may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Dean Michael Reedstrom,
Filed August 19, 1997
Reversed and remanded.
Benton County District Court
File No. F694195
D. Patrick McCullough, McCullough, Smith & Wright, P.A., 905 Parkway Drive, St. Paul, MN 55106 (for appellant)
John R. Koch, Reichert, Wenner, Koch & Provinzino, P.A., 501 St. Germain, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Parker, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Short, Judge.
Appellant Kanistha Srichanchao sought to enforce in Minnesota district court a judgment of dissolution issued by a trial court of the state of Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, against respondent Dean Reedstrom.
Appellant first attempted to register her Pohnpei judgment in district court, Benton County, Minnesota. Respondent moved the district court to vacate and set aside the judgment. The district court denied respondent's motion to vacate the judgment and granted appellant's motion to register the Pohnpei judgment. Respondent appealed that order, and this court reversed, holding that
because neither the UEFJA [Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act] nor the UFCMJRA [Uniform Foreign Country Money-Judgments Recognition Act] covered the Pohnpei judgment, * * * the district court erred in ordering judgment 'registered.' Srichanchao must follow the usual procedure of commencing an action in district court on the Pohnpei judgment.
Srichanchao v. Reedstrom, No. C5-95-130, unpub. op. p. 2-3 (Minn. App. June 13, 1995) (Srichanchao I).
Appellant then commenced this action by serving and filing a summons and petition to enforce the Pohnpei judgment. She also moved for an award of attorney fees under Minn. Stat. § 518.14. The parties agreed to submit the matter as a bench trial based on their written submissions, affidavits, and exhibits. The district court refused to recognize or enforce the Pohnpei judgment, denied appellant's motion for attorney fees, and granted respondent's motion to vacate the judgment. Appellant moved for amended findings or a new trial. The district court denied her post-trial motion, and this appeal followed. We reverse the district court's order and direct that the Pohnpei judgment be recognized. We remand for an award of appellant's reasonable attorney fees.
"Comity," in the legal sense, is neither a matter of absolute obligation, on the one hand, nor of mere courtesy and good will, upon the other. But it is the recognition which one nation allows within its territory to the legislative, executive, or judicial acts of another nation, having due regard both to international duty and convenience, and to the rights of its own citizens, or of other persons who are under the protection of its laws.
Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 163, 16 S.Ct. 139, 143 (1895). A foreign country's judgment will be recognized "if reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard were afforded, and other requirements of basic fairness were met." Nicol, 310 Minn. at 79, 256 N.W.2d at 802. The Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 98 (1984) states:
A valid judgment rendered in a foreign nation after a fair trial in a contested proceeding will be recognized in the United States so far as the immediate parties and the underlying cause of action are concerned.
The conditions that must be met before a foreign nation judgment will be recognized are proper jurisdiction of the foreign nation's court and
there has been opportunity for a full and fair trial abroad before a court of competent jurisdiction, conducting the trial upon regular proceedings, after due citation or voluntary appearance of the defendant, and under a system of jurisprudence likely to secure an impartial administration of justice between the citizens of its own country and those of other countries, and there is nothing to show either prejudice in the court, or in the system of laws under which it is sitting, or fraud in procuring the judgment.
Id. at cmt. c (quoting Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 202 (1895), and quoted in Nicol, 310 Minn. at 80, 256 N.W.2d at 802).
The district court denied comity to this foreign judgment
because it was rendered without jurisdiction over the marriage, the law of the forum court was violated in its rendition, it was obtained by extrinsic fraud, it was rendered in a legal system that did not accord to the [respondent] the protections of due process and fundamental fairness and it is the result of a cause of action which, if enforced in Minnesota, achieves a result which is utterly repugnant to Minnesota law.
None of the reasons given by the district court supports its order vacating the Pohnpei judgment.
a. Lack of Jurisdiction
The district court erroneously ruled that the Pohnpei court lacked jurisdiction over the marriage.
Where * * * the jurisdictional facts as to residence were litigated in the court in which the decree of divorce was rendered, the decree cannot be attacked collaterally in another jurisdiction with respect to jurisdictional facts. The jurisdictional fact of domicile in the divorce-granting forum, having been litigated and determined by a judgment of the court, becomes res judicata * * * .
Cummiskey v. Cummiskey, 259 Minn. 427, 430, 107 N.W.2d 864, 867 (1961) (applying full faith and credit clause to another state's decree). Cf. Mattson v. Mattson, 333 N.W.2d 862, 867 (Minn. 1981) (husband not bound by jurisdiction ruling of forum court where he did not appear or litigate the issue). This rule also applies to the juridictional decisions of courts of foreign nations. See Hansen v. American Nat. Bank, 396 N.W.2d 642, 646 (Minn. App. 1986) (holding Canadian court's jurisdictional decision that was not appealed cannot be relitigated).
Reedstrom appeared before the Pohnpei court and contested its jurisdiction, the Pohnpei court ruled against him, and he did not appeal that decision. In addition, Reedstrom did not contest the divorce in his answer, but also requested that the Pohnpei court dissolve the parties' marriage. Under the facts of this case, the district court's ruling that the Pohnpei court lacked jurisdiction over the parties' marriage was error. See Nicol, 310 Minn. at 80-81, 256 N.W.2d at 803 (appropriateness of the foreign forum "ought to be tested not by formal rules on the permissible scope of jurisdiction, but rather by considerations of propriety in light of the facts of the dispute at hand and the relationship of the immediate parties to the foreign forum") (quoting Peterson, Foreign Country Judgments and the Second Restatement of Conflict of Laws, 72 Col.L.Rev. 221, 245).
b. System of jurisprudence likely to secure an impartial administration of justice
The district court denied comity to the Pohnpei judgment because, the court said, it was rendered in a legal system that did not afford the protections of due process and fundamental fairness. There is nothing in the record, however, to support this conclusion. Until 1986, the Federated States of Micronesia were a Trust Territory under the administration of the United States. As a result, the legal system in Micronesia is procedurally very similar to United States jurisdictions and uses modified versions of our Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence.
The record establishes that respondent was personally served with a petition for divorce; he obtained local counsel who had more than 20 years of practice in Micronesia and was regarded as one of the best lawyers in Pohnpei; he participated in the proceedings by answering the petition and also requesting a divorce, filing a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction that was denied, stipulating to temporary spousal support, and seeking and receiving an expedited trial date. Further, he was served with notice of both the original and amended judgments with the right to appeal. The record establishes that the Pohnpei proceedings afforded due process and fundamental fairness.
c. Rendered by court of competent jurisdiction upon regular proceedings
The district court also ruled that the Pohnpei judgment should be vacated because the "law of the forum court was violated in its rendition." This is not a proper reason to deny recognition of the foreign judgment.
A judgment will be recognized and enforced in other states even though an error of fact or of law was made in the proceedings before judgment, except as stated in §105.
Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 106. Section 105 states:
A judgment rendered by a court lacking competence to render it and for that reason subject to collateral attack in the state of rendition will not be recognized or enforced in other states.
Explaining the scope of this defense, comment a explains:
A court may lack competence either because it has not been given power by the state to entertain the particular action or because there has not been compliance with such requirements as are necesssary for the exercise of power by the court. * * * [M]ost errors made by a court do not involve its competence. Errors of the latter sort do not render a judgment void in the state of rendition and at most provide a basis for having the judgment vacated or reversed on appeal.
Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 105, cmt. a. The district court did not base its conclusion on a showing that the Pohnpei court lacked the power to entertain the divorce action or on irregularities in the proceedings. Instead, the district court ruled that the Pohnpei court erroneously applied its own law and the law of Thailand. Even if that aspect of the district court's ruling were correct, any substantive errors made by the Pohnpei court should have been appealed and do not prevent recognition of the judgment. See Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 106. Further, the training or legal competence of a foreign judge is not relevant to this defense. See Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 105. To the extent that the district court relied on findings concerning the foreign judge's legal training and experience to determine the Pohnpei court's competence, those findings could not provide a basis for nonrecognition of the judgment.
d. Extrinsic fraud in procuring the judgment
The district court concluded that the judgment was procured by extrinsic fraud by "collusion between counsel for both parties" and "procured by inducing a party to default through threats of physical violence." The district court's conclusions are based on clearly erroneous factual findings unsupported by the record.
The parties did not present live testimony. Nevertheless, the district court found that the affidavits submitted by appellant's Pohnpei counsel, McCaffrey, were not credible due to a statement in one affidavit that he attributed to respondent. That statement was that a Minnesota court would not give full faith and credit to foreign judgments, and the district court questioned the truth of this statement.
To put it simply, this Court finds it highly unlikely that a dentist would have first hand knowledge of the law concerning the enforceability of foreign judgments in Minnesota. * * * The Court similarly finds the possibility so unlikely as to almost be remote that a dentist would phrase any fax in the way quoted by Mr. McCaffrey. "Full faith and credit" is a term of art used by lawyers and not by all lawyers. If anyone is not relating the facts credibly here, it is Mr. McCaffrey. It is interesting that [appellant] has not produced the fax.
(Emphasis in district court's original memorandum.) In appellant's motion for a new trial, she relied on another affidavit from McCaffrey, which included the challenged fax, to establish that respondent did in fact use the term "full faith and credit" as McCaffrey had alleged. Based on our review of the fax and the rest of the record, the district court's credibility determination was clearly erroneous.
Having discounted the credibility of appellant's Pohnpei counsel, the district court based its findings on respondent's unsupported allegations that were contradicted by the record. The court's finding of collusion between Pohnpei counsel is unsupported. The district court cites as evidence of collusion a comment made by respondent's Pohnpei counsel, Mr. Ramp, that his client had little hope if he raised his jurisdictional issue on appeal.
As two of the then four judges of the Pohnpei Supreme Court had participated in [trial decisions ruling the two-year residency requirement unconstitutional], respondent's counsel * * * then joked that it did not look like he would have much hope on an appeal [referring to this well-settled residency issue].
The context of that comment does not establish collusion but, rather, reveals a very ordinary, superficial remark of a sort frequently heard among lawyers. It does not suggest or imply culpability. The district court also found that respondent's Pohnpei counsel abandoned him, a finding unsupported and contradicted by the record. Respondent discharged his Pohnpei counsel in a letter dated August 24, 1993, the day respondent departed Pohnpei.
The district court's finding that threats on respondent's life justified his departing Pohnpei are also unsupported in the record. Respondent wrote two contemporaneous letters at the time of his departure. The one discharging his counsel, Ramp, dated August 24, 1993, and one to appellant's counsel, McCaffrey, on August 31, 1993. In both, respondent justifies leaving because his reputation was ruined, he was misunderstood, no one believed his allegations against his wife, and he did not think he would get a fair trial. Nowhere in either letter does he state he will not get a fair trial because of threats on his life or collusion by counsel.
The record does not support the district court's findings that the parties' Pohnpei counsel colluded against respondent or that his departure from Pohnpei was justified by threats to his life. Accordingly, the district court's ruling that the Pohnpei judgment was the result of extrinsic fraud is error.
e. Public policy
The district court ruled that the Pohnpei court's property division and maintenance award were against public policy. Nicol recognized this defense against enforcement of foreign nation judgments. See Nicol, 310 Minn. at 78, 256 N.W.2d at 802 n.11 (citing Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 117, cmt. c).
Judgments rendered in foreign nations are not entitled to the protection of full faith and credit. A State of the United States is therefore free to refuse enforcement to such a judgment on the ground that the original claim on which the judgment is based is contrary to its public policy.
Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 117, cmt. c, p. 340.
The Pohnpei court found that the parties' joint assets totaled more than $300,000 and awarded appellant $150,000 of that amount. In support of its property division, that court found:
4. The parties were customarily married in 1986 in Thailand.
5. The marriage was later formalized in a statutory marriage in Minnesota, U.S.A. on December 5, 1990.
* * *
8. The respondent abandoned the [appellant] in Pohnpei * * * without support other than the house he rented.
* * *
10. As inducement to [appellant] to marry him, respondent promised to share his assets with her and gifted her.
11. Respondent promised but never provided [appellant] with a dowry for her economic protection.
* * *
15. [Appellant] is not employed, and is not employable outside the home, and has no net assets.
16. Reasonable spousal support for the [appellant] is in the sum of $800 per month.
The district court's public policy ruling is based on its making findings contrary to those of the Pohnpei court. The district court found that the entire $300,000 amount was respondent's nonmarital property. Further, the district court recognized only the parties' December 1990 marriage and characterized their marriage as short term. These findings by the district court were improper and contrary to the record. See Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws §§ 105, 106 (defense to enforcement cannot be based on errors at trial).
Even if we were to accept that the Pohnpei court was dividing some nonmarital property, we cannot say as a matter of law that its division was against public policy in Minnesota. Minn. Stat. § 518.58, subd. 2 (1996), allows an award of up to one half of a spouse's nonmarital property if a court finds that the other spouse's resources are so inadequate as to work an unfair hardship. The apportionment of nonmarital property shall be based on findings of all relevant factors, including the length of the marriage, the age, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, needs and opportunity for future acquisition of capital assets, and income of each party. Id.
Respondent is a dentist, and his profession has allowed him to acquire significant resources. The Pohnpei court found that
[respondent] brought [appellant] to this distant country from home and deserted her to go back to his home country * * *. [T]he respondent is responsible to return the [appellant] to her home country of Thailand, and give her the necessary means to begin, and to live a new different life.
There was evidence adduced at trial which tend[ed] to establish that in Thailand, once a woman becomes married, her chance to get married again to another man after divorce is nearly none. Much more, a woman who marries a foreigner becomes disadvantaged from marrying one of her own countrymen.
These findings, together with the Pohnpei court's findings that appellant was unemployable and had no resources, could support an award of nonmarital property under Minnesota law. See id.; accord Hanson v. Hanson, 378 N.W.2d 28, 30 (Minn. App. 1985) (affirming award of nonmarital property based on findings of wife's lack of language skills, her financial needs, and the parties' income; "[f]urther, respondent's displacement from her native country is a relevant circumstance to be considered"). Because the Pohnpei court's property division was supported by findings that could support an award of nonmarital property under Minnesota law, and because the distribution was within the limits allowed by Minn. Stat. § 518.58, the Pohnpei judgment's property division does not violate Minnesota public policy.
We also hold that the Pohnpei judgment's maintenance award does not violate Minnesota public policy. Awarding a spouse temporary maintenance of $800 per month for one year when she was abandoned in a foreign country with no job or assets is not against the public policy of Minnesota. See Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 1(a) (1996) (court may award temporary maintenance to spouse who lacks sufficient property or is unable to provide adequate self-support). The district court erroneously analyzed the original judgment of the Pohnpei court, rather than the amended judgment that limited the maintenance award to one year or until appellant remarried, whichever occurred first.
2. The district court abused discretion by refusing to consider McCaffrey's June 5, 1996, affidavit when deciding appellant's motion for amended findings or new trial. The August 31, 1993, fax from respondent referencing full faith and credit was attached to that affidavit. Clearly, the intent of the affidavit and fax was to rehabilitate McCaffrey's credibility and correct the district court's original finding. Refusing to consider additional relevant evidence on a point so crucial to the district court's original decision was an abuse of discretion. See Disch v. Helary, Inc., 382 N.W.2d 916, 919 (Minn. App. 1986) (abuse of discretion to refuse to consider new evidence relevant to truth of testimony when case was entirely dependent on credibility of witnesses), review denied (Minn. Apr. 24, 1986).
3. Finally, we hold that the district court abused discretion by denying appellant's motion for attorney fees. Under Minn. Stat. § 518.14, subd. 1 (1996), attorney fees shall be awarded if a court finds
(1) that the fees are necessary for the good-faith assertion of the party's rights in the proceeding and will not contribute unnecessarily to the length and expense of the proceeding;
(2) that the party from whom fees, costs, and disbursements are sought has the means to pay them; and
(3) that the party to whom fees, costs, and disbursements are awarded does not have the means to pay them.
The district court's original order registering the Pohnpei judgment contained the requisite findings that appellant's attorney fees were necessary, that appellant was unable to pay her fees, and that respondent was able to pay the fees, and awarded appellant attorney fees for that proceeding. Based on those findings, this court affirmed the award of fees in the orginal Benton County registration action. The current action was necessitated by our decision in Srichanchao I. The district court made no additional findings that the parties' financial circumstances had changed. Based on this record and the uncontroverted findings from the first proceeding, the district court's denial of appellant's motion for attorney fees in this action was an abuse of discretion. Richards v. Richards, 472 N.W.2d 162, 166 (Minn. App. 1991) (where record contains findings of spouse's need, but trial court failed to award attorney fees under mandatory provisions of Minn. Stat. § 518.14, remand for award of attorney fees is proper). The district court did find that the amount of fees requested by appellant was unreasonable. We remand this issue for an award to appellant of reasonable attorney fees necessitated by this action.
Reversed and remanded.
[ ]1Respondent argues that Minn. Stat. § 548.35, subd. 4 (1996), determines defenses to the Pohnpei judgment. The grounds for nonrecognition listed in the statute encompass many of the same defenses recognized in Nicol and the Restatement. However, that section specifically excludes matrimonial or family matters from its application. In situations not covered by section 548.35, such as matrimonial or family matters, recognition is governed by case law. See Minn. Stat. § 548.35, subd. 7 (section does not prevent recognition of foreign judgments not covered by act). Nicol and those provisions of the Restatment on which it relies provide the legal framework for determining recognition of foreign country judgments not encompassed by section 548.35.
[ ]2The defenses recognized in the Restatement apply to judgments of foreign countries unless otherwise noted. See Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Topic 4, p. 312.