This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. ß 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C0-99-1341

 

 

In Re the Marriage of:

Valerie Ann Johnson, petitioner,

Appellant,

 

vs.

 

Robert William Johnson, Jr.,

Respondent.

 

 

Filed April 4, 2000

Affirmed in part and reversed in part

Halbrooks, Judge

 

Hennepin County District Court

File No. 211 371

 

 

Jonathan M. Redgrave, Megan L. Anderson, Jennifer J. Kehoe, Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett, P.A., 3400 City Center, 33 South 6th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellant)

 

Robert William Johnson, Jr., 3017 Oregon Avenue South, St. Louis Park, MN 55426 (pro se respondent)

 

 

 

††††††††††† Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

HALBROOKS, Judge

††††††††††† Appellant challenges an order granting respondentís motion to modify his child-support obligation.Respondent brought two similar motions in the nine months prior to filing the motion currently on review.Both of the previous motions were denied.Appellant contends that (1) respondentís third motion was precluded by the doctrine of res judicata or the principle of finality of judgments; (2) the ALJ erred in finding that a substantial change in circumstances had occurred justifying a modification of respondentís child-support obligation; and (3) the ALJ erred in failing to award her sanctions.We affirm the ALJís refusal to award appellant sanctions.But we agree that respondentís third motion was barred because the previous order adjudicated the same issue on the same facts.We, therefore, reverse the modification of respondentís child-support obligation.

FACTS

††††††††††† Appellant and respondent were married on September 5, 1981.They had three children together.They separated in June 1994 and their marriage dissolution was finalized in January 1997.The dissolution decree awarded appellant sole legal and physical custody of the children, $806 per month in child support, $350 per month as spousal maintenance, and required respondent to pay 100% of the childrenís deductibles and uninsured medical and dental expenses.

††††††††††† On August 3, 1998, respondent filed the first in a series of three motions to modify his child-support obligation.The first motion was filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings.Respondent sought to have his child-support obligation modified retroactively and more than $7,000 in arrearages forgiven.He argued that there had been a substantial change in circumstances justifying a downward modification of his support obligation.Respondent introduced evidence that his monthly income was $1,509 and his monthly expenses were $1,356.Appellant introduced evidence of her income and expenses and also introduced evidence to rebut respondentís claim of substantially changed circumstances.The ALJ denied the motion, and respondent did not appeal from that order.

††††††††††† On February 10, 1999, respondent filed a second motion.This motion was filed in Hennepin County District Court.Respondent sought a downward modification of his child-support obligation and to eliminate overnight visits with his children.In support of the second motion, respondent submitted an affidavit indicating that his monthly income had increased to $1,642 and his expenses had increased to $2,158.The latter figure represented the claimed expenses for himself, his new wife, and his two stepchildren.Appellant presented evidence of her income and expenses and argued that it would be improper for respondent to place his second family ahead of the three children from his first marriage.A hearing was held on March 4, 1999, and the district court subsequently denied respondentís motion.Respondent did not appeal from the district courtís order.

††††††††††† On April 23, 1999, respondent filed another motion with the Office of Administrative Hearings to reduce his child-support obligation.Respondent submitted financial information to the ALJ that was identical to the information submitted to the district court in connection with his second motion.Appellant argued that respondent should not be permitted to re-litigate the issue of changed circumstances based on the same financial evidence submitted to the district court just a few months earlier.In response to the third motion, appellant brought a motion seeking attorney fees and expenses as a sanction against respondent for having to defend against the repeated motions.†††

Following the hearing, the ALJ issued his findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order.He made specific findings regarding both partiesí current incomes.He also made a finding regarding appellantís expenses for herself and the partiesí three minor children.The ALJís finding regarding respondentís expenses included expenses attributable to his new family.

On the basis of his findings, the ALJ concluded that there had been a substantial change in circumstances rendering the original child-support obligation unreasonable and unfair.The ALJís order constituted a downward deviation from the child-support guidelines.He also ordered that respondent begin to pay $50 per month against the arrearages that had accrued and reduced respondentís responsibility for deductibles and uninsured medical and dental expenses by 45%.Finally, the ALJ denied appellantís motion for costs and attorney fees.Appellant appeals from this order.

D E C I S I O N

††††††††††† Appellant contends that respondent was precluded from bringing the third motion based on the doctrine of res judicata or, alternatively, the principle of finality of judgments.We review questions of res judicata de novo.G.A.W., III v. D.M.W., 596 N.W.2d 284, 287 (Minn. App. 1999), review denied, (Minn. Sept. 28, 1999).ďRes judicata, or claim preclusion, prevents parties from splitting claims into more than one lawsuit and precludes further litigation of the same claim.ĒLoo v. Loo, 520 N.W.2d 740, 744 n.1 (Minn. 1994).The court in Loo noted that res judicata technically does not apply to motions for modification but that ďthe underlying principle that an adjudication on the merits of an issue is conclusive, and should not be relitigated, clearly applies.ĒId. at 743-44.

††††††††††† This court has previously discussed the manner in which lower courts should proceed when dealing with renewed motions for modification.Phillips v. Phillips, 472 N.W.2d 677, 680 (Minn. App. 1991).While noting that once the question of changed circumstances has been litigated, it typically cannot be retried, this court went on to hold that:

††††††††††† When a modification is sought following a denied motion for modification, * * * the first question is whether the change since the denied motion has been significant enough that it might, because of its incremental effect, require the trial court to examine the cumulative changes since the order setting the support level.If the changes are weighty enough to meet the above test of potential significance, the trial court must consider the cumulative changes since the prior award/modification order to see if altogether the incremental changes are substantial.If not, there is no need to look back to the prior award/modification order, for the order of denial should be given conclusive effect.

 

Id. at 680.

††††††††††† In this case, respondent, in his third motion, presented the identical evidence to the ALJ regarding his financial circumstances as he presented to the district court in connection with the second motion.In fact, respondent presented no evidence to the ALJ that would permit a finding that anything had changed since the district court denied his second motion.Because there was no change between the second and third motions, it was error for the ALJ not to give the district courtís order denying respondentís identical motion conclusive effect.See id.

We reverse the ALJís June 3, 1999 order as it relates to the modification of respondentís child-support obligation based on the ALJís failure to give the district courtís order conclusive effect.

††††††††††† Although our decision on the child-support modification issue is based solely on the principle that a decision on the merits of an issue is conclusive and cannot be relitigated, we note that the ALJís computation of respondentís expenses included expenses attributable to respondentís second family.We have previously held that a court seeking to establish or modify a child-support obligation ďmust factor out [obligorís] expenses from those of his new family.ĒHuston v. Huston, 412 N.W.2d 344, 347 (Minn. App. 1987).†† In other words, even if the third motion had not been barred by the conclusive effect of the district courtís order, the ALJís findings would have been insufficient to support a modification.

††††††††††† Appellant also contends that the ALJ erred by failing to award her attorney fees and expenses she claimed were incurred responding to respondentís motions.Appellant requested that these fees be awarded as a sanction under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.This court reviews a denial or award of sanctions under an abuse-of-discretion standard.Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 145 (Minn. 1990).

††††††††††† Appellant contends that she is entitled to the fees and expenses because of respondentís ďmisconductĒ in bringing the third motion.Although we hold that the third motion was barred, we do not hold that respondentís decision to bring the third motion was done in bad faith or for an improper reason.See Minn. R. Civ. P. 11 (providing that sanctions are appropriate only when a motion is not ďwarranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing lawĒ or is brought for an improper purpose).The ALJ did not abuse his discretion in denying appellantís motion for attorney fees and expenses as a sanction against respondent.

††††††††††† Affirmed in part and reversed in part.