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Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

Manjukc COURTNEY v. Robert COURTNEY.


Decided: February 25, 2021

By the Court (Meade, Milkey & Neyman, JJ.1)


After several years of litigation made more difficult by each of their conduct, the parties took the remaining issues in their divorce case to trial. The trial judge's resulting decision was thorough and thoughtful. Months later, a different judge denied the husband's motion for relief from judgment. We affirm.

Background. The parties married in 2005. At that time, the wife was twenty years old, had limited education and English skills, and did not yet reside in the United States. The husband, by contrast, was a trained engineer, and over fifty years old. Throughout the marriage, the husband served as the family's primary source of financial support. At the time of the couple's divorce, the husband was capable of earning over $100,000 annually. Late in the marriage, the wife began working part time outside of the home. There was no evidence she would ever be able to earn more than the minimum wage. The couple had one child, a son born in 2009.

The marriage was troubled from its inception, and the wife filed for divorce on August 5, 2016. As the divorce proceeded, the parties stipulated to various issues, and the court adopted those stipulations as temporary orders. A three-day trial took place in mid-2018, and a judgment and findings issued in early 2019. We reserve the details of the temporary orders and the judgment for discussion, infra. Neither party appealed from the 2019 judgment.

Much later in 2019, the husband moved for relief from the judgment pursuant to rule 60 (b) of the Massachusetts Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure. A motion judge (who was not the trial judge) denied the motion in a brief handwritten order.

Discussion. In relevant part, rule 60 (b) allows relief for “(1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; (2) newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial ․ [or] (3) fraud ․, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party.” “[A] judge's action taken pursuant to a rule 60 motion will not be reversed on appeal in the absence of an abuse of discretion.” Rezendes v. Rezendes, 46 Mass. App. Ct. 438, 441 (1999). See Grindlinger v. Grindlinger, 10 Mass. App. Ct. 823, 823 (1980). In other words, to prevail, the husband must demonstrate that the motion judge “made a clear error of judgment in weighing the factors relevant to the decision ․ such that the decision falls outside the range of reasonable alternatives.” Dubuque v. Cumberland Farms, Inc., 93 Mass. App. Ct. 332, 343 (2018), quoting L.L. v. Commonwealth, 470 Mass. 169, 185 n.27 (2014). Especially where the motion is aimed at undoing a decision of a trial court judge that was itself discretionary, this is a heavy burden for the husband to carry.

The husband attacks numerous aspects of the judgment. His briefing has certain formal deficiencies, including a consistent failure to cite relevant authorities. See Mass. R. A. P. 16 (a) (9), as appearing in 481 Mass. 1628 (2019). Having nonetheless reviewed his arguments, we conclude that the husband has not carried his burden of showing that the motion judge abused her considerable discretion.

Two examples will suffice. The first relates to which party should bear the costs of the son's extracurricular activities. As the husband points out, the parties had stipulated as to who would bear the costs of extracurricular activities during the pendency of this proceeding. Based on this, the husband argues that the judge erred by treating the issue as an open one to be resolved at trial, rather than one resolved by the parties' stipulations. However, the record reveals that both parties treated the issue as contested in pretrial and in posttrial proceedings. Indeed, his attorney identified it as a contested issue at a pretrial conference. The motion judge did not abuse her discretion in determining that there was no inadvertence, mistake, surprise, excusable neglect, fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct in the trial judge's treating this issue as one to be resolved at trial.

The second example relates to the husband's obligation to carry life insurance to secure his child support obligations. The husband argues that the trial judge erred by failing to specify that this obligation would terminate upon the child's emancipation. However, the wife concedes that this was implicit. We therefore discern no abuse of discretion in the motion judge's declining to clarify the point. Similarly, where both the findings and judgment state that the insurance is to be payable to the wife as “beneficiary ․ for the benefit of the child,” the motion judge did not abuse her discretion in declining to clarify that the life insurance was meant to benefit the child, not the wife.

Because the husband did not establish that the motion judge abused her discretion, we affirm her decision denying relief from the judgment.

Costs on appeal. The wife requests that she be awarded her costs, including appellate attorney's fees, pursuant to Mass. R. A. P. 25, as appearing in 481 Mass. 1654 (2019). However, taken as a whole, the husband's arguments were not so devoid of merit as to warrant such sanctions.

Order denying motion for relief from judgment affirmed.

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Docket No: 20-P-501

Decided: February 25, 2021

Court: Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

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