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Sollars v. Cully

August 3, 2006

KENNETH SOLLARS, APPELLANT,
v.
KAREN CULLY, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (PAT-14-04) (Hon. Lee Satterfield, Trial Judge).

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

Argued May 9, 2006

Before GLICKMAN, KRAMER and FISHER, Associate Judges.

The appellant challenges a consent order for child support on the grounds that it is barred by the doctrine of res judicata because the appellee, the child's mother, voluntarily vacated a previous support order. We conclude that res judicata does not apply and affirm the child support order.

A.

The appellant, Mr. Sollars, and the appellee, Ms. Cully, are the biological parents of a now fourteen-year-old daughter. Ms. Cully is the custodial parent and lives with her daughter in Florida. Ms. Cully filed her first petition for child support on July 23, 1999, when her daughter was seven years old. A consent order for support was entered on December 8, 1999, and Mr. Sollars complied with that order.

On August 27, 2002, the District of Columbia Office of Corporation Counsel,*fn1 filed a praecipe in the Superior Court representing that the initiating jurisdiction, Florida, had requested that this case be closed "for enforcement purposes," and that the court "zero the arrears" and "withdraw any wage withholding and/or tax intercept request immediately."*fn2 A Magistrate Judge signed the praecipe on September 17, 2002, and Mr. Sollars ceased paying child support.

About three months later, the Corporation Counsel filed another praecipe in the Superior Court requesting that the case be reopened. That request was denied. The Corporation Counsel then filed a new petition for child support on Ms. Cully's behalf.

In response, Mr. Sollars filed a motion to dismiss the action, arguing that the court was barred by the doctrine of res judicata from considering this second petition for support because the initial support order had been previously decided and voluntarily dismissed.

The Magistrate Judge denied the motion, concluding that the doctrine of res judicata did not apply to future support payments and noting that "every day is a new day, which entitles the minor child to seek child support." Thereafter, the parties agreed to a new permanent consent order for child support with the understanding that the agreement did not bar an appeal from the Magistrate Judge's ruling rejecting Mr. Sollars' argument that this new child support proceeding was barred by the doctrine of res judicata.*fn3 Mr. Sollars appealed the Magistrate Judge's decision to an associate judge of the Superior Court.*fn4 The associate judge concluded that Mr. Sollars had not adequately established that the "order was plainly wrong or based on error of law," and affirmed the decision. Thereafter, Mr. Sollars sought review by this court.

B.

The sole issue presented on appeal is whether the doctrine of res judicata applies to bar entry of the second child support order in this case. Although we generally review child support orders for abuse of discretion, see Slaughter v. Slaughter, 867 A.2d 976, 977 (D.C. 2005), this case involves the application of a legal principle and so our review is de novo. See D.C. Code §17-305 (a) (2001).

We have recognized that "[i]n the District of Columbia parents have an unqualified obligation to contribute to the support of their children," and likewise that "child support is a right which belongs to the child." Miller v. Miller, 561 A.2d 1005, 1007 (D.C. 1989) (quoting Burnette v. Void, 509 A.2d 606, 608 (D.C. 1986)) (internal quotations omitted). See Bowie v. Nicholson, 705 A.2d 290, 292 (D.C. 1998) ("[A] parent has a legal duty to provide support to his or her children if able to do so, and a court may enforce that duty by an appropriate order."). We have also stated that "[c]hild support is a common law right which arises by virtue of the existence of the family relationship." Butler v. Butler, 496 A.2d 621, 622 (D.C. 1985). When assessing child support obligations, we "look to the children's best interest [which] guarantees that they will be protected." Nowak v. Trezevant, 685 A.2d 753, 757-758 (D.C. 1996). See D.C. Code § 16-916.01 (2001) (child support guidelines). The duty to pay child support in the District of Columbia extends until the child reaches the age of majority, twenty-one years old. Butler, supra, 496 A.2d at 622.

D.C. Code ยง 16-916 (c) (2001) specifically provides: When a father or mother fails to maintain his or her minor child, the Court may decree that the father or mother pay reasonable sums periodically ...


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