Hebrand v. Hebrand, 216 Conn. App. 210 (2022) (subject matter jurisdiction; lack of fraud in the inducement for an agreement)
Officially released October 25, 2022
In Short: (1) Titling of motions and payment of filing fees do not implicate subject matter jurisdiction, (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to find that there was fraud in the inducement to enter a prior agreement, as the trial court’s finding was supported by the facts, (3) a collateral attack on an agreement three years later was unsuccessful.
The parties were divorced by separation agreement in 2013. The separation agreement required Husband to pay alimony until Wife’s death or remarriage or Husband reaching age 65, initially in a formulaic amount based on gross annual earned income (27.5% of the first $625k and 10% of $625k-$750k).
In 2017 the parties jointly moved to modify financial aspects of the separation agreement. Each party expressly stated, as self-represented litigants, that they had been advised by counsel with respect to the modification. Wife testified that the modification was fair, and she had not been forced into it. The modification was approved by the court and the amount of alimony was modified to a fixed $7,000/month.
In 2020, Husband filed a motion to modify the alimony order, alleging several substantial changes in circumstances (which motion was not adjudicated by the trial court). Thereafter, Wife filed a motion to vacate the 2017 modification alleging fifteen bases for doing so, including lack of jurisdiction, lack of statutory authority, fraud in the inducement and mistake. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and found that Wife had failed to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that Husband had made a false representation, and that Wife failed to provide any credible evidence or case law to substantiate her other claims. Wife appealed.
Wife’s first claim on appeal was that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify the judgment in 2017, alleging that it was mistitled as a motion for order and that a filing fee was not paid. The Appellate Court applied plenary review to the issue of subject matter jurisdiction and held that, even if the defects are accepted as true, they would not deprive the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction. Titling of motions and payment of fees are not jurisdictional in nature.
Wife’s second claim on appeal was that the trial court improperly failed to find fraud in denying her motion to open, arguing that Husband made statements he knew to be untrue with intent to induce her into the agreement. The Appellate Court set forth the abuse of discretion standard of review regarding denial of a motion to open and factual findings. The evidence demonstrated that the parties exchanged emails regarding various financial scenarios before they executed the agreement, that Husband subsequently sent a draft of the final agreement directing Wife to review it with counsel, and that Wife indicate that her attorney reviewed it and advised her not to sign it, but she intended to do so anyway rather than negotiate. The Appellate Court held that the evidence supported the trial court’s determination that there was no fraudulent inducement. Wife failed to show any abuse of discretion.
Wife’s third claim on appeal consisted of a multitude of additional arguments, including that the trial court failed to find a substantial change in circumstances before approving the 2017 stipulation, and failed to conform the order to distinct and definite changes in circumstances of the parties. The Appellate Court held that, as Wife did not file a timely appeal of the approval of the 2017 agreement, the 2020 motion to open could only test abuse of discretion in failing to open the judgment and not the propriety of the underlying judgment. The Appellate Court concluded that these arguments constituted an impermissible collateral attack on the 2017 approval by the court and that no credible evidence or case law was presented to substantiate the claims.
The Judgment was affirmed.