This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re: Sandra Lee,
f/k/a Sandra Lee Staska, petitioner,
Robert James Staska,
Filed December 17, 2002
Scott County District Court
File No. F9312633
Jodi J. Langhorst, 16186 Main Avenue SE, Prior Lake, MN 55372 (for appellant)
R. Kathleen Morris, Morris & Wolf, 404 First Avenue East, Shakopee, MN 55379 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge, Anderson, Judge, and Wright, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In this child-support and parenting-time dispute, appellant-mother Sandra Lee argues that the district court (1) miscalculated the net amount of child support arrears due to her from respondent-father Robert Staska; (2) failed to issue written rulings addressing parenting-time and prospective child support; and (3) abused its discretionby awarding father attorney fees while denying her request for fees. Because the parties agree that the district court miscalculated father’s net arrears, and procedural prerequisites under Minn. Stat. § 549.211 were not met before ordering mother’s attorney to pay father’s attorney fees, we reverse on these issues and remand to the district court with instructions to impose the agreed-upon amount of child support arrears. We otherwise affirm the district court and reject mother’s request for attorney fees on appeal.
The stipulated judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage awarded father physical custody of the parties’ three sons, set mother’s support obligation, and set a parenting-time schedule. The oldest child later moved in with mother, but mother’s support obligation was not adjusted accordingly and she kept paying support to father for all three children through February 2001. Because the parties agreed to joint physical custody of the younger children starting in March 2001, however, mother paid father no support after February 2001. The current appeal is the culmination of acrimonious post-judgment proceedings involving the parties’ disputes regarding child support arrears, parenting time, prospective support, and attorney fees. Mother challenges the district court’s (1) calculation of father’s net support arrears to mother; (2) use of an oral order regarding parenting-time; (3) alleged refusal to issue a written order addressing prospective support; and (4) order that mother’s attorney pay $1,443.75 of father’s attorney fees.
D E C I S I O N
When setting support in a split-custody arrangement, the district court is required to determine the child support obligation of each party for the children in the other party’s physical custody and calculate a net support obligation for the party with the higher obligation by offsetting the obligations against each other. See Sefkow v. Sefkow, 427 N.W.2d 203, 216-17 (Minn. 1988) (citing Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5 (1988) to calculate child support based on parties’ incomes where each party has custody of one child). When each party owes the other party support, net arrears are calculated by offsetting each parties’ arrears to the other. Here, the crux of mother’s challenge to the district court’s calculation of father’s net arrears for the oldest child is that the October 2001 order calculating those net arrears is internally inconsistent, because the district court found that mother paid support to father through February 2001, but when calculating father’s net arrears to mother, it reduced the amount father owed mother by amounts, including amounts it found mother had paid through February 2001. The district court, in other words, reduced father’s arrears to mother for arrears mother allegedly accrued during a period that the district court found that mother had paid her support obligation.
At oral argument, father’s attorney admitted that the district court had miscalculated father’s arrears. We appreciate counsel’s candor on this point, as well as counsel’s candor in admitting that the $4,536.99 net-arrears figure calculated by mother was acceptable to father.
Father argues, however, that mother’s attempt to bring the miscalculation to the district court’s attention must be ignored because the attempt was procedurally defective. We disagree. A district court is afforded broad discretion in addressing child support, but the district court’s “overriding concern” in doing so is the best interests of the children involved. Wende v. Wende, 386 N.W.2d 271, 274 (Minn. App. 1986). And those best interests outweigh procedural missteps by a child’s parents in collecting support. Cf. Opp v. Opp, 516 N.W.2d 193, 197 (Minn. App. 1994) (noting that Minnesota has a strong policy against using laches to preclude collection of child support arrearages and that “[a] lack of diligence in collection * * * cannot defeat [an obligor’s] continuing support obligation, since the focus of a support obligation is on the needs of the child, not the diligence of the custodial parent” (quoting Vitalis v. Vitalis, 363 N.W.2d 57, 59-60 (Minn. App. 1985)), review denied (Minn. Aug. 24, 1994). Because the district court’s calculation of father’s arrears is clearly erroneous, we reverse this aspect of the district court’s order and remand with instructions to enter judgment against father in the amount of $4,536.99 in net child support arrears for the oldest child.
The district court addressed the parenting schedule orally at a September 2001 hearing. In doing so, it twice stated that it would reduce its oral ruling to writing. The district court, however, never issued a written ruling. When, at a February 2002 hearing, mother sought a written ruling, the district court stated from the bench that the September transcript “controls.” Mother now argues that she is “entitled” to a written order addressing parenting time because “[t]he transcript is certainly not an enforceable order.”
The rules state, however, that
[i]t will be sufficient if the findings of fact and conclusions of law are stated orally and recorded in open court following the close of evidence * * * .
Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01; see, generally, Bouman v. Reiter, 297 Minn. 494, 494, 210 N.W.2d 215, 215-16 (1973) (citing rule 52.01 to reject lack-of-written-findings challenge to order modifying child support and noting that making written findings better practice but not “technically required”).
Mother also argues that the district court should have issued a written order setting ongoing child support because there was “no enforceable Order” on the subject. In addition to addressing support arrears, the October 2001 order addresses prospective support, stating:
The income figures used in this Order shall be applied in calculating child support obligations for [the two younger children] once the parenting plan is established for the future.
When the district court issued the October 2001 order, the parties shared joint physical custody of the younger children. The October 2001 order, therefore, functionally held that support should be set at the guideline level for each party’s income for the period the children were in the other party’s physical custody. Thus, the order set a prospective support obligation by articulating a formula for determining the parties’ support obligations rather than by selecting a specific monthly dollar amount. This is a permissible method of setting support. Cf. Allan v. Allan, 509 N.W.2d 593, 596 (Minn. App. 1993) (addressing modification of support obligation set as formula rather than specific dollar amount).
This court’s function is limited to correcting errors. See, e.g., In re Welfare of M.D.O., 462 N.W.2d 370, 374 (Minn. 1990) (criticizing this court for exceeding scope of error-correcting function); Sefkow, 427 N.W.2d at 210 (same). Absent an appellant’s demonstration of both error by the district court and prejudice resulting from that error, it is inappropriate for this court to alter a district court’s ruling. See Minn. R. Civ. P. 61 (requiring courts to ignore harmless error); Midway Ctr. Assocs. v. Midway Ctr., Inc., 306 Minn. 352, 356, 237 N.W.2d 76, 78 (1975) (stating that to prevail on appeal, party must show error and that error caused prejudice) (quotation omitted). Because of the acrimony in this case, mother’s argument that it would have been the better practice for the district court to issue written rulings clearly addressing parenting time and specifically identifying a prospective support obligation is irrefutable. Under rule 52.01 and Allan, however, the district court’s oral statements regarding parenting time and formula-based support obligation are legally sufficient. Therefore, no basis exists to reverse the district court on these points.
The March 2002 order denying mother’s motion for attorney fees stated that her attorney had “unreasonably contributed to the needless increase in the cost of the litigation at the trial court level in violation of Minnesota Statute § 549.211 [(2002),]” and ordered mother’s attorney to pay $1,443.75 of father’s attorney fees. Mother challenges these rulings.
Under Minn. Stat. § 549.211, the district court has the discretion to award reasonable attorney fees when a party acts in bad faith by asserting frivolous or unfounded claims solely to harass or to delay proceedings. Toughill v. Toughill, 609 N.W.2d 634, 642 (Minn. App. 2000). The statute, however, has certain procedural prerequisites for obtaining fees. See Minn. Stat. § 549.211, subd. 4(a), (b) (reciting procedure for seeking fees under Minn. Stat. § 549.211). Here, mother argues, and father does not dispute, that the procedural requirements were not satisfied. Instead, father argues both that the district court mistakenly referred to Minn. Stat. § 549.211 when it meant to award fees under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1 (2002), and that the requirements of Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1, are satisfied here. Cf. Minn. R. Civ. P. 61 (requiring courts to ignore harmless error).
Section 518.14, subdivision 1 allows conduct-based attorney fees to be assessed “against a party who unreasonably contributes to the length or expense of the proceeding.” (Emphasis added.) Here, the fees were assessed against mother’s attorney because counsel “unreasonably contributed to the needless increase in the cost of the litigation at the trial court level.” Section 549.211 allows attorney fees to be assessed against “attorneys, law firms, or parties” for a “needless increase in the cost of litigation.” Minn. Stat. § 549.211, subds. 2(1), 3, 4(a). Thus, not only does section 549.211 allow attorney fees to be assessed against an attorney, but the basis for awarding fees stated by the district court is, verbatim, one of the statutorily-listed bases for awarding fees under Minn. Stat. § 549.211. We conclude that the district court was not trying to apply the conduct-based fee provisions of Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1. Accordingly, we decline to address whether the requirements for awarding conduct-based fees under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1, are satisfied here. The district court abused its discretion in ordering mother’s attorney to pay father’s attorney fees without following the procedural prerequisites of Minn. Stat. § 549.211.
Mother argues that the district court should have awarded her attorney fees under Minn. Stat. §§ 518.14, 549.211, and Minn. R. Civ. P. 11, because father had no basis for opposing her requests to correct the calculation of support arrears and to obtain written orders regarding parenting time and child support. Because mother did not provide an analysis of the provisions under which she seeks fees, we decline to address her allegations. See State, Dep't of Labor & Indus. v. Wintz Parcel Drivers, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 480, 480 (Minn. 1997) (declining to address issue in absence of adequate briefing); State v. Modern Recycling, Inc., 558 N.W.2d 770, 772 (Minn. App. 1997) (stating assignment of error in brief based on mere assertion is waived unless prejudicial error is obvious on mere inspection) (quotation omitted). We note, however, that (a) mother’s request for conduct-based fees under “Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 3” is defective because Minn. Stat. § 518.14 does not have a subdivision 3; (b) the record in this case would not compel reversal of a denial of a request for conduct-based attorney fees from father sought under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1; and (c) the record does not show that mother satisfied the procedural prerequisites for being awarded fees under either Minn. Stat. § 549.211 or Minn. R Civ. P. 11.
Mother also argues that father should pay her fees and costs for this appeal. Mother filed neither a motion for fees on appeal nor documentation that would support such a motion. Therefore, an award of fees on appeal is currently inappropriate. See Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 139.06, subd. 1 (addressing procedure for seeking fees on appeal); Koes v. Advanced Design, Inc., 636 N.W.2d 352, 363 (Minn. App. 2001) (ruling that failure to file motion seeking attorney fees on appeal means party was “not currently” entitled to attorney fees), review denied (Minn. Feb. 19, 2002).
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.