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Higgins v. Wood

Supreme Court of Maine

July 3, 2018


          Argued: October 11, 2017

          Ezra A. R. Willey, Esq. (orally), Willey Law Offices, Bangor, for appellant Todd A. Wood

          Wayne Doane, Esq., Exeter, for appellee Shelly R. Higgins

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, Thomas A. Knowlton, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), and Debby Willis, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Health and Human Services


          Majority: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶l] In this appeal, and a separate opinion issued today, see Dep't of Health & Human Servs. v. Fagone, 2018 ME 89, - A.3d -, we clarify the circumstances in which a court order that anticipates a change in child support upon the occurrence of future events will be self-effectuating. In the matter before us, we conclude that the court's order requiring Todd A. Wood to pay a specific amount of child support to Shelly R. Higgins did not contain a self-effectuating provision that immediately reduced Wood's child support payments upon his oldest child reaching age eighteen. We also conclude that neither administrative collateral estoppel nor administrative equitable estoppel was properly raised and therefore those doctrines cannot provide a remedy to Wood. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment on Wood's post-divorce motions in which the District Court (Bangor, Lucy, /.) ordered changes in Wood's child support effective only after Wood's service of the post-divorce motion to modify.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following facts are drawn from the procedural record and from the family law magistrate's [Chandler, M.) findings of fact, reached upon a stipulated documentary record and adopted by the District Court [Lucy, J.). See Dunwoody v. Dunwoody, 2017 ME 21, ¶ 7, 155 A.3d 422. Higgins and Wood were married in May 1997 and have three children who were born in 1991, 1998, and 2001.

         [¶3] Higgins filed a complaint for divorce on March 20, 2007, and a family law magistrate [Langner, M.) entered a divorce judgment on June 14, 2007, that provided for Higgins to have primary residence and required Wood to pay child support of $297.15 per week for the three children, who were then ages fifteen, nine, and five. The child support worksheet attached to the judgment provided as follows with respect to the overall weekly support obligation of the parents:

Basic weekly support for all children up to 18 years (or up to 19 years if still in high school)
a Total number of children 3_
b Number of children ages 0-11 2 multiplied by amount from table 102X2 = 204
c Number of children ages 12-17 1 multiplied by amount from table 126

         The court added in the $35 cost of health insurance for the three children without apportioning it per child. The order made Wood responsible for ninety-one percent of the weekly support and credited him for paying the cost of health insurance, resulting in the $297 weekly support amount that was required by the judgment for support of the three children. The child support order stated:

The child support obligation shall continue for each child until that child reaches the age of 18; provided, however, that if the child has not graduated, withdrawn, or been expelled from secondary school as defined in Title 20-A, the child support shall continue until the child graduates or reaches the age of 19, whichever occurs first[.]

         [¶4] In addition, the order stated, "Any party to this action may ask the court to review the amount of child support and if appropriate, to modify it in accordance with the state's child support guidelines. To start this process, a party must file with the court a Motion to Modify."

         [¶5] To assure that Wood met his child support obligations, Higgins pursued support enforcement through the Department of Health and Human Services Division of Support Enforcement and Recovery, which withheld Wood's wages to provide Higgins with the ordered child support beginning in the middle of 2008. In 2009, the oldest child turned eighteen, having already graduated from high school. At about that time, Wood asked the Department to reduce his payments, though he did not move to modify the judgment in the District Court.[1] The Department made no adjustment at that time.

         [¶6] Wood continued to pay child support in the amount ordered and took no further action until February 2015 when his telephone calls to the Department prompted the Regional Manager of the Department's Division of Support Enforcement and Recovery to send him a notice that the Department was adjusting the child support obligation down to $182 per week. The $182 amount was apparently intended to reflect a flat reduction of the basic weekly support by the $126 amount originally allocated to the oldest child in the 2007 child support worksheet, with the health insurance provisions remaining the same despite the termination of support for one child, and the support amounts for the other two children remaining unchanged despite the increases that should have occurred when each of the younger children reached age twelve. At the time of the February 2015 letter, the two younger children were ages seventeen and thirteen.

         [¶7] Several months later, in July 2015, the Director of the Division informed Wood that the February decision was in error and that Wood needed to file, in court, a motion to modify the child support order to seek any reduction in the ordered support.

         [¶8] On July 24, 2015, Wood filed two motions in the District Court-a motion to modify and a motion for determination of overpayment. He argued that he had overpaid by more than $35, 000 over the course of six years because, after the oldest child turned eighteen, his child support obligation should have been reduced by $114 per week. Although the use of the summary judgment process in family law matters is not authorized, see M.R. Civ. P. 56(a), [2] Wood also moved for summary judgment on his post-judgment motions, submitting a statement of material facts and supporting evidence. In the motion for summary judgment, he raised issues of administrative collateral estoppel and equitable estoppel. The parties filed opposing and reply memoranda and statements of material facts.

         [¶9] On March 21, 2016, the family law magistrate [Chandler, M.) held a hearing.[3] The parties informed the magistrate that they had agreed to a series of three child support orders to apply from the filing of Wood's motion, in July 2015, forward. The first of these orders imposed an obligation of $280.50 per week toward the support of the two youngest children through January 2016 when the middle child turned eighteen. The order explicitly provided that the support would decrease to $207.56 upon the youngest child becoming the only child for whom support was owed, and the final order required Wood to pay $187 per week beginning in August 2016 based on the Department's revised child support table. See 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-15 to -23 (2016).

         [¶10] The magistrate then accepted a collection of stipulated exhibits, and the parties offered legal arguments regarding the amount of child support owed from the oldest child's eighteenth birthday in 2009 through the July 31, 2015, effective date of the first agreed-upon order. Thus, the court held the trial on a stipulated record, and the parties presented argument on the applicable law. See Rose v. Parsons, 2015 ME 73, ¶ 8, 118 A.3d 220.

         [¶11] The magistrate entered the modified child support orders to which the parties had agreed. The magistrate then concluded that Wood could not recover any overpayment for child support paid prior to his service of the motion to modify because the parties' 2007 judgment did not provide dollar amounts by which the child support order would self-adjust upon each child's emancipation or attainment of the age of twelve. The court ordered the Department to determine any amount of overpayment or underpayment that may have arisen while the motion to modify was under consideration by the court.

         [¶12] The Department filed an unopposed motion to amend the findings of fact to correct minor factual errors, which the magistrate granted. Wood objected to the magistrate's order on the grounds that the magistrate applied the incorrect law and that only a judge-not a magistrate-had the authority to rule on the motion for summary judgment. See M.R. Civ. P. 118(a).

         [¶13] The court [LucyJ.) reviewed the magistrate's decision and entered a judgment in which it adopted the magistrate's order on the modification of child support, agreed with the magistrate that the Department did not have the authority to adjust the court-ordered amount of child support, and concluded that summary judgment must be denied, in part because a party may not move for summary judgment on a post-judgment motion in a family matter. See id. With respect to the alleged overpayment, the court explained that, because the divorce judgment did not include explicit prospective calculations of child support based on the children reaching age twelve or eighteen, a motion to modify the judgment was necessary for the court to find the proper amount of child support to be paid.

         [¶14] Wood appealed from the judgment. See 14 M.R.S. § 1901(1) (2017); 19-A M.R.S. § 104 (2017); M.R. App. P. 2 (Tower 2016).[4] The Department filed a brief that included a "supplement" consisting of the child support worksheet and order from Lund v. Lund, a District Court case that resulted in an opinion from us. 2007 ME 98, 927 A.2d 1185. Wood objected and moved to strike the supplement because it was not in the record available to the trial court.[5] We ordered that the issue would be considered along with the merits of the appeal, and we now take judicial notice of the documents submitted by the Department and address the merits of Wood's appeal. See M.R. Evid. 201(b)(2), (d); cf. In re Jonas, 2017 ME 115, ¶ 38 n.10, 164 A.3d 120 (explaining that a court may take judicial notice of the action taken by a court in a final judgment).


         [¶15] Wood argues that the child support order included in the 2007 divorce judgment provided for a self-effectuating reduction in the amount of child support when the parties' oldest child turned eighteen in 2009 and that he is therefore entitled to recoup an overpayment of child support. Here, we use the term "self-effectuating" to describe a provision in a judgment that explicitly articulates a change in a support obligation on an identified date or upon the occurrence of a specific event, such that the new, explicitly identified amount takes immediate effect and is enforceable. In other words, we have substituted the term "self-effectuating" for the longer description used previously for a "self-executing provision that automatically amends a court order" upon the occurrence of a specific event or the arrival of a specific date. Bartlett v. Anderson, 2005 ME 10, ¶ 12, 866 A.2d 829.

         [¶16] To review whether the judgment at issue here was self-effectuating such that Wood was entitled to reduce his payments without further order of the court, we (A) summarize the alternative administrative and court processes for establishing and modifying child support, (B) examine the law governing self-effectuating adjustments in court-issued child support orders, (C) review whether the District Court properly applied the law, and (D) address the application of principles of collateral and equitable estoppel.

         A. Methods of Establishing and Modifying Child Support Orders in Maine

         [¶17] In Maine, there are different methods for parents to obtain enforceable orders of child support. Most commonly, a parent will seek a child support order through (1) the Department in an administrative proceeding, see 19-A M.R.S. § 2304 (2017); 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-36 to -41, ch. 8 (2016), or (2) the District Court in an action for divorce or for the determination of parental rights and responsibilities, see 19-A M.R.S. §§ 901, 1652, 1653(2)(D)(3), 1653(8) (2017).[6] We summarize the methods for establishing and enforcing each of these types of orders.

         1. Department-Issued Child Support Orders

         [¶18] The Department-acting "on its own behalf or on behalf of another state or another state's instrumentality, an individual or governmental applicant for services under section 2103 [support enforcement] or a person entitled by federal law to support enforcement services as a former recipient of public assistance"-may "establish the responsible parent's current parental support obligation" applying the statutory child support guidelines and the statute governing deviation from the guidelines. 19-A M.R.S. § 2304; see 19-A M.R.S. §§ 2001-2012 (2017) (child support guidelines);[7]17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-37 to-39, ch. 8, §9.

         [¶19] A party may seek administrative review of a Department decision establishing the child support obligation within thirty days after receiving notice of the decision. 19-A M.R.S. § 2451 (2017); 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-49, ch. 12, § 2(B)(2)(a), (3)(i) (2017). If a party seeks to challenge the final decision entered upon administrative review, that party may appeal to the Superior Court for judicial review. 19-A M.R.S. § 2453 (2017); M.R. Civ. P. 80C. A party has a right of appeal to the Law Court from the Superior Court decision on the Rule 80C appeal. See M.R. Civ. P. 80C(m).

         [¶20] If there is a substantial change in circumstances after the Department's order becomes final, a responsible parent may seek amendment of the order by the Department through an administrative hearing. See 19-A M.R.S. § 2304(8); 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-40, -50, ch. 8, § 15, ch. 12, § 2(C). All rights to administrative review and appeal to the courts are again available upon the Department's decision. See 19-A M.R.S. §§ 2451, 2453; M.R. Civ. P. 80C; 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-49, ch. 12, § 2(B)(2)(a), (3)(i).

         [¶21] If a court enters a child support order after the Department establishes a child support order, the court order will supersede the Department's administrative decision ordering the payment of child ...

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