This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. ß 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Filed April 25, 2000
Hennepin County District Court
File No. DW238999
Robert G. Bayer, 134 Ė 15th Avenue N., Hopkins, MN† 55343 (for appellant)
Preeti Gangahar, 206 Eagle Heights, #G, Madison, WI† 53705 (pro se respondent)
††††††††††† Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.
††††††††††† Appellant Vikram Gangahar appeals from a dissolution judgment.† Appellant contends the district court abused its discretion in setting maintenance and in distributing property.† Appellant also argues that the district court acted as an advocate for respondent.† We affirm.††††††† ††††††† †
††††††††††††††††† Appellant Vikram Gangahar and respondent Preeti Gangahar are both citizens of India.† In 1993, appellant moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to work as a computer-software consultant.† Early in 1996, appellant placed an advertisement in India for a bride.† The parents of the parties generally arranged the match, and the parties were married on March 10, 1996.
††††††††††††††††† The parties registered their marriage in India on March 21 and filed affidavits in connection with the registration.† At the time of marriage, respondent was given gifts of a number of pieces of jewelry.† Nevertheless, in her affidavit, respondent declared:
That I have not brought any ornaments or any other valuables with me from my parents/relations/nearest relations.
Respondent claims that the statement was untrue and that she made it under duress.
††††††††††††††††† Prior to marriage, respondent was employed as an administrator in India and lived comfortably.† Respondent acquired stock options through her employment.† In order to exercise them, however, she was required to remain employed in India for a few months after the wedding.† Appellant had initially agreed that respondent would stay in India to complete her employment.† Thus, after the marriage, appellant returned to the United States while respondent lived with appellantís parents.
††††††††††††††††† Shortly after appellant returned to Wisconsin, he began to insist that respondent join him.† Eventually, respondent agreed and left India.† In doing so, respondent lost her stock options.† The stock split twice prior to the trial in this matter. Had respondent exercised the options, she would have made a substantial amount of money.† When respondent arrived in Wisconsin, she was unemployed and was completely dependent upon appellant.
††††††††††††††††† In the spring of 1997, appellant was transferred to Minneapolis.† Respondent remained in Madison and rented an efficiency apartment.† Appellant paid respondentís first month of rent, but has provided no further financial support.† Respondent has since suffered from financial instability.† At the time of dissolution, respondent was working as a bank teller, earning $12,000 per year.† Appellant, on the other hand, changed employers in August 1998 and began earning $98,000 per year.† Appellantís contract was terminated on January 29, 1999, but he continued to be paid until March 22, just three weeks prior to trial.
††††††††††††††††† At trial, appellant was represented by counsel and respondent appeared pro se.† The trial court awarded respondent maintenance in the amount of $1,379.17 per month for two years.† That amount corresponded to the tuition and living expenses needed for respondent to obtain an advanced degree.† The trial court also ordered that appellant, within four months, deliver to respondent jewelry she had left in India with his parents and, if he did not, respondent would be entitled to an ex parte judgment for the value of the property.† Appellant filed a motion for amended findings or a new trial, but the motion was denied.†
††††††††††† A district court has broad discretion in awarding maintenance.† Stich v. Stich, 435 N.W.2d 52, 53 (Minn. 1989).† An award of maintenance will not be disturbed absent an abuse of that discretion.† Smoot v. Smoot, 329 N.W.2d 829, 831 (Minn. 1983).† This court will and must affirm if the award ďhas a reasonable and acceptable basis in fact and principle.Ē† DuBois v. DuBois, 335 N.W.2d 503, 507 (Minn. 1983).
††††††††††† Appellant argues that the district courtís findings were insufficient, that they were not supported by the evidence, and that the award was an abuse of discretion under the circumstances.† The district courtís factual findings will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous.† Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
††††††††††† Appellant focuses mainly on the district courtís finding that respondent would need to attain an advanced degree to regain the standard of living she enjoyed before and during the marriage.† But appellant argues facts that are not part of the record and, therefore, are outside of this courtís scope of review.† See Scroggins v. Solchaga, 552 N.W.2d 248, 253 (Minn. App. 1996) (appellate court is not a fact-finding body), review denied (Minn. Oct. 29, 1996).† And although the testimony regarding respondentís prior standard of living was limited, the evidence was sufficient to support the district courtís findings.
††††††††††† Respondent testified that she was well educated in India, but that her education did not transfer to American society.† She testified that she lived comfortably in India and that appellant earned $53,000 per year and supported her while she lived with him in Madison.† Once the parties separated, however, respondent found herself in dire financial straits needing to live with friends and to borrow money.† Respondent testified that she required further education to restore her to her prior standard of living.† Most importantly, the district court found respondentís testimony to be credible, while appellantís testimony was not credible.† See In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 374-75 (Minn. 1990) (noting the district courtís superior ability, compared to that of appellate courts, to access the credibility of witnesses).† The evidence supports the courtís findings.
††††††††††† Appellant also argues that maintenance was not warranted under the circumstances of this case, particularly in light of the brief duration of the marriage.† In response, respondent, in her well-written pro se brief, cites this courtís decision in Hanson v. Hanson, 378 N.W.2d 28 (Minn. App. 1985).† In Hanson, the husband advertised for a bride in Taiwan, and the wife responded.† 378 N.W.2d at 29.† Later, she came to his home in Minnesota and the parties were married.† Id.† The marriage was wholly unsuccessful.† Id.† The parties lived together for only about one month and the marriage was dissolved within two years.† Id.† Despite the brief duration of the marriage, this court affirmed the district courtís award of maintenance for two years.† Id. at 31.† Specifically, this court noted that the wife had been gainfully employed in Taiwan, but was currently unemployed because of her poor English language skills.† Id. at 30.
††††††††††† Although Hanson is not entirely analogous, it is still germane to the present case.† Aside from the striking factual similarities, the decision serves as a reminder that the district court has broad discretion in setting maintenance, particularly in unusual cases.† Id. at 32 (ďBecause of the very unusual facts and circumstances of this case, we affirm the trial courtís award.Ē).
††††††††††† The district court recognized that the present case was unusual.† Respondent played only a minor role in deciding whether to get married.† The district court found, believing respondentís testimony, that respondent was pressured into leaving India before she could exercise her stock options.† This action cost respondent a substantial sum of money that she could have used to support herself and attain her needed degree.† Simply stated, respondent gave up everything when she left India and was completely dependent on appellant when she arrived in the United States.
††††††††††† The district court found that respondent needed further education to rehabilitate herself.† The district court also made detailed findings on all of the required statutory factors.† See Minn. Stat. ß 518.552 (1998) (listing the factors to be considered in setting maintenance).† Although a marriage of such brief duration does not normally result in maintenance, considering the unique circumstances of this case, the courtís award was not an abuse of discretion.
2.† Distribution of property
††††††††††† Appellant challenges the district courtís order that he deliver to respondent certain jewelry or, essentially, pay her the value of the jewelry.† The district court has broad discretion in the determination of property division.† Crosby v. Crosby, 587 N.W.2d† 292, 296 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Feb. 18, 1999).
††††††††††† Appellant first argues that the marriage registration affidavit signed by respondent provides conclusive evidence that appellant did not bring any jewelry into the marriage and that the parole-evidence rule prohibits respondentís testimony in contradiction of the affidavit.† But the parole-evidence rule does not prevent all evidence that contradicts a writing.† Rather, it precludes certain evidence that contradicts or varies the terms of a written contract.† Gutierrez v. Red River Distrib., †Inc., 523 N.W.2d 907, 908 (Minn. 1994); In re Petition of Minnesota Power & Light Co., 435 N.W.2d 550, 563 n.3 (Minn App. 1989) (ďThe parol evidence rule is not a rule of evidence, however, but a substantive rule of contract interpretation.Ē), review denied (Minn. Apr. 19, 1989).† Because the affidavit in this case was not a contract, the rule does not apply.
††††††††††† Appellant also argues that the record reflects only that his parents possessed the jewelry, and, because they are not his agents, he should not be compelled to acquire respondentís property from them.† This issue was never specifically raised before the district court, either at trial or in appellantís post-trial motion.† Because appellant did not raise the issue in a post-trial motion, he failed to preserve the issue for appeal.† See Frank v. Illinois Farmers Ins. Co., 336 N.W.2d 307, 311 (Minn. 1983) (holding there was no ruling to review on appeal where district courtís failure to address an issue was not raised in a new-trial motion).
††††††††††† Moreover, the award was well within the bounds of the district courtís discretion.† In dissolution actions, the jurisdiction of the district court is equitable in nature.† Scott v. Scott, 373 N.W.2d 652, 654 (Minn. App. 1985).†
The district court therefore has inherent power to grant equitable relief ďas the facts in each particular case and the ends of justice may require.Ē
DeLa Rosa v. DeLa Rosa, 309 N.W.2d 755, 758 (Minn. 1981) (quotation omitted).† In the present case, respondentís property was in the possession of appellantís parents.† The district court implicitly found that appellant, not respondent, was in the position to acquire the jewelry from his parents in India.† Because there was no genuine dispute that respondent was entitled to the jewelry, the courtís order that appellant deliver the jewelry or reimburse respondent for the value of the jewelry was within the interests of justice.
3.† Court as a neutral
††††††††††† Finally, appellant argues that the district court abandoned its role as a dispassionate neutral.† A judge must not assume the role of an advocate.† Block v. Target Stores, Inc., 458 N.W.2d 705, 713 (Minn. App. 1990), review denied (Minn. Sept. 28, 1990).† A review of the record, however, reveals no indication of bias.
††††††††††† Appellant devotes much of his argument to the fact that the district court questioned the witnesses.† The district court, however, is authorized by the rules of evidence to question witnesses.† Minn. R. Evid. 614(b).† Questioning to clarify testimony is a proper exercise of the courtís power.† Teachout v. Wilson, 376 N.W.2d 460, 465 (Minn. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. Dec. 30, 1985).† Moreover, appellant failed to object to the questioning and, thus, forfeited his right to appeal the issue.† See State v. Olisa, 290 N.W.2d 439, 440 (Minn. 1980) (holding any error by the district court in interrogating the defendant was waived by the failure to object).
††††††††††† Appellant also argues that the district court showed its bias by improperly admitting respondentís testimony and exhibits.† It is important to note that appellant was represented by an attorney while respondent proceeded pro se.† We are cognizant of the ďlatitude and consideration [that] is provided by all courts to persons appearing pro se.Ē† Liptak v. State ex rel. City of New Hope, 340 N.W.2d 366, 367 (Minn. App. 1983).† A review of the record reveals that the district courtís rulings were simply intended to facilitate an efficient hearing and to bring together enough facts so that the court could make a just determination on the issues in the case.† No bias was shown.