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Samiec v. Hopkins

Supreme Court of Wyoming

September 25, 2015

ZYGMUNT JOHN SAMIEC, Appellant (Plaintiff),
v.
SUSAN KAY HOPKINS, f/k/a SUSAN KAY SAMIEC, Appellee (Defendant)

Page 507

Appeal from the District Court of Sweetwater County. The Honorable Nena James, Judge.

Representing Appellant: Jon Aimone of Lemich Law Center, Rock Springs, WY.

Representing Appellee: Eric F. Phillips of Eric F. Phillips Law Office, Rock Springs, WY.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL,[*] KITE, DAVIS, and FOX, JJ.

OPINION

Page 508

HILL, Justice.

[¶1] In this post-divorce dispute, Zygmunt Samiec (Father) appeals a district court order requiring him to pay 75% of his daughter's residential treatment costs. Father contends that the district court erred in failing to recognize either a written or an implied agreement between Father and his former wife, Susan Hopkins f/k/a Samiec (Mother), to split the residential treatment costs equally. Alternatively, Father argues that the district court should have applied the doctrine of promissory estoppel to find a binding agreement between Mother and Father to share equally in the costs of their daughter's residential treatment. We affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Father states the issues on appeal as:

a. Did the Parties have a binding agreement to each pay 50% of New Haven's costs?
b. Does the doctrine of promissory estoppel create a binding agreement between the parties?

FACTS

[¶3] Father and Mother were divorced in December 2009. The parties' decree of divorce incorporated a stipulated agreement specifying that Mother would have primary custody of the parties' two daughters and

Page 509

Father would have visitation. The stipulated agreement further provided:

7. ... [Father] and [Mother] further agree [to] equally share the current outstanding and future costs and fees for the minor children's extracurricular activities, school activities and counseling costs. * * *
* * * *
10. * * * [Father] currently carries medical insurance for the minor children. All costs of medical, dental optometric [sic], or orthodontic care not covered by such insurance for the children shall be split between the parties with [Father] paying 75% and [Mother] paying 25% of such uncovered costs.

[¶4] In 2010, one of the parties' daughters (Daughter) was placed at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute (WBI) after threatening suicide. Soon thereafter, Father filed a petition to modify the divorce decree, seeking custody of the parties' two children. The parties resolved their custody dispute, but they were unable to agree on how to divide the costs of Daughter's stay at WBI, and they asked the district court to determine whether residential treatment should be treated as a counseling cost, which pursuant to the divorce agreement would be subject to a 50/50 split between Father and Mother, or as a medical expense, which pursuant to the divorce agreement would require Father to pay 75% of any uncovered expense.

[¶5] When Daughter completed her six-week stay at WBI in 2010, the question of how residential treatment costs should be treated under the divorce agreement was still pending before the district court. After leaving WBI, Daughter continued to experience difficulties, and Mother and Father eventually agreed to place Daughter in another residential program, the New Haven Residential Treatment Center in Saratoga Springs, Utah. Daughter's stay at New Haven began on April 12, 2011, which was again while the question of how residential treatment costs should be categorized under the divorce agreement was still pending before the district court. Daughter ultimately remained at New Haven until the end of August 2012, and the total cost of her approximately sixteen-month stay at New Haven was $212,449.00.

[¶6] On April 4, 2012, roughly a year into Daughter's sixteen-month stay at New Haven, the district court ruled that residential treatment is a medical expense subject to the 75/25 cost sharing provision. Father appealed that ruling, and on August 28, 2013, this Court issued its decision affirming the district court's decision. See Samiec v. Fermelia, 2013 WY 101, ¶ 1, 308 P.3d 844, 845 (Wyo. 2013). The question of whether residential treatment should be considered a counseling cost or a medical expense was therefore unanswered before Daughter's admission to New Haven and remained a pending question throughout her entire sixteen-month stay.

[¶7] When Daughter was admitted to New Haven, Mother and Father signed enrollment and tuition agreements with New Haven, which specified that Mother and Father were both jointly and severally liable for the fee obligations under the agreements. Pursuant to those agreements, Mother and Father were each billed 50% of Daughter's tuition on a monthly basis. This meant that by the end of Daughter's stay, Mother and Father had each paid $106,224.50 of Daughter's tuition fees.

[¶8] On January 31, 2014, Mother filed a motion seeking an order to show cause why Father should not be held in contempt for failing to reimburse Mother $53,112.25 for half of the costs she paid to New Haven. Mother contended that based on the district court's ruling that residential treatment costs were medical expenses governed by paragraph 10 of the parties' divorce agreement, which ruling was affirmed by this Court, Father was required to pay 75% of the New Haven costs. Mother argued she was therefore entitled to reimbursement of the amounts she had paid in excess of her obligation under the divorce agreement's 75/25 split for uncovered medical expenses.

[¶9] On February 5, 2014, the district court issued an Order to Show Cause and directed Father to appear on March 25, 2014. Father filed a motion to vacate the show cause order, arguing that questions of fact

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concerning whether the parties had an enforceable agreement to each pay 50% of the New Haven costs required an evidentiary hearing and precluded the dispute from being resolved as a contempt matter. The district court then issued an Order Vacating Show Cause Hearing and Ordering Evidentiary Hearing.

[¶10] On July 1, 2014, the district court held an evidentiary hearing on the question of whether the parties had an enforceable agreement to share the New Haven costs equally rather than according to the 75/25 split provided by the parties' divorce agreement. The court found no such agreement, concluding first:

Although the parties had binding contracts with New Haven which made them each individually responsible for 50% of the total costs, this did not create a binding agreement between them to modify the terms of the Stipulation and Agreement governing ultimate responsibility for sharing of medical costs.

[¶11] The district court then rejected Father's claims of an implied-in-fact contract to modify the parties' divorce agreement. In particular, the court rejected the contention that Mother's payment of all amounts billed to her by New Haven evidenced consent to cost sharing at the rate billed, finding that such payment was consistent with the parties' past practice of Mother paying medical bills in their entirety and then receiving reimbursement from Father. The court likewise rejected Father's promissory estoppel claim, finding there was no clear and definite agreement to modify the parties' divorce agreement, but even if there were, the evidence did not support reasonable reliance by Father.

[¶12] On October 24, 2014, the district court issued its order implementing its decision. The order directed Father to reimburse Mother $53,112.25, the amount she paid New Haven in excess of the 75/25 split dictated by the parties' divorce agreement. Father timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶13] The district court's ruling resulted from an evidentiary hearing before the court, and we therefore review the court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. Moore v. Wolititch, 2015 WY 11, ¶ 9, 341 P.3d 421, 423 (Wyo. 2015) (quoting Clark v. Ryan Park Prop. & Homeowners Ass'n, 2014 WY 169, ¶ 6, 340 P.3d 288, 289 (Wyo. 2014)). We have explained:

The factual findings of a judge are not entitled to the limited review afforded a jury verdict. While the findings are presumptively correct, the appellate court may examine all of the properly admissible evidence in the record. Due regard is given to the opportunity of the trial judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses, and our review does not entail re-weighing disputed evidence. Findings of fact will not be set aside unless they are clearly erroneous. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.

Moore, ¶ 9, 341 P.3d at 423 (quoting Miner v. Jesse & Grace, LLC, 2014 WY 17, ¶ 17, 317 P.3d 1124, 1131 (Wyo. 2014)).

[¶14] In reviewing the district court's findings for clear error, " we assume that the evidence of the prevailing party below is true and give that party every reasonable inference that can fairly and reasonably be drawn from it." Moore, ¶ 10, 341 P.3d at 423 (quoting Miner, ¶ 17, 317 P.3d at 1131).

DISCUSSION

[¶15] Father contends that the parties agreed to modify the cost allocation provisions of their divorce agreement both in writing and orally. Alternatively, he argues that the doctrine of promissory estoppel applies to create a binding agreement on the sharing of the New Haven costs.

[¶16] We will consider each of Father's arguments, but before turning to that discussion, we first address Mother's opening

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argument that whether the parties had an enforceable agreement or not is irrelevant. In particular, Mother asks this Court to ignore any alleged agreement to modify the divorce decree because it is well settled that a divorce decree may not be modified by agreement of the parties without court approval. Thus, even if the parties reached the agreement alleged by Father, that agreement was not approved by the district court and was therefore of no effect. While Mother's recitation of the law governing modification of a divorce decree is generally sound, we disagree that it renders the parties' disputed agreement irrelevant.

[¶17] We have recognized the " established principle that the parties to a divorce may not modify a divorce decree without submitting those modifications to the district court for its consideration and approval." Richardson v. Richardson, 868 P.2d 259, 262 (Wyo. 1994) (citing McKenzie v. Shepard, 814 P.2d 701, 702 (Wyo. 1991)). The manner in which a decree is modified is by petition to the court by either party to the decree. See Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-116 (LexisNexis 2015) (district court authority to modify decree's allowance for a party or children on petition of either party). The decision whether to grant such a petition for modification is committed to the district court's discretion. Schluck v. Schluck, 2008 WY 92, ¶ 2, 189 P.3d 877, 878 n. 2 (Wyo. 2008); Maher v. Maher, 2004 WY 62, ¶ 6, 90 P.3d 739, 741 (Wyo. 2004).

[¶18] In this case, Father asserted that the parties had an agreement to modify the divorce agreement provisions governing responsibility for residential treatment costs. Presumably, if the district court had found such an agreement, the court then would have been required to decide whether to approve the agreed-upon modification, a decision that, as noted above, would have been committed to the district court's discretion. Here, the district court found no agreement to modify, and it therefore never reached the question of whether it would approve such a modification. The required court approval for any modification is thus simply not at issue in this appeal.

[¶19] We turn then to our review of the district court's rulings on Father's modification and promissory estoppel claims.

A. Modification of the Divorce Agreement

[¶20] Paragraph 14(f) of the parties' divorce agreement provides that " [n]o modification or waiver of any of the terms hereof shall be valid unless in writing and signed by both of the parties." Father argues that the parties had a written agreement to modify their divorce agreement in the form of the agreement they signed with New Haven. In the alternative, Father argues that the parties had an enforceable implied-in-fact agreement. We find no clear error in the district court's rejection of both claims.

1. Written Agreement

[¶21] The record contains two New Haven agreements, the " New Haven Enrollment Agreement," and the " New Haven Tuition Financial Agreement." Both documents bear the signatures of Mother and Father, who are identified as " Sponsors" under the agreements. The New Haven Enrollment Agreement identifies the parties to the agreement as the New Haven and the Sponsor, and it outlines the services New Haven will provide as well as the other obligations of the parties. In regard to payment of fees, the Enrollment Agreement contains the following provisions:

3. Student Tuition, Program Fees and Enrollment Fees. In consideration for the services provided by New Haven under this Agreement, the Sponsor agrees that they have read, understand, have completed, and have signed the Tuition Financial Agreement which is made part of this Agreement as Exhibit A, and that they agree to make timely payments to New Haven of all program fees and enrollment fees outlined in the Tuition Financial Agreement. Except as otherwise provided in this Agreement (or any Exhibit to this Agreement), Sponsor is financially obligated to pay all enrollment and program fees for the entire treatment period. Sponsor's total program fee obligations under this Agreement will be billed to Sponsor in monthly installments. New Haven

Page 512

charges the full daily tuition rate for both the Admittance Date and Discharge Date. The program and enrollment fees cover only the services provided by New Haven as described in Paragraph 2. New Haven will not release the official transcripts of the Student's academic credits ...

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