Swain v. Swain, 213 Conn. App. 411 (2022) (scope of pleading)
Officially released June 21, 2022
In Short: Pleadings are not construed narrowly and technically, and a decision will not be overturned based on the scope of a pleading where there was no objection and no evidence of surprise or prejudice based on the scope of the pleading.
The parties’ marriage was dissolved after a trial in 2015, awarding the parties joint legal custody of the four minor children, with final decision-making and primary residence to Husband. The parties then engaged in seven years of postjudgment litigation.
In 2020 Wife filed a motion to modify child support and access. Wife’s self-represented motion alleged, as a substantial change in circumstances, that Husband was incapacitated with Covid-19, Husband put the children’s lives in danger, and Husband violated Connecticut rules. Wife sought to suspend the child support order and to have sole custody with no visitation to Husband until proof of negative Covid-19 test results, followed by visitation to Husband.
The trial court held a remote hearing on five pending motions, including Wife’s motion to modify. Both parties called witnesses and testified. The trial court issued an oral ruling granting, in part, Wife’s motion to modify, issuing a revised access schedule, but denying the request for sole legal custody and not addressing the child support issue. Husband’s counsel confirmed that the court did not “miss a motion” and asked for several clarifications, none of which challenged the scope of the trial court’s ruling compared with the relief sought in the motion to modify. The trial court then issued a written order further granting the motion by modifying child support. Husband filed a motion to reargue which was denied.
Husband appealed, claiming that the trial court improperly modified the orders of access and child support on the sole basis that Wife’s motion only sought to modify custody. Husband did not challenge the substantive merits of the trial court’s decision on any other grounds.
The Appellate Court applied plenary review to interpretation of the court’s order and Wife’s motion. It noted that, generally, a trial court’s decision is restricted to those issues raised by the parties in their pleadings and argument, but that pleadings should be read broadly and realistically, not narrowly and technically. The Appellate Court further noted that if an unpled issue was litigated without objection or evidence of surprise or prejudice it will not be disturbed on the basis of a pleading irregularity. The Appellate Court found that Wife’s motion sought to modify child support and access, that the plain language placed all the relevant issues before the court, and that there was no evidence of surprise nor any objection on the basis of the pleading.
The Judgment was affirmed.