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In re Marriage of Vanderbilt

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 21, 2019

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF CASSIDY R. VANDERBILT AND AARON M. VANDERBILT Upon the Petition of CASSIDY R. VANDERBILT, Petitioner-Appellee, And Concerning AARON M. VANDERBILT, Respondent-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Bremer County, DeDra L. Schroeder, Judge.

         A former husband appeals the district court's denial of his motion to set aside a default dissolution decree.

          Robert J. Murphy, Dubuque, for appellant.

          Terry D. Parsons of Olsen & Parsons Law Firm, Cedar Falls, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Tabor and May, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         The district court refused to set aside the default decree dissolving the marriage of Aaron and Cassidy Vanderbilt. Aaron appeals, contending he was "misled by his spouse and her attorney." He claims he did not receive notice of default because he moved out of state and had no access to a computer. The district court did not find Aaron's excuses credible. Deferring to those credibility findings, we affirm.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Cassidy and Aaron married in 2012. They have one child, Z.V., born in 2013. Cassidy petitioned for divorce in late December 2017. Just before Cassidy filed her petition, she and Aaron met for a settlement conference at the office of Cassidy's attorney, Jill Dillon. Dillon explained the parties were trying to resolve issues of custody and support before Aaron moved to Colorado. Dillon told Aaron at the conference she was representing Cassidy.[1] Aaron did not have his own lawyer.

         Aaron accepted service of the petition and original notice in January 2018. When Aaron did not file an answer, the district court set a default-judgment hearing for April 23, 2018. When Aaron did not appear for that hearing, the court entered a default decree dissolving the Vanderbilts' marriage. The decree granted Cassidy physical care of Z.V. with reasonable visitation for Aaron. The decree also ordered Aaron to pay $557 each month in child support. The Child Support Recovery Unit issued an income-withholding order for Aaron in early May 2018.

         The next month, as a self-represented litigant, Aaron filed a "complaint to the court" alleging attorney Dillon conducted a "deceptive mediation" at her office in December 2017. Aaron claimed he did not know Dillon represented Cassidy. He also asserted he could not check the e-filing system for several months after his move to Colorado because he had no access to a computer. Aaron also filed a belated answer to the dissolution petition as well as a motion for temporary custody and visitation.

         The district court set a July 2018 hearing on whether the default decree should be set aside under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.977. Cassidy had new counsel at the hearing. Aaron remained self-represented. He testified he was unaware of the April default hearing. But under cross examination, he acknowledged receiving the petition and original notice. The original notice warned of possible default if he did not submit an answer within twenty days.

         In support of her position, Cassidy offered a text-message exchange with Aaron from mid-January 2018 in which he said, "Got the papers today." She responded, "Yeah I think those just say you're agreeing to proceed right??" He asked, "Yes, do you know if I have to get notarized?" And Cassidy answered, "Well I think she already did when we met with her last." Aaron questioned the authenticity of the exhibit, testifying he believed Cassidy or attorney Dillon fabricated those texts.

         Cassidy submitted exhibits showing both the clerk of court and her attorney sent Aaron notice of the default hearing. The clerk testified she had not received a return notice that the mail was undeliverable. Attorney Dillon testified she sent that notice to Aaron on March 19 at his Aurora, Colorado address.[2] But Aaron testified he did not receive that notice because he had three addresses, two in Colorado and one in Utah, since moving from Iowa. Aaron ...


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