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Taylor v. Taylor

Supreme Court of Delaware

September 23, 2014

AUSTIN L. TAYLOR, Respondent-Below, Appellant,
v.
CHRISTINA A. TAYLOR, Petitioner-Below, Appellee

Submitted September 10, 2014.

Case Closed October 9, 2014.

Court Below: Family Court of the State of Delaware in and for Kent County. File No. CK07-02520, Petition Nos. 12-35755, 09-41054.

Patrick C. Gallagher, Esquire, Curley & Benton, LLC for Appellant Austin L. Taylor.

Glynis Gibson, Esquire, Glynis Gibson, P.A. for Appellee Christina A. Taylor.

Before STRINE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND, and RIDGELY, Justices.

OPINION

STRINE, Chief Justice.

Appellant Austin L. Taylor[1] (the " Husband" ) appeals from a Family Court decision denying his Motion to Reopen an Alimony Order, which was entered by the court without his participation. On appeal, the Husband argues that a default judgment was not appropriate under Rule 60(b) because he was not properly served, and he did not have a fair opportunity to contest the amount of the obligation imposed upon him.[2] Christina A. Taylor (the " Wife" ) opposed his motion during the proceedings at the Family Court and argues on appeal that the default alimony order should stand.

The decision to reopen an alimony order lies in the sound discretion of the

Page 152

Family Court.[3] But this case involves unusual circumstances, and we conclude that the Family Court abused its discretion in denying the Husband's motion to reopen.

The Husband and the Wife separated in October 2006 after 22 years of marriage.[4] The Wife filed for divorce in December of 2009, but put the proceedings on ice until March 20, 2012. Even though the Husband and the Wife were in the midst of a divorce, they remained friendly and frequently communicated with each other. Accordingly, when the Husband became a long-haul truck driver in August 2010, the Wife agreed to receive his mail at her home, the former marital residence. The Husband then changed his address on record with the Family Court to reflect that he should receive mail from the court at her address.

When the Wife filed her paperwork in March 2012 to finalize the divorce proceedings and, most important, to seek an award of alimony from the Husband, she was still communicating amicably with him. Nevertheless, she did not notify him that she had reinitiated the divorce proceedings, or that she was seeking alimony. And instead of using her address, in accordance with their arrangement, she gave the Family Court a moribund address for the Husband even though she knew he was no longer residing -- or receiving mail -- there. The Wife did not ask the Husband, or one of their adult daughters, with whom both parents were in contact, for the Husband's updated mailing address. The Wife also did not inform the Family Court that she had previously agreed with the Husband to receive his mail at her house. Nor did she help the Family Court in trying to determine his current address. For example, she could -- and should -- have provided the Family Court with the Husband's email address and cell phone number, both of which she knew. Not only that, but the Wife did not indicate that the Husband had given her the authority to change the address he had previously given the court. There is nothing in the record to suggest she had such authority.

As a result of her lack of full disclosure to both the Family Court and the Husband, he did not receive any of the paperwork related to the Wife's alimony request and he failed to respond. Notably, the Family Court did not use the address the Husband had most recently provided -- the Wife's address -- but instead used the outdated address the Wife listed on her paperwork without the Husband's knowledge or authorization. The Family Court entered an alimony order in his absence in July 2012, granting the Wife's request without considering the Husband's ability to pay. The Wife continued to keep the Husband in the dark even after the order was entered; he did not learn that he owed her alimony until he was informed by his adult daughter in September 2012. The Wife appears to make light of the situation in a communication between the two after the Husband found out:

Wife: Then I have several questions for you... #1. Are you getting your mail from Hartley??
Husband: Silly you know all my mail goes to 637 Blaine dr Felton de 19943, and has for last 2 yrs since I haven't live there since then, as agreed up between you and I
Wife: But... you never told the court that your addy changed. You told [daughter] that you get mail in SC...

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you have mail at the Hartley address. You need to get it. It'll change your life...
Husband: But my business finished with court with Child Support unless there's dirty pool in play
Wife: No... we had a pending divorce since 2009...[5]

Shortly thereafter, in October 2012, the Wife filed a Rule to Show Cause petition to enforce the alimony order. She had apparently obtained a correct address for the Husband, because he received these court filings, and listed the same address on his answer approximately one month later. As a pro se litigant, the Husband tried to contest the default judgment in that answer, but he eventually hired an attorney and properly filed a Motion to Reopen.

Despite this complicated history between the parties, the Family Court found no basis to reopen the alimony order, and faulted the Husband for not updating his address with the court.[6] The court also found that the Wife used the only address she knew for Husband.[7] The Wife testified that she had stopped receiving his mail at her home, other than junk mail.[8] But she acknowledged in a communication with the Husband that she was still receiving a very important kind of mail for him: his mail from the IRS.[9] Most important, the Wife did not claim that the Husband was receiving mail at the old address. Because the Wife was in contact with the Husband, she was in a good position to ask him, " Should I send my alimony petition to you at my house, or somewhere else?" The record reflects that she never asked the Husband this question; instead, she impelled the Family Court to change the Husband's address of record without his knowledge or authorization. The Family Court thus sent his important, " life changing" mail to a moribund address.[10]

As this Court has emphasized, default judgments are typically inappropriate when important rights are at stake and there has been a lack of adequate notice to the party.[11] Without reaching the question of Husband's excusable neglect under Rule 60(b)(1),[12] we find that the default alimony order should have been reopened under either Rule 60(b)(3) for " fraud or other misconduct," [13] or " in the interests of justice" under (b)(6).[14]

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We do not need to conclude that the Wife's conduct was fraudulent to determine that it was indisputably " other misconduct" justifying relief under Rule 60(b)(3). The Wife had no authority to change the Husband's address with the Family Court from the one where he expected to receive mail to one she knew to be outdated. It was the Family Court's reliance on the address she provided that prevented the Husband from participating in the alimony proceedings. It was therefore not accurate for the Family Court to state that the Husband did not update his address with the court, or even worse, to find that the moribund address was the one " he claimed as his official address with the Court." [15] He did update his address to reflect the address where he wished to receive mail: her address, in accordance with his agreement with the Wife.

In plain terms, the Wife was not candid with the court. Just like attorneys have duties of candor to the tribunal, so too do parties themselves.[16] As we have noted, " the very special and unique jurisdiction of the Family Court requires complete candor and fairness by parties to proceedings before it." [17] Had the Wife been candid with the Family Court, there is no doubt that the default judgment would not have been entered against the Husband. If she had used her own address, based on their previous agreement, she would have been duty bound to pass on the appropriate paperwork to him. The Family Court staff would have seen that the parties shared the same address, and likely inquired into the issue at that point. The Wife would then have been required to reveal that she had agreed with him to receive his mail. Likewise, had the Wife revealed her lack of knowledge about the Husband's current mailing address, but provided his email address and cell phone number, the Family Court probably would have contacted him directly or insisted that the Wife herself contact him to obtain his mailing address. Put simply, had the Wife minimally complied with the duty of candor she owed the court, the Husband would have received proper and timely notice so that the issue of alimony could have been decided as it should have been, on the merits.

The Wife knew that the address she used on her paperwork in March 2012 was outdated and wrong. She also failed to disclose to the Family Court her previous agreement to receive his mail at her house. In our view, the Family Court failed to take into account her misconduct or the broader circumstances in the interests of justice, and thus its failure to reopen the alimony order was an abuse of discretion.[18]

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For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Family Court is hereby REVERSED.


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