This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re Robert S. Lee,
Candace A. Lee,
Filed March 15, 2005
Hennepin County District Court
File No. DC 196 717
Denis E. Grande, Joanne H. Turner, Mackall, Crounse & Moore, PLC, 1400 AT&T Tower, 901 Marquette Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)
M. Sue Wilson, Kelly A. Vargo, Trina R. Chernos, M. Sue Wilson Law Offices, P.A., Two Carlson Parkway, Suite 150, Minneapolis, MN 55447 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.
Candace A. Lee appeals from a district court order adopting a referee’s recommended order denying her motion to interpret a 1999 order so as to entitle her to arrearages for spousal maintenance and for COLA payments. The district court rejected appellant’s claim that the 1999 district court order removed from the parties’ stipulated 1995 judgment, a “step-down” provision that automatically reduced maintenance as her income increased. The district court also denied appellant’s motion for attorney fees as unwarranted, finding that respondent Robert S. Lee answered appellant’s “broad and excessive” discovery requests and that appellant’s objections to those answers were “petty and insignificant.”
Because the district court’s interpretation of the 1999 order was reasonable and supported by the record and because the district court’s denial of attorney fees was well within its discretion, we affirm.
At the time of the parties’ divorce in 1995, respondent was an attorney with gross annual earnings of $180,000. Appellant was a part-time teacher and was working on her master’s degree; her gross annual income was $12,500.
Under the terms of the stipulated judgment, the parties agreed that appellant would receive permanent spousal maintenance of $3,000 per month for a period of two years, while she was working part-time and pursuing her master’s degree. The parties further agreed that the level of spousal maintenance would be reduced by $50 per month for every $1,000 of income earned by appellant in excess of $12,500 per year commencing January 1, 1997. The parties agreed to this step-down provision in order to “avoid periodic litigation related to the level of spousal maintenance to be paid by [respondent] to [appellant] upon [appellant] attaining full-time employment[.]”
In January 1999, respondent moved to reduce his maintenance obligation, claiming that his income had decreased from $180,000 to $83,000. Appellant opposed the motion and requested judgment on arrearages in the amount of $2,451.
On May 19, 1999, the district court issued an order finding that there had been a substantial change in circumstances and reducing maintenance to $1,000 per month. The court also ordered “as additional spousal maintenance” that respondent “shall equally divide any end of the year compensation with [appellant].”
Both parties sought clarification of the May 1999 order. Appellant sought a declaration that all compensation in excess of $80,000 per year be divided, regardless of when paid. Respondent sought to have the order clarified to require him to pay only so much of his excess income above $83,000 as would equal the original maximum of $36,000 per year allowed under the parties’ original decree. Respondent proposed amended findings including language that would have explicitly stated that the total amount to be paid by him would continue to be adjusted by the step-down formula.
In August 1999, the district court issued another order that did not specifically adopt the language proposed by either party. Instead, the district court’s order states:
3. The Judgment and Decree in this matter provided that [respondent] pay [appellant] $3,000 per month based on his income of $180,000 per year and [appellant] planning to return to full-time employment. The parties negotiated a formula for reducing spousal maintenance based on [appellant’s] income. At the time [respondent] brought his motion, he was paying spousal maintenance of $2,700 per month.
4. It was the Court’s intent to enable the parties to return to the $2,700 per month spousal maintenance when [respondent] was able to pay it. Based on [respondent’s] arguments to the Court, it did not appear likely that he would ever earn $180,000 per year again.
5. It would be appropriate to amend the Court’s Finding #9 of May 19, 1999 to read:
“9. [Respondent] should pay to [appellant] one-half his income in excess of $80,000 each year up to $15,000 (so that [appellant’s] total spousal maintenance from [respondent] would cap at $2,700 per month).”
6. Paragraph 2 of the Court’s order of May 19, 1999 should be amended to read:
“2. [Respondent] shall pay to [appellant] one-half of his income in excess of $80,000 per year up to $15,000 (so that [appellant’s] total spousal maintenance from [respondent] is $2,700 per month).”
Neither party appealed this August 1999 order, which amended the earlier May 1999 order.
Following these 1999 orders, respondent began to pay appellant $1,000 per month and one-half of his additional year-end compensation, up to the cap (which respondent assumed was $20,400, not the $15,000 as stated in the August 1999 order), adjusted by the step-down formula contained in the original decree. For the years 1999, 2000, and 2001, respondent provided appellant with computations of his maintenance payments, which took into account not only respondent’s income but also appellant’s. These payments were made with little or no objection from appellant.
In August 2003, appellant filed the current motion seeking arrearages, attorney fees, and other relief. She claimed that the August 1999 order “completely modified” respondent’s spousal maintenance obligation by rescinding the step-down provision and requiring him to pay $1,000 per month plus equally divide any end of the year compensation with her, up to a cap of $15,000. Respondent opposed appellant’s motion and her interpretation of the 1999 order.
In an order issued February 5, 2004, the referee rejected appellant’s argument that the 1999 order rescinded or vacated the step-down provision in the original 1995 judgment and decree. On review, the district court adopted the referee’s order, finding that it was “thorough, well-reasoned, and correct in all respects.”
Standard of Review
A district court’s interpretation or construction of its own decree or prior order is given great weight. Mikoda v. Mikoda, 413 N.W.2d 238, 242 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Dec. 22, 1987). “Interpretation of a divorce decree [or prior order] that is ambiguous or uncertain on its face and, because of its language, is of doubtful meaning or open to diverse constructions, may be clarified by the tribunal that ordered it” or by a successor judge. Id. at 241; see also Stieler v. Stieler, 244 Minn. 312, 319, 70 N.W.2d 127, 131 (1955). A district court’s interpretation of a prior judgment or order will be upheld if it is “entirely reasonable and supported by the evidence.” Halverson v. Halverson, 381 N.W.2d 69, 72 (Minn. App. 1986).
Appellant asserts that the 1999 order eliminated the step-down provision contained in the parties’ original 1995 stipulated judgment and decree. All of her other arguments are dependent upon our acceptance of her position that the step-down provision was rescinded or eliminated in 1999.
Appellant first argues that when the parties entered into their original stipulation, they waived their right to request a modification under Minn. Stat. § 518.64 (2002). Appellant insists that by requesting a modification in 1999, respondent breached the parties’ agreement and caused the entire maintenance provision to be thrown out; she claims that because he got out of the bargain, she is entitled to get out too. Appellant’s position is disingenuous and without legal support.
The parties’ stipulation cannot be construed as a waiver of the right to request a modification of maintenance. The stipulation does not specifically divest the district court of jurisdiction. See Loo v. Loo, 520 N.W.2d 740, 745 (Minn. 1994) (stating that courts cannot assume waiver of right to modify maintenance absent express statement divesting court of jurisdiction). Nothing in the parties’ stipulated decree limited their ability to request modification. See Claybaugh v. Claybaugh, 312 N.W.2d 447, 449 (Minn. 1981) (stating that district court retains authority to determine whether changed circumstances warrant modification or revision of stipulated maintenance provision). Thus respondent’s request in 1999 to reduce his maintenance obligation due to his decreased income cannot be considered a breach or revocation of the parties’ stipulation regarding maintenance.
Appellant next argues that because respondent’s proposed findings explicitly mentioned the step-down provision, the district court’s failure to adopt those proposed findings indicates its intent to eliminate the step-down provision. We disagree. The only issues before the district court in 1999 involved respondent’s income and ability to pay. Appellant’s income and the step-down provision were never issues, and neither party moved to vacate, amend, delete, or eliminate the step-down provision. While respondent’s proposed findings mentioned the step-down provision, the district court’s adoption of its own language and failure to mention the step-down provision cannot be construed as intent to eliminate the provision. There was no reason for the district court to specifically mention the step-down provision in its amended findings: the step-down provision was not tied to respondent’s income and ability to pay, which was the sole issue before the court in 1999. The district court’s failure to mention the step-down provision in 1999 cannot be construed as intent by the court to eliminate that provision.
Finally, appellant argues that interpreting the 1999 order to retain the step-down provision gives respondent an unfair advantage. Again, we disagree. While respondent was given some relief in 1999 when his income had decreased, his income now appears to have risen to its 1995 level. The district court’s interpretation of the 1999 order closely follows the intent of the parties’ original stipulation, by basing the amount of maintenance not only on respondent’s income, but also on appellant’s ability to provide for her own support by reducing the amount of maintenance based on her increased income.
Because the district court’s construction of the 1999 order is entirely reasonable and supported by the evidence, we affirm its determination that the step-down provision remained in effect and was not eliminated. Respondent therefore properly calculated his maintenance payments and applied the COLA. The district court’s decision denying appellant’s motion for over $68,000 in arrearages is affirmed, as is the court’s finding that respondent did not underpay the COLA.
Appellant argues that the district court abused its discretion in denying her request for attorney fees under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1 (2002). The decision to award attorney fees is discretionary with the district court. Geske v. Marcolina, 624 N.W.2d 813, 818 (Minn. App. 2001).
Appellant argues that she should receive need-based fees because she is a teacher, while respondent is an attorney earning more than $200,000 per year. But the record shows that appellant’s current income from teaching is more than $52,000 per year. Absent some additional showing of need on her part, we cannot conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying appellant’s request for need-based attorney fees.
Appellant further argues that she is entitled to conduct-based fees because respondent unreasonably contributed to the length and expense of the proceedings by failing to promptly and completely respond to her requests for discovery. She claims that when respondent was not forthcoming in providing his 2003 income information, she was forced to subpoena his employer, which generated more fees and costs to her. But the district court and referee rejected appellant’s claim as follows:
[Respondent] answered [appellant’s] broad and excessive discovery on October 3, 2003. His answers and documents were complete. They even contained the Quicken computer disk so that [appellant’s] attorneys could review, assemble and dissect each and every category of income and expense. Subsequent letters of [appellant’s] attorney contained petty and insignificant objections to [respondent’s] answers. Attorney fees are not warranted in this case.
The district court’s decision to deny conduct-based fees was reasonable and supported by the record.
 Respondent assumed that the $15,000 figure represented a mathematical error on the part of the district court, because $15,000 plus $12,000 (which represents the $1,000 monthly maintenance paid under the 1999 orders) equals only $27,000, or $2,700 per month for only 10 months rather than 12. Thus, respondent assumed that the court intended to cap additional spousal maintenance at $20,400 (or $2,700 per month for 12 months), rather than $15,000. His maintenance payments have been made under this assumption.