Gershon v. Back 201 Conn. App. 225 (2020) (registration of foreign judgment § 46b-71; procedural versus substantive issue & choice of law)
Officially released November 10, 2020
In Short: A good refresher on handling of procedural versus substantive issues when litigating (or opening in this case) a foreign judgment.
The parties executed a prenuptial agreement and were married in 1997. Wife filed for divorce in New York in 2009. Wife challenged the prenuptial agreement’s validity and a New York Court determined that the prenuptial agreement was valid. In 2011 the parties entered into a stipulation that resolved their dispute over marital property, superseded the prenuptial agreement, and was expressly not merged into the Judgment of dissolution, but able to be independently enforced. The stipulation contained a choice of law provision opting for New York law. Thereafter, the New York Court rendered a judgment of dissolution.
Both parties moved to Connecticut and Wife registered the judgment in Connecticut in 2014 pursuant to C.G.S. § 46b-71. Wife filed a motion to modify child support in Connecticut for which the parties engaged in discovery and litigation and the trial court entered an order increasing Husband’s support obligations pursuant to New York law.
In 2018, Wife filed a motion to open on the basis of fraud that is subject of this appeal. Wife alleged that the result of the settlement would have been different if Husband had not engaged in fraudulent misrepresentations on his financial affidavit at time of settlement.
The trial court scheduled an Oneglia hearing and requested memoranda of law as to the New York standard for opening a judgment. Among other arguments, Husband argued that under New York law, Wife could not challenge a stipulation that was not incorporated into the judgment by way of a motion to open, but was required to file a plenary action in contract, on which the statute of limitations had already run. Husband also argued that if the contract were invalidated, Wife would receive even less under the terms of the prenuptial agreement.
At the conclusion of the Oneglia hearing the trial court confirmed that the stipulation was incorporated into but not merged into the judgment and that all matters related to it were to be governed by New York law. The trial court agreed with Husband that under New York law, a stipulation that is incorporated but not merged cannot be challenged by motion to open, but must be challenged by a plenary action in contract. The trial court determined that New York’s alternative to Oneglia applied, and denied further discovery based on New York law. The trial court set the matter down for further argument as to why the motion should not be denied, after which it entered a judgment dismissing the motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Wife appealed from the judgment of dismissal. The Appellate Court considered only Wife’s claim that the trial court improperly dismissed the motion to open on the ground that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The question of subject matter jurisdiction is always subject to plenary review.
The Appellate Court determined that C.G.S. § 46b-71 permits the superior court to modify, vacate, or set aside the properly registered foreign judgment, by applying the appropriate foreign substantive law. Therefore, the trial court improperly determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the motion to open.
Wife argued that the mechanism to challenge the Judgment, a plenary action to challenge the contract versus a motion to open, is an issue of procedural law rather than substantive law, and therefore Connecticut law applied to that issue. The Appellate Court agreed with Husband that this was a substantive and not procedural issue, because it abridged the rights of individuals to bring certain actions. Thus, because New York substantive law precluded the trial court from granting the relief that Wife requested based on the type of motion she filed, as a matter of law, the motion should have been denied.
The order dismissing the motion to open was reversed and remanded with direction to deny the motion to open.