Civil Contempt Reversed in Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce: Grande v. Grande

September 5, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: While Husband and Wife’s divorce was pending, the trial court entered an agreed order in April 2020 that resolved some pending motions and determined who would pay for various expenses.

In March 2021, the trial court entered the final judgment and incorporated a marital dissolution agreement signed by both parties. Notably, the agreement stated, “The parties both certify, by their signatures hereon, that they do not wish to pursue further discovery and that they are satisfied that the assets and liabilities set forth herein are true and accurate.”

Seven months later, Husband filed a petition for civil contempt alleging that Wife violated the agreed order entered in April 2020. Among other things, Husband alleged that Wife took $27,000 from a life insurance policy to pay taxes on the marital residence and that Wife did not pay the mortgage per the agreed order, which reduced Husband’s equity by $11,171.80.

The trial court found Wife in civil contempt and awarded Husband judgments for $27,000 and $11,171.80. Husband was also awarded $12,898.85 for his attorney’s fees.

Wife appealed, arguing it was error for her to be found in civil contempt for conduct that occurred before the entry of the final judgment because the violations were known or should have been known by Husband when he voluntarily signed the marital dissolution agreement in March 2021.

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

Civil contempt claims based upon disobedience of a court order have four essential elements. First, the order alleged to have been violated must be lawful. Second, the order alleged to have been violated must be clear, specific, and unambiguous. Third, the person alleged to have violated the order must have actually disobeyed the order. Fourth, the person’s violation of the order must be willful.

To defend herself from Husband’s claim of civil contempt, Wife invoked the doctrine of res judicata, which requires a party to show:

  • the underlying judgment was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction;
  • that the same parties were involved in both suits;
  • that the same claim or cause of action was asserted in both suits; and
  • that the underlying judgment was final and on the merits.

A marital dissolution agreement incorporated into a final judgment of divorce can serve as a basis to assert the defense of res judicata where the issue was or could have been addressed in the agreement.

The Court found Wife’s invocation of res judicata persuasive:

When Husband freely entered into the marital dissolution agreement (“MDA”), and it was incorporated into the final judgment for divorce, the parties purported to resolve certain matters. The parties could be held to their adherence to the MDA going forward, but as to matters settled in the MDA, a chapter was closed. By finding Wife in contempt for her alleged disobedience of temporary orders entered prior to entry of the final judgment of divorce and that the MDA incorporated thereto, the trial court failed to identify and apply the most appropriate legal principles applicable to the decision at hand. Thus, the trial court’s decision was not within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions. Finally, these findings of civil contempt were unjust toward Wife, who had reason to believe that the very issues raised in Husband’s petition for civil contempt had been settled per the MDA. We find that the trial court abused its discretion on this issue.

The Court reversed the trial court’s finding of civil contempt and the judgments awarded to Husband, including the award of attorney’s fees.

Source: Grande v. Grande (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, August 18, 2023).

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Civil Contempt Reversed in Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce: Grande v. Grande was last modified: September 3rd, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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