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Hussein-Scott v Scott

Case No. 6768 (AK S.Ct., Mar. 29, 2013)

I. INTRODUCTION



Jerry Scott and Camilla Hussein-Scott dissolved their marriage and signed a marital settlement agreement requiring Jerry to pay alimony every month. On the line of the agreement reserved for the alimony termination date, Jerry wrote “12/2/2020,” which is the 18th birthday of their youngest daughter, Myriam. But on the next line, in a space left blank for “other specifics,” Jerry wrote, “To be paid until Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday or until remarriage.” Yasmine is the couple’s middle daughter, and her 18th birthday is August 1, 2015. We are asked if Jerry’s alimony obligation ends on the earlier date or the later one. Relying on the well-established rule that the more important or principal clause controls, we conclude that Jerry’s support obligation terminates on December 2, 2020, or upon Camilla’s remarriage if earlier.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS



A. Facts



Jerry Scott and Camilla Hussein-Scott were married in Eugene, Oregon and had three children, Salome, Yasmine, and Myriam. The couple separated after 13 years of marriage. At the time, Camilla was living in Florida with the children, and Jerry was working in Alaska. Four years later, Jerry filed a petition to dissolve the marriage, and Jerry and Camilla signed a marital settlement agreement. Jerry handwrote the agreement’s terms on a pre-printed form. The agreement disposed of the marital assets and liabilities and set terms for child support, custody, and visitation, as well as spousal support. A Florida court adopted the agreement by reference and dissolved the marriage.

The current dispute arose because the spousal support provision of the settlement agreement is ambiguous. The pre-printed settlement agreement form required the parties to specify the amount, frequency, and duration of alimony payments. The parties indicated that Jerry would pay Camilla $10,000 every month, continuing until “12/2/2020.” This is the 18th birthday of their youngest daughter, Myriam. The next line of the form asked the parties to “Explain [the] type of alimony (temporary, permanent, rehabilitative, and/or lump sum) and any other specifics.” Jerry circled the word “temporary,” and, in the space provided, wrote “To be paid until Yasmine Scott’s 18th birthday or until remarriage.” Yasmine is the couple’s middle daughter. She will turn 18 on August 1, 2015, more than five years before the termination date specified on the line above. As the superior court noted, “Obviously the parties intended to have both descriptions identify the same date. Thus they either erred by using the wrong date (12/2/2020) for Yasmine’s 18th birthday or they erred in the descriptive phrase by referring to Yasmine rather than Myriam.”
 

 

Judge(s): Dana Fabe
Jurisdiction: Alaska Supreme Court
Supreme Court Judge(s)
Walter Carpeneti
Dana Fabe
Peter Maassen
Craig Stowers
Daniel Winfree

 
Trial Court Judge(s)
William Morse

 
Appellant Lawyer(s) Appellant Law Firm(s)
Terry Aglietti Aglietti Offret & Woofter

 
Appellee Lawyer(s) Appellee Law Firm(s)
Gregory Parvin

 

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Click the maroon box above for a formatted PDF of the decision.
v. the inclusion of “any other specifics.” jerry entered the term “12/2/2020” on the line clear error to find her testimony not credible and urges us to draw our own conclusions testimony. case. this was a ruling of law reconciling conflicting contract terms, based on a possibly 4 agreement’s terms on a pre-printed form. the agreement disposed of the marital assets payments will end, this condition seems to be exactly the type of “other specific” that nor is the term “yasmine scott’s 18th birthday” more specific than one.20 terms in a way that gives effect to them all. that is not possible here. when two irreconcilable differences between contract clauses is to the superior court applied, by analogy, a provision from the uniform ) supreme court no. s-14561 could not be expressed on the line reserved for the termination date. -7- 6768 ) 21 -11- 6768 erroneous observation about human nature in general. it is not entitled to deference as these principles include considering the iii. standard of review 9 jerry and camilla now both live in alaska. in 2009 they registered the 10 only be accepted as a rule of last resort.” 11williston & lord, supra note 12. payments were supposed to end when myriam, their youngest daughter, turned 18. scott’s 18th birthday or until remarriage.” yasmine is the couple’s middle daughter, and 616 (“other than tradition, no reason exists for treating land sales differently from the of the agreement reserved for the alimony termination date, jerry wrote “12/2/2020,” restatement (second) of contracts § 206 (1981) (“in choosing we are asked to review the superior court’s interpretation of a marital is coupled with the language “or until remarriage,” creating a limiting condition that the courts for how to deal with conflicting clauses was to enforce the earlier clause and settlement agreement is ambiguous. the pre-printed settlement agreement form required p.2d 866, 869-70 (alaska 1981). line of the form asked the parties to “explain [the] type of alimony (temporary, irreconcilable with the general intent.”); norville v. carr-gottstein foods co., 84 p.3d spousal support. reducing its importance. the phrase “[t]o be paid until yasmine scott’s 18th birthday” ) referring to yasmine rather than myriam.” ambiguity. 303 k street, anchorage, alaska 99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878, email indicated that this was their intent when drafting the agreement. 19 finally, she agreed that they discussed the agreement at the dinner table, and that she had children and pay the mortgages on her properties. she testified that the support contradictory term, we conclude that jerry scott’s spousal support obligations terminate and numbers in the contested alimony provision. in a negotiable instrument, such as a payments, or, if that were not successful, to clarify his obligation under the settlement coerced into getting the divorce and signing the settlement agreement. date, the words written in that space are entitled to less weight when trying to determine 8 o p i n i o n law.15 in this case, the issuing state is florida. we will 17 abood v. abood, 119 p.3d 980, 986 (alaska 2005); peterson v. wirum, 625 of “caveat emptor” in the sale of goods, and applying it to a real property transaction). payment of arrearages under the order.”). her 18th birthday is august 1, 2015. we are asked if jerry’s alimony obligation ends on question.”); cook v. cook, 249 p.3d 1070, 1077 (alaska 2011). if an instrument contains contradictory terms, typewritten superior court held that jerry’s obligation to pay spousal support ends on we have also held that where credible evidence of intent is unavailable, the court may dist. app. 1975) (“the bailment involved in the case subjudice was not similar to a sale 11 (citing city of homestead v. johnson, 760 so. 2d 80, 84 (fla. 2000)) (construing a a tool of interpretation that can be found in both alaska and florida law ) appeal from the superior court of the state of alaska, third 18th birthday” over the numbers “12/2/2020.” jerry asks us to affirm this interpretation. the earlier date or the later one. relying on the well-established rule that the more never before favored one term over another simply because it appears earlier in the 13 ii. facts and proceedings and artificial quality of this rule of interpretation, it is not universally followed and will descriptions identify the same date. thus they either erred by using the wrong date under both florida and alaska law, an ambiguous settlement agreement is detailed language and argues that the narrative description contains more information (“[i]t is well settled law that minor provisions of contracts should be interpreted so as not a. facts jerry scott and camilla hussein-scott dissolved their marriage and signed bergman v. bergman, 199 so. 920, 921 (fla. 1940)) (“that these [settlement] “12/2/2020.” this is the 18th birthday of their youngest daughter, myriam. the next 18 appellee. judicial district, anchorage, william f. morse, judge. -8- 6768 fitness in sales cases are often present in lease transactions.”); cousineau, 613 p.2d at determination that it would be ‘less likely to select the wrong child’s name when uifsa, the duration of current obligations in a marital settlement agreement is governed jerry is also incorrect that “[t]he superior court made a factual see hartley v. hartley, 205 p.3d 342, 350 (alaska 2009); keffer v. keffer, moreover, the phrase “[t]o be paid until yasmine scott’s 18th birthday” is 852 p.2d 394, 397-98 (alaska 1993). the extent that type of testimony is probative, assessment of witness credibility is the it may be possible to harmonize the terms in the agreement by reading it salome. once salome turned 18 and finished with her home-schooling, the other before: fabe, chief justice, carpeneti, winfree, stowers, [ ] florida divorce decree and marital settlement agreement in alaska for enforcement and “yasmine scott’s 18th birthday.” exclusive province of the fact-finder, and we will not revisit that assessment on appeal.8 7 contract as a whole, looking to the intent of the parties, avoiding absurd results, and a factual finding. is that the more important or more specific term prevails: -4- 6768 contracts after noting that the ucc implies such a warranty in sales contracts); and alaska courts have applied the ucc by analogy to non-ucc situations.19 over numbers, the court found that “the more likely error would occur in the entry of the support. a florida court adopted the agreement by reference and dissolved the marriage. id. (citing wahl, 945 p.2d at 1232 n.3). jerry scott and camilla hussein-scott were married in eugene, oregon and constructing the contract such that the result is fair, customary, and such as a prudent 3 and both suggest that the earlier term “12/2/2020” prevails over the later phrase they are unsupported by substantial evidence.3 parties indicated that jerry would pay camilla $10,000 every month, continuing until anchorage, for appellant. gregory s. parvin, wasilla, for the line above. as the superior court noted, “obviously the parties intended to have both the available evidence makes the intent of the parties obvious. she claims that it was bailment.”). such that camilla would be guaranteed payments until yasmine’s 18th birthday, and then jerry scott, agreements should be construed and interpreted as other contracts is no longer open to terminates on december 2, 2020, or upon camilla’s remarriage if earlier. ) another is to construe the rely on extrinsic evidence, we will accept the factual findings of the superior court unless we therefore working in alaska. four years later, jerry filed a petition to dissolve the marriage, and insufficient factual findings. i. introduction terms prevail over printed terms, handwritten terms prevail fla. stat. § 673.1041 (2013); as 45.03.104. modification. to conflict with the main purpose. indeed, minor provisions should be sacrificed if not the only term that appears in the space designated for “any other specifics,” further b. the lower court did not err in disregarding the parties’ [ ] the superior court found neither party credible. citing by analogy to a 20 disregard the later. this approach is still followed today.”). constr. co. v. soil processing, inc., 944 p.2d 20, 25 n.7 (alaska 1997)), and we have check, the drafter uses both words and numerals to represent the same number. in that 828 (alaska 1973). -10- 6768 until yasmine scott’s 18th birthday or until remarriage” in the second blank space for interpreted using basic contract principles.5 unlike “yasmine scott’s 18th birthday,” requires no application of outside information. that analogy is only persuasive where the contract in question is similar to a commercial therefore interpret the agreement according to florida law. word “temporary,” and, in the space provided, wrote “to be paid until yasmine scott’s prevails over the phrase “yasmine scott’s 18th birthday.” “any other specifics.” because the second space was not designated for the termination alimony payments will end upon camilla’s remarriage. unlike the date that the here, the settlement agreement form contained a line specifically reserved up.” she explained that the support payments were supposed to help her raise all three anthony v. state, 521 p.2d 486, 492 (alaska 1974). a space left blank for “other specifics,” jerry wrote, “to be paid until yasmine see, e.g., favors v. firestone tire & rubber co., 309 so. 2d 69, 72 (fla. see florida power corp., 18 so. 2d at 674; mcbain v. pratt, 514 p.2d 823, both parties agree that, if the earlier date controls, the trial court erred by support act (uifsa), which guides our choice-of-law determination in this case. under but we have held as a matter of law that self-serving testimony at the time marriage settlement agreement against its drafter). digits or misplacing a period when dealing with numerals than when writing the amount settlement agreement. this is a question of law, which we consider de novo.2 finding that the payments will end in 2016 instead of 2015, when yasmine turns 18. papers he would get a divorce “she wouldn’t like.” camilla alleged that she had been the supreme court of the state of alaska amount, and duration of current payments and other obligations of support and the contracts § 32:15 (4th ed. 2012) (“historically, one of the first answers provided by over both, and words prevail over numbers. 17 appearances: terry c. aglietti, aglietti, offret & woofter, florida power corp. v. city of tallahassee, 18 so. 2d 671, 674 (fla. 1944). august 1, 2016.1 payments were meant to support camilla while she home-schooled their oldest daughter, on the earlier of december 2, 2020 or camilla’s remarriage. the superior court’s order more specific clause controls the more general. 16 camilla hussein-scott, d. it was error to interpret the settlement agreement according to here because that provision only applies to negotiable instruments.18 an opportunity to review the terms, but she also claimed that jerry made her discuss the ) when payments will end. the line specifically designated for the termination date child support, not spousal support, would end—that is, myriam’s 18th birthday. jerry -6- 6768 but if we intended termination date of alimony payments. jerry testified that the alimony they are available under florida the contract. this rule is tempered by the corollary that the v. conclusion 18th birthday or until remarriage.” yasmine is the couple’s middle daughter. she will of either party. notice: this opinion is subject to correction before publication in the pacific reporter. iv. choice of law terms cannot be reconciled, there are several tools of contract interpretation that may as 25.25.604(a) (“the law of the issuing state governs the nature, extent, jerry and camilla signed a marital settlement agreement. jerry handwrote the the cases in the footnote above made this similarity explicit. see w.e. meaning is generally preferred which operates against the party who supplies the words involved.”). date.” (emphasis added.) this determination was not rooted in the specific facts of this c. general contract principles suggest that the term “12/2/2020” ) for the date on which alimony payments would cease, and a second space left blank for even so, at least one florida court has refused to rely on the analogy where there is no identifying the particular birthday as the end point’ than to erroneously select the actual the uniform commercial code. cousineau v. walker, 613 p.2d 608, 615-16 (alaska 1980) (noting the ucc’s rejection permanent, rehabilitative, and/or lump sum) and any other specifics.” jerry circled the 12/2/2020, entitling it to priority. jerry contends that specific language means more and we see no reason to extend uniform commercial code warranties to this type of -5- 6768 the words and numbers in negotiable instruments are not like the words 15 children were to attend public school. camilla was to receive support payments for four “myriam.” the mental error in either case — thinking of the wrong daughter — is the of litigation about the parties’ past intentions is not particularly probative.7 -9- 6768 both the superior court and jerry recognize that the ucc is not controlling still interpret an ambiguous settlement agreement as a matter of law.9 reserved for the alimony termination date, and entered the written phrase “[t]o be paid out longhand. but we see no reason to believe that jerry was more likely to write 100 (fla. 1970) (finding an implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose in lease zito v. zito, 969 p.2d 1144, 1147 n.4 (alaska 1998) (citing wahl v. wahl, context, it makes sense to believe that it is easier to make a mistake by transposing two -2- 6768 camilla appeals. johnson equip. co., 238 so. 2d at 100 (“the reasons for imposing the warranty of of marriage. at the time, camilla was living in florida with the children, and jerry was alaska in interpreting marriage settlement agreements,14 at the hearing, jerry and camilla gave conflicting testimony about the drafting party, see zito v. zito, 969 p.2d 1144, 1147 (alaska 1998) (citing little susitna following the rule, the superior court gave preference to the words “yasmine scott’s or from whom a writing otherwise proceeds.”). 11 samuelwilliston & richard a. lord, a treatise on the law of -3- 6768 b. proceedings same. 16 5 from the hearing. she also contends that the superior court erred by ruling with is reversed and the case is remanded for correction of the termination date of to use yasmine’s 18th birthday as a convenient end date. jerry testified that the date among the reasonable meanings of a promise or agreement or a term thereof, that “12/2/2020” when he meant “8/1/2015” than he was to write “yasmine” when he meant 11 williston & lord, supra note 12 (citations omitted); see also kochan superior court no. 3an-09-06621 ci 996, 1004 (alaska 2004) (“[i]f there is a conflict, the specific section will control over bald numerical date rather than in the narrative description of the end date.” the over a later one); mcilmoil v. mcilmoil, 784 so. 2d 557, 562 (fla. dist. app. 2001) because the term “12/2/2020” is more important than the later, settlement agreement. camilla testified that jerry’s version of events was a story that jerry “made and maassen, justices. no. 6768 – march 29, 2013 the general.”). ) 10 11 sale of commercial goods insofar as application of the doctrine of caveat emptor is salome turns 18 is the same year yasmine turns 18, and, according to jerry, they decided 12/2/2020 was a mistake; jerry claims he got mixed up and accidently entered the date like every other state, alaska has adopted the uniform interstate family ) important or principal clause controls, we conclude that jerry’s support obligation conclude that the superior court did not err by declining to place weight on the testimony 945 p.2d 1229, 1231 n.2 (alaska 1997)). we have refused to construe a marriage settlement agreement against the contract against its drafter, in this case jerry.13 (fla. dist. app. 2001) (citations omitted) (applying the rule that an earlier clause prevails v. am. fire & cas. co., 200 so. 2d 213, 219 (fla. dist. app. 1967) (citations omitted) in 2011 jerry filed a motion in the alaska superior court to end his alimony see, e.g., w.e. johnson equip. co. v. united airlines, inc., 238 so. 2d 98, such similarity.21 provision of the uniform commercial code stating that, when in conflict, words prevail see copacabana records, inc. v. wea latina, inc., 791 so. 2d 1179, 1180 also testified that he and camilla sat at the dinner table together and discussed the terms the preferred method of interpreting contracts is to reconcile conflicting the parties to specify the amount, frequency, and duration of alimony payments. the than does the mere identification of a date. but the date 12/2/2020 is unequivocal and, 6 (12/2/2020) for yasmine’s 18th birthday or they erred in the descriptive phrase by a. general contract principles apply to determine the meaning of the 1 ) by the law of the issuing state.4 more years to give her a chance to complete college or start a business. four years after enforce the clause relatively more important or principal to agreement in front of their children and that jerry threatened that if she did not sign the agreement. the trial court denied jerry’s motion to end payments, and jerry does not appeal this ruling. the court held an evidentiary hearing to resolve the above-noted and liabilities and set terms for child support, custody, and visitation, as well as spousal while these tools are disfavored in 2 but both florida one simple rule is to enforce the earlier term.12 commercial code that has been adopted in both florida and alaska: person would naturally execute.6 corrections@appellate.courts.state.ak.us. and even to fla. stat. § 673.1141 (2013); as 45.03.114. readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the clerk of the appellate courts, fabe, chief justice. contains the more important information on that topic. afterward until 12/2/2020 or remarriage, whichever is sooner. but neither party has 12 contract. williston looks on this latter method with disfavor: “because of the arbitrary 14 camilla argues that the alimony termination date is not ambiguous because see, e.g., underwood v. underwood, 64 so. 2d 281, 287 (fla. 1953) (citing had three children, salome, yasmine, and myriam. the couple separated after 13 years turn 18 on august 1, 2015, more than five years before the termination date specified on appellant, which is the 18th birthday of their youngest daughter, myriam. but on the next line, in of the agreement equably. a marital settlement agreement requiring jerry to pay alimony every month. on the line appellee. determine which term prevails. the current dispute arose because the spousal support provision of the v. discussion the better and apparent majority rule for resolving it is therefore at least as specific as the reference to yasmine’s 18th birthday.


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