Facts: During the pendency of Husband and Wife’s divorce proceedings, Wife filed a motion asking that Husband be held in civil contempt for failing to pay certain expenses and perform certain acts as he had been ordered.
Husband and Wife eventually settled their divorce, and the trial court adopted their settlement agreement. That agreement provided that Husband and Wife agreed “to settle and compromise all of the matters in dispute between them.” At the time this agreement was reached, Wife’s motion for civil contempt had not been heard.
Two and a half months after the trial court approved the divorce settlement, Husband, acting through a new lawyer, filed an “abuse of process” action against Wife alleging that her purpose in filing the motion for civil contempt had been to harass him, cause him to incur unnecessary expenses, “weaken his resolve” to continue litigating the divorce, and to “settle for terms favorable to [Wife].” Husband requested damages for “emotional distress” and attorney’s fees. In an affidavit, Husband explained:
I felt like it was being held over my head during the rest of the litigation. . . . I felt like it was being used as a threat against me. . . .
I wanted the divorce settled. I was tired of the litigation ruining my life. It was costing a great deal of money for attorney’s fees, and the stress was unbearable. I agreed to the divorce terms to resolve this matter.
Wife filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Husband’s cause of action was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Wife also filed a motion requesting that sanctions be imposed against Husband’s counsel for filing a “frivolous” action.
The trial court granted summary judgment to Wife and dismissed Husband’s complaint for abuse of process. The trial court also granted Wife’s motion for sanctions against Husband’s counsel in the amount of $9745.25 for Wife’s reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Res Judicata. The doctrine of res judicata or claim preclusion bars a second suit between the same parties on the same claim with respect to all issues which were, or could have been, litigated in the former suit. It promotes finality in litigation, prevents inconsistent or contradictory judgments, conserves judicial resources, and protects litigants from the cost of multiple lawsuits.
The party asserting a defense predicated on res judicata or claim preclusion must demonstrate (1) that the underlying judgment was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, (2) that the same parties were involved in both suits, (3) that the same claim or cause of action was asserted in both suits, and (4) that the underlying judgment was final and on the merits.
Where two claims arise out of the same transaction, however, the second suit is not barred by res judicata unless the plaintiff had the opportunity in the first suit to fully and fairly litigate the particular issue giving rise to the second suit.
The Court agreed that Husband’s “abuse of process” action was barred by res judicata:
Husband insists that he waited to file his complaint because he wanted to be sure the divorce judgment was final before he alleged that Wife had committed abuse of process. In no way does Husband allege that he was unaware of his potential claim for abuse of process when he entered into the consent order, and he certainly does not allege that Wife was concealing the basis for such a claim from him at that time. We determine that Husband had ample opportunity in the nine months between the filing of Wife’s contempt motion and the entry of the divorce judgment to fully and fairly litigate the basis for any potential abuse of process claim regarding the contempt motion by requesting a hearing on the motion before entering into a final consent order. We therefore conclude that the trial court did not err by granting summary judgment in favor of Wife and dismissing Husband’s complaint on the basis of res judicata.
Sanctions. The Court also affirmed the trial court’s award of sanctions against Husband’s counsel because “a reasonable pre-filing investigation of the factual and procedural history of the divorce proceedings, together with reasonable research into existing law, would have demonstrated to Husband’s counsel that a defense of res judicata was bound to prevail against Husband’s abuse of process claim.”
In a 2-1 decision, the majority decided not to award Wife her attorney’s fees on appeal.
Dissent: Judge Bennett dissented from the majority’s decision to deny Wife’s attorney’s fees on appeal:
In Tennessee, Rule 11 sanctions are proper “when an attorney submits a motion or other paper on grounds which he knows or should know are without merit, and a showing of subjective bad faith is not required.” The majority has held that Rule 11 applies. It follows that the appeal was “devoid of merit” as well and, therefore, in my opinion, Wife should be awarded her attorney’s fees for the appeal.
K.O.’s Comment: It is worth noting that the nearly $10,000 sanction was not awarded against the husband; instead, it was awarded against the husband’s lawyer. Be careful out there.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.