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Eden v. Eden

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 2, 2018

EDEN et al.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          BRANCH, JUDGE.

         Jill Eden appeals the denial of her second motion for contempt arising out of a quiet title action and subsequent settlement agreement. Because we find that the trial court made an unauthorized finding while denying Eden's motion for contempt, we vacate the trial court's order as to that finding.

         The record shows that in 2007, Jill's brother John proposed to Jill that she build a home on property that he and his wife owned in Barrow County. Jill alleged that John also promised to deed her a portion of his property for that purpose. After Jill constructed the home at her own expense, a dispute arose regarding title to the relevant property, and Jill filed the present action to quiet title against John and his wife (the Edens). The trial court eventually ordered a settlement conference following which the parties entered into a written settlement agreement. As the court explained in a subsequent order, the settlement agreement provided, among other things, that the Edens were required to (1) deed to Jill a life estate and an access agreement to the subject property, (2) provide property insurance and pay taxes on the property during Jill's life, and (3) pay Jill $700 per month during her lifetime in consideration of the improvements she made to the property. The settlement agreement also required the Edens' counsel to draft the necessary documents.

         Jill later filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement, and on October 5, 2015, the trial court granted the motion and expressly made the settlement agreement the order of the court. The trial court held that, "[b]y its express terms as approved by the parties, the Agreement constitutes a final resolution of all the issues in this case, and its terms became binding on the parties at the time of signing." The agreement provided that it was the entire agreement between the parties and that it could not be modified "except in writing executed by all parties with the same or greater formalities as this Agreement." It also provided for attorney fees and costs if a party had to employ an attorney to enforce any of its provisions. Neither party appealed the court's order enforcing the settlement agreement.

         After the Edens failed to comply with any of the above provisions of the court's order, Jill filed her first motion for contempt, as well as a motion for attorney fees and expenses of litigation. At the March 1, 2016 hearing on those motions, the Edens admitted that they failed to comply with provisions of the trial court's order, and consequently, the trial court found them to be in contempt of that order. The court issued its order on March 14, 2016 "nunc pro tunc March 1, 2016, " the date of the hearing. The court held that the Edens had failed to deliver the required access agreements and failed to pay $9, 260.97 of the required payments; the court ordered that the Edens be incarcerated if they failed to purge the contempt for these items and awarded attorney fees associated with Jill's motion for contempt and her defense of a motion to recuse. With regard to the Edens' obligation to deed a life estate to Jill, however, the court found that the Edens had deeded the subject property to Jill in fee simple, rather than as a life estate. And the court noted in the above-mentioned attorney fee award that it "gave credit to the [Edens] for their transfer of the subject property to [Jill] in fee simple and does not award any attorney's fees on [Jill's] Motion to Enforce [the settlement agreement]." The Edens purged themselves of contempt as required by the order. Neither party appealed the court's March 14, 2016 ruling on this first motion for contempt.

         One month later, Jill filed a second motion for contempt on the grounds that the Edens failed to make a $700 payment in April 2016 and failed to execute an unspecified "quitclaim deed"; she later amended the motion to include two more missed payments but removed any reference to a quitclaim deed from the requested relief. Following oral argument, on October 6, 2016, the trial court issued its order declining to hold the Edens in contempt on the ground that contempt is not an authorized remedy when seeking to enforce a purely monetary obligation. But the court also stated that "that determination does not put an end to this litigation." The court went on to make a second ruling - that no further $700 payments were required. Is so doing, the court stated that it recognized that a contempt order cannot modify an existing order, and that therefore "to resolve this dispute the court must interpret the Mediation[/settlement] Agreement and the October 5[, 2015] order." The trial court noted that the settlement agreement and the prior court orders were "silent regarding the impact of unifying title in [Jill] on future payments." Nevertheless, the court found that both the mediation agreement and the October 5 order "tie" the $700 payment obligation to the life estate and constituted compensation for Jill having made improvements to the property, which improvements would inure to the benefit of the Edens at the end of Jill's life. The court then found that "delivery of the Deed was done in open court [at the March 1, 2016 hearing] with all parties and counsel present." The court therefore concluded that by accepting the fee simple deed in open court without protest, Jill "acquiesc[ed] by silence [to] the transfer of title and [to] a modification of the settlement agreement." The court thus concluded that the Edens' obligation to make monthly $700 payments to Jill had been eliminated and therefore, for this second reason, denied Jill's second motion for contempt.

         Jill appeals the trial court's October 6, 2016 order. She contends the trial court erred by modifying the settlement agreement and final enforcement order in response to the Edens' transfer of the fee simple deed, by making that modification outside the term of court of the original order, and by not finding the Edens in contempt and awarding attorney fees.

         1. Jill contends the trial court erred by modifying the final enforcement order by determining that no additional $700 payments were required as a result of the Edens' transferring to Jill fee simple title to the subject property. We agree.

         First, however, we hold that the trial court was correct that contempt was not an available remedy for the Edens' failure to make $700 payments under the second motion for contempt. In that motion as amended, Jill sought to enforce a money judgment only.[1] And "[i]n the absence of statutory authority or other extraneous circumstances [not present here], contempt is not an available remedy to enforce a money judgment." McKenna v. Gray, 263 Ga. 753, 756 (438 S.E.2d 901) (1994) (contempt not available against estate for failure to pay full amount of required monthly payments owed under a structured settlement agreement); Hill v. Paluzzi, 261 Ga.App. 123, 126 (2) (581 S.E.2d 730) (2003) (contempt not authorized to enforce a sum owed under a consent decree). Thus the trial court correctly denied Jill's second motion for contempt on this ground.

         The court erred, however, in finding that future $700 payments were no longer required. "In a contempt proceeding, a court may interpret and clarify an existing order but may not modify the terms and obligations already set forth." Harvey v. Lindsey, 251 Ga.App. 387, 390 (1) (554 S.E.2d 523) (2001), citing Millner v. Millner, 260 Ga. 495, 497 (2) (397 S.E.2d 289) (1990), and Gallit v. Buckley, 240 Ga. 621, 626 (3) (242 S.E.2d 89) (1978).

To determine whether an order has been clarified, as opposed to being modified, the test is whether the new order is a reasonable clarification or so contrary to the apparent intent of the original order as to constitute a modification. The intent is found by looking at the content of the order and the context in which it was created.

Harvey, 251 Ga.App. at 390 (1) (footnotes omitted). Here, the trial court, in its October 6, 2016 order, purported to interpret or clarify the settlement agreement and the October 5, 2015 order enforcing that agreement. It did so in light of single factual development - that the Edens had unilaterally decided to grant Jill fee simple title instead of a life estate. Is so doing, however, the trial court impermissibly modified the settlement agreement.

         As the trial court held in the October 2015 enforcement order, the settlement agreement set forth the entire agreement between the parties, which included the Edens granting Jill a life estate and certain easements, paying for insurance and taxes on the transferred property, and paying Jill $700 a month in consideration of the improvements she made to the property. As stated in the October 6, 2016 order on appeal, the trial court is correct that neither the settlement agreement nor the enforcement order refers in any way to the possibility of the Edens transferring a fee simple deed rather than a life estate. Indeed, the parties had determined for ...

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