Ill v. Manzo-Ill, 210 Conn. App. 364 (2022) (abuse of discretion & due process in the trial court’s scheduling order)
Officially released February 1, 2022
In Short: The trial court’s scheduling order which provided Wife four days to present her prima facie case for contempt and limited Husband to one day to present his defense was not based on the complexity of the issues or the reasonable needs of the parties and constituted abuse of discretion resulting in deprivation of Husband’s due process rights.
The parties’ marriage was previously dissolved by the trial court after a five-day trial. The orders regarding property division included an order that certain investments be divided between the parties. The court further ordered that the parties shall cooperate in preparing and filing 2007 income tax returns and equally divide any refund or short fall. The judgment resulted in extensive post-judgment litigation and one prior appellate decision.
In 2017 Wife filed an amended motion for contempt arguing that Husband failed to transfer certain investments, to timely pay Wife her share of the income tax refund, and to cooperate in the sale of the marital residence.
Husband filed an objection claiming, inter alia, that Wife was not credible, that Wife was primarily responsible for the failure of the transfers to occur, and that Wife’s claims relied upon unsupportable speculation contrary to all admitted evidence. Husband further argued that he sought repeatedly to get Wife to authorize the transfers and that, with regard to one account he was precluded by court order from distributing the monies earlier than he did. Husband argued that Wife failed to present a prima facie case regarding the sale of the marital residence.
The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on Wife’s motion for contempt over five non-consecutive days between December of 2017 and March of 2019. It issued a memorandum of decision granting in part Wife’s motion for contempt. The court ordered Husband to pay $1,620,271 which included $1,088,380 in interest, and ordered Wife to file an affidavit of fees. The trial court thereafter held a hearing on the reasonableness of Wife’s claimed attorney’s fees over three non-consecutive days. The trial court then ordered Husband to pay $1,206,825 in counsel fees.
Husband appealed the decision on the contempt motion and filed an amended appeal to encompass the issue of counsel fees. Husband claimed that the trial court improperly (1) found him to be in contempt, (2) ordered him to pay the defendant the value of certain shares of a private corporation, (3) awarded Wife postjudgment interest, (4) awarded Wife attorney’s fees, and (5) by virtue of its scheduling order, limited his defense at the contempt hearing and the attorney’s fees hearing.
Husband set forth his final claim in terms of the trial court abusing its discretion by terminating the hearing before he had a fair opportunity to present his defense. He argued that because of the scheduling order limiting the hearing to five days, he was forced to condense his case into less than one day after Wife presented hers over four days, and that he was not given the same opportunity as Wife to present his case. Husband’s argument also encompassed a claim that he was limited improperly from cross-examining witnesses.
The Appellate Court determined that the issue of the trial court’s scheduling order was dispositive of the appeal. The Appellate Court found that this claim was adequately preserved by repeated objections and that the discretionary rulings were harmful. The Appellate Court reviewed this claim for abuse of discretion, as the trial court has wide latitude to control proceedings and manage its docket.
The Appellate Court noted that, once Wife proved her prima facie case regarding contempt, the burden shifted to Husband to prove his defenses. The Appellate Court spelled out the legal standard for contempt, namely, wilful violation of a clear and unambiguous court order proven by clear and convincing evidence. The Appellate Court also set forth the requirements of due process of law, a chance to testify and call witnesses on one’s behalf by way of defense or explanation, and a reasonable opportunity to be heard on the issues involved.
The Appellate Court found that Wife was given four days to present her prima facie case and Husband was allowed only one day to meet his burden, and his defense was “largely limited to the introduction of exhibits.” The original scheduling order provided only four days for the hearing, and Husband’s counsel expressed reservations regarding the scheduling order on the first day, arguing that he would not have sufficient time to present his case. Husband’s counsel repeated his concerns and objections throughout the trial. The trial court scheduled the fifth day after Wife completed her case in chief on the fourth day and placed restrictions on Husband’s ability to present his case.
The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court’s scheduling order did not appear to have been based on the complexity of the issues before the court or the reasonable needs of the parties. The limitations to Husband’s case-in-chief were made before he had an opportunity to present any evidence, eliminating the possibility that the order was made based on a determination that some or all of Husband’s evidence was inadmissible or not relevant. The limitations appeared to be arbitrary and seemingly the result of the trial court’s frustration with the parties’ dispute. The trial court failed to confine Wife’s presentation of her case despite its frustration with the pace, and instead simply confined Husband’s case.
The Appellate Court determined that, given “the complexity of the issues before the court, we conclude that affording [Husband] only one day to present his defense was an abuse of the court’s discretion that resulted in a hearing that was unfair to the plaintiff, depriving him of his due process rights.” The judgments were reversed, and the case remanded for a new hearing.