While decisions from the Appellate Division addressing a former professional athlete’s motion to reduce his support obligations do not come around all that often, we have, in fact, previously blogged on the issue.  Now from the Appellate Division comes the unpublished (not precedential) matter of Villone v. Villone, where the Appellate Division strictly relied on “triggering” language in the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement in reversing and remanding a trial court’s decision that a former Major League Baseball pitcher was not entitled to a modification of support.

The matter involved that of former pitcher Ron Villone, who has played for more franchises than almost anyone else in the history of the game (an interesting record that was recently broken) – 12 to be exact as of Spring Training 2011, when he was released by the Washington Nationals and signed with the Somerset Patriots (an independent, minor league baseball club).  He became well known for his travels, earning the nickname “Suitcase” Villone from teammates.  Also interesting is that his current wife is on the reality show “Baseball Wives”, which, in the context of asking for a support reduction could provide potential evidence for his former spouse to use against him in opposing such request at the trial level.

Taking into account the fluctuating nature of Ron’s major league income, including whether he would be relegated to the minor leagues for a certain period of time, the parties provided defined support parameters in their settlement agreement, as well as specific “triggering events” that would allow for a support review:

B. Payment of alimony in the sum as set forth in “A” shall continue, so long as the Husband has earnings from his current baseball contract, including licensing fees and endorsements, annually between the sum of Nine Hundred Fifty Thousand ($950,000.00) Dollars and One Million Five Hundred Thousand ($1,500,000.00) Dollars. In the event the Husband earns less than said sum, then the Husband has the right to apply to the Court for a reduction in alimony unless it can be otherwise negotiated by agreement between the Parties. If the Husband has earnings in excess of said sum, then the Wife may seek an increase in alimony from the Court.

C. If the Husband’s baseball contract provides that he plays in the minor leagues and if he remains in the minor leagues for a period of sixty (60) days, then the Parties agree to re-negotiate alimony. In the event the Parties cannot come to agreement, the Husband has the right to seek the aid of the Court. If and when the Husband shall return to the major leagues and his earnings including salary, endorsements and licensing fees received within a calendar year, equal the sum of Nine Hundred Fifty Thousand ($950,000.00) Dollars to One Million Five Hundred Thousand ($1,500,000.00) Dollars then alimony will return to the sum as originally set forth commencing from the period of the return to the annual salary at the sums as set forth.

The agreement also provided as follows regarding a modification of child support:

Commencing on the first day of January, 2004, and continuing until emancipation or a change of circumstance as defined in Paragraphs B and C above, i.e., wherein the Husband’s salary plus endorsements and licensing fees shall be reduced within the calendar year to a sum below Nine Hundred Fifty Thousand ($950,000.00) Dollars and above One Million Five Hundred Thousand ($1,500,000.00) Dollars, the Husband shall make direct payment to the Wife in the sum of Seven Thousand ($7,000.00) Dollars per month allocable to both children. The Husband shall have the right to return to the Court for a re-allocation of child support in the event his earnings being less than $950,000.00 inclusive of licensing fees, baseball salary and endorsements and if he returns to the minor leagues for a period in excess of 60 days.

When they reached the agreement in 2004, Ron was earning an annual salary of approximately $1 million as a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.  Over the next few years, the wife filed for and obtained an increase in support upon Ron’s signing of a contract with the Mariners that provided him with a level of annual income triggering a review.  In 2009, Ron signed a contract with the Washington Nationals, wherein he earned approximately $1.7 million for 2009.  As of April 2010, the team informed him that he would be assigned to pitch for its major league team, where he pitched for more than 150 days and his salary was approximately $59,000.

Shortly thereafter, in September 2010, Ron filed for a reduction in alimony and child support.  He certified that the Nationals released him as of August 2010 and that there were no offers on the table, nor were they likely to be made, for a 40 year old relief pitcher.

In response to Ron’s application, his ex wife argued that there was no change in circumstance justifying a support modification, relying upon the income and asset information contained in Ron’s Case Information Statement filed with his motion.  The trial court agreed with the wife, denying Ron’s application based on a finding that he had failed to fulfill his initial burden of proving a change in his financial circumstances, including his failure to show that any change was permanent.

On appeal, rather than address whether Ron had fulfilled his initial burden, the Appellate Division concluded that the MSA’s “triggering language” constituted the “equivalent of a changed circumstance” which, when met would allow a trial court to consider a modification application without the moving party having to establish the initial burden of proving additional changed circumstances (it actually relied on its own prior decision in this matter in so finding).  Since Ron had played in the minor leagues for more than 60 days, Ron did not have to prove any additional changed circumstances.  The Court noted, “In this case, the parties explicitly recognized in their agreement that plaintiff’s career and earning capacity would vary over the years and that there were certain objective criteria that represented substantial changes in his income relevant to a determination of his support obligations.”

Since Ron had fulfilled a “trigger” in the MSA, the Court concluded that he had also satisfied the “good cause standard” applicable to his request for discovery and a plenary hearing to determine what change, if any, should be made to his support obligation.

This case provides an interesting glimpse into the life of a professional athlete in the context of family law.  The shelf life of such an athlete is fleeting and can end suddenly (just ask Peyton Manning, who may be on the verge of retirement due to health concerns).  Family law practitioners must, therefore, be diligent in properly structuring agreements to address these relatively unique issues.