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Christopher v. Aguigui

August 14, 2003

LUELLA S. CHRISTOPHER, APPELLANT,
v.
CELESTIN J.R. AGUIGUI, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (PS-281-81). (Hon. Melvin R. Wright, Trial Judge).

Before Schwelb and Washington, Associate Judges, and Kern, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: WASHINGTON,Associate Judge

Argued July 17, 2003

Appellant, Ms. Luella S. Christopher, challenges the trial court's termination of a 1981 District of Columbia Child Support Order and Wage Withholding Order. The order was terminated nunc pro tunc to November 18, 1987*fn1 after the trial court determined that a Maryland court modified the 1981 order, thus making the District of Columbia's Order unenforceable. After reviewing the record on appeal, we must remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

This case has a long and complicated procedural history beginning in 1980 and it is imperative to understand its history to put the current dispute into context. On September 12, 1980, Ms. Luella S. Christopher ("Ms. Christopher") gave birth to a daughter, Sylvana Juliet Christopher. In February 1981, shortly after her daughter's birth, Ms. Christopher filed a petition in the District of Columbia Superior Court to establish paternity and to provide support. Following a hearing before Judge Fred McIntyre, the trial court determined that Mr. Celestin J.R. Aguigui ("Mr. Aguigui") was the child's father. Following that declaration, the parties stipulated that Mr. Aguigui was to pay $500 a month in child support commencing September 1, 1981. Following this agreement, the District of Columbia began issuing wage withholding orders to Mr. Aguigui's employer. At some point in 1984, Mr. Aguigui left his employment and the monthly child support payments to Ms. Christopher ceased. Throughout the next few years, arrears in the amount of approximately $18,825 accrued and went unpaid.

Finally, in July 1987, Ms. Christopher filed a motion in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County to enroll and enforce the District of Columbia Child Support Order since all parties were currently living in Maryland. A hearing was held on September 15, 1987, and Master Arnold L. Yochelson, in Domestic Relations Causes, recommenced that the order of the District of Columbia Superior Court be enrolled and enforced and that arrears be assessed. A short order, which appears to adopt Master Yochelson's recommendations, was signed by Judge David Gray Ross. Following Master Yochelson's recommendations, but prior to entry of the court order, Mr. Aguigui filed, in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, a Petition for Modification of the Child Support Order. Mr. Aguigui's primary contention was that his income was substantially less than it was when the original District of Columbia Child Support Order was issued. Following hearings in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Master Yochelson recommended that Mr. Aguigui's child support obligation be reduced "from $500.00 per month to $300.00 per month . . . pendente lite, accounting from the 1st day of February, 1988."*fn2 These recommendations were adopted by a trial judge in an order issued on February 11, 1988. However, it is unclear whether the subsequent order from the trial judge adopting the Master's recommendations intended the modification to be pendente lite or permanent.

Sometime after the February 1988 order, Mr. Aguigui began working in the District of Columbia. In September 1988, after being notified of Mr. Aguigui's new employment by Ms. Christopher, the Superior Court issued a notice to Mr. Aguigui's new employer to garnish his wages at a rate of $500 a month plus $125 for arrearage. This amount was based upon the original District of Columbia Child Support Order and not the Maryland order. After being notified that the District of Columbia court had filed a wage lien, the Circuit Court for Prince George's County issued the following Memorandum:

It has come to the Court's attention that the defendant is working in the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia Court has now filed a wage lien, thus rendering the issues in the instant case moot. Therefore, the case is hereby dismissed. All issues to be determined by the Court of original jurisdiction.

This memorandum was signed by Maryland Circuit Court Judge Graydon S. McKee, III on or around October 13, 1988 and filed on October 21, 1988. Essentially, this Memorandum appears on its face to dismiss the case and all issues surrounding the case. However, it is a "Memorandum," and the term "Order" does not appear in either the heading of the court document or in the body. Notwithstanding the issuance of this Memorandum in Maryland, which appears to dismiss the case, a Consent Withholding Order was subsequently signed by a different trial judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. This Consent Withholding Order was filed on November 3, 1988, after the dismissal, and reflected a withholding of $300 a month for child support and an additional $200 a month towards the arrearage. However, this Consent Withholding Order contained only the signatures of the trial judge, the Master, and Mr. Aguigui, and had no indication that Ms. Christopher consented.

Despite this Maryland order, Mr. Aguigui's employer continued to garnish his wages based upon the District of Columbia order not the Maryland order. There is no evidence in the record that the Maryland Office of Child Support Enforcement ever attempted to enforce the latter Maryland Consent Withholding Order. Thus, from 1988 until August 1998, Mr. Aguigui's pay was garnished based upon the original District of Columbia order.

In August 1998, Mr. Aguigui filed a Motion to Dismiss and/or Modify the District of Columbia Superior Court Child Support Order and Wage Withholding Order in the District of Columbia Superior Court, which was originally entered in 1981. In support of his motion, Mr. Aguigui contended that (1) both parties resided in Maryland and had done so for many years; (2) the minor child resided in Maryland; and (3) the District of Columbia Superior Court Child Support Order was enrolled in Maryland in 1987 and subsequently modified, thus the District Order was no longer in force. A hearing was held before Hearing Commissioner Hugh Stevenson on August 24, 1988. Commissioner Stevenson granted Mr. Aguigui's motion in part, concluding that under D.C. Code § 30-342.09 (1993), currently D.C. Code § 46-302.09 (2001), the Maryland order was controlling and thus the District of Columbia Order was terminated nunc pro tunc to February 9, 1996. Ms. Christopher filed an appeal from Commissioner Stevenson's order. On June 26, 2000, Judge Melvin R. Wright, relying on D.C. Code § 30-342.05 (1993), currently D.C. Code § 46-302.05 (2001), affirmed Commissioner Stevenson's order, concluding that based on the various Maryland orders and the consent decree, Maryland had assumed continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over this case and thus the District of Columbia Order was terminated nunc pro tunc to November 18, 1987, the date of the enrollment of the District of Columbia Order in Maryland. Ms. Christopher now appeals.

II.

On appeal, Ms. Christopher raises numerous issues. Specifically, Ms. Christopher contends that the Maryland Courts never validly modified the District of Columbia order in such a manner as to divest the District of Columbia of jurisdiction over the case and issues. Thus, this case turns on the legal effect of the various orders issued by the Circuit Courts in Maryland. After reviewing the record, ...


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