Bachelor v. Bachelor, 012121 TNCIV, W2020-00516-COA-R3-CV

Docket Nº:W2020-00516-COA-R3-CV
Opinion Judge:ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE
Party Name:SAMUEL LEE BACHELOR JR. v. AJA MICHELE BACHELOR N/K/AAJA MICHELE BURRELL
Attorney:Darrell D. Blanton, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Aja Michele Burrell. Theresa H. Patterson, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Samuel Lee Bachelor, Jr.
Judge Panel:Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Carma Dennis McGee, J., joined.
Case Date:January 21, 2021
Court:Court of Appeals of Tennessee

SAMUEL LEE BACHELOR JR.

v.

AJA MICHELE BACHELOR N/K/AAJA MICHELE BURRELL

No. W2020-00516-COA-R3-CV

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

January 21, 2021

Session December 8, 2020

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT-004562-17 James F. Russell, Judge

This case involves a divorce that was granted in January, 2019. As a part of their divorce, the parties entered into a marital dissolution agreement which was thereafter incorporated into the final decree of divorce. Subsequently, the Appellant filed a petition for contempt, alleging that the Appellee was in noncompliance with his obligations under the marital dissolution agreement and requested, among other relief, attorney's fees for having to file the petition. The trial court found that while the Appellee had been noncompliant with the marital dissolution agreement, the noncompliance was not willful and therefore concluded that the Appellant was not entitled to attorney's fees. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court's decision to not award the Appellant her attorney's fees and additionally award the Appellant her attorney's fees on appeal.

Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed in part and Remanded

Darrell D. Blanton, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Aja Michele Burrell.

Theresa H. Patterson, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Samuel Lee Bachelor, Jr.

Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Carma Dennis McGee, J., joined.

OPINION

ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE

Background and Procedural History

Samuel Lee Bachelor, Jr. ("the Appellee") and Aja Michele Bachelor ("the Appellant") were married on July 13, 2010, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The parties had no children and separated on or about October 10, 2017, in Shelby County, Tennessee. The parties entered into a marital dissolution agreement ("MDA") which was incorporated by reference into the final decree of divorce that was entered on January 15, 2019.

This MDA set forth various obligations and responsibilities with which the parties were to comply. Specifically, the MDA provided for the following: 8. RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS. Wife shall be awarded as a division of marital property one-half of the value of Husband's Tennessee Consolidated Retirement Account as of the date of the Final Decree. Husband's counsel shall be responsible for the preparation of any documents necessary to divide the account. Such account shall be divided within sixty (60) days from the date of the Final Decree by entry of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. Husband represents that he has not withdrawn from such account since the filing of the divorce. The parties shall share in the increase or decrease of said account up until the entry of the QDRO transferring Wife's interest to her. Both parties acknowledge that this is a monthly pension payable upon Husband's retirement and is not payable in lump sum unless he is no longer employed by Shelby County Schools System. In the event he receives a lump sum, Wife is entitled to her one-half on the day he receives such sum. Wife shall be awarded any and all pension and/or retirement accounts she has accrued during the marriage.

. . . .

10. HEALTH INSURANCE. Notice has been given to Wife, pursuant to T.C.A. § 56-7-2366, with regard to her medical (accident and sickness) insurance. Wife is presently covered on Husband's health and hospitalization through his employment with the Shelby County School System. Husband shall make COBRA coverage available to Wife. It is Wife's intent to obtain her own through her employment. When Wife obtains her own coverage through her employment, Husband shall be solely responsible for the payment of all premiums incident to her coverage with her employment and shall reimburse her such sum on a monthly basis, on or before the 15th day of each month, for all such premiums for a period of twelve (12) months from the date of the Final Decree, and Wife shall be solely responsible for all copayments, deductibles and all uncovered medical expenses of every kind or nature from the date of the Final Decree and thereafter. After the twelve (12) month period, Wife shall be solely responsible for all premiums for such coverage and for all uncovered medical, dental, ophthalmological, counseling expenses, medication, and any and all uncovered health care expenses.

11. ALIMONY. . . . Additionally, Husband shall maintain a life insurance policy insuring his life in the sum of $110, 000.00 term life as surety for the payment of such sum in the event of his untimely death prior to payment in full of the alimony in solido and the other debts assumed by him herein. Husband shall name Wife as sole irrevocable beneficiary until all alimony, debts, and other obligations assumed by him are paid in full. Husband shall provide proof of such coverage on the date of entry of the Final Decree and shall provide annual proof thereafter on each date of the anniversary of the entry of the Final Decree. The initial proof of coverage shall include a complete copy of the life insurance policy together with the face page confirming Wife as sole irrevocable beneficiary and confirming the face amount. The annual proof of continuing coverage shall include a true and correct copy of an update declaration page reflecting Wife as sole irrevocable beneficiary as well as the verification of the coverage amount.

(emphasis added).

On April 11, 2019, the Appellant filed a petition for civil contempt against the Appellee, asserting that the Appellee was in willful noncompliance with the MDA, in that the Appellee: failed to provide proof of a life insurance policy on [the Appellee's] life in the amount of no less than $110, 000.00; and has failed to show proof that

[she] is named as the sole irrevocable beneficiary. [He] has further failed to provide proof of such coverage as ordered in the Final Decree of Divorce.

….

[He] failed to reimburse [the Appellant] the premium cost for all months since the Final Decree of Divorce.

….

[And finally, he] failed to provide the Qualified Domestic Relations Order as ordered by this Court.

The Appellant also claimed that the Appellee failed to pay the sum of $3, 500.00 to her as was mandated by the trial court in an order on the divorce referee's ruling, which payment was to be made directly to the Appellant and used towards her attorney's fees. The Appellee filed a response to the motion, denying that he "willfully disobeyed" the trial court's order, instead asserting that he "provided proof of life insurance coverage by providing [the Appellant] with documentation that she is the named beneficiary of the group life insurance policy" as well as proof that the Appellant "is currently the beneficiary of $175, 000 of life insurance coverage." The Appellee also denied the Appellant's allegation that he failed to reimburse her for the premium cost for insurance since the final decree of divorce was entered, and he stated that his counsel had emailed a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order ("QDRO") to the Appellant's counsel, who never responded. Finally, as to the $3, 500.00 payment, the Appellee stated that he came to an agreement to pay the fees directly to the Appellant's attorney at the time. Upon learning that the Appellant had fired her previous attorney, the Appellee asserted that he instead made the payments to the Appellant directly, and all sums due have now been paid. However, the Appellee did note that, contrary to the requirements set forth by the MDA, "[the Appellee] has never been provided with an actual policy and face page, only confirmation of benefits, which has been provided to [the Appellant.]"

The parties convened for a hearing on February 21, 2020, after which the trial court entered an order denying the Appellant's petition for civil contempt. In its order, the trial court noted that it was "abundantly clear that there was no full and accurate compliance on behalf of [the Appellee], with the terms of the agreement at the time the petition was filed." However, the trial court concluded that, because the Appellee had not "willfully and/or intentionally violated" the court's orders, he could not be found in civil contempt. Thus, the trial court found that the Appellee was the "prevailing party" in the matter and therefore could not be made to pay the Appellant's attorney's fees. The Appellant thereafter filed a timely notice of appeal with this Court.

Issues Presented

The Appellant raises two issues for our review on appeal:1

1. Whether the trial court erred in not awarding the Appellant her attorney's fees as provided for in the MDA.

2. Whether the Appellant is entitled to attorney's fees for this appeal.

Standard of Review

The present case concerns the issue of whether the trial court erred in failing to award the Appellant attorney's fees under the language of the parties' MDA. This presents a question of law and "[a]ccordingly, our review is de novo with no presumption of correctness." Eberbach v. Eberbach, 535 S.W.3d...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP