Attorney’s Fees for Enforcement Sans Contempt

February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Back on May 18, 2017, I posted here about the COA’s decision in Carter v. Davis, in which the COA decided, among several issues raised, that the chancellor erred in awarding attorney’s fees in a contempt case where the defendant was found not to be in contempt, but the trial judge awarded fees based on the fact that his conduct had made the filing of the action necessary.

The MSSC granted cert on the sole issue of attorney’s fees.

In the case of Carter v. Davis, handed down January 25, 2018, the MSSC reversed the COA on the point and reinstated the chancellor’s decision. Judge Maxwell wrote for the court:

¶5. The chancellor did not have to find Davis in willful contempt to award her attorney’s fees. Instead, we have long held that, when there has been a default in child support, the party seeking to enforce the decree is entitled to attorney’s fees, even when nonpayment was not due to willful contempt. Mizell v. Mizell, 708 So. 2d 55, 65 (Miss. 1998); Moore v. Moore, 372 So. 2d 270, 272 (Miss. 1979), overruled on other grounds by Dep’t of Human Servs., State of Miss. v. Fillingane, 761 So. 2d 869, 871 (Miss. 2000); Pearson v. Hatcher, 279 So. 2d 654, 656 (Miss. 1973). “Otherwise, the responsibility of support would be reduced by the amount the party seeking to enforce the decree would be required to pay an attorney to enforce the decree.” Moore, 372 So. 2d at 272 (citing Pearson, 279 So. 2d at 656).

¶6. In reversing and rendering the attorney’s fees award based on no willful contempt, the Court of Appeals cited McKnight v. Jenkins, 155 So. 3d 730, 732 (Miss. 2013). But in that case, we found not only was there no willful contempt by the ex-wife who refused to pay a medical bill, we also found there was no obligation under the support order to pay the bill, which was really a litigation expense and not her child’s medical expense. Id. And we reversed both the underlying award and the attorney’s fees award connected to it. Id.

¶7. Here, by contrast, the chancellor found Davis had significant financial obligations under the divorce judgment. Though the chancellor credited Davis for his and his mother’s direct payments, the chancellor still found Davis had failed to comply fully with the terms of the judgment. As the chancellor noted in his order, Davis acknowledged the arrearage. And this arrearage required Carter to initiate this action. Therefore, the chancellor rightly recognized that Carter—just like the ex-wives in Mizell, Moore, and Pearson—was entitled to attorney’s fees, even though the chancellor did not find Davis in willful contempt based on the credits. See Mizell, 708 So. 2d at 65; Moore, 372 So. 2d at 272; Pearson, 279 So. 2d
at 656.

¶8. After finding attorney’s fees were appropriate, the chancellor then determined $7,500 to be a reasonable amount—a decision that fell within his “sound discretion.” Mizell, 708 So. 2d at 65. Because the chancellor supported his decision with record evidence, we find no abuse in his awarding Carter $7,500 in attorney’s fees. See id. (“We are reluctant to disturb a chancellor’s discretionary determination whether or not to award attorney fees and of the amount of any award.”).

¶9. For these reasons, while we affirm the Court of Appeals’ judgment on the child support-credit issues, we reverse its decision to reverse and render the attorney’s fee award. We reinstate and affirm the judgment of the chancery court, which awarded Carter $3,276.66 in past-due child support and $7,500 in attorney’s fees.

The rule is that if you have to file an action to enforce an obligation imposed by court order, the filing of the action alone is sufficient to support award of attorney’s fees if the opposing party is found to be in default, even if there is no finding of contempt.

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