Pappas v. O'brien, s. 10–398

Citation2013 VT 11, 67 A.3d 916
Case DateMarch 01, 2013
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

67 A.3d 916
2013 VT 11


Nancy Bernheim p/k/a Nan O'Brien
Glenn Pappas.

Nos. 10–398, 11–165.

Supreme Court of Vermont.

March 1, 2013.

[67 A.3d 919]

Mary Billings Munger, Office of Child Support, Burlington, for Plaintiff–Appellee (10–398)/Defendant/Appellee (11–165).

Nancy P. Bernheim p/k/a Nan O'Brien, Pro Se, Essex Junction, Defendant–Appellant (10–398)/Plaintiff–Appellant (11–165).



¶ 1. These consolidated cases present disputes over child support so stale that the parties' children are now in and approaching their thirties. The basic questions are whether father can register and enforce a child support order obtained in Oklahoma against mother and, inversely, whether mother can register and enforce an earlier child support order obtained in Georgia against father. We conclude that mother's various jurisdictional challenges to the Oklahoma order are without merit and are, in any event, precluded by the unappealed adjudication in Oklahoma. We further conclude that the Vermont court has personal jurisdiction over father with respect to mother's child support claims against him and a statutory immunity provision in the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) does not apply. As a result, we affirm the superior court's dismissal of mother's enforcement action (Supreme Court Docket Number 2011–165), we affirm the superior court's jurisdictional holdings with regard to the Oklahoma order (Supreme Court Docket Number 2010–398), but we remand the adjudication of father's enforcement action (Supreme Court Docket Number 2010–398) for consideration of counterclaims raised by mother.

¶ 2. Mother and father were married in Oklahoma in 1979. They had two sons, P.P. and A.P. The couple moved to New York in 1983, where they lived until they separated in 1985. The parties were divorced in Los Angeles County, California, in October 1986. Pursuant to the California divorce order, the parties were awarded joint legal custody of the children, then ages three and five. Primary physical custody was awarded to mother, and father was ordered to pay child support in the amount of $237 per month for each child. Eventually, father returned to Oklahoma,

[67 A.3d 920]

and mother moved with the children to Atlanta, Georgia. In October 1994, the Superior Court of Gwinnett County, Georgia, issued an order domesticating the California divorce order and modifying the child support obligation. Finding that father's financial condition had improved and that the needs of the children had increased, the court ordered father to pay $350 per month for each child, as well as a percentage of any bonuses father should receive in addition to his salary. This order stated that child support would cease if “custody is changed by a Court of competent jurisdiction.” In 1996, mother moved with the children to New York.

¶ 3. Beginning in July 1998, the younger child, P.P., moved from his mother's home in New York to his father's home in Oklahoma. In November 1998, the older child, A.P. turned eighteen years of age. In April 1999, father filed documents to initiate a child custody proceeding in Oklahoma under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). 43 Okla. Stat. Ann. § 551–101 et seq. Father initially petitioned to have custody of P.P. transferred to him and to have his child support obligation for both children ended—for A.P. because he had attained the age of majority and for P.P. because he was residing with father. Mother moved to bifurcate the issues of custody and child support. A hearing was held in October 1999, at which mother attempted to make a limited appearance for the purposes of the child custody determination. During the hearing, father requested an order obligating mother to pay him child support for P.P. in addition to changing the child's custody. The Oklahoma court awarded custody to father and retroactively relieved him of any child support obligation as of April 22, 1999, the date he moved for a change of custody. Furthermore, the court ordered mother to pay child support to father in the amount of $338.50 per month, retroactive to April 22, including an arrearage of $2724.00. Mother made two motions for new trials in the Oklahoma court raising jurisdictional concerns. The court denied the first, and mother withdrew the second, after P.P. returned to her custody. 1 She did not appeal either the initial Oklahoma order or the denial of her motion for a new trial.

¶ 4. In early July 2000, P.P. returned to live with mother in Georgia. At that time, father sought enforcement of the child support judgment for the time when P.P. had been in his custody. On July 18, 2000, an Oklahoma Administrative Law Judge issued an administrative order awarding judgment to father in the amount of $2369.50 for child support for the period from January through July of 2000. When this amount was added to the previous judgment, the total arrearage became $5093.50. That amount was reduced in June 2001 by an involuntary payment of $1366.46 made by an administrative offset. Under Oklahoma law, interest on arrears accumulated at a rate of 10% per year. Including the interest and principal, the total amount due through December 31, 2009 comes to $7611.30. The parties do not dispute this calculation.

¶ 5. Mother is now a resident of Vermont; father continues to reside in Oklahoma. In 2008, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services sought to collect the outstanding child support from mother. These enforcement efforts were transferred

[67 A.3d 921]

to Vermont, and, on September 4, 2009, Vermont's Office of Child Support (OCS) filed a petition to register the Oklahoma support order in Vermont, pursuant to UIFSA. Mother responded on October 16, 2009, by filing a motion to set aside the Oklahoma order, contesting inter alia the subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and notice in the Oklahoma proceedings. After three days of hearings, a magistrate issued an order registering the Oklahoma support order and granting judgment against mother in the amount of $7611.30. Mother appealed the magistrate's order to the Chittenden Superior Court, Family Division, pursuant to Vermont Rule for Family Proceedings 8(g). On September 15, 2010, the superior court affirmed, concluding that collateral estoppel barred mother from challenging the Oklahoma court's subject matter jurisdiction, that Oklahoma had personal jurisdiction in light of mother's physical presence and participation, and that mother had received adequate notice of the Oklahoma hearings.

¶ 6. Mother also responded to father's enforcement action by pursuing her own enforcement. She filed three documents simultaneously on April 21, 2010, within thirty days from the date of the magistrate's decision: (1) an appeal of the magistrate's decision to the family court; (2) a request for a stay of the magistrate's decision; and (3) an application to register and enforce the Georgia child support order to collect support owed by father to mother under that order. The stay request argued that father owed back child support to mother 2 and it would be inequitable for father to collect back child support owed to him, without paying the child support he owed to mother. The application to enforce the Georgia order was to have the Vermont court determine the amount of back support owed to mother.3 She claimed that the amount due under the Georgia order, with interest, amounted to $34,093.50. On May 12, before the application was accepted as a separate case, the court denied the stay saying: “If [mother] is entitled to collect past due child support from [father], she may seek appropriate enforcement.”

¶ 7. Mother served father with the application, and, in addition, the court notified OCS of the filing. OCS intervened and moved to dismiss. On August 11, 2010, the magistrate granted OCS's motion and dismissed mother's petition, concluding that Vermont courts lacked personal jurisdiction over father under UIFSA. The magistrate added: “Proper forum more likely state of [father]'s residence. Case could have been initiated in this court but transferred to proper forum to be heard.” Mother appealed the magistrate's order to the family division of the superior court, challenging both the determination that personal jurisdiction was absent and the participation of OCS. In an April 18, 2011 order, the family division affirmed the magistrate's decision.

¶ 8. Mother appeals from both adverse decisions—one allowing registration of the Oklahoma order and one denying her attempt to register and enforce the Georgia order. We have consolidated these matters on appeal. In both cases, the primary

[67 A.3d 922]

question is whether Vermont has the authority under UIFSA to register and enforce an out-of-state child support order. This is a question of law, and we consider it de novo. See Office of Child Support ex rel. Lewis v. Lewis, 2004 VT 127, ¶ 6, 178 Vt. 204, 882 A.2d 1128. In doing so, we accept the magistrate's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. See Cavallari v. Martin, 169 Vt. 210, 220–21, 732 A.2d 739, 746–47 (1999).

¶ 9. Before we address the legal issues, we make one observation to explain, in part, the length and coverage of this opinion. Although the facts may seem commonplace at first, they are not when understood in the context of the applicable law. The combination of three factual elements complicates the analysis of the legal issues: (1) at the time that father sought child support, neither he nor mother nor either of the children resided in the state in which the original child support order was created—California—or in the state in which it was domesticated and modified—Georgia; (2) one of the children moved from the custody of one parent to the custody of the other; and (3) each party alleges that the other party owes back child support. The first factual element...

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8 cases
  • Chalmers v. Burrough
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Kansas
    • July 31, 2020
    ...or simply for judicial authority over the particular order and the parties to it. See Pappas v. O'Brien , 193 Vt. 340, 351 n.5, 67 A.3d 916 (2013) (recognizing split of authority, citing cases, and declining to address the issue). Cases coming down on the side of subject matter jurisdiction......
  • In re A.M., 14–363.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • August 28, 2015
    ...2004 VT 64, ¶ 12, 177 Vt. 491, 857 A.2d 317 (mem.), and have routinely relied upon this Restatement, see, e.g., OCS/Pappas v. O'Brien, 2013 VT 11, ¶¶ 20–21, 193 Vt. 340, 67 A.3d 916.¶ 61. It is important to recognize that finality for purposes of issue preclusion under § 13 need not be the ......
  • Hawes v. Reilly, 2015–250–Appeal. (NC 14–148)
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • May 24, 2018
    ......1975) ; In re Smith , 925 P.2d 169, 172 (Utah 1996) ; Bloodworth v. Ellis , 221 Va. 18, 267 S.E.2d 96, 98 (1980) ; OCS/Glenn Pappas v. O'Brien , 193 Vt. 340, 67 A.3d 916, 926–27 (2013). In view of the above-referenced principles and authorities, it is now our responsibility to ......
  • Baron v. McGinty
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • February 5, 2021
    ...orders of other states, thereby opening the door to forum shopping and the proliferation of conflicting orders." OCS/Pappas v. O'Brien, 2013 VT 11, ¶ 29, 193 Vt. 340, 67 A.3d 916. In pursuit of this goal, UIFSA establishes, as a "paramount" rule, that only one support order can be in effect......
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