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Jackson v. Brown

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

December 13, 2018

JACKSON
v.
BROWN

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

          Barnes, Presiding Judge.

         In this domestic relations case, Terrence Jackson appeals from an order requiring him to pay the attorney fees and costs incurred by his minor child's mother who is also the child's primary physical custodial parent, Makesha Brown. For reasons that follow, we vacate the order, and remand the case.

         On November 27, 2017, Brown filed a "Complaint for Modification of Custody, Child Support, and Parenting Time," alleging that there had been a material change of circumstances affecting the child's welfare such that the then-existing court-ordered custody, visitation, and child support arrangements were no longer serving the child's best interests. In addition to requesting certain modifications to those arrangements, Brown prayed for "attorney's fees and costs of litigation incurred in filing and prosecuting this action." In his responsive pleading, Jackson claimed that Brown's requests should be denied; he further counterclaimed for a (different) modification of the visitation provision of the court order; and likewise, he prayed for "attorney fees and costs for defending this action."

         The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing. Subsequently, on March 15, 2018, the trial court entered an "Order on Complaint for Modification of Custody, Child Support, and Parenting Time," deciding issues of child custody (including visitation), and child support. (That order was silent with respect to the parties' requests for attorney fees and costs.) That same day, as the record before us reveals, a "General Civil and Domestic Relations Case Disposition Information Form" was filed.

         The following month, on April 19, 2018, the court entered the order contested in this appeal. It provided in full:

The above and foregoing matter having come before the Court on [Brown's] Letter Brief for Attorney's Fees dated March 23, 2018.
After review and consideration,
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that [Jackson] shall pay to [Brown] the sum of $3, 500.00 for attorney fees and costs in the amount of $21.69. Said amount shall be paid to [Brown] within ninety (90) days of the date of this order.
Seeking reprieve from that order, Jackson procured this discretionary appeal.

         1. Jackson contends that the attorney fees and costs awards lacked "legal authority." As Jackson posits,

there is no transcript of the [hearing], which would have shown that neither party argued the issue of attorney's fees to the Trial Court during the pendency of the case or after the final Order of March 15, 2018. Rather, the only information regarding the issue of attorney's fees was the letter sent by [Brown] to the Trial Judge . . . . more than a week after the entry of the Final Order [of March 15, 2018], and furthermore said letter is not part of the Trial Court's record in this case.

         Brown counters that the contested awards were justified under OCGA §§ 9-15-14 (b)[1] and 9-11-54 (d).[2] Moreover, she claims that she repeatedly requested such awards: (i) in her November 27 complaint; (ii) in a subsequent motion that Jackson be compelled to comply with discovery requests, wherein she included a request for "an Order requiring [Jackson] to Pay [Brown's] reasonable attorney's fees"; (iii) at the hearing; and (iv) in her letter brief. Brown additionally claims on appeal that she filed her letter brief "in accordance with the [trial court's] direction at the [hearing]." As Brown summarizes in her appellate brief, the trial court stated at the hearing that letter briefs would be allowed if the parties were willing to waive a separate hearing on attorney fees.

         The appellate record, however, falls short of allowing us to discern whether the trial court's ruling was authorized, because we are unable to ascertain the basis upon which the trial court rested its decision. More specifically, while Brown's November 27 complaint and her subsequent motion to compel requested the grant of such award(s), neither of those pleadings identified any statutory basis. And while Brown asserts that the trial court informed the parties at the hearing that they could submit letter briefs on the issue of attorneys fees, the record before us contains neither a hearing transcript, nor a viable substitute, [3] that might have shed light on the underpinnings of the contested awards. Brown further describes to this Court that her letter brief to the trial court presented "the myriad reasons" and "ample justification for an award of attorney's fees and costs." But the appellate record contains no letter brief.[4] Moreover, the order contested in this appeal, which is ...


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