Civil Contempt Reversed in Kingston, Tennessee Dispute over Retirement Benefits: Murray v. Godsey

July 28, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: After 18 years of marriage, Husband and Wife divorced in 1994.

Husband was a federal employee who participated in the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).

Their final judgment of divorce awarded Wife 50% of Husband’s retirement benefits through the date of divorce, directed counsel to prepare an order accomplishing that, and directed Husband to provide Wife the information needed to prepare that order.

Counsel for both parties worked together to draft a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) approved by the trial court that divided Husband’s retirement benefit and required Husband to “notify the Court and [Wife] at least 60 days before his receipt of any retirement funds under the Plan.”

Husband retired in 2013. When he submitted his retirement documents to the federal government, he included a copy of the 1994 divorce judgment.

Wife contacted Husband via Facebook and informed him she had received no retirement payments from the government. Husband never responded to Wife’s messages.

In 2014, Wife’s counsel mailed a copy of the QDRO to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and inquired about Wife’s portion of the retirement benefit.

In 2015, OPM explained that the QDRO was insufficient in several respects and invited Wife to submit an amended order.

Wife petitioned to hold Husband in civil contempt.

The trial court found Husband in contempt for

  • “stonewalling” Wife’s efforts to obtain her portion of the retirement by failing to respond to her Facebook messages, and
  • failing to notify Wife in 2013 that he was retiring.

Husband was ordered to pay $25,000 for Wife’s attorney’s fees as “punishment” for contempt.

Husband appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Civil contempt claims based on alleged disobedience of a court order have four elements:

  • the order alleged to have been violated must be lawful;
  • the order alleged to have been violated must be clear, specific, and unambiguous;
  • the person must have actually disobeyed the order; and
  • the person’s violation of the order must be willful.

The Court found that Husband did not disobey the order:

After the parties divorced, Husband hired a new attorney to draft a division order to submit to OPM. When Husband realized that his attorney, as well as Wife’s then-attorney, were drafting a QDRO that might be rejected by OPM, Husband attempted to tell the attorneys of their mistake. Most unfortunately, letters between those attorneys, which are contained in the record, show that Husband was ignored. While the trial court found that part of Husband’s “stonewalling” Wife was Husband’s knowledge that a QDRO might be insufficient for OPM processing, to punish Husband on this basis penalizes him for heeding the advice of his counsel, as well as Wife’s own counsel.

The record establishes that the information Husband was required to provide under the final decree was provided and that Husband cooperated in executing the QDRO. Additionally, when Husband retired [] in 2013, he [] obtained a copy of the final decree and forwarded it to OPM. Accordingly, Husband not only fulfilled his requirements under the final decree but took additional steps to notify OPM of Wife’s interest in his retirement. Contrary to the trial court’s findings, the final decree simply does not require Husband to make Herculean efforts on Wife’s behalf to ensure a division order is processed by OPM. Indeed, the relevant federal regulations reflect that when CSRS funds are to be divided by virtue of a state court order, the former spouse [] must apply in writing.

The record reveals that in this case, Wife’s troubles stem not from Husband’s “stonewalling,” but rather from the failure of counsel to draft a [court order approved for processing], rather than a QDRO, in compliance with the pertinent federal laws and regulations. Inasmuch as the final decree requires Husband to provide the necessary information for the drafting of a domestic relations order dividing Husband’s retirement, and Husband has long-since provided such information, the record preponderates against the trial court’s finding that Husband actually violated the final decree of divorce.

The Court also found that Husband’s violation of the 60-day notice requirement was not willful:

[T]here is nothing in the record to support the trial court’s finding that [Husband’s] omission was willful.

Here, it is undisputed that the QDRO at issue was signed by the parties in 1997, nearly 16 years prior to Husband’s retirement. … Additionally, Husband admitted to signing the 1997 QDRO but testified that he was never given his own copy. … [W]e simply conclude that the record preponderates against the finding that Husband’s noncompliance with the notice provision of the QDRO was deliberate. The fact that Husband sent OPM a copy of the final decree of divorce upon his retirement further undercuts the finding that Husband intentionally failed to give Wife notice of his retirement in order to prevent her from receiving her portion.

A conclusion that Husband’s omission was intentional, rather than an inadvertent oversight, is sheer speculation. Because the record preponderates against the trial court’s finding that Husband willfully violated the 1997 QDRO, this ruling is also reversed.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment, including the award of attorney’s fees to Wife, was reversed.

K.O.’s Comment: This is the first opinion I can recall reading where an appellate court found the alleged contemnor did not violate the order.

Murray v. Godsey (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, July 19, 2021).

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Civil Contempt Reversed in Kingston, Tennessee Dispute over Retirement Benefits: Murray v. Godsey was last modified: July 26th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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