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Wilkins v. Bell

February 22, 2007

CHERYL GREEN WILKINS, APPELLANT,
v.
WILLIAM BELL, APPELLEE.



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (DRB-2284-89) (Hon. Jerry S. Byrd, Trial Judge).

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

Submitted December 12, 2006

Before FISHER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge.

These appeals stem from a child support dispute between appellant Cheryl Green Wilkins, mother of the then-minor child A., and appellee William Bell, father of the child. Bell was under an order, first entered in 1989, to pay child support to Wilkins, who had custody of the child. Wilkins challenges orders by which the trial court relieved Bell of the obligation to pay child support for a several-month period beginning in December 2004. She also challenges the court's order denying her motion for sanctions against Bell and his attorney, and imposing similar sanctions on her own attorney. We reverse and remand with respect to the child support issue, but affirm as to the sanctions rulings.

Factual and Procedural Background

Commencing sometime during September or October of 2004, A. went to stay temporarily with Bell, for a period that turned out to be approximately eight weeks. On November 17, 2004, Bell filed a Motion to Stay Enforcement of Child Support Order, advising the court that A. had been living with him for eight weeks and desired to remain with him, and arguing that Wilkins therefore "ha[d] received two months of child support unjustly." Bell's counsel presented the motion to the court during a status conference that had been scheduled for that same date in conjunction with Bell's pending motion for a modification of the custody order. Wilkins, who appeared pro se, objected to the motion and denied that A. wanted to continue living with Bell, but acknowledged that A. had recently been staying with Bell. Both parties told the court that A. would "be returning home sometime on Friday, this Friday" after completing a college tour.

Observing that "this is a motion to stop payment as long as the child is there" (i.e., with Bell), the court agreed to stay enforcement of the support order. The court stated, "I think it would be equitable to terminate -- to suspend the child support from the time the child was with him and then restart it when the child has moved back -- if the child has moved back with Ms. Green [Wilkins]." The court said that it would enter an order prospectively suspending garnishment of Bell's wages for two months. The court's written order of November 17, 2004, states in pertinent part:

ORDERED, that the motion [to stay enforcement of the child support order] should be continued to February 9, 2005 at 9:30 a.m. before the undersigned Judge; and it is further ORDERED, that the support order should be suspended from December 11, 2004 until February 9, 2005; and it is further ORDERED, that wage withholding shall be released for the period of December 11, 2004 to and including February 9, 2005[.]

In advocating the suspension order, Bell's counsel told the court during the November 17 proceeding that "if [A.] does come back then Ms. Wilkins can come back in -- and lift the enforcement or lift the stay of enforcement." The court also stated, "[a]nd if the child moves back, then -- but in the meanwhile then Ms. Wilkins can ask for an emergency hearing to have support reinstated." The court also set February 9, 2005 as the date for a trial on Bell's motion for modification of custody.

On December 8, 2004, Wilkins filed her "Emergency Motion to Reinstate Child Support Payments," stating that "the minor has returned to the home of [Wilkins]" and that Wilkins "is in need of the support payments to adequately care for the minor child," and asking the court either to reverse its November 17 order or to "reinstate support payments." The motion was accompanied by the affidavit of A., stating that "my intention is to remain living with my mother until I reach the age of twenty-one." On December 10, 2004, Bell's counsel filed an opposition, asserting that Wilkins' motion "failed to state any reason why equity requires child support payments to begin again."

When the parties appeared before the court on February 9, 2005, Wilkins, who again appeared pro se, asked for a continuance of the hearing on Bell's custody motion so that the parties 4 could resume their attempts at mediation. Wilkins also attempted to advise the court about where

A. was living. The court deferred discussion of that issue, and set a new trial date of March 10, 2005, saying "[w]e will keep this until March 10," at which time the parties could "raise any issues with respect to support including the periods of time you had the child."*fn1

On March 21, 2005, after trial on the custody motion had been continued again until April 18, 2005, Bell's counsel filed an "Emergency Motion to Continue Stay of Enforcement of Child Support Order." The memorandum in support of the motion asserted that "[u]nfortunately, prior to leaving the courtroom on February 9, defendant [Bell] did not obtain a written order of the Court as to the continuation of the stay on the child support order." The memorandum further asserted that garnishment of Bell's pay had resumed and that the most recent garnishment amount reflected an arrearage that Bell disputed and that he had requested be the subject of an audit by the Child Support Services Division of the D.C. Office of Attorney General. Finally, citing Wilkins' repeated requests for continuances of the custody hearing and the alleged accounting error as to arrearages, and asserting that Wilkins' request on February 9 that the "child support order be re-instated and the stay of November 17, 2004 be lifted was denied by this Court," the memorandum requested an order "continuing the stay of enforcement of child support obligations of the defendant." On March 21, 2005, the same day Bell's Emergency Motion to Continue Stay was filed, and without any response from Wilkins having been filed, the court granted the motion. The court's order, made effective "nunc pro tunc to February 9, 2005, stated that "the current child support order is stayed pending further Order of this Court."

Wilkins ultimately obtained counsel, who entered her appearance on April 14, 2005, and filed a motion for Rule 11 sanctions a day later, alleging that during the November 17 and February 9 proceedings, Bell and his counsel had made misrepresentations to the court about where A. was residing. During proceedings before the court on April 18, Wilkins' counsel made an oral motion asking the court to reinstate child support, and Bell's counsel reminded the court that Wilkins' written motion to reinstate was still pending. The court continued all matters until May 10. At the May 10 hearing, the trial judge took the Rule 11 sanctions motion under advisement. The court stated that it would reinstate the support order effective July 1, 2005, and, on May 26, 2005, signed an order (on a standardized form) requiring ...


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