This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re: Richard L. Frazier, petitioner,
Wendy Jo Frazier, n/k/a Wendy Jo Staberg,
County of Washington,
Washington County District Court
File No. F9863827
Urosh Piletich, 1675 South Greeley Street, Suite 203, Stillwater, MN 55082 (for appellant)
Richard L. Frazier, Box 141, 515 Syme Avenue, Glenwood City, WI 54013 (pro se respondent)
Douglas H. Johnson, Washington County Attorney, Patricia Marty-Villaume, Assistant County Attorney, 14949 Sixty-Second Street North, Stillwater, MN 55082 (for intervenor)
Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Judge, and, Wright, Judge.
On appeal from judgment setting a specific dollar amount of monthly child support and ordering payment of a past support obligation, appellant-mother argues that the district court abused its discretion by retroactively modifying child support. Because the district court resolved this matter equitably, there was no abuse of its discretion and we affirm.
The 1987 judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage awarded appellant-mother sole physical custody of their child. In February 1998, respondent-father moved for a change of custody. At a February 27, 1998, hearing, appellant, who was not represented by counsel, consented to the change of custody and establishment of child support. On March 20, 1998, the district court awarded respondent sole physical custody of the child and ordered that appellant pay “guideline child support as determined by the Washington County Child Support Division” (first child support order). The district court did not, however, make findings regarding appellant’s income. The district court also made the child support obligation retroactive to August 15, 1997. Since the first child support order, appellant has paid no child support.
As a result of intervenor Washington County’s (the county) October 29, 2001, motion to modify support, the child support magistrate (CSM) set appellant’s prospective monthly child support obligation at $269. The CSM also ordered appellant to pay “an additional 20% toward arrearages,” which totaled $10,370 for the period of August 15, 1997, through October 31, 2001. In addition, the CSM “imputed” income to appellant for periods of time she was either voluntarily unemployed or working fewer than 40 hours a week. When appellant challenged the CSM’s decision in district court, the district court affirmed. This appeal followed.
The jurisdiction of the district court in cases involving child support is equitable in origin, and district-court remedies rely on these powers. Holmberg v. Holmberg, 588 N.W.2d 720, 724 (Minn. 1999). A reviewing court examines a district court’s award of equitable relief under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Dakota County HRA v. Blackwell, 602 N.W.2d 243, 244 (Minn. 1999); see also DeLa Rosa v. DeLa Rosa,309 N.W.2d 755, 757 (Minn. 1981) (applying abuse-of-discretion standard to district court’s equitable remedy in dissolution case). This court reviews a district court’s decision affirming the CSM’s order under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Davis v. Davis, 631 N.W.2d 822, 826 (Minn. App. 2001).
Our review of this case is impacted by its atypical procedural history, which distinguishes it from any situation contemplated by the relevant child support statutes and rules. In the first child support order, the district court ordered appellant to pay “guideline support,” but did not determine her net monthly income or set a specific dollar amount. Minn. Stat § 518.551, subd. 5(b) (2000), specifically provides that “the court shall” set child support by multiplying obligor’s net monthly income by varying percentage amounts, depending on income level. (Emphasis added.) See Minn. Stat. § 645.44, subd. 16 (2000) (stating “‘[s]hall’ is mandatory”). Rather than following the mandate of the statute, the district court apparently delegated these responsibilities to the Washington County Child Support Division (WCCSD). The WCCSD did not set appellant’s support obligation at a specific monthly dollar amount or in any other manner. As a result, appellant has paid no support since the first child support order and, quite troubling to us, neither appellant, respondent, nor the county sought to have the obligation enforced in the intervening four years.
The failure of this case to proceed in the fashion contemplated by the child support statute made strict adherence to applicable child support modification procedures impossible. When the county moved to modify support, the CSM appears to have fashioned a resolution that followed the law as closely as possible. Specifically, the CSM (1) recognized that after the first child support order, appellant should have been paying guideline support based on her income; (2) set her “arrears” accordingly; and (3) modified her support obligation so that she must pay a specific monthly dollar amount rather than a percentage of her income, as implied by the first child support order.
By affirming the CSM’s decision, the district court adopted the CSM’s findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order. See Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 377.09, subd. 2(b)(2) (stating that, after independent review of CSM’s ruling, district court may approve decision and order of CSM); cf. Blonigen v. Blonigen, 621 N.W.2d 276, 280 (Minn. App. 2001) (in performing independent review of child support magistrate’s ruling, “findings of the magistrate that are not approved or modified by the district court do not become part of the district court’s decision.”), review denied (Minn. Mar 13, 2001).
From our review of the record, we conclude that the disposition of the case was both appropriate under these unusual circumstances and well within the scope of the inherent equitable powers a district court has when addressing child support matters. The district court fashioned a result similar to those contemplated by analogous child support statutes and caselaw. By ordering that “arrears” be paid, the district court adopted a process similar to that used to calculate the reimbursement a parent owes when a county provides public assistance for that parent’s child. See Minn. Stat. § 256.87, subd. 1 (2000) (stating that parent is liable for public assistance which parent “has had the ability to pay” and that parent’s “[a]bility to pay must be determined according to chapter 518”). The district court approximated the results that would have been reached under the statutes and caselaw used in setting appellant’s past and future support. See Minn. Stat. § 518.551, subd. 5b(d) (2000) (stating support obligation for obligor who is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed “shall be calculated based on a determination of imputed income”) (emphasis added); Murphy v. Murphy, 574 N.W.2d 77, 82 (Minn. App. 1998) (finding obligor voluntarily unemployed or underemployed prerequisite to imputing income). The district court found that appellant had been voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, imputed income, and ordered that she pay support accordingly. Although Minn. Stat. §§ 256.87, subd. 1, and 518.551, subd. 5b(d), do not precisely fit the case at bar, the district court exercised sound discretion when it used procedures similar to those set forth in those provisions.
The district court achieved a fair and equitable result. First, consistent with the record, the district court stated that its decision is in the best interests of the child, which is the purpose of child support. See Tammen v. Tammen, 289 Minn. 28, 30, 182 N.W.2d 840, 842 (1970). The district court’s specific identification of appellant’s arrears, income, and prospective support obligation serves those interests by clarifying appellant’s support obligation. Second, because appellant had notice of her obligation but failed to appeal the first child support order, the decision ultimately results in the fulfillment of that obligation. Although appellant was not represented by counsel in the proceedings producing the first child support order, it is reasonable to charge her with the responsibilities imposed by that order. Cf. Fitzgerald v. Fitzgerald, 629 N.W.2d 115, 119 (Minn. App. 2001) (“[a]lthough some accommodations may be made for pro se litigants, this court has repeatedly emphasized that pro se litigants are generally held to the same standards as attorneys and must comply with court rules”). Most importantly, however, the decision allows the parties’ child to receive the child support to which she is entitled. The district court’s necessarily unconventional resolution of this matter is not an abuse of discretion.