This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).






In re the Marriage of: Colleen Mary Mahoney, petitioner,


Michael John Mahoney,


Filed September 9, 2003

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Minge, Judge


Martin County District Court

File No. F798501


Michael P. Kircher, Margaret K. Johnson, Sunde, Olson, Kircher and Zender, 108 Armstrong Boulevard South, P.O. Box 506, St. James, MN 56081 (for appellant)


John T. Burns, Jr., Burns Law Office, 115 Midway Bank Building, 14300 Nicollet Court, Burnsville, MN 55306 (for respondent)


            Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


MINGE, Judge


            Appellant wife challenges the district court’s post-dissolution order granting respondent husband all the proceeds of her class-action suit, including reimbursement for deductions from her Social Security benefits to cover Medicare premiums.   Because the Social Security benefits were reserved to the appellant in the marriage dissolution judgment, we reverse that portion of the district court order.  Because the judgment provided that all proceeds of the class-action settlement were to go to respondent husband, we otherwise affirm the district court order.



            The parties, appellant Colleen Mary Mahoney and respondent Michael John Mahoney, were married in 1988.  Their marriage was dissolved in 1999.  The parties entered into a stipulated settlement that was provided to the court and incorporated in the judgment.  As a result of this agreement, the judgment awarded respondent the following asset:

Insurance Overpayment.  The respondent shall be awarded all of the parties’ interest, if any, in the net value of the insurance overpayment attributable to the class action litigation.  The parties acknowledge that the approximate net value of the insurance overpayment is in the sum of $9,000.


As a result of another part of the stipulated agreement, the judgment awarded appellant the following assets:

Social Security-Worker’s Compensation.  The petitioner [appellant] shall be awarded any and all benefits she is entitled to receive pursuant to any social security or worker’s compensation claim which is attributable to her free and clear of any claim by respondent.


            Ultimately, the settlement terms in the class-action suit were more generous than the parties anticipated.  The defendant of that suit, which was the former employer, agreed to reimburse appellant and others similarly situated for Medicare premiums that the employees had paid.  In appellant’s case, these premiums had been deducted by the federal government from her Social Security benefits.  The other reason the ultimate settlement was more generous was that the employer paid an additional sum to cover the attorney fees enabling claimants to recover their total loss.  As a result, appellant’s total settlement benefit was $18,805.50: $14,856.30 for insurance premiums, $3,919.20 for Medicare/Social Security, and $30 for appellant’s prior contribution to the class-action suit.  Appellant forwarded $9,000 (the settlement amount anticipated in the judgment and in the stipulated agreement) to respondent and kept the remaining proceeds.

            Respondent brought a motion before the district court contending that the judgment required the total award proceeds be paid to him.  The district court agreed and ordered appellant to pay respondent the entire $18,805.50.  This appeal followed. 



            The fundamental issue is whether the district court erred by awarding all of the proceeds from a class-action suit to respondent when part of the proceeds was attributable to a refund of Medicare premiums that were withheld from appellant’s Social Security benefits, and when the total proceeds in that class-action suit were more than twice as much as the parties had anticipated.  The controversy between the parties raises issues as to the terms of the stipulated settlement between the parties as reflected in the dissolution judgment and the requested reopening of that judgment to correct what is claimed to be an inequitable result.

In this case, the parties agreed to a stipulated settlement of their assets prior to the dissolution of their marriage.  When there is a stipulated judgment, it is not proper for a court to interpret that judgment unless there is an ambiguity in the judgment.  Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562-63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977).  Terms in a document are not ambiguous unless they are reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning.  Landwehr v. Landwehr, 380 N.W.2d 136, 138 (Minn. App. 1985).  The determination of whether an ambiguity exists is a legal question and is subject to de novo review.  Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1986).  But the meaning of an ambiguous provision is a factual question.  Emerick on Behalf of Howley v. Sanchez, 547 N.W.2d 109, 112 (Minn. App. 1996).  Generally, this court reviews a district court’s findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.  Accordingly, when a dissolution judgment is ambiguous or uncertain on its face, the issuing court may clarify it, and this court will give that clarification great weight.  Mikoda v. Mikoda, 413 N.W.2d 238, 241-42 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Dec. 22, 1987).  Furthermore, the district court’s decision refusing to reopen a judgment “will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion.”  Kornberg v. Kornberg, 542 N.W.2d 379, 386 (Minn. 1996) (citations omitted).


            The first part of this controversy is the refund of $3,919.20 of Medicare premiums that had been withheld from appellant’s Social Security benefits.  The district court was presented with appellant’s claim that she was entitled to this amount.  Although the court did not expressly rule on this question, it implied that these funds, like all other monies received in the class-action settlement, went to respondent. 

Appellant first argues that in a dissolution proceeding, government-program benefits and compensation received by a spouse belong to the spouse who has received or is to receive them.  This is not entirely correct.  Compensation for injuries to good health is personal to the injured spouse and is considered a non-marital asset in a dissolution proceeding, but compensation for lost wages and earning potential is considered marital property and subject to division.  Gerlich v. Gerlich, 379 N.W.2d 689, 691 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn.   Mar. 21, 1986); Van de Lo v. Van de Lo, 346 N.W.2d 173, 176 (Minn. App. 1984).  Since appellant claims that the money being received with respect to the Medicare premium was deducted from Social Security disability payments, and since those payments are commonly recognized as periodic-income payments as opposed to payments to compensate for an injury, we conclude appellant is not entitled to override any contrary provision of a judgment and obtain that portion of the class-action settlement as a matter of law. 

            Appellant next argues that the provision of the judgment previously set forth entitles her to all Social Security benefits.  Appellant reasons that since the Medicare premiums were deducted by the government from her Social Security checks, the reimbursement is actually just delayed receipt of the balance of those checks.  Thus, appellant claims that she is attempting to obtain her full Social Security disability checks.  Respondent claims that the judgment provision giving him the class-action proceeds prevails with respect to all money recovered.  Thus, the question becomes whether the provision with respect to the Social Security benefits is ambiguous as it applies to that Medicare/Social Security portion of the class-action recovery.  This is a question of law.  Resolving such an ambiguity is a question of fact. 

            In deciding this question, three considerations stand out.  The first is the terms of the two paragraphs in question.  The Social Security benefit provision is more specific than the insurance provision.  In construing documents, a more specific provision will override a provision of a more general nature.  Weiss v. City of St. Paul, 211 Minn. 170, 174, 300 N.W. 795, 797 (1941).  More importantly, the last phrase of the paragraph in the judgment dealing with Social Security contains an override clause: “free and clear of any claim by the respondent.”  Thus, on its face, the Social Security provision in the dissolution judgment overrides the insurance-overpayment provision and governs the disposition of this benefit in the class action. 

We also note that there is a substantial difference between the insurance-premium overpayment contemplated in the class-action litigation and the Medicare/Social Security recovery that constitutes part of the additional funds.  The class-action documents are replete with references to health, dental, and life insurance where the employer was to pay premiums.  The Medicare/Social Security reimbursement is something that arises in the context of a government program.  The insurance-overpayment reference in the dissolution judgment appears to be an employer-generated benefit.  Finally, it appears that this Medicare premium reimbursement for the deduction from the Social Security disability payments was not anticipated by either appellant or respondent.  These considerations support the finding that the judgment is not ambiguous and that the Medicare/Social Security disability offset of $3,919.20 should be retained by appellant.


            Appellant also argues that the class-action recovery was so large as to constitute an unanticipated windfall and that the district court should have granted relief pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 518.145, subd. 2(5) (2002).  As stated previously, this court will not reverse a district court decision regarding reopening a judgment absent an abuse of discretion.  Kornberg, 542 N.W.2d at 386.  A mere change in circumstances will not support a modification of a property division.  Graff v. Graff, 472 N.W.2d 882, 883-84 (Minn. App. 1991), review denied (Minn. Sept. 13, 1991).  Unforeseen circumstances similarly do not permit reopening a judgment.  Hestekin v. Hestekin, 587 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Minn. App. 1998). 

            The statutory basis for appellant’s claim provides as follows:

            Subd. 2.  Reopening.  On motion and upon terms as are just, the court may relieve a party from a judgment and decree, order, or proceeding under this chapter, except for provisions dissolving the bonds of marriage, annulling the marriage, or directing that the parties are legally separated, and may order a new trial or grant other relief as may be just for the following reasons:


            . . . .


            (5)  . . . it is no longer equitable that the judgment and decree or order should have prospective application.


Minn. Stat. § 518.145, subd. 2(5).  This court applied clause (5) in Harding v. Harding, 620 N.W.2d 920 (Minn. App. 2001), where there was an unexpected, shared business tax liability of approximately $170,000.  In that case, the appellant’s 50% share of liability reduced the value of a $224,000 award for her interest in that business by at least 40%.  In finding that the district court erred in not reopening the dissolution judgment, this court said:

Clause (5) is not a catchall provision.  But due caution in its application nevertheless leaves us with the conviction that the rule must be employed when injustice in the prospective application of a divorce decree is due to the development of circumstances substantially altering the information on a topic that was accepted earlier, when the subject was addressed in a marital-termination agreement and in an ensuing judgment.


Id. at 924. 

In this case, the judgment provides that the class-action proceeds are to go to the respondent and indicates that the amount anticipated is $9,000.  In fact, the amount received was $18,805.50.  Subtracting the previously addressed amount of Medicare/Social Security reimbursement ($3,919.20), the balance of the increase ($5,886.30) represents the attorney fees that were paid by defendant in the class-action matter that the parties were not required to pay from their proceeds.  Appellant emphasizes that the parties had equally divided their marital assets such that respondent was to receive $24,500 and appellant was to receive $25,000.  This change in the proceeds, due to the change in the class-action recovery, increased the value of assets going to respondent by 24%.  However, we note that as a result of the Medicare/Social Security recovery received by appellant, the value of her assets is increasing by 16%.  Thus, the size and proportionality of the disparity is more modest.  We also note that the paragraph awarding respondent the insurance overpayment uses the phrase “if any.”  Thus, the parties recognized in their stipulation and the court recognized in the judgment dissolving the marriage that respondent may have received nothing at all or 100% less from this class-action litigation.  Had that worst-case scenario actually occurred, respondent would have received 37% less in total distribution than was anticipated in the original stipulation. 

The question is whether under these circumstances the additional payment to respondent is so inequitable as to require a reopening of the judgment.  We conclude that under the circumstances it is not.  In absolute terms, the difference in the dollar amount, in terms of the impact on the percentages, and in the context of the range of results, does not appear to be an injustice of the magnitude described in Harding v. Harding.  To reverse the district court in this proceeding, we would not only need to find an injustice of a dimension adequate to reopen the judgment four years after the judgment was final, but we would also need to determine that the district court’s decision represented an abuse of discretion.  We conclude that Minn. Stat. § 518.145, subd. 2(5) does not give this court a license to make that determination on this record.  We do not express an opinion as to whether the district court would have been justified in relying on Minn. Stat. § 518.145, subd. 2(5) to reach the opposite decision.

In sum, we have concluded that the $3,919.20 Medicare/Social Security amount is payable to appellant by terms of the judgment in the marriage dissolution and we reverse the district court in this respect.  We further affirm the district court that the respondent is entitled to the $5,886.30.  Finally, we note that the parties have referenced a $30 fee refunded in the class-action distribution.  Since the record is silent on whether this $30 was paid from marital assets before the parties separated or was paid by appellant separately, we have no basis for reviewing the district court’s decision and do not disturb its determination that, as part of the class-action recovery, this goes to respondent.  We remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.