Divorcing Party Could Not "Change Mind" About Mediation Agreement

by: Matt Newburg

03/06/2018 02:32 PM EST

A party in a divorce action could not claim the mediation agreement he signed was unenforceable simply because he changed his mind and “regretted making the agreement,” the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

In Rettig v Rettig, a published and binding opinion, the Court of Appeals emphasized what it has said several times in previous decisions: parties in a divorce proceeding cannot assert that a valid mediation agreement is unenforceable just because they change their mind after signing it.

The defendant-husband in Rettig had his attorney with him when he signed the mediation agreement, the Court of Appeals pointed out. Accordingly, the defendant “was aware of the provisions in the agreement that settled the disputes over parenting time and custody, shown by his signature,” the appeals court wrote.

Divorce Mediation Agreement

The plaintiff and the defendant were married for five months and one minor child together. During their divorce proceedings, the plaintiff sought full physical custody of the child, with weekly supervised parenting time for the defendant. The defendant, on the other hand, requested joint legal and physical custody. The trial court entered a temporary order granting joint legal custody with plaintiff having sole physical custody, ordering the defendant to pay $700 each month in child support and granting defendant parenting time of three times per week.

Thereafter, the parties and their attorneys reached an agreement on all issues in the divorce, including that the defendant would pay $300 each month in child support and would be allowed additional parenting time. The parties also agreed to review parenting time and custody when the child reached certain ages. The plaintiff and the defendant signed a “memorandum of understanding” that reflected the agreement, which stated: “This memorandum of understanding spells out the agreement that we have reached in mediation. This resolves all disputes between the parties and the parties agree to be bound by this agreement.”

After the plaintiff filed a motion for judgment on the agreed-upon memorandum, the defendant filed a motion to set aside the memorandum. The trial court ultimately entered the judgment of divorce, concluding the defendant had signed the memorandum in the presence of his attorney and his signature was expected to “mean something.” The defendant appealed.

Valid Agreement

On appeal, the defendant based his arguments on alleged procedural errors. He essentially claimed the memorandum he signed was like a mediation settlement and, therefore, certain procedures had to be followed under the court rules. He argued, however, that these procedures were not followed because the memorandum was not read into the court record and was not signed by the mediator or the attorneys.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. “[T]here was a hearing held and the agreement was scrutinized before entered into the proposed judgment,” the appeals court wrote. “Thus, the agreement between the two parties was valid.”

The Court of Appeals explained that, while a trial court does not have to accept the stipulations or agreements of parties word-for-word, it can presume “at face value” that the parties meant what they signed. “There is no coherent reason presented why the trial court could not do so in this case,” the appeals court observed.

In addition, the trial court in this case did not indicate it believed that it was bound by the agreement but, rather, correctly expressed the belief that it was “empowered to accept it,” the Court of Appeals said.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court failed to make an independent factual determination on the statutory best interest factors, despite the mediation agreement. To support his argument, the defendant relied on Rivette v Rose-Molina, 278 Mich App 327 (2008), and Harvey v Harvey, 470 Mich 186 (2004). However, the appeals court concluded that neither Rivette nor Harvey applied to the present case.

Further, the Court of Appeals denied the defendant’s claim that the trial court had to make a finding regarding the child’s established custodial environment, in order to determine whether entry of the divorce judgment would alter that environment. According to the appeals court, this argument was “nonsensical.”

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals held the trial court properly included the mediation agreement its order. “The evidence shows that there was no clear legal error or abuse of discretion falling outside of the range of principled outcomes,” the appeals court stated.

If you need legal assistance in a divorce, custody or parenting-time matter, the experienced attorneys in the Newburg Law, PLLC Family Law Division are available to help. Contact us today.