The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently upheld a judgment of the Superior Court, in which the trial judge adopted the parties’ statement of uncontested facts, but rejected their agreed subsidiary conclusion drawn therefrom. In Goddard v. Boucher, 89 Mass. App. Ct. 41 (2016), the trial judge applied the stipulated events surrounding a draft purchase and sales agreement, but ruled that no enforceable contract had arisen, despite the parties’ contrary agreement.
A piece in the April 18, 2016 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (p.38) highlighted the case, catching our eye. We are grateful to the authors, Vincent J. Pisegna and Anthony J. Cichello, because we might not otherwise have noticed this important case, since the context falls outside our usual family law bailiwick. Yet, the Goddard holding applies, no doubt, to all trial proceedings, including family law matters in the Probate and Family Court; and it provides a bright caution light for all litigating counsel. In our service as special master and arbitrator, it is pertinent to our practice, too.
As the Goucher court pointed out, fact stipulations are both “common” and “useful”, Id., at 45, and they will be honored by the trial judge unless “improvident or not conducive to justice.” Id. However, “…the court cannot be controlled by agreement of counsel on a subsidiary question of law.” Id. (Our italics.) In other words, the parties can agree to facts but should not expect the court to be bound by the legal conclusions of that they may draw therefrom.
In divorce, modification, contempt and other Probate and Family Court matters, the court encourages stipulations of uncontested fact. Pre-trial and trial orders generally require them. But how many times have we all entered into, or seen, stipulations that mix facts and law this way.
Some common examples of fact-based legal conclusions:
-- The parties agree that an equal division of the marital estate is equitable.
-- Neither party engaged in conduct that is relevant to the distribution of property.
-- The parties have lived a [upper] [lower] [middle] class lifestyle.
-- The parties have equal opportunities for future [assets] [income].
Woe to the trial counsel who so stipulates and then watches the opposing party put in facts that belie one of those subsidiary conclusions. Under Goucher, the court may conclude otherwise – prompted or not by the opposing party – to the detriment of the party who made strategic trial decisions in reliance on the stipulation as a whole.
Similarly, the parties may choose to put mixed fact and law statements into separation agreements. Under Goucher, some unhappy litigant in an enforcement or modification dispute may find that the court is not bound by agreed legal conclusions, such as:
-- The termination of [alimony] [child support] [allocated support] shall be deemed a substantial and material change of circumstances permitting modification of[child support] [alimony] [expense sharing provisions].
-- A delay in performance shall be deemed a material breach that entitles the other party to statutory interest and counsel fees.
-- A [particular parental decision] shall be deemed to be [consistent with] [contrary to] the best interests of the child.
-- A parent’s move to a location of greater than [20 miles] [20 minutes] from the [other parent’s home] [child’s school] shall entitle the other parent to a modification of the agreed parenting plan.
Best practice urges that we all re-examine our drafting practices, whether in litigation or in agreement drafting, in light of this challenging ruling.