may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. ß 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the
Norma Kay Dannhoff, n/k/a Norma Kay Olson,
Gary Allen Dannhoff,
Watonwan County District Court
File No. F9832512
Mark D. Nyvold, 46 East Fourth Street, Suite 1030, St. Paul, MN† 55101; and
Lance J. Johnson,† Box 981, Lakeville, MN† 55044 (for appellant)
Carina R. Buetow, Clark Tuttle, Berens, Rodenberg & OíConnor, 519 Center Street, Box 428, New Ulm, MN† 56073 (for respondent)
††††††††††† Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Klaphake, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D†† O P I N I O N
††††††††††† In this appeal from an order granting respondent fatherís motion to vacate a judgment for child support arrearages, appellant mother argues that the order was based on a misconstruction of the dissolution judgment and prior rulings in this case.† Mother also argues that the district court abused its discretion when it imposed a sanction against her under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.† We affirm.
††††††††††† The marriage of appellant-mother Norma Kay Dannhoff, n/k/a Norma Kay Olson, and respondent-father Gary Allen Dannhoff was dissolved by a judgment entered on October 26, 1983.† The dissolution judgment awarded mother physical custody of the partiesí two children and incorporated the following stipulated provision regarding child support:
That as and for child support, the [father] shall pay to the [mother] the sum of $300.00 per month until such time as the older child of the parties is emancipated according to the terms of this stipulation.† Such support shall be payable as to each child until the child reaches the age of 18 or until such childís graduation from high school, whichever occurs later; in any event, support may terminate earlier as to a child if the child marries, joins the Armed Services, dies, or is otherwise self-supporting.† After the occurrence of one of these acts or events of emancipation as to the first child, support payable shall be $250.00 per month.
The judgment also provided for a cost-of-living adjustment to child support.
††††††††††† In March 1985, father began paying only $100 per month for child support, and in July 1985, father filed a motion to reduce child support to $200 per month.† Mother filed a motion for arrearages.† In an affidavit in opposition to fatherís motion to reduce child support, mother stated:
That [father] has failed to pay the full amount of child support as required in the Decree which does provide that the [father] must pay $300.00 per month until such time as the oldest child becomes emancipated.† [Father] has paid only $100.00 per month for the months of March through July, 1985, and is, therefore, delinquent in the amount of $200.00 per month for five (5) months for a total delinquency of $1,000.00.
In an order filed September 10, 1985, the district court found:
Pursuant to the stipulation decree, [father] was to pay child support in the amount of $300.00 per month and he is $200.00 delinquent for the months of March through August, for a total arrearage of $1,200.00 as of August 31, 1985.
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The Court finds that [father] has the ability to pay $200.00 per month child support and Orders that his support be reduced to such figure commencing with the month of March, 1985 and that his total arrearage under the previous Order of $1,200.00 be one-half forgiven.† Commencing with the month of September, 1985, [father] shall pay as and for child support the amount of $200.00 per month.
The order provided that no cost-of-living adjustment applied to child support, and the amended judgment entered pursuant to the September 1985 order provided:
††††††††††† AND IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED [father] pay to the [mother] the sum of $200.00 per month commencing with September, 1985, until such time as the older child of the parties is emancipated according to the terms of the Stipulation.† That such support be payable as to each child until the child reaches the age of 18 or until such childís graduation from high school, whichever occurs later; in any event, support may terminate earlier as to a child if the child marries, joins the armed services, dies or is otherwise self-supporting.† After the occurrence of one of these acts or events or emancipation as to the first child, support payable shall be $250.00 per month.
††††††††††† Mother requested nonpublic assistance child support collection services from October 1, 1987, through August 31, 1997.† Linda Herschberger, a child support officer for Human Services of Faribault and Martin Counties who worked on motherís case, submitted an affidavit stating:
[Mother] was interviewed on September 28, 1987, and indicated that the arrears due were $800.00 from June 1, 1987, through September 30, 1987.† Our case was built with a beginning balance of $800.00 and a charge of $200.00 per month effective October 1, 1987.† * * * The charge increased to $250.00 on June 1, 1997, after the oldest child emancipated and per the court order filed on September 10, 1985.
In a December 2, 1996, letter to Herschberger, mother asked about the November 1996 child support payment for both children in the amount of $200.† In December 1996, mother filled out a collections-services application form on which she identified fatherís monthly child support obligation as $200.
††††††††††† In 1997, the parties stipulated that physical custody of the remaining minor child would be transferred to father.† In March 2000, a child support magistrate issued an order requiring mother to pay $325 per month for child support.
††††††††††† In April 2000, mother obtained a judgment against father under Minn. Stat. ß 548.091, subd. 1a (1998), which provides that unpaid child support arrearages become a judgment by operation of law.† The judgment amount totaled $49,118 ($35,400 for child support arrearages and $13,718 in interest).† To obtain the judgment, mother submitted an affidavit claiming that father was obligated to pay $300 per month for each of the two children for a total of $600 per month from the time of dissolution through February 1985 and $200 per month for each of the two children, or a total of $400 per month, from March 1985 until the oldest childís emancipation.
††††††††††† Father filed a motion to vacate the April 2000 judgment, and the district court granted the motion.† The district court found:
††††††††††† 16.† That the language in the Decree that uses the following words:† ďThat such support shall be payable as to each child until the child reaches the age of 18, or until such childís graduation from high school * * *Ē is common qualifying language reciting the statutory or agreed term of the child support obligation and is not language which multiplies the per month child support as to each child.
††††††††††† 17.† That there was no basis in law or fact for [mother] to make the claim pursuant to M.S. 548.091 for arrearages being owed by [father].
By separate order, under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11, the district court required motherís attorney to pay fatherís attorney $3,000 for attorney fees and required mother to pay a penalty of $500 to the court.
††††††††††† Mother appealed from the order vacating the April 2000 judgment and the order requiring motherís attorney to pay attorney fees and requiring mother to pay a penalty.† This court dismissed the part of the appeal relating to attorney fees payable by motherís attorney.
1.†††††††† Whether a stipulated judgment is ambiguous is a legal question.† See Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986) (interpreting stipulated provision in judgment).† ď[I]f language is reasonably subject to more than one interpretation, there is ambiguity.Ē† Halverson, 381 N.W.2d at 71 (citation omitted).† Absent ambiguity, a court cannot interpret a stipulated judgment but rather must give effect to its language.† Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562-63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977).† If a judgment is ambiguous, a district court may construe or clarify it.† Stieler v. Stieler, 244 Minn. 312, 318, 70 N.W.2d 127, 131 (1955).† In doing so, the district court may consider the whole record as well as extrinsic evidence.† Palmi v. Palmi, 273 Minn. 97, 103, 140 N.W.2d 77, 81 (1966).† The construction and effect of an ambiguous stipulation are questions of fact.† Emerick on Behalf of Howley v. Sanchez, 547 N.W.2d 109, 112 (Minn. App. 1996) (citations omitted).† This court will not reverse the district courtís findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous.† Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.† Findings of fact are clearly erroneous when they are not reasonably supported by the evidence.† Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 102 (Minn. 1999).
††††††††††† The parties dispute the meaning of the second sentence in the stipulated child support provision in the dissolution judgment, which states:
Such support shall be payable as to each child until the child reaches the age of 18 or until such childís graduation from high school, whichever occurs later; in any event, support may terminate earlier as to a child if the child marries, joins the Armed Services, dies, or is otherwise self-supporting.
The 1985 amended judgment, which modified child support, used essentially the same language as the original stipulation.
††††††††††† Mother argues that the sentence modifies the first sentence in the stipulated child support provision and means that the amount of child support, $300, is payable as to each child, making fatherís total monthly child support obligation $600.† Father argues that the sentence simply defines emancipation and the term of the support obligation and does not multiply the amount of child support set forth in the first sentence.† We conclude that the language in the sentence is reasonably susceptible to both interpretations and, therefore, that the judgment and the amended judgment are ambiguous.
††††††††††† In support of her construction, mother cites a provision in the judgment that required father to maintain a $100,000 life-insurance policy naming a trust for the children as the primary beneficiary as long as he had a child support obligation.† Mother argues that given the childrenís ages at the time of dissolution, if fatherís total monthly child support obligation were $300, reduced to $250 upon the first childís emancipation, father would have paid a total of about $59,000 in child support by the time both children became emancipated at age 18.† But if fatherís initial child support obligation were $600 per month, he would have paid a total of about $117,000 in child support.† Mother concludes that because there would be no reason to require father to maintain a $100,000 life insurance policy to secure a $59,000 child support obligation, the only reasonable construction of the child-support provision is that fatherís initial child support obligation was $600 per month.
††††††††††† Father argues that the parties, the district court, and the child support collection agency all consistently treated the $300 child support obligation in the dissolution judgment and the $200 child support obligation in the amended judgment as total monthly obligations.† When mother sought arrearages in 1985, she affirmatively represented that fatherís total monthly support obligation was $300.† The district court found that father was delinquent in the amount of $200 per month for a period of six months when he paid only $100 per month for child support.† When mother sought collection services in 1987, she affirmatively represented that fatherís total monthly support obligation was $200.† In 1996, mother wrote a letter to Herschberger and filled out a collection-services application, representing in both documents that fatherís total monthly child support obligation was $200.† The collection agencyís entire file was based on an understanding that fatherís child support obligation under the amended judgment was initially $200 and increased to $250 upon the older childís emancipation.
††††††††††† Mother also argues that interpreting the $300 in the dissolution judgment, and the $200 in the amended judgment as a total obligation is inconsistent with retaining the provision that required fatherís child support obligation to increase $250 upon the first childís emancipation.† But father asserts that he sought the reduction in child support based on an income reduction that he expected to be temporary.
††††††††††† Although the disputed language could possibly mean what mother now claims it means, there is overwhelming evidence that before mother obtained the judgment for arrearages in April 2000, neither party interpreted the language as mother now contends it should be interpreted.† The record as a whole and extrinsic evidence support the district courtís findings that fatherís total monthly child support obligation was $300 under the dissolution judgment and $200 under the 1985 amended judgment.† Therefore, the findings are not clearly erroneous.
2.†††††††† A district courtís decision on a motion for rule 11 sanctions is reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard.† Uselman v. Uselman, 464 N.W.2d 130, 145 (Minn. 1990).† Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.02 states:
By presenting to the court (whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating) a pleading, written motion, or other paper, an attorney or unrepresented party is certifying that to the best of the personís knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,
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††††††††††† (c) the allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery[.]
Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03 states:
If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that Rule 11.02 has been violated, the court may, * * * impose an appropriate sanction upon the attorneys, law firms, or parties that have violated Rule 11.02 or are responsible for the violation.
††††††††††† The district court explained its award of rule 11 sanctions as follows:
††††††††††† That having an opportunity to have reviewed all of the files and records in the within dissolution action, the payment records of child support over an extended period of time by [father], the change of custody, and the new payment requirements of [mother], the correspondence by [mother] regarding child support status, the action by [mother] and her counsel was without basis in law or fact to claim such arrearages against [father], and this action has set in motion much legal actions and contentions, and all parties, as above described, have incurred attorneysí fees and expenses.
††††††††††† Mother argues that this action for arrearages had a reasonable basis in law and fact.† Sanctions cannot be imposed against a represented party based on an action being unsupported by law. Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03(b).† Thus, the question with respect to sanctions against mother is whether there is evidence to support her allegations and other factual contentions.† Whether this action had a factual basis depends on an assessment of motherís credibility regarding the meaning of the stipulation.† Although the language of the stipulation could possibly be construed to have the meaning that mother advocates, the district court found motherís current claim that fatherís monthly support obligation was $600 or $400 completely implausible in light of her consistent representations in the past that fatherís total monthly support obligation was $300 or $200.† The district court is in the best position to assess credibility.† Barr v. Barr, 416 N.W.2d 189, 194 (Minn. App. 1987).†
††††††††††† Mother also argues that the sanction against her personally was improper because she was represented by counsel.† But Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03 expressly allows sanctions against a party.† See also Radloff v. First Am. Natíl Bank of St. Cloud, N.A., 470 N.W.2d 154, 156-57 (Minn. App. 1991) (upholding award of rule 11 sanctions against both attorney and party), review denied (Minn. July 24, 1991).
††††††††††† Mother next contends that the penalty imposed against her is improper because it is punitive.† But a purpose of rule 11 sanctions is deterrence.† Id. at 157.† The penalty imposed could deter mother from bringing further unfounded claims against father based on the dissolution judgment.
The district court did not abuse its discretion by imposing a $500 penalty against mother.† See Barr, 416 N.W.2d at 194 (upholding attorney fee award against party when propriety of award depended on assessment of the credibility of partyís assertions in support of motions).