Strauss v. Strauss, 220 Conn. App. 193 (2023) (Finality of Judgments)
Officially released June 27, 2023
In Short: The trial court does not have authority to vacate a finding of contempt after 120 days (absent mutual mistake, fraud or duress).
The parties were divorced by separation agreement in 2006. Thereafter, Wife filed numerous motions for contempt and the trial court granted several such motions.
In 2014, the trial court made the specific finding of contempt material to this appeal. That finding was made during a hearing at which Husband and Husband’s lawyer did not appear or participate. Husband notified the court the morning of that hearing regarding a cardiac event that prevented him from appearing, but the trial court did not become aware of such notice until after it concluded the hearing and found Husband in contempt. Husband did file not appeal at that time nor any motion to reargue. Further proceedings continued to be held regarding the contempt and Husband was temporarily incarcerated.
In 2020, Husband filed a motion to vacate the 2014 contempt order, arguing that the contempt finding and subsequent incarceration violated his constitutional rights. Husband argued that the trial court had authority to vacate because the 2014 contempt orders were “fundamentally flawed” and “constitutionally infirm …” arguing that the trial court had inherent authority to correct its judgment at any time. After some torturous procedural back-and-forth that was not subject of this appeal, the trial court denied the motion to vacate without a hearing, finding that it lacked authority to open a judgment entered five years previously. Husband appealed.
Husband filed a motion to stay with the trial court, asking the court to either clarify that the automatic stay precludes any act to enforce the 2014 contempt order or to order a stay of such action. The trial court held a hearing and denied the motion to stay, holding that a discretionary stay was not appropriate due to the unlikelihood that Husband would prevail in his appeal.
Husband’s first claim on appeal was that the trial court improperly concluded that it lacked authority to vacate the 2014 contempt orders. Husband argued that, although CGS § 52-212a and PB §17-4 require that a motion to vacate be filed within four months of the Judgment, the court retains inherent equitable authority to vacate a motion for contempt in perpetuity. The Appellate Court cited and analyzed the compelling interest in the finality of Judgments and exercised plenary review over the question of law that was raised.
Husband cited appellate case law for the principle that the court retains authority to permit the purging of a civil contempt. The Appellate Court agreed that the trial court retains limited continuing authority to vacate a civil contempt finding if the contemnor purges the contempt, however, (1) Husband did not purge his contempt and was not challenging the contempt finding on the basis that he purged himself, and (2) purge of contempt does not automatically vacate the underlying order.
Husband argued that the trial court retained continuing authority to effectuate its Judgment. The Appellate Court pointed out that there is a difference between effectuating a judgment and modifying or vacating that Judgment, and Husband’s request was not to effectuate, but was to vacate. The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court properly denied the motion to vacate.
Husband’s second claim on appeal was that the trial court improperly denied his motion to stay the trial court proceedings during the pendency of the appeal. The Appellate Court declined to review this claim as the sole remedy to review an order concerning a stay of execution is by motion for review under PB § 66-6, which must be filed within ten days from the issuance of the notice of the order which is sought to be reviewed. Husband did not file a motion for review and therefore could not challenge the denial of stay on appeal.
The Judgment was affirmed.