You learned how to negotiate child support effectively in the CFL course. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the case, the statute of limitations for child support payments affects the ruling.
The District of Columbia appeals court recently handled such a case. In Massey vs. Massey, after many years of non-payment, the ex-wife filed a motion to force her former husband to pay back child support despite a prior verdict that the statute of limitations had expired.
Carolyn Pope and Freddie Massey were married in 1969 and had four children before they divorced in 1985. After the divorce, Freddie was ordered to pay his ex-wife $450 per month in child support.
In D.C., child support obligations end when a child becomes 21. The couple’s youngest child turned 21 in October 1999, and by then, Freddie owed back child support of about $49,000 total. Eight years later, the District of Columbia Child Support Services Division took part of Mr. Massey’s federal tax refund to partially satisfy the debt. In 2008, the court denied his motion to end the child support order and the debt on the grounds that he was homeless and disabled and couldn’t afford to pay.
By 2012, Freddie started getting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. The D.C. government took part of the child support money he owed from those payments. Freddie’s next attempt to have his child support obligations terminated – because of disability, unemployment, and his need for SSDI – also failed.
He then filed a motion to end his obligation, which the trial court granted in 2015 upon concluding that the statute of limitations barred the debt collection. The statute of limitations for child support debts in the District of Columbia is 12 years. After that time, “the judgment . . . shall cease to have any operation or effect” and is no longer enforceable “except in the case of a proceeding that may be then pending for the enforcement of the judgment.”
Carolyn appealed the ruling on four grounds: waiver and preclusion, res judicata, nullum tempus occurrit regi, and renewal.
District of Columbia Court of Appeals Decision
The Court of Appeals re-affirmed the lower court decision that Mr. Massey no longer owed child support because the 12-year time limit had passed in 2011, after the youngest child turned 21.
According to the ruling, the payments owed “constitute judgment debts as each installment becomes due and payable.” As such, the debt is only enforceable for twelve years from the date “when an execution might first be issued thereon, or from the date of the last order of revival thereof.”
The ruling then addressed each of Ms. Pope-Massey’s arguments:
Carolyn argued that Freddie couldn’t raise the statute of limitations because he didn’t bring up the time limit in his prior 2007 and 2012 motions for the same relief.
The appeals court disagreed. “We are not persuaded that under the circumstances of this case Mr. Massey waived or forfeited his statute-of-limitations argument where he presented it in the first instance as an affirmative defense, not in belated response to a prior pleading.”
The court further held that the defense of the statute of limitations must not be “narrowly construed.” The precedent for the appeals and federal courts is to apply the waiver doctrine flexibly, “especially when no substantial prejudice would result from permitting the defendant to raise an affirmative defense at a later stage in the litigation.”
Claim Preclusion (Res Judicata)
On this ground, Carolyn argued that “Mr. Massey could have, but did not, litigate the issue of the statute of limitations in one of his earlier motions and therefore may not raise it now.” The court held that the preclusion doctrine prevents re-litigation only in subsequent or secondary proceedings but “it is clear that res judicata does not apply if a party moves the rendering court in the same proceeding to correct or modify its judgment.”
Ms. Pope Massey also argued that the 2007 and 2012 modification motions “renewed” the child support award judgment and effectively restarted the clock on the 12-year statute of limitations.
She also cited D.C. Code § 46- 204(b), which recognizes that each payment Freddie owed vested upon the date it became due.
The Court ruled that “in the absence of authority suggesting a statute-of-limitations period for child support payments may be ‘renewed,’ as opposed to explicitly revived or tolled, we are not persuaded that the statute of limitations may be restarted or extended…”
Nullum tempus occurrit regi (“no time runs against the sovereign”)
Ms. Pope Massey asserted that Mr. Massey can’t use the statute of limitations under the doctrine of nullum tempus occurrit regi (“no time runs against the sovereign”). This law provides the sovereign with “a common-law immunity from the operation of statutes of limitations and repose.”
The court decided that outside of the District of Columbia’s involvement in withholding part of his SSDI payments, it wasn’t a “suit by the sovereign.” The government wasn’t involved. Rather, in a private case between two parties, Freddie contested the continued validity of his child support payments. The court also believed that Ms. Pope Massey didn’t explain why she would be entitled to assert the District’s immunity.
“We are therefore not persuaded that this is a proper case or that Ms. Pope Massey is a proper party to invoke the nullum tempus doctrine.”
D.C. Code § 46-215
Finally, Carolyn cited a law which provides that an order to withhold based on a judgment for support issued within twelve years of that judgment “shall not lapse or become invalid before complete satisfaction solely by reason of the expiration of the period of limitation set forth in § 15-101.”
The court found that the record didn’t “demonstrate that any withholding order was in effect when the final statute-of-limitations period expired.”
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Justia Law. (2019). Massey v. Massey. [online] Available at: https://law.justia.com/cases/district-of-columbia/court-of-appeals/2019/15-fm-718-0.html [Accessed 9 Aug. 2019].