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Denton v. Denton

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

July 12, 2017


          Assigned on Briefs July 3, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Henderson County No. 18292 James F. Butler, Chancellor

         Appellant, a sixty-nine year old retiree, was found guilty of civil contempt for failure to comply with a marital dissolution agreement. We reverse the trial court's order incarcerating Appellant "until payment of the debt" and instead order his immediate release from incarceration based upon his inability to pay the debt.

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

          Lloyd R. Tatum, Henderson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Randall Eugene Denton.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Andy D. Bennett, J., joined.




         This appeal stems from post-divorce contempt proceedings in which both parties were represented by counsel. The parties, Petitioner Deborah Meadows Denton and Respondent/Appellant Randall Eugene Denton ("Appellant") were divorced by final decree in 2005. Incorporated into the decree was a marital dissolution agreement ("MDA") signed by the parties providing for the disposition of their marital property, including two pieces of real property, a sixty acre tract ("60-acre tract"), and a twenty-eight acre tract ("28-acre tract"). Appellant was to receive the 60-acre tract, while Ms. Denton was to receive the 28-acre tract, where her home was located. The properties were encumbered by two mortgages. First, Appellant was required to assume what the parties termed "the first mortgage, " which apparently was secured by both tracts of lands. The debt on the first mortgage was approximately $90, 000.00. Ms. Denton in turn was to assume "the second mortgage" of approximately $25, 000.00. The MDA does not specifically note whether the property securing the second mortgage includes only the 28-acre tract or both tracts, as with the first mortgage. With regard to these debts, the MDA provided that the party assuming the debt would hold the other party harmless, "including protection from foreclosure."

         On January 31, 2014, Ms. Denton filed a petition for contempt against Appellant relative to his obligations under the MDA. The petition alleged that the parties had "themselves modified the payment of the debt" so that Appellant was transferred ownership of two mobile homes, whose rental income was to be utilized by Appellant to pay both the first and second mortgages. Despite this agreement, Ms. Denton alleged that Appellant failed to make the required mortgage payments. Appellant answered the petition, generally denying the material allegations contained therein.

         The trial court thereafter entered an order on September 14, 2014, finding Appellant in contempt, reserving the issue of sanctions and attorney's fees, and ordering Appellant to "take necessary steps to prevent [Ms.] Denton's home and real property from being foreclosed." A hearing to determine any further action necessary was scheduled for October 9, 2014.

         The record contains no further filings with regard to Ms. Denton's first contempt petition. Rather, on April 12, 2016, Ms. Denton filed a second petition for contempt against Appellant. Therein, Ms. Denton alleged that during the October 9, 2014 hearing, Appellant informed the trial court that he had filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure of the home and property. Regardless, on January 27, 2016, Ms. Denton alleged that she received notification that foreclosure proceedings had been initiated against a portion of the 28-acre lot. According to the notice, the debt on the property had been accelerated and the amount of the debt totaled $135, 594.51. Ms. Denton's petition asked that Appellant be held in contempt, but did not specify that she was seeking incarceration as a remedy.

         Appellant filed an answer to the contempt petition on May 23, 2016. Therein, he alleged that Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings were ongoing and asked that the contempt proceedings be stayed pursuant to the automatic bankruptcy stay.[2]

         Over the years, the parties held several hearings before the trial court on this issue. After a final judgment was entered in this case, a Statement of the Evidence was filed, which statement appears to include matters beginning in September 2014 and concluding in November 2016.[3] According to the Statement of the Evidence, at some point, the parties stipulated that pursuant to the MDA, Appellant was awarded the 60-acre tract and the first mortgage, while Ms. Denton received the 28-acre tract, where her home was located, as well as the second mortgage. It was undisputed, however, that after the entry of the MDA, Appellant sold the 60-acre tract and entered into an agreement with Ms. Denton to refinance the two mortgages into a single loan solely in his name.[4] The parties both testified that the refinance in his name was necessary as Ms. Denton's credit prevented her from refinancing her debt alone. According to the parties, Appellant made the payment on the new loan for many years, but later stopped. Appellant contended that his failure to pay was the result of his inability to pay. Appellant testified that his income had substantially decreased since the divorce, as he was required to retire due to health reasons.[5] As such, Appellant testified that he and his current wife have expenses of approximately $3, 263.00 ...

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