Case Summary: Shirley P. v. Norman P., 329 Conn. 648 (2018)

Officially released August 7, 2018.

In short: If the trial court relies on another judgment exclusively, and the judgment is overturned, the trial court’s decision must be overturned.

Plaintiff Wife brought an action for dissolution after Defendant Husband allegedly sexually assaulted her.  During the pendency of the dissolution action, Defendant Husband was convicted of multiple criminal offenses related to the alleged assault.  Husband appealed the criminal convictions. 

During the pendency of the criminal appeal, the dissolution trial began.  The dissolution trial court rejected Husband’s request for further continuance of the trial, based on the age of the case.  The trial court allowed Wife to present evidence of Husband’s criminal conviction.  Husband was not allowed to present evidence that the conviction was unfair.  The trial court reasoned that it must evaluate the facts as they exist at time of trial.  The trial court further held that the conviction had preclusive effect in the dissolution pursuant to the doctrine of collateral estoppel. 

The trial court concluded, solely upon the basis of evidence of the criminal conviction itself, that Husband was exclusively responsible for the breakdown of the marriage.  The trial court, on that basis alone, entered a property division heavily favoring Wife.  The trial court ordered no alimony, on the basis that Husband would be incarcerated without opportunity for earnings, would need his earnings upon release, and that Wife had not requested alimony.

Husband appealed claiming that, because the conviction was subject to a pending appeal at time of trial, it was not a final judgment and therefore collateral estoppel was improperly applied by the trial court.  The Appellate Court subsequently reversed the judgment of conviction in the criminal case. 

The initial appeal of the dissolution judgment was based on the pendency of the criminal appeal.  However, after criminal conviction was overturned, the issue on appeal became: “whether the property award, which was based on that conviction, must also be reversed.”  The appeal of the dissolution decision was transferred directly to the Supreme Court pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-199(c). 

The Supreme Court concluded that applicability of the doctrine of collateral estoppel was a matter of law and applied de novo review, citing, Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Groton, 262 Conn. 45, 57-58, 808 A.2d 1107 (2002).  The Supreme Court relied on Butler v. Eaton, 141 U.S. 240, 242-44, 11 S. Ct. 985, 35 L. Ed. 713 (1891) for the principal that a judgment should not stand on appeal when based on a previous judgment that has itself been overturned, even where the decision to apply collateral estoppel was appropriate at the time it was applied.

The Supreme Court determined that it was well within its authority to reverse a judgment based on events that were not part of the record on appeal, which had occurred after the judgment that was on appeal was rendered, citing instances of mootness, changes in law and judicial notice of files.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment “with respect to the property division award” and remanded the case “for a new trial with respect to that issue; the judgment is affirmed in all other respects.” It is not clear how the trial court could review the property division award without considering the alimony award or whether it is precluded from revisiting alimony.