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Casavant v. Allen

Supreme Court of Vermont

August 19, 2016

Stephanie (Allen) Casavant
Maurice Allen

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Family Division Martin A. Maley, J.

          Cynthia L. Broadfoot of Broadfoot, Attorneys at Law, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Sara Moran of Affolter Gannon, Essex Junction, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Husband appeals from a final divorce order, arguing that the Family Division of the Chittenden Superior Court: (1) inequitably divided the marital assets; (2) committed reversible errors of fact; and (3) issued a decision based on impermissible bias. We affirm.

         ¶ 2. Husband and wife were married in Florida in 2000, less than a month after the birth of their twin boys. They resided in husband's home state of Florida for the first several years of the marriage. They then moved to Vermont, living with wife's family in Enosburg, and later in St. Albans, before purchasing a home in Essex in 2010.

         ¶ 3. Both parties were employed for most of the marriage, although husband was laid off from his job and remained unemployed for roughly one year. During that time, he filed a discrimination lawsuit against his employer, which resulted in a settlement. In February 2014, the parties separated, and wife filed for divorce. At the time of the final hearing, wife was employed as a property manager, earning $59, 000 annually, while husband was employed as a production supervisor earning $52, 000 annually. Since the parties separated, wife and the children have lived at the home in Essex. A partial final order concerning parental rights and responsibilities and parent-child contact, which is not part of this appeal, was issued in December 2014.

         ¶ 4. On July 1, 2015, the court held a final hearing to conclude all remaining issues relative to the division of property. The parties' marital property was modest. Their primary asset was the marital residence in Essex. They agreed that the home had a value of $253, 500, and the court concluded that the equity of the home was approximately $38, 000.[1] They also agreed that they had $8000 in a savings account, that wife's vehicle had a value of $5000-$6000, and that they had a $28, 000 tax lien stemming from taxes owed by husband as part of his discrimination settlement. Husband estimated he expected to receive $9000 in proceeds pending from a personal injury claim. The parties disputed the value of husband's vehicle, a 1972 Chevelle; wife asserted that it was worth up to $30, 000, whereas husband felt that it was worth $9865.[2]

         ¶ 5. At the hearing, wife testified that the relationship was "a bad situation . . ., it was never good." She described husband's behaviors as creating strain on the relationship, especially his infidelity, alcohol abuse, and going out with friends leaving her home alone with the children. Although she had hoped that moving the family to Vermont would put an end to husband's affairs and drinking, it did not. Wife also testified that over time, husband became increasingly hostile and verbally abusive towards her, and that on a number of occasions husband unexpectedly left the family and went back to Florida. In her view, this behavior only worsened when husband was laid off from his job and the stress of his discrimination lawsuit caused him to become depressed. She also described the effect of husband's drinking and verbal abuse on the children, as many of his outbursts occurred in their presence, and their current struggles with mental health issues: one child is depressed and the other has made suicidal gestures requiring residential treatment.

         ¶ 6. Wife further testified as to the stress created by husband's excessive spending habits, which reached an apex when his discrimination suit was resolved and he received between $86, 000 and $89, 504 in settlement proceeds.[3] Even before the settlement, husband had over $27, 000 in credit card debt.[4] Following the settlement, he paid off that debt, and he spent some of the funds on improvements to the marital home, although the parties dispute the amount of those improvements, [5] and $23, 547.99 on guns, jewelry, and a Mercedes automobile, which he later wrecked. He also made large cash withdrawals and took cash advances on credit cards; when he reached the spending limits on his credit cards, he used PayPal to make further purchases.

         ¶ 7. Husband's struggles with finances came to a head in October of 2014 when he filed for bankruptcy. At the time he filed, the parties had been separated for nine months, but had yet to file for divorce. The bankruptcy petition included unsecured debt of $66, 000, including approximately $50, 000 in credit card debt.

         ¶ 8. Wife testified that except for the home improvements, husband's purchases were made without her knowledge or were made over her objection. Wife also testified that as a result of this spending, she was forced to obtain a personal loan to pay her car loan and two credit union bills. Although the parties acknowledge that they understood they would be liable for state and federal income taxes on the settlement proceeds, and in fact set aside approximately $26, 000 for those taxes, that money was spent on other things. While the family court found that some of that money was spent consensually by the parties on home improvements, the court did not have enough evidence to clearly identify how the rest of the money was spent. Wife testified that when it became clear that they did not have sufficient funds remaining to pay the settlement tax obligation, she set aside $8000 from a severance payment made to husband for that purpose.

         ¶ 9. At the hearing, husband contested wife's account of the marriage. He claimed that wife inaccurately blamed him for the failure of the marriage, denied ever engaging in extramarital affairs, and denied the verbal abuse. He also claimed that his excessive drinking was under control by 2013 and that his drinking was primarily in response to stress brought on from his discrimination lawsuit. Regarding his spending habits, husband claimed that wife was aware of the purchases, did not protest them at the time, and that some of the purchases were for her benefit. In addition, he argued that the timing of the bankruptcy, which was after the parties separated, shows that a contributing factor was the pending divorce to a greater extent than his spending habits.

         ¶ 10. Weighing all the evidence, the family court considered all twelve factors listed in 15 V.S.A. § 751(b) in order to determine an equitable distribution of the marital property. The court particularly honed in on the fact that the children's stability was increased by allowing wife to maintain the family home; that although money from the settlement was used for improvements and repairs to the marital home, such money was a marital asset received during the marriage and that husband's spending contributed significantly to the depreciation of the marital estate; and that the merits of the parties was a significant factor in the court's determination. As to the respective merits of the parties, the court ...

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