This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re the Marriage of:
Kory Lee Tuominen, petitioner,
Michelle Janine Johnston,
Filed December 31, 2007
Reversed and remanded
Toussaint, Chief Judge
Olmsted County District Court
File No. F0-03-4008
Jill I. Frieders, O’Brien & Wolf, L.L.P., 206 South Broadway, Suite 611, Post Office Box 968, Rochester, MN 55903-0968 (for appellant)
Jonathan J. Fogel, Fogel Law Offices, P.A., 5402 Parkdale Drive, Suite 203, Minneapolis, MN 55416 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge; Toussaint, Chief Judge; and Harten, Judge.*
Appellant Kory Lee Tuominen challenges the district court’s supplemental dissolution judgment, arguing that the district court erroneously modified the parties’ fully executed written supplemental marital termination agreement by adopting respondent Michelle Janine Johnston’s version of the proposed supplemental judgment. Because the district court erred by not providing any reason or explanation for adopting respondent’s version of the proposed judgment and not holding an additional hearing to resolve the disputed language, we reverse and remand.
The parties’ marriage was dissolved pursuant to a partial stipulated judgment entered on November 3, 2004. On June 5 and 6, 2006, the district court held a supplemental dissolution proceeding to address matters not resolved in the 2004 judgment and heard testimony related to custody, child support, childcare, medical insurance, uncovered medical and dental expenses, and tax exemptions. During the trial, the parties executed a written supplemental marital termination agreement, stipulating that they would share joint legal custody of their four children, that appellant would retain physical custody, and that respondent would have reasonable and liberal parenting time as outlined in the agreement. The parties established a detailed parenting-time schedule and agreed to the definitions of custody set forth in Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3 (2004).
Under the statute, “legal custody” is defined as “the right to determine the child’s upbringing, including education, health care, and religious training.” Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(a). “Joint legal custody” means that “both parents have equal rights and responsibilities, including the right to participate in major decisions determining the child’s upbringing, including education, health care, and religious training.” Minn. Stat. § 518.003, subd. 3(b). “Appendix A” of the parties’ stipulation sets forth the legislatively required custody-related language regarding deprivation of custodial or parental rights, rules of support, maintenance, parenting time, parental rights, parental expediter process and parenting time remedies and penalties.
Neither party challenges the validity of the stipulation. Stipulations are a judicially-favored means of simplifying and expediting dissolution litigation and are accorded the sanctity of binding contracts. Shirk v. Shirk, 561 N.W.2d 519, 521 (Minn. 1997). The district court is a third party to dissolution proceedings and has the authority to refuse to accept the terms of a stipulation “in part or in toto.” Toughill v. Toughill, 609 N.W.2d 634, 638 n.1 (Minn. App. 2000) (quoting Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d 501, 503 (Minn. 1989)). Although the district court is not bound by a stipulation merely because the parties entered into it and may reject all or part of a stipulation, “it cannot, by judicial fiat, impose conditions on the parties to which they did not stipulate and thereby deprive the parties of their ‘day in court.’” Id. at 638-39 n.1.
Appellant’s counsel was charged with preparing a proposed supplemental judgment based on the parties’ written supplemental marital termination agreement. Appellant’s counsel then forwarded the proposed supplemental judgment to respondent’s counsel for approval. Respondent’s counsel, however, requested several changes to the proposed supplemental judgment. Thereafter, the parties indicated to the district court that they did not agree on the terms of the proposed supplemental judgment, and each party sent the district court its own version of the document. Cf. Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 307(b) (addressing proposed judgments based on oral stipulations).
Counsel for both parties communicated with the district court only by letter, and with the exception of appellant’s filing of a notice to remove the district court judge on November 2, 2006, neither party made any motions to the district court. This court has previously noted the “difficulties and risks inherent in seeking relief from a district court by letter, including but not limited to, the problem of preserving a complete record of such letter-based proceedings for appellate review.” Clark v. Clark, 642 N.W.2d 459, 464 n.2 (Minn. App. 2002); see also Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 110.01 (stating that record on appeal is papers filed in trial court) (emphasis added). “Such risks and problems make it clear that the better procedure is to serve and file a notice of motion and motion, along with any necessary supporting memorandum, affidavit(s), and other documents, moving the district court not to enter judgment on the proposed judgment.” Clark, 642 N.W.2d at 464-65 n.2.
The district court subsequently adopted respondent’s proposed supplemental judgment, which included an expanded definition of joint legal custody and required appellant to pay all fees for the children’s extracurricular activities; terms that were not included in the parties’ written supplemental marital termination agreement. The district court stated that its supplemental judgment incorporated the parties’ signed and fully executed supplemental marital termination agreement and did not explicitly reject any part of the parties’ written agreement. Because respondent’s proposed supplemental judgment differed from the parties’ written supplemental marital termination agreement in at least two respects, the district court’s supplemental judgment is internally inconsistent.
Moreover, the district court did not explain or justify its reasons for adopting respondent’s proposed supplemental judgment, nor did it reconcile the discrepancies between respondent’s proposed supplemental judgment and the parties’ written supplemental marital termination agreement. We recognize that the district court’s modifications may be consistent with the parties’ intent to share joint legal custody of their children, and therefore the changes may not amount to a material modification. But because the parties clearly indicated to the district court their disagreement regarding the language of the supplemental judgment, the better practice would have been to hold a hearing and resolve any ambiguity or disagreement before issuing a supplemental judgment. Therefore, because we are unable to discern whether the district court’s actions amounted to improper modification of the parties’ written agreement, we reverse and remand for additional proceedings.
We note that disagreement between the parties as to the interpretation of a dissolution decree may be tantamount to a finding of ambiguity. See, e.g., Webb v. Webb, 360 N.W.2d 647, 648 (Minn. App. 1985). Therefore, on remand, the district court should also address whether the parties’ agreement was ambiguous. See Starr v. Starr, 312 Minn. 561, 562-63, 251 N.W.2d 341, 342 (1977) (remarking that court cannot construe plain and unambiguous stipulation language); Anderson v. Archer, 510 N.W.2d 1, 3 (Minn. App. 1993) (stating that whether stipulated provision is ambiguous is legal question).
The district court also failed to make any findings or provide explanation for including the extracurricular activity provision in the supplemental judgment. See Stich v. Stich, 435 N.W.2d 52, 53 (Minn. 1989) (stating that district court’s findings must be sufficient to allow for effective appellate review). On remand, the district court must make findings regarding whether the parties agreed to this provision. We leave it to the district court’s discretion to determine the necessity of conducting an additional evidentiary hearing in order to make adequate findings.
Appellant suggests that the reason the district court modified the parties’ agreement was because it believed that appellant’s version of the proposed supplemental judgment was not in the best interests of the children. Appellant argues that if this is the case, the district court was required to follow the procedure outlined by Minn. Stat. § 518.13, subd. 5 (2004), which calls for the court to “schedule the matter for hearing” when “the proposed judgment and decree does not appear to be in the best interests of the minor children or is contrary to the interests of justice.” Appellant contends that there is no evidence that the parties’ stipulation is not in the children’s best interests or contrary to the interests of justice. A special term panel of this court deferred to the panel considering the merits of the appeal to determine whether appellant properly preserved the issue of an evidentiary hearing.
Because the question of an additional evidentiary hearing will be resolved by the district court on remand, we make no judgment on the matter. Again, we leave to the discretion of the district court whether or not to reopen the record and conduct any necessary evidentiary hearing.
Reversed and remanded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.