Appeal from the Order Entered April 11, 2011 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County Civil Division at No(s): 2011-FC-0053
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ott, J.:
BEFORE: LAZARUS, OTT AND PLATT, JJ.:
Nancy Torres Vignola appeals from the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas' order, entered on April 11, 2011, which granted Cort Vignola's petition for declaratory judgment pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. § 3306.*fn1 Nancy Vignola raises the following two issues: (1) whether the court erred in finding that the issue of whether there was a common law marriage between the parties had previously been determined, and (2) may a support hearing officer determine whether a common law marriage existed, when, by statute, the only way to make that determination is after a declaratory Retired Senior Judge assigned to the Superior Court. judgment based on the evidence at a hearing. Based on the following, we affirm.
Nancy Vignola and Cort Vignola met and began living together in September 1990. Three children were born out of the relationship. On November 14, 2006, Nancy Vignola filed a complaint for child and spousal support against Cort Vignola. She alleged they had a common law marriage. A conference was held and the hearing officer stated, in pertinent part:
A conference was held on 4/9/07 at 10:30 AM for which both parties and [Cort Vignola]'s attorney appeared. [Nancy Vignola] contends the parties have a valid marriage through common law and [Cort Vignola] disputes that stating the parties do not have a common law marriage. After further questioning of the parties, it appears the parties never had a ceremony where vows were exchanged, therefore, no common law marriage existed between the parties for purposes of support. Due to this determination, [Nancy Vignola]'s portion of the complaint for spousal support filed on 11/14/06 is dismissed.
Order of Court, Summary of Trier of Fact, 5/1/2007, at 2. On May 1, 2007, the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas adopted the hearing officer's recommendations and disposed of Nancy Vignola's complaint in an interim order,*fn2 which required Cort Vignola to pay only child support. Nancy Vignola did not request a hearing de novo or file exceptions.
While her support request was pending, Nancy Vignola also filed a divorce complaint on February 7, 2007. However, she did not move forward with the complaint and it was purged on July 16, 2010.*fn3
On January 14, 2011, Nancy Vignola filed a second complaint, requesting a divorce from Cort Vignola. She alleged the parties held themselves out to be husband and wife under 23 Pa.C.S. § 1103 and that the marriage was irretrievably broken. Cort Vignola filed an answer and new matter on February 23, 2011, denying that the parties were husband and wife because there was no marriage.*fn4
That same day, Cort Vignola also filed a petition for declaratory judgment, stating that a valid marriage did not exist between the parties. He averred Nancy Vignola had previously filed the November 14, 2006 complaint for child and spousal support and her request for spousal support was dismissed in the May 1, 2007 interim order on the basis that the parties were never married. Cort Vignola stated Nancy Vignola did not appeal that order or request a hearing de novo and therefore, she was collaterally estopped from now asserting that the parties were married. A hearing was held on April 8, 2011. Three days later, the trial court entered an order, granting Cort Vignola's petition for declaratory judgment "on the basis that [Nancy Vignola] is collaterally estopped from asserting that the parties are married[.]" Order, 4/11/2011, at 1. Nancy Vignola filed this timely appeal.*fn5
Before we address Nancy Vignola's issues, we note the alleged common law marriage predates 23 Pa.C.S. § 1103 ("No common-law marriage contracted after January 1, 2005, shall be valid. Nothing in this part shall be deemed or taken to render any common-law marriage otherwise lawful and contracted on or before January 1, 2005, invalid."). Therefore, the court's examination of the validity of the marriage was proper.
In her first argument, Nancy Vignola claims the trial court erred in finding that collateral estoppel prevented her from moving for divorce against Cort Vignola. She states the issue of marriage was not previously decided for the following reasons: (1) an order regarding spousal support is unappealable prior to a final divorce decree as set forth in prior case law;*fn6
(2) a determination as to the validity of a common law marriage is only proper under a proceeding as specified in 23 Pa.C.S. § 3306; and (3) the determination of the conference officer is erroneous as its conclusions are directly opposed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's position on whether a ceremony is required ...