Category Archives: Family Law

Tennessee Supreme Court Holds that Divorce Contracts Must be Enforced as Written

By Daniel Horwitz:

In a common-sense opinion that clarified a muddled conflict among lower courts, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that fee-shifting provisions in divorce agreements must be enforced as written.  Offering a forceful defense of the right to contract, Chief Justice Bivins’ unanimous opinion in Eberach v. Eberach instructs all lower courts that they do not have any discretion to deny attorney’s fees to a prevailing party if a contract agreed to by both parties makes such an award mandatory.

Eberach involved litigation between a former husband and wife following their divorce.  In 2011, the couple divorced and entered into a “marital dissolution agreement,” or “MDA.”  In lay terms, an MDA is a binding contract that sets out the terms of a divorce.  Among other things, the parties’ MDA provided that:

“In the event it becomes reasonably necessary for either party to institute legal proceedings to procure the enforcement of any provision of this Agreement, the prevailing party shall also be entitled to a judgment for reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, incurred in prosecuting the action.”

Three years later, the ex-couple found themselves embroiled in litigation over the wife’s plan to relocate to Ohio with their three children.  Ultimately, the trial court granted the wife permission to move to Ohio and awarded her $20,000.00 in attorney’s fees.  Thereafter, the trial court’s decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, which upheld both the relocation and the trial court’s fee award.  However, the Court of Appeals declined to award the wife additional compensation for the attorney’s fees that she had incurred on appeal.

Upon review, the Tennessee Supreme Court observed that various tribunals of the Court of Appeals had “been inconsistent in their analysis of claims for attorney’s fees in cases in which the claim is based on a contractual provision in a MDA.”  One line of cases held that appellate courts have discretion to deny attorney’s fees to a prevailing party “even in the face of a controlling contractual fee provision requiring such an award.”[1]  Another line of authority held that “when a MDA fee provision mandates an award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party, the Court of Appeals does not have discretion to deny an award of appellate attorney’s fees.”[2]  Additionally, a third line of cases “observed that an award of appellate attorney fees in Tennessee is within the court’s sound discretion,” but then went on “to award attorney’s fees on appeal solely on the basis of the parties’ MDA fee provisions without further discussion.”[3]

Clarifying this conflicting precedent, the Tennessee Supreme Court instructed with unmistakable clarity that “parties are contractually entitled to recover their reasonable attorney’s fees when they have an agreement that provides the prevailing party in a [lawsuit] is entitled to such fees.”   “In such cases,” the Court explained, trial courts “do[] not have the discretion to set aside the parties’ agreement and supplant it with its own judgment.”  The Court further instructed that “[t]he same is and must be true of our appellate courts.”  Thus, “[a]bsent fraud, mistake, or some other defect, our courts are required to interpret contracts as written.”

As a general matter, litigants in the United States must pay their own attorney’s fees regardless of whether they win or lose.  Under this so-called “American Rule”—to which Tennessee adheres—“a party in a civil action may recover attorney’s fees only if: (1) a contractual or statutory provision creates a right to recover attorney’s fees; or (2) some other recognized exception to the American Rule applies, allowing for recovery of such fees in a particular case.”[4]  “Otherwise,” as the Eberach court observed, “litigants are responsible for their own attorney’s fees.”  Of note, the general presumption that parties must bear their own legal fees places the United States at odds with the legal regimes of many European nations, which generally adhere to a “loser pays” framework.

The most common exception to the American rule is a private agreement between parties which provides that in the event of litigation, the loser must pay the winner’s attorney’s fees.  Significantly, in Eberach, the husband and wife had executed such an agreement.  Thus, the only question presented in Eberach was whether the Court of Appeals was required to enforce it.

Emphatically answering this question in the affirmative, the Court’s opinion in Eberach furthers Tennessee’s longstanding commitment to protecting the right to contract.  In Tennessee, the right to contract has constitutional origins, and it is enforceable as a fundamental right.[5]  Tennessee statutory law also provides that: “All contracts, . . . in writing and signed by the party to be bound, . . .  shall be enforced as written.”[6]  In keeping with this tradition, the Eberach court explained that “one of the bedrocks of Tennessee law is that our courts are without power to make another and different contract from the one executed by the parties themselves.”  As such, the Court mandated that the terms of the husband’s and wife’s MDA be enforced.

Having resolved that the wife was entitled to attorney’s fees for her successful litigation in the Court of Appeals, the Court then remanded the case to the trial court to “determine the appropriate amount of Wife’s reasonable attorney’s fees on the appeal.”  Additionally, applying its just-announced holding to itself, the Tennessee Supreme Court also explained that the attorney’s fee award must cover the costs of the wife’s appeal “to this Court” as well.  Thus, going forward, litigants in Tennessee—and divorcees in particular—can have renewed faith that the terms of their contracts will, in fact, be enforced as written.

Read the Court’s unanimous opinion in Eberach v. Eberach here.

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[1] See Grisham v. Grisham, No. W2010- 00618-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 607377, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2011) (holding that the trial court erred in failing to award wife her reasonable trial court attorney’s fees pursuant to MDA fee provision, but declining to award appellate attorney’s fees pursuant to the Court of Appeals’ discretion); Brown v. Brown, No. W2005-00811-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 784788, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 29, 2006) (affirming the trial court’s award of trial court fees under the parties’ MDA, but equitably denying wife’s request for appellate fees pursuant to the Court of Appeals’ discretion); Elliott v. Elliott, 149 S.W.3d 77, 88 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (affirming the trial court’s award of fees to wife pursuant to parties’ MDA fee provision, but denying wife’s request for appellate attorney’s fees); Dulin v. Dulin, No. W2001-02969-COA-R3-CV, 2003 WL 22071454, at *8, *10 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2003) (affirming trial court’s award of attorney’s fees pursuant to MDA, but equitably declining to award either party attorney’s fees incurred on appeal).

[2] See, e.g., Beem v. Beem, No. W2009-00800-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 1687782, at *9-10 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 28, 2010) (affirming trial court’s award of fees pursuant to MDA and holding that wife was entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal pursuant to the parties’ MDA); Treadway v. Treadway, No. M2014-00898-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1396652, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 24, 2015) (awarding appellate attorney’s fees pursuant to the parties’ MDA); Brinton v. Brinton, No. M2009-02215-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 2025473, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 19, 2010) (same); Corbin v. Corbin, No. W2008-00437-COAR3-CV, 2009 WL 454134, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 24, 2009) (same); Waugh v. Waugh, No. M2006-021540COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 2200278, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 30, 2007) (same); Hogan, 1999 WL 1097983, at *4-5 (reversing trial court’s denial of attorney’s fees, and awarding attorney’s fees to Mother for trial court and appellate level proceedings pursuant to the parties’ MDA).

[3] Wilkinson v. Wilkinson, No. W2012-00509-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 614708, at *10 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 19, 2013); (citing Archer, 907 S.W.2d at 419) (emphasis supplied)). See also Hanna v. Hanna, No. W2014-02051- COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1951932, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 30, 2015) (stating its discretion then awarding fees on appeal based on the parties’ MDA requiring that the “court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees to the party seeking to enforce [the MDA]”) (alterations in original); Williams v. Williams, No. M2013-01910-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 412985, at *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 30, 2015) (affirming the trial court’s award of fees pursuant to the parties’ MDA, stating its discretion and determining that wife was entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal pursuant to the parties’ MDA); Dodd v. Dodd, No. M2011-02147-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 3193339, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 6, 2012) (holding that Mother was entitled to recover her trial court attorney’s fees pursuant to the parties’ MDA, but using its discretion and concluding that Mother was justified in recovering attorney’s fees).

[4] Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. v. Epperson, 284 S.W.3d 303, 308 (Tenn. 2009) (citing Fezell, 158 S.W.3d at 359; John Kohl & Co. P.C. v. Dearborn & Ewing, 977 S.W.2d 528, 534 (Tenn. 1998)).

[5] See Tenn. Const. art. XI, § 2; Tenn. Const. art. I, § 20.  See also ARC LifeMed, Inc. v. AMC-Tennessee, Inc., 183 S.W.3d 1, 26 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (“equity respects and upholds the fundamental right of the individual to complete freedom to contract”) (quotation omitted).

[6] Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-50-112(a).

The law protects victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, even when elected officials do not.

By Daniel Horwitz:

The past week has been a terrible one for victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence.  Two high profile scandals—both involving elected officials—suggest that any number of Tennessee’s politicians have no qualms about leveraging their positions of power to harass, abuse and intimidate women.  The first scandal involves allegations that State Representative Jeremy Durham—a member of the Republican leadership until just a few days ago—sexually harassed legislative staff and interns repeatedly and without hesitation.  The second involves allegations that Nashville Metro Councilmember Loniel Greene—who resigned his seat last night effective immediately—used his position as a public official to intimidate a victim of domestic violence.  According to a recorded phone call, Greene threatened a woman who had reported a domestic violence incident, stating:  “Bitch, I’m smarter than you.  You try to play the system, motherfucker I am the system.”  After stating that “she’s going to have to be shut down,” Councilman Greene then “work[ed] on” the alleged victim in an attempt to silence her.

The response to these allegations from other elected officials was tepid at best.  For example, in an utterly tone-deaf statement that placed responsibility for Representative Durham’s alleged sexual harassment squarely on the shoulders of those who were believed to have been the victims of it, House Speaker Beth Harwell announced that: “I have instructed the Director of the Internship program that interns are not to attend receptions or events related to the legislature, and they are not to give their cell phone numbers to members.”  The response to Councilman Greene’s scandal was similarly listless.  Prior to his resignation, exactly two out of forty total Metro Councilmembers—Councilman Bob Mendes and Councilman Jeremy Elrod—condemned the allegations, while the Mayor suggested that Councilman Greene should consider resigning because the allegations could “becom[e] a distraction.”

In sharp contrast, however, the response by women’s advocates was considerably more pointed.  Said Pat Shea, CEO of the YWCA of Nashville & Middle Tennessee[1]:

“The YWCA of Nashville & Middle Tennessee is appalled at news accounts of a current domestic violence case involving a newly elected Metro Councilman.  How is it that persons in positions of power in Nashville are able to misuse that power to silence victims?  How is it that processes, put in place to protect victims, are not followed?  These patriarchal behaviors raise serious questions about whether we are able to trust the systems set up to protect victims.

As advocates, we are constantly asked ‘why women do not report abuse; why women will not prosecute; why women cannot just leave.’  This recent high profile incident provides a perfect example of why victims don’t, won’t, and can’t.  We want Nashville to be a place where all of our leaders work to make Nashville safer for victims of domestic violence, not more dangerous. ”

Added Sara Beth Myers of AWAKE (Advocates for Women’s and Kids’ Equality):

“Tennesseans should be confident in our laws that protect victims of harassment both in the civil and criminal context. The offices of our state and local elected officials should be paragons of professionalism and transparency, setting an example for every other workplace in Tennessee. In a state in which women are so underrepresented in our legislature, lawmakers and policymakers should be especially deliberate about interacting with their female colleagues both legally and respectfully. The past week’s events revealed a situation in our government that we should all deem unacceptable.”

The presumption of innocence is obviously of paramount importance and should not be discounted.  As such, pending the outcome of formal legal proceedings against Representative Durham and former Councilman Greene, those who have resisted making public condemnations are entitled to the benefit of the doubt.  Elected officials’ collective disregard for the alleged victims of these incidents, however, is far more difficult to explain.  Protecting victims of harassment and domestic violence and protecting the presumption of innocence are not incompatible concepts.  A legal system that fails to do both at once holds little value.

To be absolutely clear at a time when too many elected officials haven’t been: victims are not responsible for being sexually harassed, beaten, or intimidated.  Sexual harassment is illegal.  Domestic violence is illegal.  Intimidating a victim of domestic violence is illegal.  Retaliating against a victim who reports being abused is illegal.  All such acts are despicable.  None should ever be tolerated.

The law protects victims of harassment, violence and abuse.  If you have been victimized, resources are available to help you.  If you’re in danger, you can reach the YWCA’s 24-hour crisis and information line at (615) 242-1199 or toll free 1-800-334-4628.  The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands has free lawyers available to help those who have been victims of domestic violence, including providing free divorce services and helping victims obtain orders of protection.  The District Attorney’s Office has a Victim Witness Services Division that is exclusively dedicated to helping victims navigate the legal system.  The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence makes a multitude of free resources available to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Many employment lawyers, although they are not free, will take sexual harassment cases on a contingency basis.  All of these resources exist to help empower victims and stop the cycle of abuse.

It is also important to shed light on the many existing policy shortcomings that need fixing.  Although late in coming, legislative leaders have already acknowledged that the General Assembly’s current sexual harassment policy needs to be overhauled, because “staffers and others who are regularly at the Capitol do not feel comfortable coming forward.”  Sadly, the same is often true of the criminal justice system.  In many instances, for example, the names of victims of domestic and sexual violence are made publicly accessible on arrest warrants, which discourages a significant number of victims from reporting.  There is also a pending dispute in the Tennessee Supreme Court over whether victims’ private, personal information becomes a public record under Tennessee law once their records have been turned over to law enforcement.  On behalf of several domestic and sexual violence prevention advocates who participated in the case as amici curiae, the author has argued that it does not, but the Tennessee Supreme Court will have the final say.  Additionally, the legislature’s failure to adapt to modern forms of harassment has left a void in victims’ protection against abuses such as non-consensual pornography—otherwise known as “revenge porn”—and harassment via electronic media, such as text messages and facebook.

These shortcomings certainly need to be corrected.  While that happens, however, don’t wait.  The law protects victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, even when elected officials do not.  If you need help, help is available.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] In the interest of full disclosure, the author is a member of the YWCA’s Board of Directors.

Tennessee Supreme Court voids judgment for lack of personal jurisdiction; establishes standard for determining when void judgments are still binding.

By Daniel Horwitz:

After a short marriage, Kevin Turner and Stephanie Turner divorced on October 19, 2000.  Full custody of their two children was awarded to Mr. Turner, and Mrs. Turner was directed to pay Mr. Turner child support.  However, the couple’s divorce decree also provided that Mrs. Turner was entitled to visitation “during such periods of visitation as may be awarded.”

By July 2001, Mrs. Turner had left Tennessee and had lost all contact with Mr. Turner and their children.  Mrs. Turner also failed to pay Mr. Turner any child support, and she stopped seeking visitation.  Consequently, Mr. Turner filed a petition to terminate Mrs. Turner’s parental rights over their children.  Because Mrs. Turner had moved, however, the summons that was issued to alert her of Mr. Turner’s petition was returned undelivered.

Having been unable to provide Mrs. Turner with personal service of his petition to terminate her parental rights, Mr. Turner attempted to give Mrs. Turner “constructive” notice of his petition by publication.  Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 21–1–203(a)(5), personal service is not required “[w]hen the residence of the defendant is unknown and cannot be ascertained upon diligent inquiry.”  However, to be excused from the personal service requirement, a litigant must describe his diligent efforts to provide personal service under oath or in a separate affidavit.[1]  Additionally, a separate statute that applies specifically to parental termination proceedings provides that any request to authorize constructive notice through publication “shall be accompanied by an affidavit of the petitioners or their legal counsel attesting, in detail, to all efforts to determine the identity and whereabouts of the part[y] against whom substituted service is sought.”[2] Continue reading Tennessee Supreme Court voids judgment for lack of personal jurisdiction; establishes standard for determining when void judgments are still binding.