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Troiani v. Troiani

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

October 24, 2019


          On appeal from the 444th District Court of Cameron County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Hinojosa and Tijerina



         Appellant Christine Troiani, pro se, challenges the trial court's order in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship. Following Christine's divorce from appellee Anthony Troiani, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) filed suit to modify child support and confirm child support arrearages. By three issues, Christine argues the trial court abused its discretion by: (1) denying the relief requested by the OAG in its suit; (2) holding that Anthony overpaid his child support obligations, granting him a credit against his future obligations, and reducing his monthly amount due; and (3) "failing to allow her to rebut" Anthony's testimony. We affirm in part, reverse and render in part, and reverse and remand in part.

         I. Background

         On May 3, 2013, the trial court rendered a divorce decree providing in part that Christine and Anthony shall each be joint managing conservators of the parties' two children, who were born in 2000 and 2004. Under the terms of the decree, Anthony was to pay child support to Christine in the amount of $1, 875 per month, beginning on February 1, 2012 and ending when one of the children reaches eighteen years of age, marries, or dies. The monthly amount due would then be reduced to $1, 500 until the other child reaches eighteen years of age, marries, or dies. The decree further noted that the children were then enrolled in Christine's employer-provided health insurance plan, and so it ordered Anthony to pay Christine $135 per month for insurance premiums as medical support beginning April 1, 2012.

         In May 2014, Christine filed a petition for modification and motion for enforcement, asking the trial court to (1) increase Anthony's child support payments to include their son's private school tuition and fees, and (2) award her all proceeds from the sale of certain community real property. The trial court rendered an order granting Christine's requests on August 1, 2014, and Anthony appealed. We affirmed in part and reversed and rendered in part. Troiani v. Troiani, No. 13-14-00630-CV, 2016 WL 4702685, at *3- 5 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi-Edinburg Sept. 8, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.) (concluding that, "[a]bsent any evidence of the child's proven needs, the trial court abused its discretion in ordering Anthony to pay private school tuition," but that "the trial court did not impermissibly alter or change the division of property" by requiring Anthony to pay Christine the net proceeds from the sale of the community property).

         On July 12, 2016, the OAG filed the instant suit alleging that, as of June 20, 2016, Anthony was $4, 095.03 in arrears on his child support obligation and $1, 337.98 in arrears on his medical support obligation, based on the amounts due under the divorce decree.[1]The petition asked for modification of child support due to a material and substantial change in circumstances. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 156.401(a)(1). The petition also alleged that Christine's health insurance premiums for the children had increased to $277 per month in March 2015, and it asked the court to enter judgment against Anthony for the additional costs incurred by Christine on health insurance premiums since that time, as well as for fifty percent of unreimbursed medical expenses which she had allegedly incurred. In response, Anthony filed a "Counterpetition to Recover Child Support Payments Made in Excess of Child Support Order" which argued that, as of the time of our judgment in the 2016 appeal, he had already paid $8, 845.60 in child support- including tuition payments-and that he was therefore not in arrears.[2] Christine and the OAG each filed responses to Anthony's counterpetition.

         The OAG later filed three amended petitions, each revising the alleged arrearage amount. Its live pleading, a third amended petition filed on February 16, 2018, stated that as of that date, Anthony in fact overpaid his child support obligation by $1, 794.98 and did not owe any medical support arrearage. The third amended petition retained the OAG's original request that Anthony be ordered to pay Christine the increased health insurance costs and fifty percent of unreimbursed medical expenses. It stated that, if the court offsets the amounts due for unreimbursed medical expenses by the overpayment of child support, the remaining balance owed by Anthony would be $3, 490.15.

         On February 20, 2018, Anthony filed a "First Amended Motion For Enforcement By Contempt and Order to Appear and Modification" in which he alleged that there were twenty-three instances between 2015 and 2017 when Christine failed to comply with the visitation provisions of the final decree. He asked for Christine to be held in contempt, jailed, and fined. On the same day, Anthony filed a "First Amended Petition to Recover Child Support Payments Made In Excess of Child Support Order Or in the Alternative, Offset" in which he reiterated the arguments made in his earlier counterpetition and additionally argued that he had made over $8, 000 in direct tuition payments which should be credited as child support.

         Anthony's first amended petition also alleged the parties had entered into an "Accord and Satisfaction" agreement on October 12, 2012 and that, at the time of the agreement, the OAG indicated that he was $1, 710 in arrears in child support. He therefore contended that, by signing the agreement, Christine waived her entitlement to that amount. A copy of the agreement was attached to his petition.

         A hearing was held on March 21, 2018, at which the OAG and both parties were each represented by counsel. The trial court later signed an order on April 21, 2018, granting Anthony's requested modification, granting the OAG's request for modification in part, and denying the OAG's request for an order as to unreimbursed medical expenses. The order denied the OAG's motion, made at the hearing, to amend its pleadings to request an increase in child support going forward. It further stated that Anthony was not in child support or medical support arrears as of the date of the order, and it contained the following additional findings:

The Court finds that [Anthony] has overpaid his child support obligation as of March 21, 2018 as follows: [1] by payment of private school tuition for his son . . . in the amount of $8, 820.60, and [2] The Court finds that [Anthony] and [Christine] entered into an accord and satisfaction whereby any child support arrearage that existed at the time would be zeroed out. The Court finds at the time the parties entered in the accord and satisfaction, [Anthony] was in child support arrears in the amount of $3, 760.00 as of October 12, 2012. THEREFORE, the Court ORDERS that [Anthony] receive a total credit against his future child support obligations in the amount of $14, 950.40 as of March 21, 2018.
The Court finds that guideline child support for [Anthony] is $1, 923.75 per month; however, the Court ORDERS a monthly offset of his current child support obligation in the amount of $311.46 each month until the $14, 950.40 credit has applied to his future child support obligations. This calculation results in 48 months of a $311.46 reduction in monthly child support.

         In accordance with these findings, the trial court ordered Anthony to pay the following amounts in monthly child support: $1, 612.29 beginning on April 1, 2018, and ending when either child turns eighteen, marries, or dies; $1, 184.79 thereafter until March 2022; and $1, 496.25 from April 1, 2022, until the other child turns eighteen, marries, or dies. The April 21 order also required Anthony to pay Christine $277 in monthly medical expenses as additional child support, for as long as his child support obligation continues.

         On May 14, 2018, the trial court signed findings of fact and conclusions of law addressing only Anthony's contempt allegations. The court found, among other things, that Christine had failed to surrender the parties' minor daughter to Anthony for specified possession periods, in violation of the terms of the divorce decree, on twenty-two occasions between 2015 and 2017. Christine was found to be in contempt of court and was ordered to serve 180 days in jail for each violation, with the terms of confinement to run concurrently, and the confinement suspended on condition that Christine comply with the order and pay $5, 000 to Anthony in attorney's fees. The trial court also ordered that Anthony would have two additional periods of possession of up to fourteen days in 2018 and 2019. Christine filed a motion for new trial, which was denied.

         This appeal followed.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         A trial court's ruling on a motion for enforcement or modification of child support is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Chenault v. Banks, 296 S.W.3d 186, 189 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2009, no pet.); see In re A.M.W., 313 S.W.3d 887, 890 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2010, no pet.). A court abuses its discretion when it acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles, or fails to analyze or apply the law correctly. Worford v. Stamper, 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990) (per curiam). Under the abuse of discretion standard, legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence are not independent grounds for asserting error; however, they are relevant factors in assessing whether an abuse of discretion occurred. Banker v. Banker, 517 S.W.3d 863, 869 (Tex. App.- Corpus Christi-Edinburg 2017, pet. denied).

         B. Relief Requested in OAG's Petition

         By a multifarious first issue, Christine argues that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to grant the relief requested in the OAG's third amended petition for modification of child support and confirmation of arrearages. She also complains by this issue about the trial court's denial of unreimbursed medical expenses and its calculation of health insurance premiums.

         1. Modification of Current Child Support Obligation

         Christine initially argues by her first issue that the trial court erred by: "holding that the OAG had not pled a modification of child support above the guidelines due to the proven need[s] of the children"; denying modification of child support; and excluding evidence related to child support, medical support, and the needs of the children.

         At the beginning of the hearing on the OAG's enforcement motion, the OAG's attorney moved to strike an amended answer which Anthony had filed after the pleading deadline set by the court. According to the OAG's counsel, Anthony's late-filed amended answer asserted certain new affirmative defenses to the OAG's claims. The following colloquy occurred:

THE COURT: Okay. All right. The Court agrees with you then, [OAG's counsel], and the answer is stricken. By the same token, however, [counsel], your pleadings don't request enhanced support and so the Court is not going to entertain evidence in that regard either. All right.
[OAG's counsel]: I except to that ruling, Your Honor. Again, I would show, for purposes of the record, that that has been an issue in this case since day one. There is no surprise. I'm requesting the Court to grant us leave to file trial amendment for that purpose.
THE COURT: Denied.

         The trial court's April 21, 2018 order states: "IT IS ORDERED that the AG's request for trial amendment to allow for additional support in accordance with the proven needs of the children is DENIED."

         In response to Christine's issue on appeal, Anthony argues that the OAG's live petition "does not state that she is requesting child support over the statutory cap[[3] or in accordance with the proven needs of the children, if any, nor do they seek enforcement." He contends that "[t]he OAG's ...

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