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Motion To Enforce Divorce Judgment Improperly Denied

Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A trial court wrongly held that the plaintiff’s motion to enforce the parties’ judgment of divorce was untimely and frivolous, and that it did not have the authority to consider the plaintiff’s motion, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

In Rainwater v Rainwater (Docket Nos. 341989 and 342418), the Eaton County Circuit Court:

  • denied the plaintiff’s motion to enforce or set aside the property settlement agreement that was incorporated in the parties’ judgment of divorce (JOD), and
  • awarded the defendant attorney fees, finding that the plaintiff’s motion was frivolous and that he engaged in misconduct during a deposition.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s motion to enforce the JOD was neither frivolous nor untimely, and that the trial court had the authority to consider the plaintiff’s motion. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying the plaintiff’s motion and the order awarding attorney fees to the extent that fees were awarded based on the determination that the plaintiff’s motion was frivolous.

“However, because the trial court did not clearly err in determining that plaintiff engaged in misconduct in conducting a deposition, we affirm the award of attorney fees for fees incurred because of the deposition,” the Court of Appeals said.

Judges Stephen L. Borrello, Douglas B. Shapiro and Michael J. Riordan were on the panel that issued the unpublished opinion.

Facts

The plaintiff and the defendant divorced in 2015. The parties tried to work together to divide the marital property but experienced difficulties. The parties were unable to work out a satisfactory division of the property, including items belonging to their deceased minor son.

In September 2017, the plaintiff filed a motion to either enforce the property settlement or, in the alternative, set aside the property settlement and reach a new agreement regarding property division. At the hearing on the plaintiff’s motion, it was noted in particular that a provision in the JOD provided the plaintiff could use the barn located at the marital home for nine months to store his personal property. Based on this provision, the trial court held that the plaintiff’s motion was untimely and it did not have authority to grant him any relief.

The trial court further held that: 1) the plaintiff’s motion was untimely under MCR 2.603 and MCR 2.612 and 2) it did not have authority to consider the plaintiff’s motion because the JOD resolved all the parties’ claims relating to the divorce. Regarding the items that belonged to the parties’ deceased son, the trial court said these issues should be resolved by the Eaton County Probate Court.

The trial court ultimately denied the plaintiff’s motion. It later denied the plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration. The plaintiff appealed.

Reversed & Remanded

The Court of Appeals held the trial court erred in determining that the plaintiff’s motion to enforce the JOD was untimely under both MCR 2.603 and MCR 2.612.

“MCR 2.603 was not applicable in this case because plaintiff was not seeking relief from a default judgment,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “MCR 2.612 governs relief from judgment and therefore was applicable to plaintiff’s alternative request to set aside the property settlement. However, plaintiff was primarily seeking to enforce the property settlement. Thus, even assuming that the motion to set aside the JOD was untimely MCR 2.612, that would have no bearing on plaintiff’s motion to enforce the JOD.”

According to the Court of Appeals, the trial court “focused too heavily” on the plaintiff’s alternative request to set aside and replace the settlement provisions. “In examining the motion, it is clear that this was a cursory argument and that plaintiff’s real desire was for the court to enforce the property settlement. The trial court failed to adequately address both of plaintiff’s arguments.”

The Court of Appeals explained that under MCL 600.5809(3), the period of limitations for enforcing a JOD is 10 years. Here, the parties’ JOD was entered in 2015 and the plaintiff filed his motion in 2017. “Therefore, plaintiff’s motion to enforce the JOD was timely brought within 10 years.”

Further, the Court of Appeals said the trial court incorrectly found that the plaintiff’s claims regarding the distribution of the marital estate were time-barred by the JOD. “[T]here is nothing in the JOD to suggest that the parties had nine months to divide or sell the marital personal property. We note that plaintiff made allegations in his motion pertaining to his recovery of personal property stored at the marital home. So the trial court’s conflation of these issues is somewhat understandable. At oral argument, however, plaintiff clarified that he was seeking division of the marital personal property in accordance with the JOD. Indeed, plaintiff provided an inventory of the marital property to which he claimed half the value of.”

The time-limit for the plaintiff storing his personal property in the barn “had no bearing on the division of the marital estate,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “And there is no language in the JOD indicating that the parties had to divide the marital property within a certain amount of time. Nor is there any provision providing that that defendant would receive exclusive ownership of the marital property in the event that the parties were unable to divide it.”

In addition, the Court of Appeals held the trial court erred in finding that it did not have the authority to address the plaintiff’s motion because the JOD resolved all the divorce-related claims. “While the JOD fully satisfied all claims related to the divorce, the trial court retained authority to hear matters relating to the JOD’s obligations …. One such obligation was the property settlement provision, which … required the parties to divide the marital property and, if they could not do so, to sell the property and divide the proceeds. Moreover, the JOD explicitly gave the trial court authority to interpret and enforce the JOD’s provisions, which is exactly what plaintiff’s motion asked the court to do ….”

Accordingly, the trial court “possessed authority to address plaintiff’s motion, which was not an attempt to litigate another issue of the divorce that the JOD had fully satisfied and barred,” the Court of Appeals said. “Rather, the motion was an attempt to enforce provisions of the JOD.”

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals held: “The trial court erred in determining that plaintiff’s motion was untimely and that the court lacked the authority to consider the motion. For the same reasons, the trial court erred in finding that the motion was frivolous. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s order denying plaintiff’s motion and remand so that the court can address the merits of the motion. We also reverse the order awarding attorney fees to the extent that the award was based on the determination that plaintiff’s motion was frivolous. However, because the trial court did not clearly err in determining that plaintiff engaged in misconduct during Fox’s deposition, we affirm the award of attorney fees to the extent that the fees were incurred because of that deposition. We remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

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