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Federle v. Federle

Court of Appeals of Ohio, First District, Hamilton

June 28, 2019

AMY FEDERLE, Plaintiff-Appellant,
TODD FEDERLE, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal From: Hamilton County Trial No. DR1600420 Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relation Division

          Brinkman & Associates and Karen R. Brinkman, for Plaintiff-Appellant

          George & Underwood LLC and Krystina S. Underwood, for Defendant-Appellee.


          Mock, Presiding Judge.

         {¶1} Plaintiff-appellant Amy Federle ("Amy") appeals from the domestic relations court's February 26, 2018 decree of divorce which adopted an oral in-court settlement agreement entered into by the parties in open court before the magistrate on December 5, 2017.

         {¶2} Amy and defendant-appellee Todd Federle ("Todd") were married in 2005. They have three children. In March 2016, Amy filed a complaint for divorce. On December 5, 2017, after a 19-month period of discovery, predecree motions, substitution of counsel, and negotiations, the parties appeared, with their trial counsel, before the magistrate and indicated that they had reached an agreement to end the litigation.

         {¶3} At the hearing, Todd's trial counsel read the terms of the settlement agreement between the parties into the record. The magistrate then asked each party whether he or she was voluntarily agreeing to those terms and both answered in the affirmative. On February 26, 2018, the domestic relations court journalized a divorce decree. Neither Amy nor her trial counsel signed the decree. Amy appealed.[1]

         {¶4} In two interrelated assignments of error, Amy asserts that the trial court erred in adopting the divorce decree. While she admits that she acknowledged the terms of the agreement, which had been read into the record before the magistrate, she now asserts that the decree ultimately adopted by the domestic relations court omitted terms of the parties' agreement and included different and additional terms. She maintains that the parties continued to dispute and negotiate over terms of the settlement agreement after the December hearing, and that the domestic relations court failed to hold a hearing on these matters before entering the decree of divorce thus denying her an opportunity to be heard on the disputed terms. She also argues that the magistrate's failure to issue a decision under Civ.R. 53 denied her the opportunity to raise objections in the domestic relations court. Finally, she maintains that because she failed to sign the decree, it is not an enforceable decree. We disagree.

         {¶5} The law highly favors settlement agreements as an efficient means to prevent or to end litigation. See Infinite Sec. Solutions, L.L.C. v. Karam Properties, II, Ltd., 143 Ohio St.3d 346, 2015-Ohio-1101, 37 N.E.3d 1211, ¶ 16. And courts have ratified the use of settlement agreements to end divorce proceedings. See Walther v. Walther, 102 Ohio App.3d 378, 383, 657 N.E.2d 332 (1st Dist.1995); see also Holland v. Holland, 25 Ohio App.2d 98, 101, 266 N.E.2d 580 (10th Dist.1970); Ferreri v. Ferreri, 11th Dist. Trumbull No. 2017-T-0055, 2018-Ohio-699, ¶ 28; Eckstein v. Eckstein, 12th Dist. Warren No. CA2010-10-097, 2011-Ohio-1724, ¶ 13.

         {¶6} Where a settlement agreement is arrived at by the parties in open court and preserved by being read into the record, the domestic relations court may enter a judgment which accurately reflects the terms of the agreement, adopting the agreement as its judgment. See Spercel v. Sterling Industries, Inc., 31 Ohio St.2d 36, 285 N.E.2d 324 (1972), paragraph one of the syllabus; see also Walther at 383; Benz v. Benz, 11th Dist. Geauga No. 2004-G-2589, 2005-Ohio-5870, ¶ 14. This rule also obtains when the agreement was entered into before a magistrate. See Benz at ¶ 14. The in-court agreement may be incorporated into the court's final judgment, in the absence of an agreement in writing or approval and signature of a party or her attorney. See Holland at 101; Eckstein at ¶ 13.

         {¶7} The domestic relations court's authority to enforce in-court settlement agreements is discretionary. See Walther at 383; see also Ferreri at ¶ 25. So long as the court is satisfied that the settlement agreement reached by the parties was not procured by fraud, duress, overreaching, or undue influence, the court may adopt the settlement agreement as its judgment. Walther at 383.

         {¶8} Therefore, we review the domestic relations court's decision adopting the in-court settlement only for an abuse of that discretion. An abuse of discretion is shown when a decision is unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable; that is, when the trial court issues a ruling that is not supported by a "sound reasoning process." See AAAA Ents., Inc. v. River Place Community Urban Redev. Corp., 50 Ohio St.3d 157, 161, 553 N.E.2d 597 (1990); see also Parker v. Parker, 1st Dist. Hamilton No. C-130658, 2014-Ohio-5516, ¶ 7.

         {¶9} Here, the record certified for our review contains a transcript of the December 5, 2017 hearing held before the magistrate. Both parties were present with their trial counsel. Our review of that transcript shows that the terms of the settlement agreement between the parties was read into the record by Todd's counsel. The recitation of the terms filled seven pages of transcript. The agreement resolved issues including custody over the parties' minor children, parenting time including holidays and summer vacation time, responsibility for healthcare for the children, child support and property equalization, and the disposal of property.

         {¶10} When Todd's counsel finished the recitation, the magistrate inquired of both parties, then under oath, whether ...

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