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Curtis v. Gordon

October 1, 2009


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DR3330-00) (Hon. Jerry S. Byrd, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nebeker, Senior Judge

Argued June 17, 2009

Before FISHER and OBERLY, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.

Appellant, Cragin G.I. Curtis, appeals two trial court judgments resulting from his breach of a Separation, Custody, Support and Property Settlement Agreement (the "Agreement"). He challenges the Agreement on various grounds. He also contends that the trial court erroneously ordered that he obtain a surety bond for reasonable estimated future child support obligations. Appellee commendably concedes a number of issues raised by appellant.*fn1 Appellee's concessions require a remand to the trial court. In addition, we remand to the trial court to recalculate the arrearages appellant owes under the Agreement based on our conclusion that the Agreement was not fully executed until November 9, 2000, delaying the first payment by one month. In all other respects, we affirm the trial court's orders.

I. Factual Summary

Appellant and appellee, Catherine Frazier Gordon (f/k/a Curtis), married in 1991 and divorced in 1995. They married again in 1998 and divorced again in 2001. They had one child during their first marriage. Before their 2001 divorce, the parties entered into a Separation, Custody, Support and Property Settlement Agreement. Appellant initialed each page of the Agreement and signed the Agreement before a notary public on October 27, 2000; appellee did not sign the Agreement until November 9 of that same year.Appellant did not have a lawyer when he signed the Agreement. The Agreement was neither incorporated nor merged into the parties' final divorce decree.

The Agreement provides that appellee retain sole custody of the parties' minor child, that appellant pay $1,000 per month in child support, and that appellant pay fifty percent of certain expenses for the child, including expenses related to the child's education, orthodontia, and medical needs.In addition, the Agreement imposes penalties on appellant for late payments of child support*fn2 and requires that appellee provide documentation of expenses for the child prior to reimbursement for educational and medical expenses.*fn3

Around February 2006, appellant received written notice for the first time from appellee that he owed $146,910 in child support arrearages and late fees, as well as $74,954.08 in expenses for their child. Appellant claims that he relied on appellee's statements that appellant should only pay what he could. Appellee, on the other hand, says that appellant misrepresented that he could not pay, which is why she did not pursue him for payments. She claims that she initiated this lawsuit when she realized that he was being dishonest.

Appellant has earned minimal income as a fisherman and a painter.*fn4 In 2001, he sold a boat and used the proceeds of the sale to pay off loans, claiming that he "didn't see a dime" of the money. In 2003, after the death of both of his parents, appellant inherited a 35 percent ownership interest in a property,*fn5 as well as $250,000 from his mother's life insurance policy, approximately $60,000 from his father's estate, and interest payments on a loan from his father's estate.Appellant used a portion of his inherited money to renovate the property in order to use the property as a rental,*fn6 as well as to pay off loans and buy stocks. In addition, appellant received money from the sale of stocks, which he used to purchase three boats,*fn7 pay off loans, and buy a new generator for one of his boats. Appellant also came to jointly own a home with his sister.*fn8 Appellant claims that very little money ever went into his bank accounts.

II. Procedural History

Appellant filed a motion to reduce his child support payments in August 2006. Appellee opposed the motion and filed her own motion to enforce the Agreement. The trial court denied appellant's motion, concluding that "the trial court may only increase the child support amount; but it may not decrease the amount." Appellant then filed a notice of appeal in December 2006. We heard oral argument on appellant's appeal and issued an unpublished decision on April 22, 2008, affirming the trial court's judgment and dismissing appellant's request to void the Agreement based on appellee's alleged fraud in procuring the Agreement. See Curtis v. Curtis, No. 06-FM-1581, Mem. Op. & J. (Apr. 22, 2008).

The trial court held a hearing in June 2007, on appellee's motion to enforce the Agreement. The parties then filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. On March 25, 2008, the trial court issued a judgment against appellant, ordering him to pay $486,406.18 plus interest at a rate of six percent, as well as ordering appellant to post a surety bond in the amount of $750,000 and a supersedeas bond if he appealed the judgment. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal of the March 25 judgment. Appellant also filed an emergency motion to stay enforcement of the judgment and eliminate the supersedeas bond requirement, which the trial court denied on April 21, 2008.The trial court, however, amended its March 25 judgment to correct arithmetic errors, reducing the judgment to $470,052.60 and reducing the surety bond requirement to $500,000. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal of the April 21 order, and we granted his motion to consolidate the two appeals.

III. Analysis

As we have observed, supra, the agreement at issue here is neither incorporated nor merged into an order for divorce. There is a "presumption that a child support agreement negotiated between two parents is adequate to meet the child's foreseeable needs, and that at the time of the agreement the best interests of the child were a paramount consideration." Duffy v. Duffy, 881 A.2d 630, 638 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Clark v. Clark, 638 A.2d 667, 669 (D.C. 1994) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "[S]uch agreements are generally enforced in accordance with their terms." Bracey v. Bracey, 589 A.2d 415, 416 (D.C. 1991). "If the parties disagree on the meaning of their agreement, then the court must interpret it according to principles of contract law and the court's statutory responsibilities. . . . [W]here the trial court has resolved factual disputes regarding a contract ...

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