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Pandey v. Pandey

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 16, 2017

BELINDA BUTLER PANDEY
v.
ANEEL MADHUKAR PANDEY

          August 24, 2017 Session

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 13D242 Philip E. Smith, Judge

         This action presents issues regarding the interpretation and application of a postnuptial agreement previously executed by parties who later filed for divorce. The trial court determined that the parties' agreement was valid and enforced its terms, including a provision allowing for an award of attorney's fees to a prevailing party who was attempting to defend the agreement. The trial court granted the wife an award of attorney's fees pursuant to this provision. In addition, the husband filed two motions seeking the trial judge's recusal, which the trial court denied. The husband timely appealed. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the trial court's judgment. We further determine that the wife is not entitled to an award of attorney's fees incurred on appeal.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Aneel Madhukar Pandey, Nashville, Tennessee, Pro Se.

          Helen Sfikas Rogers and Lawrence J. Kamm, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Belinda Butler Pandey.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         This divorce action was filed in the Fourth Circuit Court of Davidson County ("trial court") by Belinda Butler Pandey ("Wife") against her husband, Aneel Madhukar Pandey ("Husband"). The parties had been married for fifteen years at the time Wife filed for divorce on January 22, 2013. Three children were born of the marriage, two of whom have special needs. Prior to the inception of these divorce proceedings, on December 17, 2011, the parties entered into a "Postnuptial Agreement" ("the Agreement"). In her initial complaint, Wife asked the trial court to distribute the parties' property according to the terms of the Agreement. The Agreement, while providing for the immediate transfer of certain assets at the time of its execution, contains the following provisions relative to a subsequent divorce:

Divorce or Separation.
Each party hereby agrees that in the event of their divorce or separation:
(a) Each item of property (whether real, personal or mixed) registered to, titled to, or held in an account styled in the individual name of one of the parties shall be the separate property of that party and may be retained by the party in whose name such property is registered, titled or held or in whose name such account is styled.
(b)All items of property titled in the parties' joint names (whether real, personal or mixed) shall be divided equally (not equitably) between the parties. Further, any properties held in accounts styled in the parties' joint names shall be divided equally (not equitably) between the parties. Any untitled personal property acquired by the parties jointly shall be divided in proportion to the contribution made by each party. If the parties cannot agree upon a division of such property, then such jointly owned property shall be sold as quickly as possible and the net proceeds shall be divided by a court consistent with the terms of this subparagraph.
(c)Neither party shall have, nor assert, any interest with respect to any income earned or received during the marriage, property or appreciation, whether real, personal or mixed, of the other party, whether now owned or hereafter acquired, even though such property may constitute "marital property" within the meaning of Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-4-121, or would otherwise be subject to an equitable division under the laws of the State of Tennessee.
(d)Neither party shall be entitled to receive maintenance, alimony or support of any kind from the other party, except child support, whether temporary or permanent, whether rehabilitative, transitional or in futuro, whether past, present or future, and whether in installments or in lump sum. The parties acknowledge that the purpose of this Agreement is to promote marital harmony and to discourage either party from seeking to obtain monetary benefits by an abandonment of the marriage, or to gain benefits from properties originally acquired by the other party before or during the marriage. The parties hereby expressly assert their belief that the waiver of maintenance, alimony and support and the division of their respective properties as provided for herein are fair and equitable arrangements, and each fully intends to be bound thereby. The parties expressly contemplate the possibility of a divorce or legal separation. If the marriage is terminated by legal separation or divorce, regardless of which party is at fault or initiates such action and regardless of jurisdiction, venue, or location of such action, the parties hereby specifically agree that this Postnuptial Agreement, to the extent allowed by applicable law at the time of such legal separation or divorce, shall serve as a bar or estoppel prohibiting each party from receiving any alimony, in any form, whatsoever, from the other party.
(e)In the event that either party files an action for divorce or legal separation, the other party agrees that he or she will not contest the action for divorce or legal separation, as long as the final order in such proceedings calls for the parties to comply with the provisions of this Postnuptial Agreement.
(f) In the event of an action for legal separation or divorce, the parties agree that the division of their properties and the subsequent ownership of their properties as provided by the terms of this Postnuptial Agreement shall constitute a division of their properties and the settlement of their rights therein. Further, each party agrees that in the event of an action for legal separation or divorce brought by either of them, that neither he nor she will seek in any such proceeding, to enforce or claim any right in the properties of the other in any manner, whatsoever, which are inconsistent with the terms of this Agreement.

(Additional paragraph numbering omitted.)

         Husband filed an answer to Wife's complaint on March 1, 2013, alleging that the Agreement was invalid and unenforceable due to fraud, bad faith, misrepresentation, lack of consideration, duress, and breach of its terms by Wife. Wife thereafter amended her complaint to alternatively seek an equitable distribution of the parties' assets. On April 10, 2013, Husband filed a motion seeking partial summary judgment, asking the trial court to find that the Agreement was unenforceable. This summary judgment motion was denied by the trial court in an order entered on October 15, 2013. On November 6, 2013, Husband filed "Husband's Second Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, " seeking a grant of summary judgment with regard to five issues concerning the Agreement. The trial court subsequently denied this second motion for summary judgment in an order entered on January 7, 2014. According to Wife, Husband then filed a complaint in the Sixth Circuit Court for Davidson County, Tennessee, requesting that court to enter a judgment declaring that the Agreement was void ab initio as a matter of public policy. This pleading does not appear in the appellate record. The record does contain, however, an "Order to Transfer and Consolidate, " dated August 19, 2014, wherein the Sixth Circuit Court transferred the Sixth Circuit case back to the trial court and consolidated it with the ongoing divorce action.

         Meanwhile, on June 5, 2014, Husband filed a motion seeking the trial court judge's recusal, asserting that the trial court judge had demonstrated bias and prejudice. The trial court denied this motion in an order entered on July 1, 2014. Husband subsequently filed a "Motion to Clarify Existence of Fatal Error" on October 1, 2014, again disputing the validity of the Agreement. Subsequently, on October 24, 2014, Husband filed a "Motion to Void Postnuptial Agreement for Collusion and Incorporated Memorandum of Law." On October 31, 2014, the trial court entered an order denying the "Motion to Clarify Existence of Fatal Error." In this order, the trial court "direct[ed] [Husband] not to file any more dispositive motions on the validity of the parties' Postnuptial Agreement unless new facts are developed." The trial court also denied Husband's motion seeking to void the Agreement for collusion in an order entered December 19, 2014.[1]

         The trial court conducted a hearing spanning four non-consecutive days in January 2015. On May 8, 2015, the trial court entered its "Memorandum Opinion and Decree of Divorce." Concerning the trial testimony, the court found Wife's testimony and the testimony of other witnesses to be highly credible while determining Husband's testimony to be "not worthy of belief." Based on Husband's testimony and behavior in court, the court characterized Husband as intelligent and "very manipulative." The court accordingly afforded Husband's testimony no weight.

         Following a thorough and detailed analysis of the Agreement's provisions, the trial court found the Agreement to be "valid in all respects." The court accordingly determined that the Agreement's provisions would dictate the division of the parties' assets and liabilities. Concerning the parenting plan, the court designated Wife the primary residential parent for the parties' children, noting that Husband had not sought such designation. The court also designated Wife as the sole decision-maker for the children. The court determined the amount of child support due pursuant to the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines, finding that the child support amount provided in the Agreement exceeded Husband's Guideline support obligation. The court also determined, however, that an upward deviation was appropriate based on the children's special needs. The court thus enforced the child support provisions in the Agreement, finding that the best interest of the children would be served by the upward deviation provided by the Agreement.

         The trial court noted that Wife sought an award of attorney's fees based on a provision in the Agreement stating that fees necessary to enforce or defend the Agreement could be recovered from the other party. The court thus ordered Wife's attorney to prepare an itemized statement detailing the time spent enforcing and defending the Agreement.

         On May 28, 2015, Wife filed a motion to alter or amend the trial court's judgment, seeking to correct certain typographical errors and to clarify the court's ruling. On June 5, 2015, Wife filed a motion seeking to establish the amount of her attorney's fee award as well as an award of expenses and discretionary costs. Wife attached to the motion an affidavit from her counsel and an itemized statement of attorney's fees. Husband filed a response, objecting to the amount of fees and expenses sought, and the court set Wife's motion for a hearing to determine fees and costs. On December 23, 2015, Husband filed a post-trial "Summary Judgment Motion to Dismiss Wife's Claim for Legal Fees and Incorporated Memorandum of Law, " asking the trial court to find that Wife was not entitled to recover her attorney's fees because she "contested the enforceability of the child support provision in the parties' Postnuptial Agreement." The trial court denied this motion by order entered January 26, 2016. Husband sought to file an extraordinary appeal with this Court pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 10, but this Court denied his application.

         On February 5, 2016, prior to the hearing regarding attorney's fees, Husband filed a "Second Motion for Judge Smith to Recuse Himself and Motion to Stay Trial." According to Husband, during a motion hearing held on January 29, 2016, the trial court judge committed an "irreparable compromise of the integrity, decorum and dignity of the courtroom" by stating on the record that he was "messing with" Husband. The trial court comprehensively addressed and denied the recusal motion in an order entered on February 10, 2016. On February 22, 2016, Husband filed another "summary judgment" motion regarding Wife's claim for attorney's fees. Husband's motion was denied by order entered February 26, 2016, wherein the trial court found that the motion was filed subsequent to the trial and was thus untimely.

         The hearing regarding Wife's award of attorney's fees was conducted on March 1, 2016. On June 7, 2016, the trial court entered an order awarding to Wife attorney's fees in the amount of $297, 363 along with various costs. Husband filed a motion to alter or amend this award, and the trial court subsequently entered an order on August 24, 2016, reducing the attorney's fee award to $283, 252. Husband timely appealed.

         II. Issues Presented

         Husband presents the following two issues for our review, which we have restated slightly:

1. Whether the trial court erred by awarding attorney's fees to Wife.
2. Whether the trial court erred by denying Husband's motions seeking recusal of the trial court judge.

         Wife presents the following additional issues for our review, which we have similarly restated:

3. Whether Husband's issues should be deemed waived because his appellate brief fails to satisfy the requirements of Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 27.
4. Whether the trial court erred by declining to award to Wife the full amount of attorney's fees she incurred in ...

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