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Piwowarczyk v. Piwowarczyk

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

August 16, 2019

STANISLAW W. PIWOWARCZYK
v.
EWA B. PIWOWARCZYK.

          Heard: April 3, 2019.

         Complaint for divorce filed in the Worcester Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on May 5, 2016. A complaint for contempt, filed on November 6, 2017, was heard by Geoffrey R. German, J.

          Luke Rosseel for the wife.

          Katarzyna J. Wennerberg for the husband.

          Present: Milkey, Neyman, & Englander, JJ.

          ENGLANDER, J.

         In this contempt proceeding with respect to a divorce judgment, the former wife (wife) was ordered to pay for the former husband's (husband) health insurance even though she had left her job in Massachusetts, moved to Florida, and no longer had health insurance of her own. The operative clause of the parties' separation agreement (agreement), which was incorporated into the divorce judgment, provided that the wife would maintain her "[c]urrently existing health insurance or equivalent thereof" for the benefit of the husband "for so long as he remains eligible under the plan at no additional cost to the [w]ife." Because we conclude that the judge erred in construing this clause, we reverse.

         Background.

         We recite those facts from the record that are not disputed.[1] The husband and wife were married for twenty-five years, and divorced in 2016. On December 14, 2016, a judge of the Probate and Family Court issued a judgment of divorce incorporating the parties' agreement.[2] Relevant here is the clause in Addendum B of the agreement, which addressed the wife's obligation to maintain health insurance for the husband, postdivorce (health insurance clause):

"1. Currently existing health insurance or equivalent thereof shall be maintained by the [w]ife for the benefit of the [h]usband for as long as he remains eligible under the plan at no additional cost to the [w]ife. If there is an additional cost to provide health insurance for the [h]usband the [h]usband shall pay said additional amount to the [w]ife each and every month on the first day of each month or forfeit said insurance coverage."

         Prior to the divorce, the wife had worked at a local savings bank for many years, and had maintained health insurance for herself and the husband through the bank's plan. The husband worked in construction and apparently did not have access to a health plan through his employer. In October of 2017, after the divorce was final, the wife left her employment and moved to Florida, to be closer to her two adult sons. The wife's health insurance was accordingly cancelled, leaving both the wife and the husband without health insurance. Although the wife secured temporary employment in Florida she did not have access to health insurance through her employer. At the time of these proceedings, the wife did not have health insurance.

         The husband filed a complaint for contempt in November of 2017. After two days of nonevidentiary hearings, the judge issued a judgment finding the wife in contempt, [3] and a further judgment ordering her to pay $369 per month toward the husband's health insurance. The thrust of the judge's reasoning, evident from the transcript and the contempt judgment, is that the wife violated the health insurance clause by "voluntarily leaving her employment" and thus causing the husband to become ineligible for coverage under her plan. The wife appeals.[4]

         Discussion.

         To find the wife in contempt, the judge was required to find "clear and convincing evidence of disobedience of a clear and unequivocal command." Birchall, petitioner, 454 Mass. 837, 853 (2009). The contempt issue accordingly turns, in the first instance, on the meaning of the health insurance clause. Neither party argued that the health insurance clause was ambiguous, and the issue of the construction of the health insurance clause was treated as a pure question of law for the judge. See Coloriov.Marx, 72 Mass.App.Ct. ...


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