The pro se defendant, Dawn O'Connell,
We begin our resolution of this appeal by setting forth the relevant facts and procedural history. The marriage of the defendant and the plaintiff was dissolved on September 25, 1992. The parties had one minor child during their marriage. The judgment of dissolution awarded the parties joint custody of the child and provided that the child's principal residence would be with the defendant, with the plaintiff paying her child support. The judgment of dissolution also provided that the parties would share equally the cost of all unreimbursed medical expenses for the child.
On February 4, 2004, the court, Hon. John R. Caruso, judge trial referee, granted the plaintiff's motion to modify the custody arrangement and ordered the child's primary residence to be with the plaintiff, temporarily suspending his child support obligation. On March 10, 2004, the parties stipulated that the defendant was to pay the plaintiff $86 per week in child support. Also on that date, the defendant filed a motion for contempt, claiming that the plaintiff had failed to pay child support for some of the time that the child had resided with her. On April 20, 2004, she filed a similar motion updating the amount she claimed was owed to her.
On May 10, 2004, Judge Caruso held a hearing on various motions, including the
On July 8, 2005, the plaintiff filed a motion for contempt, claiming that the defendant had violated Judge Caruso's November 18, 2004 orders, as she had failed to pay (1) $27 per week, as ordered on the child support arrearage of $659, (2) $25 per week, as ordered on the unreimbursed medical expense arrearage of $295 and (3) some of her child support payments of $134 per week. The plaintiff also claimed that the defendant had violated the original judgment of dissolution because she had failed to pay one half of the child's unreimbursed medical expenses that had accrued subsequent to Judge Caruso's orders.
On July 19, 2005, the court, Hon. Herbert Barall, judge trial referee, held a hearing on the plaintiff's contempt motion. At the hearing, the plaintiff testified that the defendant had paid neither of the arrearages ordered by Judge Caruso. He also testified that she had not paid an additional $655 for unreimbursed medical expenses or five and one-half weeks of child support since Judge Caruso's order. The defendant appeared pro se at the hearing. She asked several times throughout the hearing for a continuance, as she wanted to present additional evidence to the court. Judge Barall denied her requests.
Judge Barall found the defendant in contempt of both Judge Caruso's November 18, 2004 order and the judgment of dissolution. With regard to the November 18, 2004 order, Judge Barall found that the defendant wilfully had failed to pay (1) the child support arrearage of $659, (2) the unreimbursed medical expense arrearage of $295 and (3) five and one-half weeks of her child support obligation of $134 per week, totaling $737. As to the judgment of dissolution, Judge Barall found that the defendant wilfully had failed to pay one half of the child's recent unreimbursed medical expenses, amounting to $655. The defendant appealed from the judgment of contempt to this court on August 5, 2005. On November 8, 2005, the defendant filed a motion for articulation of the contempt finding. Judge Barall filed an articulation on November 16, 2005. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.
Before turning to the merits of the defendant's claims, we set forth the legal principles that guide our resolution of this appeal and identify the applicable
The defendant's first claim is that the court abused its discretion in finding her in wilful contempt of the November 18, 2004 order because that finding was based on Judge Caruso's allegedly ambiguous financial orders. First, the defendant claims that the child support arrearage order was ambiguous because Judge Caruso miscalculated the amount due. Second, the defendant claims that Judge Caruso ordered her to pay the plaintiff $295 for unreimbursed medical expenses at a rate of $25 per week, but never specified when the arrearage was to be paid. We conclude that the court's finding of contempt was not an abuse of discretion.
In Sablosky v. Sablosky, 258 Conn. 713, 784 A.2d 890 (2001), our Supreme Court held that a finding of wilfulness as a predicate to a judgment of contempt of court is not barred, as a matter of law, by the fact that the terms of the judgment involved are ambiguous. Id., at 715, 784 A.2d 890. The court stated that "[s]uch ambiguity is merely one of the factors for the trial court to take into consideration in exercising its discretion regarding a finding of wilfulness." Id., at 723, 784 A.2d 890. Moreover, the court reiterated the well established principle that "where there is an ambiguous term in a judgment, a party must seek a clarification upon motion rather than resort to self-help." Id., at 720, 784 A.2d 890; see also Mulholland v. Mulholland, 229 Conn. 643, 649, 643 A.2d 246 (1994) ("a party has a duty to obey a court order however erroneous the action of the court may be" [internal quotation marks omitted]). "A different conclusion would not only frustrate clearly defined public policy regarding the parental obligation to support minor children . . . but it also would encourage parties to refrain from seeking clarifications of ambiguous court orders. The doors of the courthouse are always open; it is incumbent upon the parties to seek judicial resolution of any ambiguity in the language of judgments." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Sablosky v. Sablosky, supra, at 722, 784 A.2d 890.
Moreover, "[t]he fact that [a party] exercise[s] self-help when he was not entitled to do so . . . by disobeying the court's order without first seeking a modification [is] a sufficient basis for the trial court's contrary exercise of discretion. The court [is] entitled to determine that to exonerate the [contemnor] would be an undue inducement to litigants' exercise of self-help." (Emphasis in original; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., at 719-20, 784 A.2d 890.
Judge Barall set forth in detail the grounds for the contempt finding in his articulation of the July 19, 2005 judgment. In finding the defendant in contempt for failure to pay the child support arrearage order of $659, the court stated that "the
Likewise, we are not persuaded by the defendant's argument that finding her in contempt of the November 18, 2004 order requiring her to pay the plaintiff $295 for unreimbursed medical expenses was an abuse of discretion. The defendant admitted at the contempt hearing that she had been ordered to pay the plaintiff $295 in unreimbursed medical expenses in the November 18, 2004 order and that she had not paid the amount. We have reviewed the order itself and conclude that Judge Barall did not abuse his discretion when he found the defendant in wilful contempt, despite her claim that she did not understand that she was supposed to start making payments on the arrearage immediately.
The defendant next claims that the court abused its discretion in finding her in contempt because the plaintiff did not specify the dates and amounts due in his motion for contempt as required pursuant to Practice Book § 25-27.
"Due process of law requires that one charged with contempt of court be advised of the charges against him, have a reasonable opportunity to meet them by way of defense or explanation, have the right to be represented by counsel, and have a chance to testify and call other witnesses in his behalf, either by way of defense or explanation." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Shapiro v. Shapiro, 80 Conn.App. 565, 569, 835 A.2d 1049 (2003). "Notice, to comply with due process requirements, must be given sufficiently in advance of scheduled court proceedings so that reasonable opportunity to prepare will be afforded, and it must set forth the alleged misconduct with particularity." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) In re Donna M., 33 Conn.App. 632, 638, 637 A.2d 795, cert. denied, 229 Conn. 912, 642 A.2d 1207 (1994).
The plaintiff's motion for contempt specifically referenced the defendant's failure to pay both the child support arrearage and medical expenses that were ordered by Judge Caruso on November 18, 2004, indicating the amounts due. It also claimed that the defendant refused to share equally the child's unreimbursed medical expenses as required by the judgment of dissolution. We conclude that the motion sufficiently placed the defendant on notice as to what actions and inactions would be the subject of the contempt hearing and, accordingly, satisfied the requirements of due process.
The defendant next claims that the court abused its discretion in denying her repeated requests for a continuance of the contempt hearing. We are not persuaded.
"A motion for continuance is addressed to the discretion of the trial court, and its ruling will not be overturned absent a showing of a clear abuse of that discretion. . . . The burden of proof is upon the party claiming an abuse of discretion. . . . We are especially hesitant to find an abuse of discretion when the motion is made on the day of trial. . . . Every reasonable presumption in favor of the proper exercise of the trial court's discretion will be made." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Kennedy v. Kennedy, 83 Conn.App. 106, 109-10, 847 A.2d 1104, cert. denied, 270 Conn. 915, 853 A.2d 530 (2004). "There are no mechanical tests for deciding when a denial of a continuance is so arbitrary as to violate due process. The answer must be found in the circumstances present in every case, particularly in the reasons presented to the trial judge at the time the request is denied." (Internal
In the present case, the defendant asked Judge Barall for a continuance several times in the middle of the contempt hearing so that she would have the opportunity to consult with an attorney and come back to the court with canceled checks, which allegedly would prove that she did not owe the arrearage attributed to her. The transcript of the contempt hearing indicates that the court denied the defendant's requests for a continuance because the defendant was given adequate notice of the hearing and she asked for the continuance only after the hearing was well underway, when she was informed that the evidence she wanted to present to the court was inadmissible.
The defendant also challenges the court's finding her in contempt of the judgment of dissolution, which required her to pay one half of the child's unreimbursed medical bills and the order that she reimburse the plaintiff $655 for bills that accrued subsequent to the November 18, 2004 order. The defendant alleges that this contempt finding was improper because it was based on the plaintiff's false testimony and fraudulently submitted medical reimbursement claims. We decline to address this argument, as the defendant did not raise it adequately at the contempt hearing. See Histen v. Histen, 98 Conn.App. 729, 737, 911 A.2d 348 (2006).
The judgments are affirmed.
In this opinion the other judges concurred.
"[T]he decision to allow or disallow credit lies within the sound discretion of the trial court. . . . The mere fact that [a party] . . . believe[s] that he was entitled to . . . a credit does not excuse his nonpayment of support, nor does it constitute an abuse of the court's discretion to hold him in contempt." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lawrence v. Lawrence, 92 Conn.App. 212, 217, 883 A.2d 1260 (2005). Consequently, despite the defendant's claims that Judge Caruso's order was ambiguous and that she believed she was entitled to a credit, the fact remains that she never sought clarification or appealed from that judgment.