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Seibert v. Fields

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

March 22, 2019

Carl Michael Seibert
v.
Lorri Fields

          Appeal from Madison Circuit Court (DR-13-900006.02)

          MOORE, Judge.

         Carl Michael Seibert ("the former husband") appeals from a judgment entered by the Madison Circuit Court ("the trial court") to the extent that it determined the amount of child support to be paid by Lorri Fields ("the former wife"), found the former husband in contempt of court, and ordered the former husband to pay the attorney's fees for the former wife. We affirm the judgment in part and reverse it in part.

         Procedural History

         These parties have previously been before this court. See Ex parte Seibert, 231 So.3d 1111 (Ala. Civ. App. 2017) ("Seibert IV"); Seibert v. Seibert (No. 2140062, July 31, 2015), 217 So.3d 843 (Ala. Civ. App. 2015) (table); Ex parte Seibert, 171 So.3d 699 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013) (table); and Ex parte Seibert, 171 So.3d 700 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013) (table).[1] In 2014, the trial court entered a judgment divorcing the parties ("the divorce judgment"); the divorce judgment, among other things, awarded the former wife one-half of the balance of the parties' joint bank accounts that had existed at the time of the parties' separation. The trial court rejected the former husband's postjudgment motions challenging that aspect of the divorce judgment, stating, in pertinent part:

"The court finds that such division is fair and equitable, and that, moreover, there was a standing pendente lite order adopted by the Madison County Circuit Court in October, 2012, that directed parties in a contested divorce to preserve joint[ly] held assets. The undersigned adopted the standing order after being assigned to this case, although the order was already effective."

         On August 17, 2016, the trial court determined that the former wife was entitled to $21, 219.95, as one-half of the joint accounts, and entered a judgment against the former husband for that amount.

         On September 13, 2017, the former wife initiated the present action by filing a verified complaint for contempt and for a rule nisi alleging, among other things, that the former husband had refused to pay her the $21, 219.95 as ordered by the trial court. She requested that the former husband be held in contempt and that he be ordered to pay her attorney's fees. On October 17, 2017, the former husband answered the former wife's complaint. On November 9, 2017, the former husband filed a counterclaim requesting, among other things, that he be awarded sole physical custody of both of the parties' children and that the former wife be ordered to pay child support. On November 16, 2017, the former wife filed a reply to the counterclaim.

         On November 21, 2017, the former wife amended her complaint, adding a claim for attorney's fees under the Alabama Litigation Accountability Act, Ala. Code 1975, § 12-19-270 et seq. On December 7, 2017, the former husband filed an answer to the amended complaint and also requested that the former wife be ordered to pay his attorney's fees. On January 18, 2018, the former husband filed an amended counterclaim, to which the former wife filed a reply that same date.

         After a trial, the trial court entered a judgment on March 8, 2018, that, among other things, awarded the former husband sole physical custody of the children and ordered the former wife to pay $300 monthly in child support. The trial court found the former husband in contempt for refusing to pay the former wife the $21, 219.95 as ordered by the trial court on August 17, 2016, and again ordered the former husband to pay the former wife that amount to purge himself of the contempt. The trial court also awarded the former wife attorney's fees in the amount of $10, 484.13.

         On April 7, 2018, the former husband filed a postjudgment motion challenging, among other things, the contempt and child-support provisions of the judgment. On June 27, 2018, the former husband moved the trial court to "find facts specially and state separately conclusions of law" regarding the child-support and contempt provisions of the judgment. On July 3, 2018, the trial court entered an order amending the March 8, 2018, judgment to order the former wife to pay the former husband $500 per month in child support, which, the trial court explained, deviated from the recommended child-support obligation determined from application of the child-support guidelines set forth in Rule 32, Ala. R. Jud. Admin. ("the child-support guidelines"). The trial court declined to modify the judgment with regard to the contempt finding and the award of attorney's fees against the former husband. On August 14, 2018, the former husband filed his notice of appeal.

         Standard of Review

"When evidence is presented ore tenus, the trial court is '"unique[ly] position[ed] to directly observe the witnesses and to assess their demeanor and credibility."' Ex parte T.V., 971 So.2d 1, 4 (Ala. 2007) (quoting Ex parte Fann, 810 So.2d 631, 633 (Ala. 2001)). Therefore, a presumption of correctness attaches to a trial court's factual findings premised on ore tenus evidence. Ex parte J.E., 1 So.3d 1002, 1008 (Ala. 2008). When evidence is taken ore tenus and the trial judge makes no express findings of fact, this Court will assume that the trial judge made those findings necessary to support the judgment. Transamerica Commercial Fin. Corp. v. AmSouth Bank, N.A., 608 So.2d 375, 378 (Ala. 1992) (citing Fitzner Pontiac-Buick-Cadillac, Inc. v. Perkins & Assocs., Inc., 578 So.2d 1061 (Ala. 1991)). We will not disturb the findings of the trial court unless those findings are 'clearly erroneous, without supporting evidence, manifestly unjust, or against the great weight of the evidence.' Gaston v. Ames, 514 So.2d 877, 878 (Ala. 1987) (citing Cougar Mining Co. v. Mineral Land & Mining Consultants, Inc., 392 So.2d 1177 (Ala. 1981)). '"The trial court's judgment [in cases where evidence is presented ore tenus] will be affirmed, if, under any reasonable aspect of the testimony, there is credible evidence to support the judgment."' Transamerica, 608 So.2d at 378 (quoting Clark v. Albertville Nursing Home, Inc., 545 So.2d 9, 13 (Ala. 1989), and citing Norman v. Schwartz, 594 So.2d 45 (Ala. 1991)); see also Ex parte Perkins, 646 So.2d 46 (Ala. 1994).
"'However, the ore tenus standard of review has no application to a trial court's conclusions of law or its application of law to the facts; a trial court's ruling on a question of law carries no presumption of correctness on appeal.' Ex parte J.E., 1 So.3d at 1008 (citing Perkins, 646 So.2d at 47, and Eubanks v. Hale, 752 So.2d 1113, 1144-45 (Ala. 1999)). This Court '"review[s] the trial court's conclusions of law and its application of law to the facts under the de novo standard of review."' Id. (quoting Washington v. State, 922 So.2d 145, 158 (Ala.Crim.App.2005))."

Espinoza v. Rudolph, 46 So.3d 403, 412 (Ala. 2010).

         Discussion

         I. Contempt

         On appeal, the former husband first challenges the trial court's finding of contempt against him and its award of ...


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