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Davis v. Watson

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

June 6, 2018


          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          McMillian, Judge.

         The law firm of Edward N. Davis, P. C. ("Davis") appeals from the trial court's order on cross-motions for summary judgment regarding the priority of liens asserted by the various defendants in this interpleader action. In its sole enumeration of error, Davis asserts that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment because its statutory attorney's lien is superior to any judgment liens claimed by the other interpleader defendants. For the following reasons, we find no error and affirm.

         Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings and evidence "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law[.]" OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). Following a trial court's grant or denial of summary judgment, we conduct a de novo review, construing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cochran v. Kendrick, 297 Ga. 655, 658 (2) (778 S.E.2d 1) (2015). In this case, the material facts are not in dispute and the record shows that on June 3, 2014, the Superior Court of Taylor County issued a final judgment and decree of divorce dissolving the marriage of Robert and Mindy Cartwright (the "Decree").[1] Throughout the divorce proceedings, Mindy was represented by J. Matthew Anthony and his law firm, Warner Bates McGough McGinnis & Portnoy PC ("Warner Bates"). Robert was represented by Davis.

         The Decree divided the marital property between Mindy and Robert. Pertinent to this appeal, Robert was awarded a warehouse and lot known as the ANSCO building and a 1966 Ford Mustang, among other items of personal property (collectively "the Property"). The Decree also ordered Robert to pay $200, 000 in attorney fees and $150, 217.65 in contempt arrearages to Mindy. On June 11, 2014, Warner Bates filed with the Taylor County deed records an attorney's lien in the amount of $200, 000 against the ANSCO building. Mindy recorded the Decree with the clerk of Taylor County on July 24, 2014. Then, on March 18, 2016, Mindy filed a writ of fieri facias in Taylor County in the amount of $559, 217.65.[2]

         The record further shows that during the pendency of the divorce action, Robert and Mindy were defendants in a lawsuit filed by Fujifilm North American Corporation ("Fuji"). On July 21, 2014, the jury found against Robert in the amount of $9, 667, 149.63.[3] On August 6, 2014, Fuji filed a writ of fieri facias in Taylor County for the full amount of its judgment against Robert. Mindy, Warner Bates, and Fuji disputed the priority of their respective claims against Robert, but eventually entered into a settlement agreement in February 2016 through which Fuji agreed to waive any right to Robert's real property and Mindy and Warner Bates waived any right to Robert's personal property.

         On July 5 and 9, 2016, at the request of Fuji, the Taylor County sheriff's office conducted a sale of the Property. It was not until after the sheriff seized the Property and began the auction process that Davis first notified Fuji's counsel by letter dated July 7, 2016, that it was asserting an attorney's lien in an unspecified amount against the Property.[4]

         Following the sheriff's levy and sale of the Property, Jeff Watson, the sheriff of Taylor County, filed a petition for interpleader and paid the funds generated from the sale into the registry of the court.[5] Davis, Fuji, Mindy, Warner Bates, Anthony, Wells Fargo Bank, NA ("Wells Fargo"), and American Express Centurian Bank ("American Express") were named as defendants. Davis, Fuji, Mindy, attorney Anthony, and Warner Bates each filed an answer to the interpleader petition claiming priority in the funds generated by the sheriff's sale, [6] and ultimately filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Following a hearing on the motions in January 2017, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Fuji and Mindy and denied summary judgment to Davis.[7] This appeal followed.

         An attorney's lien arises upon the attorney's employment and is perfected by the ultimate recovery in favor of his client. Carragher v. Potts, 300 Ga.App. 735, 736 (1) (686 S.E.2d 348) (2009). Here, it is undisputed that the Property was recovered pursuant to the Decree as a result of Davis' legal services, such that the Property is subject to an attorney's lien. See Lipton v. Warner, Mayoue & Bates, P.C., 228 Ga.App. 516, 518 (2) (492 S.E.2d 281) (1997) (upholding attorney lien on real property recovered pursuant to divorce judgment). Thus, we focus our inquiry on the priority of the various liens at issue.

         Although attorney liens are recognized generally at OCGA § 44-14-320 (a) (11), attorney liens are governed more specifically by OCGA § 15-19-14. Relevant to this appeal, the right to impose an attorney's lien against real or personal property[8] for services rendered is established at OCGA § 15-19-14 (c), which provides:

Upon all actions for the recovery of real or personal property and upon all judgments or decrees for the recovery of the same, attorneys at law shall have a lien for their fees on the property recovered superior to all liens except liens for taxes, which may be enforced by mortgage and foreclosure by the attorneys at law or their lawful representatives as liens on personal property and real estate are enforced. The property recovered shall remain subject to the liens unless transferred to bona fide purchasers without notice.

And subsection (d) further provides:

If an attorney at law files his assertion claiming a lien on property recovered in an action instituted by him, within 30 days after a recovery of the same, ...

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