Mazza v. Mazza, 216 Conn. App. 285 (2022) (contempt & remedial orders)
Officially released: November 1, 2022.
In short: (1) The trial court will not read additional terms into clear and unambiguous contract language, even for self-represented parties. (2) The trial court has the authority to craft remedial orders to protect the integrity of the Judgment.
The parties married in 2003. Later that year, Husband suffered a work injury causing permanent damage and instigating a workers’ compensation proceeding. Husband thereafter received workers’ compensation payments through the marriage.
In 2015 the trial court dissolved the self-represented parties’ marriage by separation agreement. The separation agreement provided, inter alia, that Wife “will receive 50[%] of all awards from [Husband’s] workers’ compensation suit paid prior to [their] children’s college graduation.” The parties were both canvassed on the agreement by the trial court.
Husband subsequently received a $10,000 workers’ compensation payment and remitted $5,000 to Wife without issue.
In 2019, Husband entered into a “Stipulation for Agreement and Award” (“Final Stipulation”) resolving his workers’ compensation proceeding fully and finally. Husband thereafter received a payment of $200k pursuant to the Final Stipulation, which accounted for a $50k deduction for counsel fees and costs. Husband used the money to purchase a residence in Kent, to pay various other expenses and make a gift to his mother, and to pay Wife outstanding alimony and child support.
In 2020 Wife filed a motion for contempt asserting that Husband violated the agreement because he failed to remit 50% of the $200k payment. Wife sought 50% of the $200k plus counsel fees and other relief the trial court deemed fair and equitable.
The trial court held two days of evidentiary hearing on the motion. Wife argued that the separation agreement clearly and unambiguously provided that she receive 50% of “all” workers’ compensation awards. Husband advanced several theories for why the $200k was not included under the terms of the separation agreement, including his own lack of understanding of the terms of the separation agreement, the fact that the award was much larger than he anticipated, that the parties never contemplated that Wife would receive payments attributable to future medical expenses, that the time to make payment had not yet expired, and the difference between an “award” and an “approved stipulation.”
The trial court issued an order granting Wife’s motion for contempt and finding that the language of the separation agreement was clear and unambiguous. The trial court ordered that Husband pay $101k no later than 10/15/21, that he reimburse Wife an additional $7,500 in counsel fees, and, as “alternative” relief, that Husband convey by warranty deed his interest in the Kent property by 10/15/21 and that he not transfer, mortgage or diminish the value of such property prior to full compliance with the court order. Husband appealed.
Husband’s first claim on appeal was that the trial court improperly granted Wife’s motion for contempt by determining that the separation agreement language clearly and unambiguously included the $200k payment and abused its discretion by determining that there was a willful violation. Husband also argued that his violation was not willful because he relied on the advice of his workers’ compensation attorney.
The Appellate Court applied the plenary standard of review as to whether the separation agreement was clear and unambiguous and the abuse of discretion standard of review as to the determination of willful noncompliance.
The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that the term “all awards” clearly and unambiguously applied to the $200k workers’ compensation payment. The plain and ordinary meaning of the terms “all” and “award” left no room for ambiguity. Husband’s interpretation had no basis in the plain language of the separation agreement. The Appellate Court also found no distinction between an “award” entered by an administrative law judge pursuant to C.G.S. § 31-300 and a “voluntary agreement” per § 31-296 as the separation agreement made no reference to the act.
As to abuse of discretion in determination of willfulness and finding contempt, the Appellate Court noted that the trial court found Husband was not a credible witness and noted that Husband’s testimony was only that his counsel drew a distinction between an “award” and a “benefit.” The Appellate Court found no abuse of discretion.
Husband’s second claim on appeal was that the trial court improperly ordered alternative relief as to the Kent property, arguing that the trial court lacked authority to award such relief and improperly modified the property distribution.
The Appellate Court noted it was apparently that Husband lacked the liquid funds to pay the award. The Appellate Court determined that this order was to effectuate the integrity of the original judgment rather than modify it. The trial court was within its authority to fashion a remedial order and this remedial order was appropriate.
The Judgment was affirmed.