ERIC P. SOUSA v. DONNA M. SOUSA, SC 19504

Judicial District of Waterbury

 

      Dissolution of Marriage; Whether Appellate Court Properly Concluded that Doctrine of Finality of Judgments Inapplicable and that Trial Court Lacked  Jurisdiction to Modify Property Orders in Dissolution Judgment. The separation agreement incorporated into the judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage provided that the defendant was to receive alimony for five years subject to termination upon her cohabitation.  The defendant also was to receive one half of the plaintiff's pension benefits.  Two years after the divorce, the defendant began cohabitating, and the parties agreed to modify the separation agreement such that the defendant would continue to receive alimony for the full five year period in exchange for her relinquishing her right to the plaintiff’s pension benefits.  At the end of the alimony period, the parties stipulated to the terms of the modification, and the trial court entered the stipulation as a court order in 2007.  In 2011, the defendant moved to vacate the 2007 order, claiming that the trial court had lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify the order in the dissolution judgment dividing the pension benefits.   The trial court denied the motion to vacate, and the defendant appealed.  The Appellate Court (157 Conn. App. 587) reversed, concluding that the motion to vacate should have been granted.  The court explained that a trial court lacks continuing jurisdiction under General Statutes §§ 46b-81 and 46b-86 (a) to modify a property order in a dissolution judgment unless a party files a motion to open the judgment within four months pursuant to General Statutes § 52-212a or on the basis of fraud.  Since no such motion was filed here, the Appellate Court concluded that the trial court had acted outside of its jurisdictional authority in modifying the property order in the dissolution judgment.  The court determined that the trial court had improperly relied on § 52-212a in finding that the parties, by submitting the stipulation, had acquiesced in the court's exercise of jurisdiction.  The court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that the doctrine of finality of judgments precluded the defendant's subject matter jurisdictional claim.   Under that doctrine, the policy favoring the finality of judgments may trump the rule that issues of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time.  The court explained that, at least where the lack of jurisdiction is not entirely obvious, the critical considerations in conducting a finality of judgments analysis are whether the complaining party had the opportunity to litigate the question of jurisdiction in the original action, and, if so, whether there are strong policy reasons for giving him a second opportunity to do so.  The Appellate Court determined that the doctrine of finality of judgments was not applicable here because it was entirely obvious that § 46b-86 (a) unequivocally deprives a court of subject matter jurisdiction to enter postdissolution orders modifying property distributions provisions in the dissolution judgment.  The plaintiff appeals, and the Supreme Court will now decide whether the Appellate Court properly concluded that the doctrine of finality of judgments was not applicable and that the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction.