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Bond v. Bond

Court of Appeals of Utah

March 15, 2018

Lisa Emily Bond, Appellant,
v.
Mark Edward Bond, Appellee.

         Second District Court, Farmington Department The Honorable Glen R. Dawson No. 144701018

          David O. Black, Attorney for Appellant

          Cory R. Wall, Attorney for Appellee

          Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate A. Toomey and Jill M. Pohlman concurred.

          HARRIS, JUDGE

         ¶1 After a four-day divorce trial, the court ordered Mark Bond (Mark) to pay $2, 350 per month in alimony to Lisa Bond (Lisa).[1] As part of its alimony calculation, the trial court imputed to Lisa a monthly income of $600. Lisa appeals, asserting that the trial court erred by imputing any income to her at all, and contending that the alimony award therefore should have been larger. Because the trial court's findings regarding imputation of income were supported by competent evidence, we affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Lisa and Mark married in 1989. In 1995, Lisa was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Despite this diagnosis, Lisa continued to work-sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time-as a travel agent until approximately 2012. At that time, Mark and Lisa made a mutual decision that Lisa should quit her job. At trial, Mark testified that, around that time, Lisa was experiencing stress at work, and that this stress was related to both office-specific conflicts as well as the general difficulties inherent in working while afflicted with MS. During her testimony, Lisa clarified that, around that time, she had made some errors at work, that these errors caused her stress, and that the stress made her MS symptoms worse. Mark and Lisa were also aware that Lisa would likely qualify for Social Security disability benefits. For all of these reasons, Mark and Lisa agreed that Lisa should stop working and instead apply for Social Security benefits. For the remainder of their marriage, Lisa did not work outside the home.

         ¶3 Lisa petitioned for divorce in July 2014, and the case went to trial in early 2016. The main issue at trial was whether, and to what extent, Lisa should be awarded alimony. The parties disagreed about many of the specific factors relevant to the alimony analysis, including whether Lisa was physically able to be gainfully employed and, accordingly, whether any income should be imputed to her. For her part, Lisa testified that, due to her MS diagnosis, she was physically unable to engage in gainful employment at all. Lisa also presented testimony from her treating provider (Nurse Practitioner), a nurse practitioner who worked in the MS clinic at the University of Utah and who had been treating Lisa for her MS since 2003. Nurse Practitioner testified that patients with MS often struggle to maintain employment, and that MS can make it so that they "just cannot function" in the workplace. Nurse Practitioner offered her opinion that Lisa was in this category, and was physically unable to return to the workforce in any capacity due to her MS.[2]However, Nurse Practitioner conceded on cross-examination that Lisa was capable of operating a computer and a telephone, capable of driving a car and traveling, and was generally able to complete basic activities of daily living.

         ¶4 During his case-in-chief, Mark presented the testimony of a vocational rehabilitation counselor (Expert) to testify about Lisa's ability to work. Expert testified that she had significant experience evaluating individuals with disabilities generally, and evaluating individuals with MS specifically. Expert offered her opinion that, despite Lisa's disabilities, Lisa would be able to work on a part-time basis in a "sedentary occupation" so long as her employer made "reasonable accommodations." Expert offered three specific examples of jobs that she believed Lisa could perform-a reception information clerk, a hotel desk clerk, or a reservation and ticket agent-and testified that wages in these types of jobs ranged from $9.61 to $12.87 per hour. On cross-examination, Expert conceded that Lisa would have difficulty working a normal eight-hour work shift, and that her recommendation was that Lisa work only "part-time." Expert did not further define "part-time, " but conceded that Lisa would "perhaps" need to limit herself to working "three to four hours a day." Further, in describing the sort of "reasonable accommodations" that Lisa would need her employer to make, Expert noted that Lisa would need "an employer that understands [her] disability and is willing to break down tasks in smaller pieces and give [her] longer breaks." Although neither Expert nor any other witness was able to identify any current job openings with specific employers that would satisfy these criteria, Expert testified generally that "there are many employers that are willing to do that and understand the nature of disability and are willing to help . . . manage those tasks for individuals."

         ¶5 After trial, the court found that Lisa was capable of at least part-time employment, and imputed $600 per month in income to her. This calculation was based on a finding that Lisa was capable of working at least three hours per day, for a total of fifteen hours per week, at an hourly wage of $9.61, for fifty weeks per year.

         ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6 On appeal, Lisa challenges the trial court's decision to impute income to her, and argues that the evidence introduced at trial did not support the trial court's finding that she was capable of working for three hours per day at an hourly wage of $9.61. "A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence concerns the trial court's findings of fact. Those findings will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous." Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4) ("Findings of fact, whether based on oral or other evidence, must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court's opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses."). Courts have "broad discretion to select an appropriate method of assessing a spouse's income, " including determinations of income imputation. See Connell v. Connell, 2010 UT App 139, ¶ 17, 233 P.3d 836 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "[T]he existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a trial court's finding." ...


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