Tennessee Divorce Court Awards Attorney’s Fees Incurred in Bankruptcy Court: St. John-Parker v. Parker

April 27, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband, a former attorney disbarred in Maryland, and Wife, a certified public accountant, divorced after over 20 years of marriage.

Their sizable and complex marital estate required expert testimony on various issues.

During postdivorce litigation, Wife was awarded temporary alimony of $3000 per month, retroactive to the date of divorce. This created an arrearage of $60,000. Because of Husband’s “obstructionist behavior,” the trial court allowed Wife to execute on the $60,000 judgment for the arrearage.

Husband paid his court-ordered alimony for two months, but then he stopped paying.

In the months and years that followed, Wife engaged in extensive efforts to enforce the alimony obligation, while Husband engaged in equally extensive efforts to avoid paying his debt.

Husband wired substantial sums between various accounts to avoid Wife’s efforts to garnish his accounts to satisfy the judgment, sometimes transferring money just before Wife’s garnishment was received.

When one of Wife’s garnishments captured nearly $60,000, Husband filed for bankruptcy, which caused the garnishment to be released. Husband then withdrew $52,500 in cash.

Husband admitted that he only filed for bankruptcy because of Wife’s garnishments against his accounts. The bankruptcy trustee found that Husband acted intentionally and in bad faith to hide assets and avoid the payment of his court-ordered obligations.

Eventually, Husband’s bankruptcy was dismissed. He was also barred from refiling for four years because of his bad faith throughout the bankruptcy proceeding.

Wife petitioned for the divorce court to hold Husband in civil contempt. She sought Husband’s incarceration until he paid the arrearage and compensatory damages for her attorney’s fees and expenses.

The trial contained testimony from a witness told by Husband that he would

litigate this until every last dime was gone, he wasn’t going to pay her a dime, he’s going to do everything he could, no matter what, he was not going give her any money, he was going to spend every last penny he had to tie this up as an ongoing thing.

Tennessee attorney's feesThe trial court found Husband had “zero credibility,” and commented that Husband is “willing to jump off the cliff as long as he’s holding onto her and they both perish.” Husband was found liable for 12 counts of civil contempt.

Wife was awarded all of her attorney’s fees and forensic accountant expert fees as both damages for civil contempt and under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c) “because she incurred them in order to enforce the alimony award.”

Wife was awarded $240,507.70 for attorney’s fees and expenses.

Husband appealed.

On AppealThe Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Husband argued the trial court erred in awarding Wife attorney’s fees she incurred in bankruptcy court.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c) gives a trial court the discretion to award attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in any action to enforce or modify alimony, child support, or child custody. This power extends to fees incurred in the original divorce hearing or at any subsequent hearing.

Tennessee courts have permitted awards of attorney’s fees under this statute in cases involving grandparent visitation, unmarried parents, dependency and neglect matters, conservatorships, and voluntary dismissals, to name a few.

The Court was not persuaded by Husband’s restrictive interpretation of the statute:

A parent with custody pursuant to a circuit court decree should not forfeit his right to recover attorney fees pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-103(c) simply because the [other parent] chose a different forum in which to challenge that decree. Courts have interpreted [the statute] to support awards of attorney’s fees in dependency and neglect proceedings and conservatorships. We conclude that the same reasoning should apply here with respect to fees that were incurred to enforce and defend an alimony award in a bankruptcy proceeding. The public policy considerations and common-law roots that support a broad interpretation of [the statute] in the child support context apply with equal force to spousal support.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees in its entirety. Wife was also awarded attorney’s fees on appeal.

St. John-Parker v. Parker (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, March 27, 2020).

Tennessee Divorce Court Awards Attorney’s Fees Incurred in Bankruptcy Court: St. John-Parker v. Parker was last modified: April 26th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

Leave a Comment