Enforcing Marital Agreements According to the Law of the Case
In the matter of Bienert v. Bienert, 2017 Pa.Super. 255, Case No. 17-1288 (Pa. Super. Aug. 7, 2017), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has clarified the enforceability of marital property agreements (MSA) executed prior to the filing of a divorce but entered into while the husband and wife were separated.
As mentioned above, while the MSA was executed by the parties while they were separated, it contained rather precise language as to how their marital property is to be divided in the event of a divorce. Specifically, the MSA indicates that it “settles all rights of the parties” and, indeed, “is not contingent upon either party of both parties being granted a divorce,” but would be “made part thereof” in the event of a divorce.
After the husband filed for divorce, the wife filed a petition for alimony pendene lite and was represented by counsel when she did so. The husband opposed the aforesaid petition, arguing that the MSA was a complete and final settlement of all obligations and, as it does not allow for alimony pendente lite, the wife should not be allowed to collect it. In response, the wife argued that as the MSA does not specifically refer to alimony pendente lite, she is able to collect it. Notably, the wife did not argue that the MSA was invalid for any reason, she merely advanced an interpretation of its language. Ultimately the trial court denied the wife’s petition on the basis that the MSA is a complete and final settlement of all claims, including alimony pendente lite and no provision allowed for its collection. The trial court pointed out that “absent fraud, misrepresentation, or duress, spouses should be bound by the terms of their agreements.”
After failing to receive alimony pendente lite, the wife’s attorney withdrew his appearance on her behalf, which led to the wife filing multiple petitions to enforce the MSA regarding various provisions of property division. The Superior Court observed that all of the wife’s various petitions “were premised on the view that the Agreement was valid and enforceable.”
Separately, the husband eventually filed a petition to hold the wife in contempt for violating the terms of the MSA. In response to the husband’s petition, the wife raised defenses claiming that she executed the MSA under duress as the husband requested the wife to execute the MSA immediately after the wife had been sentenced in court for three felonies and charged with a misdemeanor and was “in rehab.” This was the wife’s first mention of duress, despite her efforts to enforce the MSA previously as described above. Indeed, even when arguing duress, she made no argument that the MSA was invalid. A short time after the husband’s filing of the contempt petition, and the wife’s filing of defenses, as described above, the wife filed a contempt petition asking for the enforcement of the MSA.
At the hearing for the above petitions, the wife raised arguments to avoid the terms of the MSA on the grounds of mistake, misrepresentation or duress. She now further claimed that she did not know the MSA applied to her divorce, allegedly believing it only applied to her separation. The trial court ruled against the wife. Thereafter, the wife hired a new attorney who filed a new petition to void the MSA for the reasons set forth above. The court subsequently denied the wife’s petition and went ahead and entered a decree in divorce. In response, the wife appealed, which led to the opinion described herein by Superior Court.
On appeal, the wife again argued that she executed the MSA against her will and that a mutual mistake of fact existed, both of which warrant the voiding of the MSA. Furthermore, as an aisde, the trial court did not hold an evidentiary hearing on her last petition which, the wife argued, was unfair as it did not give her a full opportunity to litigate her economic claims. Superior Court affirmed the trial court. In ruling against the wife, Superior Court relied on the law of the case doctrine and equitable estoppel.
The law of the case doctrine is one that “expresses the practice of courts generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided … in order to protect the settled expectations of the parties; to ensure uniformity of decisions; to maintain consistency during the course of a single case; to effectuate the proper and streamlined administration of justice; and to bring litigation to an end.” In addition, the doctrine applies, for the most part, specifically with respect to a court adhering to prior decisions within the same case. In other words, although multiple petitions may be filed in a given case, they are essentially cumulative and are not evaluated in isolation from the rest of the case. While the doctrine does not disallow a court from reconsidering prior decisions within case, it is certainly within its appropriate discretion to refuse to do so in order to maintain consistency and uniformity.
Equitable estoppel functions very similarly to the law of the case doctrine. Pursuant to estoppel, “a party to an action is estopped from assuming a position inconsistent with his or her assertion in a previous action, if his or her contention was successfully maintained.”
In applying the principles above, the court noted that the wife has taken inconsistent positions regarding the MSA throughout the litigation of the divorce matter. Sometimes she sought enforcement of it and, indeed, did so successfully at times. Other times she filed for husband’s alleged contempt of it. Still, at other times, she argued it should be void or unenforceable or was the result of mistake or duress. The case was litigated for a year and a half before the wife began questioning the validity of the MSA despite the fact that multiple other petitions were filed and argued assuming its validity. As she attempted to enforce the MSA, without questioning its validity, and the court ruled on the same, she cannot now, suddenly and late in the litigation, change course and argue that the MAS is somehow unenforceable. Not only have prior court rulings been made on the good faith of the wife’s arguments, her suddenly raising directly inconsistent arguments undermines the legitimacy of her prior arguments and the rulings thereon. Furthermore, it puts the husband into an untenable position of committing to arguments against the wife that he may not have advanced in light of the wife’s sudden reversal. It was clear the wife raised her new arguments due to her lack of success with her prior arguments.
Ultimately, then, it is vitally important for litigants and practitioners to settle on a theory of a case and adhere to it throughout as, otherwise, the court, and certainly the other party, will take notice of a party raising inconsistent and mutually exclusive arguments later in the litigation of a case as compared to its beginning. Obviously while new information is typically learned and discovered during litigation which can legitimately result in modifying one’s arguments, the position or posture of a party to an essential and known element of case, say the enforceability of a marital agreement, is something that needs to be established early on, and there is limited ability to change or reverse course once a party commits to one.