CLAUDIA S. WEISS v. MARTIN T. WEISS, SC 18209
Judicial District of Windham
Res Judicata; Collateral Estoppel; Separation Agreements; Whether Plaintiff's Action was Barred by the Doctrines of Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel on the Ground that Plaintiff's Claim that Defendant had Breached Parties' Separation Agreement had been Litigated and Resolved in a Prior Divorce Action. The parties, who were married in 1987, were partners in a law firm until the plaintiff initiated a divorce action in 1999. They subsequently entered into a separation agreement, which provided, in paragraph nine, that the plaintiff would receive one third of all contingency fees generated from certain personal injury cases. Thereafter, in response to the defendant's motion for clarification, the trial court determined that paragraph nine's reference to personal injury cases did not encompass workers' compensation matters. The plaintiff later initiated this action, claiming that, in violation of paragraph nine, the defendant had failed to pay her a portion of the contingency fees that the law firm had collected in connection with certain worker's compensation cases. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff's action was barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel on the ground that the issue concerning the meaning of paragraph nine had already been litigated and resolved in the divorce action. The trial court agreed and granted the defendant's motion. In doing so, it rejected the plaintiff's contention that the trial court in the dissolution action lacked jurisdiction to render a decision on the defendant's motion for clarification in light of the fact that it was, in essence, a motion to open the judgment of dissolution that was filed beyond the four month limitation period set forth in General Statutes § 52-212a. It reasoned that the clarification did not alter the substance of the judgment of dissolution, but, instead, it merely elucidated the meaning of paragraph nine. It further determined that although tort actions, by definition, do not involve the same underlying claims as divorce actions, the plaintiff's complaint, though sounding partially in tort, rested entirely upon an interpretation of the separation agreement, and it therefore constituted a breach of contract action. It also decided that, while dissolution matters, unlike breach of contract actions, often implicate equitable considerations, the dissolution court's interpretation of paragraph nine was simply based upon standard principles of contract law and did not involve any equitable considerations. It went on to conclude that the judgment of dissolution combined with the ruling on the motion for clarification made clear that the meaning of paragraph nine had been decided. Accordingly, it held that the plaintiff's action was barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. In this appeal, the Supreme Court will determine whether the trial court's decision was correct.