a state court to accord to the judgment of another state the same credit, validity and effect as the state that rendered the judgment would give it." Packer Plastics, Inc. v. Laundon, 214 Conn. 52, 56, 570 A.2d 687 (1990). In accordance with this federal mandate, our legislature enacted the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, General Statutes § 52-604 et seq. (foreign judgments act), which permits an out-of-state judgment that has been filed here to be enforced in the same manner as an in-state judgment. In that act, General Statutes § 52-605 (b) provides that enforcement of the out-of-state judgment is subject to the same defenses that a judgment debtor could raise against an in-state judgment. This case requires us to interpret this section so that it does not run afoul of the full faith and credit clause, which limits the authority of Connecticut courts to delve into the merits of an out-of-state judgment. The judgment of the trial court in favor of the out-of-state creditor, although based on a different statute, reached a result that comports with our interpretation of § 52-605 (b). We therefore affirm the judgment.

The procedural history of this case begins in California in the Superior Court in and for the County of San Joaquin. In that court, the plaintiff, Vincent Nastro, filed a complaint seeking damages to compensate him for alleged misconduct by the defendant, Arthur M. D'Onofrio, Jr., in the management of a corporation jointly owned by both parties. In the course of those proceedings, the defendant was ordered to comply with certain discovery orders. On January 22, 1998, after he had failed to do so, the court issued discovery sanctions that directed the defendant to pay monetary sanctions of $16,923.87. The defendant was represented by counsel throughout. The judgment was on the merits rather than by default or confession of judgment.

As California law permits,1 the defendant immediately appealed the sanctions order to the California Court of Appeals. The sanctions order was not stayed during the pendency of the appeal. On November 16, 1999, the California appellate court dismissed the defendant's appeal because of his failure to file an opening brief.2 A Connecticut court clerk's certificate attests to the filing of the California judgment in this state on April 19, 2000. As a result, the California order for sanctions in the amount of $16,923.87 became a Connecticut judgment. Thereafter, on May 16, 2000, the plaintiff filed and recorded two certificates of judgment lien against Connecticut property owned by the defendant.

On November 5, 2001, the defendant filed a motion in the Superior Court in this state in which he asked the court to vacate the California judgment because of ambiguity in the designation of the payee. That judgment ordered the defendant to pay the sanctions award "to counsel for Plaintiff." The defendant argued that he was at risk of having to pay the judgment twice, once to the plaintiff himself and once to the plaintiff's counsel. On this ground, the defendant also moved for a stay of collection proceedings and for discharge of the judgment liens.

On December 10, 2001, the trial court held a hearing for the presentation of argument by counsel on the merits of the defendant's motions. To resolve the ambiguity that the defendant had raised, the court ordered the plaintiff to provide a written submission to the court about the person to whom the defendant was required to pay the sanctions award. In response, the plaintiff filed a California abstract of judgment, dated March 6, 2000, which certified that Vincent Nastro was the judgment creditor and Arthur M. D'Onofrio was the judgment debtor for the judgment entered on January 22, 1998.

On March 25, 2002, the trial court denied the motions filed by the defendant. Its memorandum of decision stated: "After reviewing the parties' submissions and considering their oral arguments, the motion to stay collection proceedings and discharge judgment liens is denied. The court notes that, in his memorandum, dated Jan. 9, 2002, the defendant, Arthur D'Onofrio, Jr., stated, at page two, that he `does not now ask the Court to reopen the judgment . . . .' Accordingly, the motion to vacate judgment is deemed withdrawn." The court, thereafter, rendered its judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

The defendant has appealed to challenge the validity of the judgment against him. He does not challenge the factual record that the plaintiff presented to the trial court. Nonetheless, in the defendant's view, the trial court had broad discretion to order a stay in this case because it had broad discretion to grant a stay of a Connecticut judgment. Griffin Hospital v. Commission on Hospitals & Health Care, 196 Conn. 451, 455, 493 A.2d 229 (1985); Sauter v. Sauter, 4 Conn. App. 581, 584-85, 495 A.2d 1116 (1985). Implicitly, the defendant's argument relies on § 52-605 (b), which, on its face, permits an out-of-state judgment debtor to defend against an out-of-state judgment for the same reasons that an in-state judgment debtor can defend against an in-state judgment.3

In response, the plaintiff maintains that uncontested facts of record demonstrate that a stay is not warranted because the California judgment is not ambiguous. The plaintiff does not challenge the authority of the trial court to adjudicate this issue on its merits. Indeed, he does not refer to the foreign judgments act in any way.

Nonetheless, we are persuaded that the foreign judgments act is central to the judgment in this case. Without that act, the California judgment would not have become a judgment in this state. Without that act, the plaintiff would have had to undertake further proceedings before placing liens on the defendant's property. We must decide, therefore, whether the judgment rendered by the trial court comports with the requirements of the act. Because these requirements relate to "foreign judgments," we must take into account not only the wording of the act but also the commands of federal constitutional law. Federal constitutional law requires the courts of this state to give full faith and credit to the judgment of a foreign state.

The underlying issue in this appeal, therefore, is the proper interpretation of § 52-605 (b) of the foreign judgments act, which subjects a foreign judgment to the same procedures, defenses and proceedings for reopening, vacating or staying a judgment as would apply to a judgment of this state. Statutory interpretation is a matter of law over which this court's review is plenary. Spears v. Garcia, 263 Conn. 22, 27, 818 A.2d 37 (2003); Millward Brown, Inc. v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, 73 Conn. App. 757, 761, 811 A.2d 717 (2002).

I

We begin with an examination of the constitution of the United States, article four, § 1, which requires that "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State . . . ." Interpretation of the full faith and credit clause is a question of federal law. State courts are bound by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court that prescribe the criteria for applying the clause. Thomas v. Washington Gas Light Co., 448 U.S. 261, 271 n. 15, 100 S.Ct. 2647, 65 L. Ed. 2d 757 (1980).

The Supreme Court has spoken at length about the origins and the purpose of the full faith and credit clause. "The full faith and credit clause is one of the provisions incorporated into the Constitution by its framers for the purpose of transforming an aggregation of independent, sovereign States into a nation." Sherrer v. Sherrer, 334 U.S. 343, 355, 68 S. Ct. 1087, 92 L. Ed. 1429 (1948); see also Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, 546, 68 S. Ct. 1213, 92 L. Ed. 1561 (1948). Its animating purpose "was to alter the status of the several states as independent foreign sovereignties, each free to ignore obligations created under the laws or by the judicial proceedings of the others, and to make them integral parts of a single nation throughout which a remedy upon a just obligation might be demanded as of right, irrespective of the state of its origin." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Baker v. General Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 232, 118 S. Ct. 657, 139 L. Ed. 2d 580 (1998).

Substantively, the full faith and credit clause imposes significant limitations on the authority of a court in this state to decline to enforce an out-of-state money judgment. That judgment may be set aside if it is jurisdictionally flawed because the foreign court lacked subject matter or personal jurisdiction over the defendant or if that jurisdiction resulted from an extrinsic fraud. Underwriters National Assurance Co. v. North Carolina Life & Accident & Health Ins. Guaranty Assn., 455 U.S. 691, 705, 102 S. Ct. 1357, 71 L. Ed. 2d 558 (1982). Even as to questions of jurisdiction, however, the principles of res judicata bar further inquiry if "those questions have been fully and fairly litigated and finally decided in the court which rendered the original judgment." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 706. The out-of-state judgment may not be impeached because of mistake or fraud; Wisconsin v. Pelican Ins. Co., 127 U.S. 265, 291-92, 8 S. Ct. 1370, 32 L. Ed. 239 (1888); Smith v. Smith, 174 Conn. 434, 437, 389 A.2d 756 (1978); or for reasons of public policy. Baker v. General Motors Corp., supra, 522 U.S. 233; Fauntleroy v. Lum, 210 U.S. 230, 237, 28 S. Ct. 641, 52 L. Ed. 1039 (1908).

By contrast, the full faith and credit clause does not impose procedural...

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