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Vaughn v. Vaughn

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 6, 2019

JAMESRUSSELL VAUGHN, JR.
v.
SANDRA PIERCE VAUGHN

          Session July 19, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Sullivan County No. 18-139(B) William K. Rogers, Judge

         Husband and wife were divorced in 2004. The parties' marital dissolution agreement obligated husband to pay wife $950 a month in alimony. Husband failed to make payments for over ten years. In 2015, wife filed a motion for contempt and order for body attachment seeking to recover the alimony arrearages. At trial, husband argued that the equitable doctrines of laches, waiver, and unclean hands barred wife's claim. The trial court disagreed and awarded wife $114, 000 in past due alimony and $1, 000 in attorney's fees. Husband appeals. We affirm.

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

          Robert M. Asbury, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, James Russell Vaughn, Jr.

          Frank L. Slaughter, Jr., Bristol, Tennessee, for the appellee, Sandra Pierce Vaughn.

          Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J. and John W. McClarty, J., joined.

          OPINION

          CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., JUDGE.

         I.

         On July 31, 2001, husband filed for divorce. On April 6, 2004, due to irreconcilable differences, a final divorce decree granted the parties an absolute divorce. A marital dissolution agreement was attached to the final divorce decree. The MDA required husband to provide $950 a month in alimony to wife, on the following terms:

Husband agrees to provide alimony on a permanent basis by way of cash or credit at no less than $950.00 monthly, of which $475.00 is due at the first of the month and $475.00 due at the 15th of the month, for wife's support and maintenance that is subject to yearly review and adjustment where Husband agrees to an increase of alimony to wife, not to exceed 10% of Husband's yearly income beginning on the 15th day of April, 2004 and each year following the execution of the Marital Dissolution Agreement the Husband agrees to provide his tax return on April 15th of each year to Wife. Said increase shall occur subject to an increase in Husbands (sic) net income.
[Husband agrees to provide to wife alimony on a permanent basis until her death.][1]
Husband shall be entitled to a reduction in the amount states (sic) as alimony in the event his income decreases. In no event shall this paragraph be interpreted to allow for modification of other provisions of this agreement. In no event is alimony to be reduced by greater than 10% per year due to Husbands (sic) decrease in income.

         Husband also agreed to cover numerous additional expenses for wife.

         Following the divorce, wife filed a motion to reconsider or in the alternative for a new trial. She alleged that the MDA attached to the April 6, 2004 decree was not consistent with the parties' intention. In husband's response, he alleged that a hearing on wife's motion was necessary, and he requested a new trial only as to the property and support issues. However, on July 3, 2006, wife's motion was dismissed due to inaction by the parties.

         On November 23, 2015, wife filed a motion for contempt and order for body attachment. She requested husband be held in contempt for failure to pay $775, 751 to wife in arrearages, including past due alimony. On January 15, 2016, she filed an amended motion. The matter was set for a hearing on April 5, 2016. On April 4, 2016, husband filed for a continuance due to his colon cancer, blood clotting disorder, and back injury. His doctor provided a letter stating that the medical conditions preclude husband from traveling, and affects his clarity as a witness.

         Following a November 7, 2016 hearing, the parties exchanged correspondence wherein husband's counsel informed wife's counsel of a ten year statute of limitations on judgments that applies to alimony awards. On December 15, 2016, wife filed an amended motion withdrawing her claim for interest[2] and limiting her claim for alimony to the previous ten years; wife also requested recovery for numerous other expenses husband had agreed to pay on wife's behalf under the MDA. The amended motion requested husband pay wife a new total of $234, 519 in arrearages, and also attorney's fees and costs.

         On June 6, 2017, husband again requested a continuance. He stated that there was "a tragic accident involving his mother and brother." His brother was in the ICU and his mother had been placed in a nursing facility as a result of the trauma.

         On July 27, 2017, husband filed his answer. He denied wife's claims for attorney's fees, costs, and body attachment; he requested his own attorney's fees and costs. He raised the defenses of laches and waiver on the basis of wife's ten year delay in seeking recovery of the arrearages. He stated that he had not hidden from wife, and that his whereabouts have been ascertainable by a simple google search for years. Husband also alleged that wife was not entitled to the relief she sought under the doctrine of unclean hands based on wife allegedly having transferred her marital residence to her son prior to the divorce in order to conceal the asset. Subsequent to the transfer, wife filed for bankruptcy. Husband alleged that she did not list the marital home as an asset, nor did she list her "extensive antique collection, valued in excess of One Million Dollars [] as assets." Husband further stated that five mediated agreements were ignored by wife during the pendency of their divorce. The fifth motion to set aside the mediation was ultimately dismissed due to wife's inaction for over two years. After the two-year period, husband alleges that wife "quietly transferred the title of the marital home back to herself for a fee of [o]ne [d]ollar."

         Additionally, husband alleged that wife's testimony that she had not been employed since the 1990's and had lived off the generosity of friends was not true and that wife had actually been selling off the antique collection, which would have been a marital asset. Husband further stated that

[husband] has been unjustly prejudiced by the [wife's] acquiescence as to the actual terms of their 2004 divorce in that the [husband] retained assets that were marital in nature in exchange for not enforcing the terms of the April [] 2001 Marital Dissolution Agreement and that any obligation on the part of the [husband] was moot given his acquiescence to the [wife] retaining the marital home and antique collection as well as her ...

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