Officially released March 7, 2023
In Short: (1) the trial court gets the benefit of the doubt when it fails to explicitly rule on a pendente lite motion for contempt but it indicated it would consider it in its final decision; (2) the trial court did not commit error in declining to order the appraisal of a collection and ordering that one party retain it; and (3) despite a loan application claiming $150,000 in income, in the context of other evidence suggesting substantially lower earnings, the trial court did not err in declining to find an earning capacity.
The parties were married in 2015 and Husband filed for divorce in 2020 seeking equitable distribution of assets. Wife filed a motion for contempt for failure to comply with automatic and other orders, pendente lite. At an evidentiary hearing, the trial court reserved a decision on the contempt motion to a later date. The parties then had a three-day dissolution trial, on the last day of which, Wife filed a motion in limine seeking to appraise Husband’s comic book collection, which had not been previously disclosed. The trial court reserved jurisdiction on the motion in limine and allowed Wife to put on evidence in support of her prior contempt motion, indicating that it would consider the motion in its ruling.
The trial court issued a memorandum of decision finding Wife more responsible for the breakdown of the marriage and declining to agree with Wife’s claim that Husband had an earning capacity of $150,000 per year. The trial court ordered that Husband pay alimony of $500/month until 3/1/23, that Husband retain his comic book collection, and declined to award attorney’s fees.
Wife appealed, claiming that the trial court erred by (1) improperly refusing to decide her motion for contempt and other pretrial motions, (2) not finding Husband in contempt and not awarding her attorney’s fees, (3) improperly permitting Husband to decide that his comic book collection was not subject to distribution, (4) failing to impute income of $150,000 to Husband, and (5) abusing its discretion and exceeding its statutory authority in finding that Wife committed fraud in an application seeking asylum on the basis of domestic abuse.
As to Wife’s first claim, the Appellate Court distinguished this case from Ramin, wherein the trial court had explicitly refused to address a pendente lite motion for contempt. Here the trial court heard evidence and said it would consider the motion in its final decision. The Appellate Court construed the decision as implicitly denying the motion for contempt.
As to Wife’s second claim, the Appellate Court noted that willfulness for contempt is factual question subject to the abuse of discretion standard and declined to find such abuse of discretion.
As to Wife’s third claim, the Appellate Court interpreted this as a claim that the trial court erred by awarding the comic book collection to Husband. The trial court had stated that appraisal was “probably not … necessary” but that it would hear evidence as to its value, noted that it was essentially the only asset of the marriage but that Husband had started it as a child and Wife had not contributed, noted evidence that it might be worth $150,000, and noted that Wife introduced no evidence as to any contribution she may have made to any asset. The Appellate Court did not find the trial court’s award of this asset to Husband to constitute abuse of discretion.
As to Wife’s fourth claim, the Appellate Court reviewed Wife’s claim that an earning capacity of $150,000 should have been awarded under the clearly erroneous standard and set forth the standard for finding an earning capacity. Although the trial court was provided with a loan application on which Husband listed his income as $150,000, the trial court found no compelling evidence regarding such earnings and instead found a history of much lower income ranging from $56,000 down to $30,000 per year. The Appellate Court found no error in the trial court’s conclusion based on the evidence before it.
As to Wife’s fifth and final claim, Wife argued that her immigration status was not in evidence before the trial court and that the trial court abused its discretion and exceeded its statutory authority. The Appellate Court found that the trial court’s comments were intended as an assessment of Wife’s credibility in general as they related to her allegations of abuse and intolerable cruelty, rather than a finding of fraud. The Appellate Court found that this claim must fail because it argued against a ruling that was never made.
The Judgment was affirmed.