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Wilson v. Hayes

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

October 10, 2013

Thomas E. WILSON, Appellant,
Louise HAYES, Appellee.

Argued Sept. 28, 2012.

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James L. Marketos, Washington, DC, for appellant.

Marjorie Just, Bethesda, MD, for appellee.

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, THOMPSON, Associate Judge, and LONG, Senior Judge, Superior Court of

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the District of Columbia.[*]

LONG, Senior Judge:

Appellant Thomas E. Wilson seeks relief from a 2010 judgment that he violated the terms of a Voluntary Separation, Support, Custody and Property Settlement Agreement (" Agreement" ) executed with his wife, appellee Louise Hayes. The parties had executed the Agreement in conjunction with their 1993 divorce. Appellee filed a complaint for breach of contract on February 15, 2002. This legal action largely focused upon appellant's contractual responsibilities for the educational expenses of the parties' children. After a five-day trial in 2003, the Hon. Odessa Vincent entered a judgment in favor of the appellee in a Memorandum and Order filed on January 21, 2010.

Before this court, appellant raises myriad issues regarding evidentiary rulings, as well as the trial court's interpretation of the Agreement and the imposition of an order to pay attorneys' fees. The pivotal issues on appeal are whether the trial court erroneously concluded that appellant breached the Agreement in two respects. The trial court determined that appellant breached the Agreement (1) by failing to pay the costs of his daughter's attendance at a certain secondary school, and (2) by satisfying his son's college expenses by withdrawals from a fiduciary account established for the son's benefit, instead of using his (appellant's) personal money. That fund had been created by appellant's parents under principles of a model statute commonly known as the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (" UGMA" ).[1] Appellant was the trustee who controlled this account.

We affirm that portion of the trial court's judgment requiring appellant to pay appellee for their daughter's secondary school expenses. We reverse that portion of the judgment requiring appellant to pay his son (not the appellee) an amount of money equal to the UGMA withdrawals. Concluding that appellee had no standing to pursue one of the major claims triggering the fee award, we remand the case to the trial court for a fresh adjudication of the fee issue.

In order to provide a practical context for our analysis, we recapitulate certain historical facts about how the parties operated under the Agreement, why litigation erupted after the divorce, and how the trial court grappled with the claims and counterclaims. In doing so, we examine the interrelationship between and among certain provisions of the Agreement.

I. Background of the Case

Thomas E. Wilson and Louise Hayes were married in the District of Columbia on April 12, 1975. They are the parents of two children, a son (" Z.H." ), born August 6, 1980, and a daughter (" N.L." ), born May 25, 1983. On June 18, 1993, the Superior Court issued to the parties a final decree of divorce. To settle the custody and economic matters in anticipation of divorce, Wilson and Hayes executed the aforementioned Agreement. The Agreement provided that the parties would have joint legal custody of their minor children and that they would share decision-making authority regarding important matters affecting

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the children's education, health, and general welfare. The parties agreed that the children's primary residence would be with their mother.

The Agreement specified that, as long as he was able to do so, appellant would be financially " responsible for" the cost of private school and college education for the children. On this subject, the pertinent sections of the Agreement read as follows:

§ 5.5
The parties' children currently attend private schools. It is the parties' desire and intent that the children continue to attend private schools for grade school and high school. Provided that the Husband remains financially able to do so and that he continues to be of the opinion, after consultation with the Wife, that it is in the best interests of the children to remain in private schools, the Husband shall be responsible for payments of all costs associated with such private education, including tuition, books, and fees assessed by the school. The Husband's decision shall be final and not subject to mediation.
§ 5.6
If the Husband consents to the child's choice of a college, he shall be responsible for the following expenses incurred in connection with each child's pursuit of an undergraduate college degree: tuition, room and board, books, fees assessed by the school, and travel to and from school. In the event that the Husband does not agree with the selection, he agrees to contribute an amount equal to the cost of tuition, room and board, books, and fees for attendance at the University of Maryland or other comparable state institution as an in-state resident. The Husband's consent shall not unreasonably be withheld.

In the years subsequent to the divorce, the parties disagreed on virtually every decision regarding their children's education. They were sometimes at odds over the nature and extent of appellant's obligation to pay for the children's schooling, though neither party disputed that appellant was always financially able to pay. Communications between the parties became extremely strained, and as a result, they discussed matters primarily in writing. Though the disputes were many, we need not repeat the entire history of each flare-up. Instead, we summarize below the essential events that inform the issues on appeal.

A. The Daughter's Attendance at The Academy at Swift River

N.L. had been attending the Connelly School of the Holy Child, a private school, until December 1999, when the school advised her mother that N.L. would not be allowed to return for the spring semester. Appellee suggested that N.L. attend Woodrow Wilson High School, a public school in the District of Columbia. However, appellant objected to N.L. attending a public school. When the parties were unable to come to an agreement before the beginning of the new term, appellee enrolled N.L. at Woodrow Wilson High School in January 2000. In the meantime, the parties continued to discuss their daughter's educational placement.

In July 2000, at appellant's request, the parties visited the Family Foundation School (" FFS" ), a private school. Appellant believed that FFS provided the structure that N.L. needed, while appellee thought that the FFS program would not be constructive for their daughter. The parties could not come to an agreement. Knowing this, appellee made a refundable deposit to secure a spot for her daughter at FFS.

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Shortly thereafter, appellee arranged a tour of The Academy at Swift River (" ASR" ), a private residential school. Although she notified appellant of the tour, he was unable to attend. Appellant eventually learned about ASR via Internet research and a conversation with an ASR administrator. Nonetheless, appellant disapproved of ASR as a placement for N.L. The parties discussed N.L.'s options, but they still could not reach a joint decision as to which school she should attend.

The parties briefly explored mediation to resolve the issue. Appellee suggested that they meet with the child's godfather (an experienced attorney) but appellant objected to her choice of mediator. Without consulting appellee, appellant then scheduled mediation with Dr. Edward Beal. Appellee was out of town on the scheduled mediation date, but she told appellant that she would be willing to meet with Dr. Beal at another date. Neither party proposed another mediation date, and neither party proposed new mediators. The parties did not explore mediation any further.

Meanwhile, appellee signed a tuition agreement with ASR, and N.L. began attending the school in August 2000. Upon learning of this, appellant announced that he would not pay for the cost of N.L.'s education at ASR, citing Sections 5.5 and 5.6 of the Agreement. Appellant maintained that he was not required to pay the costs of his daughter's education at a school that the parties had not jointly selected. Through a combination of loans and her personal funds, appellee personally paid the costs of N.L.'s attendance at ASR.

Appellee took no further action to force appellant to pay for N.L.'s schooling until August 2001. At that time, she sent ASR invoices to appellant along with a letter from her counsel, demanding payment pursuant to the terms of the Agreement. Appellee testified at trial that she had delayed seeking payment from appellant only because the parties' inability to communicate had caused her great distress. She had decided to focus on N.L.'s education first and to seek reimbursement later. Appellant persisted in claiming that he had no obligation to pay for his daughter's education at ASR.

Furthermore, costs for group therapy sessions were included in N.L.'s tuition bills. Those sessions were a component of the curriculum developed for N.L. at ASR. The group therapy cost was not covered under appellant's insurance plan. Although appellee insisted that he was required to pay the cost of therapy as an unreimbursed medical expense, appellant disagreed that he was so obligated under the terms of the Agreement. Appellant insisted that group therapy was not medical treatment, and even if it could be considered medical treatment, he was entitled to advance notice of such an expense under the Agreement. Because he had not received such advance notice, appellant refused to pay any of the ASR expenses.

B. The Son's Attendance at Georgetown University

In April 1998, Z.H. chose to attend Georgetown University, a decision supported by both of his parents. When Z.H. enrolled at Georgetown in August 1998, appellant remitted payments for all of the expenses associated with his son's education. After receiving low grades in his first semester, Z.H. decided to take a leave of absence. When Z.H. informed his father that he wished to resume his studies at Georgetown in August 1999, appellant refused to pay the costs, citing his son's prior poor performance. Instead, he proposed that Z.H. pay his own college expenses up front and promised to reimburse

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him later, if he obtained a grade of B or better in each course. Z.H. agreed to this so-called father-son " scholarship" arrangement.

Appellee opposed this plan and implored appellant to pay for Z.H.'s college expenses pursuant to his obligation under the Agreement. When appellant refused, appellee assisted Z.H. in obtaining a loan from the Sallie Mae Corporation. Following the end of each semester in which Z.H. received satisfactory grades, appellant paid to Sallie Mae an amount that he deemed equivalent to Z.H.'s college costs. After one year of this arrangement, appellant agreed to pay his son's college expenses at the beginning of each semester, and he paid Z.H.'s expenses for the fall 2000 semester directly to Georgetown University when they became due. Z.H. decided to take a second leave of absence after the completion of that semester. Thereafter, appellant did not pay any further college expenses for Z.H.

In January 2001, appellee learned that appellant had used funds from the UGMA account to pay for their son's two years at Georgetown University. The Agreement contains no mention of the UGMA account, though both parties had been well aware of its existence before they executed the Agreement.

In her complaint, appellee claimed that appellant's use of the UGMA funds to pay for Z.H.'s college expenses constituted a distinct breach of Section 5.6 of the Agreement because appellee was designated therein as the parent " responsible for" college expenses. Appellant disagreed, weaving together a number of arguments at various points in this litigation. He emphasized (1) that the UGMA fund was established for the purpose of defraying the cost of Z.H.'s education, (2) that both parties were aware of the existence of the UGMA account when the Agreement was signed, (3) that the parties did not negotiate anything concerning the account, (4) that the parties did not reference the account anywhere in the contract, and (5) that his obligation under Section 5.6 was premised upon his having access to the UGMA funds.

Prior to trial, appellant paid the remaining balance on the Sallie Mae loan and reimbursed appellee for interest that she had paid on the loan. Thus, there was no dispute at trial regarding any unpaid balance. The only issue that remained for trial regarding Z.H.'s college expenses was the contractual legality of appellant's use of the UGMA funds.

C. The Essential Proceedings Below

In her action for breach of contract, appellee alleged that appellant had breached Sections 5.5 and 5.6 of the Agreement by (1) failing to pay the cost of N.L.'s attendance at ASR, including the cost of group therapy sessions, and (2) failing to pay from his own assets the cost of Z.H.'s attendance for four semesters at Georgetown University.

In his answer to the complaint, appellant denied the material allegations of the complaint and raised numerous affirmative defenses. We will not repeat those of a boilerplate nature. However, the substantive defenses were: (1) that appellee's breach of the co-parenting provision of the Agreement (Section 4.1) excused his failure to pay his daughter's ASR expenses; and (2) that appellee lacked standing to assert a claim on Z.H.'s behalf regarding the UGMA account.

Appellant also asserted several counterclaims. One, appellant charged that appellee had materially breached Section 4.1 of the contract by failing to share parental responsibilities, unilaterally making important decisions relative to N.L.'s health,

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education, and general welfare. Section 4.1 of the Agreement states:

The parties shall have joint legal custody of their minor children. This means that important parental decisions affecting the children's education, health and general welfare shall be made jointly by the parties and that parental responsibilities shall be shared. The parties agree to advise one another regularly on all significant matters related to the children's health and general welfare and to keep one another informed of the progress of their education. Both parents shall have the right to be informed of and participate in conferences with the ...

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