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Jackson v. Jackson

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 16, 2017

LEO JACKSON, JR., Appellee
v.
NADINE JACKSON, Appellant

         Appeal from the Order June 1, 2016 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Family Division at No(s): FD 87-007382-006

          BEFORE: BOWES, OLSON, and STRASSBURGER, [*] JJ.

          OPINION

          STRASSBURGER, J.

         Nadine Jackson (Wife) appeals from the order dated June 1, 2016, which made final the court's May 3, 2016 order holding that Wife had waived any claim for equitable distribution. For the reasons that follow, we vacate the trial court's order and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         The trial court set forth the relevant factual and procedural history as follows.

Wife and [Leo Jackson, Jr.] (Husband) were married on April 23, 1988. On November 12, 1999, Husband filed a Complaint for Divorce with a claim for equitable distribution of property. Wife did not file an Answer or Counterclaim to the Divorce Complaint. On August 27, 2001, Wife filed a Counter-Affidavit under Section 3301(d) of the Divorce Code, checking the box stating that she wished to claim economic relief. On August 30, 2001, Husband filed a Notice of Intention to Request Entry of 3301(d) Divorce Decree. The Notice provides that "unless you have already filed with the court a written claim for economic relief, you must do so by the above date or the court may grant the divorce and you will lose forever the right to ask for economic relief. The filing of the form counter-affidavit alone does not protect your economic claims." Wife never filed a written claim for economic relief. On September 20, 2001, Husband filed a Praecipe to Transmit Record in which he indicated that equitable distribution was a pending, related claim. On October 16, 2001, the [trial court] entered a bifurcated divorce decree, retaining jurisdiction of "any claims raised by the parties to this action for which a final order has not yet been entered."
Neither party filed an inventory nor were [any] equitable distribution proceedings initiated. Fourteen years later, Husband retired and Wife sought her marital share of his pension. On April 8, 2015, Wife filed an inventory and asked the [trial court] to require Husband to do the same. On May 28, 2015, Wife filed a Motion for Special Relief, seeking to freeze Husband's retirement assets. Husband objected on the basis that Wife's claim was waived. There were no factual issues in dispute and the [trial court] directed the parties to submit the issue on briefs.
Following a review of the record, the brief[s] of the parties, and applicable Pennsylvania law, the [trial court] found that Wife waived her claim for equitable distribution to Husband's pension. Wife filed a Motion for Reconsideration which was granted. By Order dated June 1, 2016, the [trial court] vacated its order granting [re]consideration and entered the [May 3, 2016] order as final.
Wife timely appealed, and, in response to an Order issued pursuant to [Pa.R.A.P.] 1925(b), filed a Concise Statement of Matters Complained of on Appeal[.]

Trial Court Opinion, 9/9/2016, at 2-3.

         On appeal, Wife presents the following issues for our consideration, which we have reordered for ease of disposition.

1. Whether the [trial court] erred in vacating its order granting Wife's motion for reconsideration and making final its order dated May 3, 2016 where its opinion concluded Wife's pursuit of equitable distribution was barred by laches?
2. Whether despite the record revealing that Wife had filed for economic relief, [did the trial court err] in determining that she had not and therefore waived any claim for equitable distribution rather than recognize that the intent of the parties controlled when the bifurcated divorce decree as a matter of law preserved equitable distribution when the [trial court] retained jurisdiction over it which meant said economic issues survived the decree which was on its face [] absent of any fraud or defect requiring it be opened or vacated?

Wife's Brief at 2 (unnecessary capitalization and suggested answers omitted).

         "Ordinarily, this Court reviews an order granting special relief for an abuse of discretion. However, where, as here, an appeal presents a question of law, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review plenary." Raines v. Raines, 149 A.3d 375, 378 (Pa. Super. 2016) (citations omitted).

         Wife first contends the trial court erred in finding her pursuit of equitable distribution was barred by the doctrine of laches. A review of the record reveals that Wife's issue stems from the trial court's 1925(a) opinion, wherein the court stated it was unaware of any precedent which "permits a party who waived her right to equitable distribution to force adjudication of the opposing party's claim to his detriment a decade later." Trial Court Opinion, 9/9/2016, at 5. Wife is attacking a straw man. We fail to see how the trial court's passing remark in its 1925 opinion can be construed as a finding that Wife is barred from raising her claim under the doctrine of laches. Further, neither the June 1, 2016 order nor the May 3, 2016 order contains any reference to such a finding.[1] Rather, the trial court's May 3 order focuses on the fact that Wife had failed to file for economic claims, and thus she waived her claims.

         We now turn to Wife's remaining issue on appeal, namely, whether the trial court erred in holding Wife waived her claims for equitable distribution. Wife asserts that she is entitled to pursue economic claims against Husband by virtue of the fact that: (1) Husband filed a divorce action raising a claim for equitable distribution; (2) Wife filed a counter-affidavit prior to the entry of the decree checking the box indicating that she wished to claim economic relief; and (3) the parties entered into a bifurcated divorce, wherein the trial court retained jurisdiction over claims raised by the parties for which a final order had yet to be entered. Wife's Brief at 8-22. Wife further argues that the trial court incorrectly found that her only remedy to pursue economic claims was to file a petition to open or vacate the divorce decree. Id. at 19. Wife argues that she has never attempted to open or vacate the decree, and her filings sought only to distribute equitably the sole marital asset of the parties, ...


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