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Emery v. Sturtevant

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Franklin

May 12, 2017

ELIZABETH EMERY
v.
THOMAS K. STURTEVANT.

          Heard: December 2, 2016.

         Complaint for divorce filed in the Franklin Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on November 12, 2010.

         Following review by this court, 88 Mass.App.Ct. 1118 (2015), complaints for modification, filed on July 24, 2012, were considered by Stephen M. Rainaud, J., and a complaint for contempt, filed on January 24, 2014, was considered by Beth A. Crawford, J.

          David H. Lee (Jessica M. Dubin also present) for the husband.

          Edward F. Dombroski, Jr. (Laura S. Davis also present) for the wife.

          Present: Vuono, Wolohojian, & Shin, JJ.

          VUONO, J.

         This case, which comes before us a second time, arises from the complaints filed by the former husband (husband) for modification of alimony and child support payments and from a series of complaints for contempt filed by the former wife (wife). The question we must answer is whether it is appropriate to attribute income to the husband, for purposes of determining his alimony and child support obligations, where he resigned from a high-paying position as head of school at a private institution and accepted a substantially lower-paying position in the same field following an extensive job search. We conclude that, under such circumstances, the criteria for attribution of income have not been met. We therefore remand this case for a determination of the husband's support obligations based on his "present income." Flaherty v. Flaherty, 40 Mass.App.Ct. 289, 291 (1996) .

         Background.

         A full recitation of the facts is necessary for our discussion.[1] The parties were divorced on June 18, 2012, following twenty years of marriage. During the marriage, the wife was the primary caregiver for the parties' three children, while the husband worked in the private education sector, making "considerable professional advancements over the years." On July 1, 2003, the husband began working as associate head of school at Northfield Mount Hermon School (NMH), located in Gill, earning a starting annual salary of $128, 500. He was promoted to head of school in less than one year, and by all accounts, he was extremely successful and effective in the performance of his job duties. By 2010, the husband's base salary had increased to $350, 000. In addition to his base salary, the husband received numerous benefits from NMH, including, but not limited to, annual bonuses, deferred compensation, "free housing in an eight-bedroom, five-bathroom, three-story mansion, with all maintenance, cleaning and upkeep provided by the school, " free meals through the school's dining service, use of a vehicle, and generous private school tuition waivers for the parties' children. In 2010, the value of the husband's total compensation package from NMH exceeded $450, 000.

         The husband's position as head of school was governed by a series of three-year employment contracts; each contract was subject to extension at the discretion of NMH's board of trustees. The husband's initial contract guaranteed his employment through June 30, 2007. His contract was thereafter extended twice, ultimately guaranteeing his employment through June 30, 2012.

         In 2010, the husband was involved in discussions with Mark Chardack, the chairman of NMH's board of trustees, to extend his employment contract once again. To that end, in December, 2010, Chardack sent a letter to the husband memorializing their "mutual intention ... to enter into a formal employment agreement before the end of the current School year" extending the husband's "employment as Head of School through June 30, 2015." As it turned out, however, the husband was never presented with a new contract.

         In April, 2011, the husband informed Chardack that he had engaged in an extramarital affair with a subordinate, which had ended in November, 2010. In the following weeks, the husband and Chardack spoke several times. The content of those discussions was not disclosed at trial. On May 3, 2011, the husband sent a letter to Chardack announcing that he was resigning from NMH due to "personal reasons." Chardack responded with a letter, dated the same day, indicating that he accepted the husband's resignation "with deep sadness." The husband stopped working at NMH immediately, although the school year had not yet ended and his employment did not officially terminate until June 30, 2011.[2] In connection with his departure from NMH, the husband received a severance package which continued his base salary of $350, 000 for one year (through June 30, 2012), along with some additional benefits. The husband began looking for a new full-time position in June, 2011, supplementing his severance package with proceeds from temporary consulting work.

         The divorce proceedings.

         By the time of the husband's departure from NMH, the parties had already separated and the wife had initiated divorce proceedings in the Probate and Family Court. A two-day trial was held before a judge (divorce judge) in May, 2012, at which the wife was represented by counsel and the husband represented himself. The divorce judge issued a judgment of divorce nisi dated June 18, 2012, as amended on July 17, 2012, ordering the husband to pay weekly child support of $780 and weekly general term alimony of $2, 481 to the wife. The judge calculated the support payments using the husband's reported gross weekly income of $10, 436.58.[3]

         The husband's complaints for modification.

         On May 30, 2012, after the conclusion of the divorce trial but before the entry of judgment, the husband was offered a position as head of school at the SEED School of Cincinnati, Ohio (SEED), at a starting annual salary of $135, 000. On July 24, 2012, the husband filed two separate complaints for modification seeking a reduction in his child support and alimony obligations on the basis that his new income was substantially lower than his income at the time of the divorce. Following a trial, which was held before the divorce judge, the complaints were dismissed.

         In his memorandum and order dated October 24, 2013, the divorce judge concluded, without making subsidiary findings, that no material change in circumstances had occurred because the husband's "actual earnings [from SEED] are less than his potential and demonstrated earning capacity, " and the reduction in the husband's income was caused by "his voluntary decision to resign from NMH." The husband appealed from the dismissal of his complaints for modification.

         The wife's ...


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