This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
f/k/a Deborah Jean Fjellanger, petitioner,
John Lien Fjellanger,
Filed June 4, 2002
Robert H. Schumacher, Judge
Richard K. Hocking, Richard K. Hocking, P.A., 7570 West 147th Street, Apple Valley, MN 55124 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Hanson, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
ROBERT H. SCHUMACHER, Judge
On appeal after remand in this dispute regarding a dissolution judgment's division of retirement benefits, appellant John Lien Fjellanger argues that the district court should not have construed the parties' dissolution judgment, should have received additional evidence on remand, and misunderstood the judgment and the benefits at issue. Because Fjellanger has not shown that the district court's rulings exceeded the scope of the remand or are unsupported by the record, we affirm.
The stipulated judgment dissolving the marriage of Fjellanger and respondent Deborah Jean Schmidt, f/k/a Deborah Jean Fjellanger, awarded Schmidt an interest in Fjellanger's IBM retirement plan. In a subsequent dispute, the district court ruled that the Qualified Domestic Relations Order was to include a Pre-Retirement Spouse Protection (PRSP) provision. Fjellanger appealed, alleging a PRSP provision was not awarded to Schmidt in the judgment. This court remanded for clarification. Schmidt v. Fjellanger, No. C9-00-227 (Minn. App. Aug. 22, 2000) (Schmidt I). On remand, the district court ruled in Schmidt's favor, holding that the PRSP provision was a method of paying retirement benefits to Schmidt if Fjellanger died before retiring, rather than a right not awarded to Schmidt by the judgment. Fjellanger appeals.
1. Fjellanger argues that the district court should not have construed the dissolution judgment because Schmidt made no request that it do so. This court's prior opinion noted that the rationale for the district court's ruling was unclear but that it might have involved a clarification of the judgment or a determination that the PRSP provision was included in the benefits awarded Schmidt by the judgment. Schmidt I, 2000 WL 1182720, at *3. On remand, the district court stated that the PRSP provision "is not a separate property interest but rather part of the 50% marital interest rightfully owed to [Schmidt.]" This ruling involves a determination that the PRSP provision is part of what the judgment awarded Schmidt, and hence a clarification that the judgment's failure to mention the PRSP provision did not preclude it from being included in the Qualified Domestic Relations Order.
The district court did not err by adopting analyses that this court previously indicated might have been the basis for the original ruling. Cf. Halverson v. Village of Deerwood, 322 N.W.2d 761, 766 (Minn. 1982) (noting district court must abide by remand instructions).
2. Fjellanger challenges the district court's refusal to consider additional evidence on remand. Schmidt I gives the district court discretion regarding whether to reopen the record on remand. Schmidt I, 2000 WL 1182720, at *3. Therefore, not considering new evidence was within the district court's discretion. Moreover, the district court considered additional evidence on remand; its memorandum recites Fjellanger's retirement benefits, something not provided by IBM until after the case was remanded. Also, its memorandum states that the parties' "[e]fforts to obtain a helpful response from IBM [regarding Fjellanger's retirement benefits] were unsuccessful." While no transcript of the proceedings on remand was provided on appeal, the district court's observation suggests that it considered whatever was received (orally or in writing) from IBM and found it unhelpful.
3. The district court ruled that the PRSP provision was a payment mechanism rather than a type of retirement benefit not awarded to Schmidt by the judgment. Stipulated dissolution judgments are treated as binding contracts. Tomscak v. Tomscak, 352 N.W.2d 464, 466 (Minn. App. 1984). Absent ambiguity, it is improper for a court to interpret a stipulated judgment. Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562-63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977). Whether a stipulated dissolution judgment is ambiguous is a legal question. Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986). If ambiguous, the district court may interpret a judgment. Stieler v. Stieler, 244 Minn. 312, 318-19, 70 N.W.2d 127, 131 (1955). In doing so, the district court may consider the whole record as well as parole evidence. Palmi v. Palmi, 273 Minn. 97, 103, 140 N.W.2d 77, 81 (1966). But, "full effect must be given to that which is necessarily implied in the judgment, as well as to that actually expressed therein." Stieler, 244 Minn. at 319, 70 N.W.2d at 131-32.
Here, the parties' judgment states:
Fifty percent of the "marital interest" in [Fjellanger's] accrued benefits under the IBM Retirement plan (consisting of [his] IBM Core Retirement Benefit and [his] IBM Personal Retirement Provision (PRP)) as of the date payments commence to [Schmidt] shall be and is irrevocably assigned to [Schmidt] * * * [Schmidt] shall have no rights in or to the portion of [Fjellanger's] accrued benefit under the plan not assigned by this order, or to any benefits earned by [Fjellanger] after the date benefit payments commence to [Schmidt].
Fjellanger alleges that the statement that Schmidt had "no rights" not awarded by the judgment unambiguously excludes the PRSP provision from the benefits awarded to Schmidt and that allowing Schmidt to receive a PRSP benefit improperly changes the parties' substantive rights, violating the line of cases indicating that construing a judgment cannot change the parties' rights. See Ulrich v. Ulrich, 400 N.W.2d 213 (Minn. App. 1987). This argument assumes that the PRSP provision is a benefit separate from the IBM Core Retirement and Personal Retirement Provision benefits that Schmidt was awarded in the judgment. Therefore, the weight of Fjellanger's argument depends on the validity of his assumption.
In response to inquiry from Schmidt's attorney regarding whether Schmidt would receive her share of Fjellanger's retirement benefits if he died before he retired, IBM responded that if Fjellanger died before retiring, "[Schmidt] will not receive any benefits unless the QDRO provides an award of PRSP to [Schmidt]." Thus, absent a PRSP provision in the Qualified Domestic Relations Order, Schmidt's "irrevocably assigned" interest in the retirement benefits would be effectively revoked if Fjellanger died before retiring. On this record, Fjellanger has not shown that the district court clearly erred in finding that the PRSP provision was not an additional of benefit but a mechanism for paying already awarded benefits in the event Fjellanger die before retirement. See Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01 (findings of fact not set aside unless clearly erroneous).
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.