Three rarities --
-- a “Hail Mary” pass that works,
-- a trial court order that makes news, and
-- a judge who takes the hit for a litigant --
-- all converge in Judge John D. Casey’s recent decision in De Marco v. De Marco, for the Suffolk Probate and Family Court, making it remarkable beyond its outcome.
Michael DeMarco asked Judge Casey to terminate his alimony obligation to Katherine DeMarco, under M.G.L., ch. 208, §49(f), the social security full retirement age provision of the Alimony Reform Act (eff. 3/1/12). The judge advised the parties at the start of trial that he believed the result to be foregone: that §49(f) applies to all cases, and therefore, DeMarco alimony would end. The attorneys adopted the court’s view and devised a surviving settlement agreement with a terminal lump sum payment, and the end of periodic alimony.
Then, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided to the contrary, in Chin v. Meriott and two companion cases, ruling that §49(f) applies prospectively only, to those alimony payors whose divorce judgments followed March 1, 2012. While it is fair to say that Judge Casey’s belief reflected a consensus view of the bench and bar at the time, the SJC proved it flawed. It is not the first time that an appellate court nixed a trial judge’s view of the law, and certainly won’t be the last. The law develops, accordingly.
What makes this case interesting is that:
- Ms. DeMarco, asked Judge Casey to vacate the judgment that arose from the parties’ settlement contract, by way of a motion under Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. Rule 60 (b) (5) and (6), which is the Hail Mary pass of litigation. Vacating an established judgment by mere motion is a last resort relief for a litigant. Every veteran litigator has weighed the odds of bringing one against the chance of being assessed with fees for being wrong; many have taken their shot; and few have succeeded.
- Trial court divorce decisions are rarely noted outside of the parties themselves, and a bit of occasional gossip, especially motion practice. After all, it is appellate work that creates precedent, shaping the law, debate, future strategies and outcomes. Unusually, this case was the lead story in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, and the buzz persists.
- Judge Casey fell on his sword, where he could easily have demurred. He gave the parties honest direction, without any warranty of perfection. Ms. DeMarco did not have to accept the judge’s colloquy. She could have tried the case and forced Judge Casey to apply the law as he saw it; and then challenge him on appeal. Yet, the judge ruled that his was an incorrect interpretation of the statute, upon which Ms. DeMarco had “detrimentally relied”, and vitiated the judgment.
The fact that the judge allowed the Rule 60 to negate a contract of the parties, as distinguished from a judgment that he had, himself, written, is substantively remarkable – and potentially dangerous – as attorney David H. Lee (disclosure: Mr. Lee is William M. Levine’s former longtime law partner) pointed out in the Lawyers Weekly piece. Certainly, it is a challenge to the policy of finality. It is also understandable that Judge Casey, always a gentleman, felt responsible for the harsh result to Ms. DeMarco.
This was no simple “mulligan”, but one with combined factors that we won’t likely see again soon.
FOR MORE LDRC BLOG CLICK HERE OR GO TO LEVINEDISPUTERESOLUTION.COM/DIVORCE-MEDIATION-BLOGhttp://levinedisputeresolution.com/divorce-mediation-blog/demarco-v-demarco-three-surprising-things