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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA
JANUARY TERM 2003
CASE NO. 5D01-3705
Decision filed April 4, 2003
Appeal from the Circuit Court
for St. Johns County,
John M. Alexander, Judge.
Homer A. C. Bliss, Jacksonville, and
Michael J. Korn of Korn & Zehmer, P.A.,
Jacksonville, for Appellant.
William S. Graessle of William S. Graessle,
P.A., Jacksonville, for Appellee.
PLEUS, J., concurs.
COBB, W., Senior Judge, concurs and concurs specially, with opinion.
PETERSON, J., dissents with opinion.
COBB, W., Senior Judge, concurring specially.
I write only to respond to the issues raised by the dissent. First, this is not an imputed
income case. The trial court surmised that the 30-month average income utilized represented
real income on which it could base child support payments. Woodard v. Woodard, 634 So.
2d 782 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994); Shudlick v. Shudlick, 618 So. 2d 740 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993).
The fundamental point is that Ellis Peetluk has never raised any concerns or expressed
complaints about the lack of deductions from his average gross income. It was not briefed
or argued and, thus, is simply not a consideration in this appeal. See Carrasquillo v. Holiday
Carpet Service, Inc., 615 So. 2d 862 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993).
PETERSON, J., dissents.
I dissent because the trial court's computation of Ellis Peetluk's income necessary for
the assessment of child support is difficult for me to understand or accept. The concurring
opinion criticizes any discussion of this point because it was not raised on appeal. I must
admit that I am puzzled by Peetluk's failure to include in his brief the discussion that follows in
this dissent. Nevertheless, due to the obvious errors in computation made by the trial court
and in hopes of preventing future error, I believe some discussion is warranted.
Peetluk was primarily a criminal defense lawyer engaged as a sole practitioner in
Atlanta, Georgia. He and his former wife moved there from Florida after terminating his
association with a Florida firm around 1992. The net earnings from Peetluk's law practice
averaged $40,000 before 1996 when his practice changed after representing a few personal
injury plaintiffs that had been involved in a single tractor-trailer/automobile accident. The
record includes copies of his income tax returns1 for 1998 through 2000 which indicate:
1 The parties filed separate income tax returns during the marriage.
The return for 2001 was not available because the trial took place in January of that year.
Review of Peetluk's earnings reveals that most of his financial success is owed to
clients that were referred to him as a result of a tractor-trailer/automobile accident that
occurred in Georgia. More specifically, in the first case, the Harper case settled after two
days of trial and generated a $680,000 fee in 1998. The Walker case generated a fee of at
least $30,000, but the fee has not yet been taken because a dispute is being litigated with the
client over whether the costs were to be paid out of the gross proceeds. The Williams case
generated $302,000 in fees and reimbursement for costs in the amount of $29,000. That fee
is in dispute because the former attorneys representing the client sued Peetluk claiming that
they were entitled to a portion of the fees. Although testimony indicated that the former
attorneys' claim was without merit, the ongoing cost of litigation continues to deplete the fee.
The trial court based the award of child support upon an income of $344,000 per year
or $28,667 per month. Specifically, the trial court's calculations were as follows:
While the wife's income is now approximately $30,000.00 a year, the husband
has/will receive attorney's fees of $680,000.00 from the Harper case in 1998,
$50,000.003 from the Walker case in 1999, and $302,000.00 from the Williams
2 This income was the proceeds of an early IRA distribution.
3The court may have added a fee of $30,000 and cost recovery of $24,000 to arrive at this
estimated $50,000 fee for the Walker case.
case in early 2001 for a total of, $1,032,000.00 in the last thirty (30) months.
Therefore, the husband's average gross income from the attorney's fees from
these three (3) cases is $28,667.00 per month or $344,004.00 per year.
The trial court then acknowledged that an income of $344,000 per year or $28,667 per
month did not account for certain costs:
Nevertheless, the Husband is in litigation over fees obtained on those cases
(Walker and Williams cases), has IRS delinquent tax exposure for 1996
($30,000), 1998 ($5,000) and 1999 ($3,000), all of which remain unpaid. There
is also a medical lien on the Williams case proceeds in an unspecified amount.
He still has student loans outstanding in the amount of $117,000 including
principal and interest ...
Notwithstanding, the trial court still found:
The husband shall pay child support in the amount of $2,000.00 per month. The
court calculates child support using the Husband's average gross income of
$344,000.00 per year.
Additionally, the trial court required Peetluk to maintain a $250,000 life insurance policy for
the wife and child, pay the wife $16,000 for her share of premature IRA distributions and pay
the wife's attorney's fees of $29,657 within 30 days of the final judgment.
It is impossible to determine from the final judgment which months or years constituted
the 30 months or three years used by the trial court to average the gross fees. The above
quotation from the judgment indicates that the trial court used gross income for the years 1998
to and including early 2001 for its computation, a four year period, not a three year period. If
the income available after taxes for the years 1998 through 2000 are combined with the
court's use of the gross proceeds of $302,000 from the Williams case, one cannot arrive at
a $344,000 average net income per year. The computation using the following years results
in a much lower average:
1998 Net Income After Taxes
1999 Net Income After Taxes
2000 Net Income After Taxes
2001 Gross Proceeds from Williams case
Of course, if one uses a five year period, the average income is even lower. The use of the
three year period by the trial court to average gross fees earned in four different calendar or
tax years was an incongruent act.4
Averaging income for purposes of assessing alimony and child support has been
employed in determining the awards. See, e.g., Greenberg v. Greenberg, 793 So. 2d 52
(Fla. 4th DCA 2001); Woodard v. Woodard, 634 So. 2d 782 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994); Shudlick
v. Shudlick, 618 So. 2d 740 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993); see also Deoca v. Deoca, 837 So.2d 1137
(Fla. 5th DCA 2003). In Greenberg and Woodard, the averaging method was used by the trial
courts, but reversed on appeal because of unusual circumstances. In Woodard, the trial court
had averaged income over a four year period. In reversing this court stated:
Past average income, unless it reflects current reality, simply is meaningless in
determining a present ability to pay. Past average income will not put bread on
the table today... If the court is going to impute income not apparent from the
record, it must indicate the amount and source.
Woodard 634 So. 2d at 783. In the instant case, the trial court's finding ignored current reality
4 When income averaging was available to tax payers who had spiked income, even the internal
revenue code allowed a period of five years as a divisor.
by using gross fees in calculating income and imputed the difference between those gross
fees and net income to Peetluk. This, of course, will not put bread on the table today.
Peetluk's law practice generates income sporadically with periods of no income while
expenses continue. When the practice does generate fees, it is important to determine when
those fees are available and what portion is personally available to a lawyer after paying not
only those costs associated with the case generating the fee but also the overhead costs of
maintaining a law practice, such as licenses, research materials, secretarial help, office
supplies and taxes. The trial judge in the instant case ignored all of these deductions when
he focused only upon the gross amount of the fees instead of the fees remaining after payment
of all the costs required to support a law practice. The trial court should have determined the
amount that Peetluk could use personally not the gross amount that came into the law practice.
Determination of the amount available for personal use was readily available from the income
tax returns placed into evidence for a period of five years together with the testimony
describing the nature of the practice and the history of the personal injury cases.
The trial court made reference to Peetluk's admission that he has a pending plaintiff's
case in which he has made a 4.5 million dollar demand upon the defendants who are insured.
Current reality should be used to evaluate that speculative source of income. Peetluk's
comment in his brief summarizes the reliance upon that source:
It hardly requires argument that a demand letter does not guarantee that a party
will be successful in winning a determination of liability at trial, much less
whether any damages are actually awarded or collected.
The pending plaintiff's case had not been set for trial when the trial of the instant case took
place. Additionally, the pending case was the only one remaining in Peetluk's inventory of
personal injury cases.
It should be made clear that the proceeds from Peetluk's financial success as a result
of being selected to represent plaintiffs from a single accident may not be available for the
acquisition of many basic future comforts. He has a substantial debt burden to satisfy as
recognized by the trial court including IRS delinquent taxes of $38,000; student loan balance
of $117,000; wife's share of an IRA distribution of $16,000; wife's attorney's fee of $29,657;
the litigation expenses of the Williams and Walker cases; the expenses of litigating his
remaining case; and finally, the $24,000 per year assessed against him for child support. He
has no home or law office and rents living quarters in a home owned by a friend in Georgia
and occupies a space in another lawyer's office in Georgia. The marital home once owned
in Georgia was sold when the parties had made a determination to move to Florida and the
$305,000 marital home purchased in Florida was awarded to the wife who has a burden of
an $89,000 mortgage. The trial court concluded that an equitable distribution of the assets
would be the distribution of the home to the wife and Peetluk's law practice to him which I
understand to be one personal injury case and $200,000 in the trust account.
The trial court erroneously concluded that the base income could be fairly calculated
using only the gross fees earned over a 30-month period that included the unusually high gross
fees from the personal injury cases to arrive at an average gross income of $344,000 per
year. The former wife's gross income of $30,000 per year was also erroneously considered
in arriving at the former husband's child support requirement of $2,000 per month. The use
of only gross income which included the years of spiked gross income in the instant case
rather than net income to determine the base income required by section 61.30, Florida
Statutes (1991), was contrary to the dictates of that statute. Further, the support order makes
no allowance for the operating costs of conducting the former husband's law practice, for
income taxes or any other allowable deductions prescribed by section 61.30(3). Deductions
must also be made from the former wife's gross income to arrive at her net income for the
purpose of calculating child support.
In sum, the trial court erred by imputing annual income of $344,000 to the former
husband because it does not realistically represent his annual income and it does not
represent an amount that is available for the purpose of computing child support.
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