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Cooper v. Estate of Gatwood

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

August 15, 2013

The ESTATE OF William David GATWOOD.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Tadd Parsons, Jack Parsons, Wiggins, attorneys for appellant.

Richard C. Fitzpatrick, Poplarville, attorney for appellee.

PIERCE, Justice

¶ 1. This case has its origin in a 1996 divorce decree in Lamar County. Thirteen years after the divorce was finalized, the Lamar County Chancery Court found that the former husband, John David Gatwood, appellee in this case, was in arrears on certain financial obligations imposed by the 1996 divorce decree. Because of various extenuating circumstances, the chancellor ordered Gatwood to pay off his debt in monthly installments. More than a year after the chancery court judgment, the former wife's attorney, Jack Parsons, successfully filed a suggestion for writ of garnishment in the Lamar County Circuit Court, obtaining a writ of garnishment significantly accelerating payment of Gatwood's financial obligations. Circumstances related to the manner in which the writ of garnishment was obtained resulted in sanctions against Parsons; the garnishment proceedings also gave rise to other rulings which have been appealed to this Court.

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¶ 2. The dispute arises from a 1996 divorce decree between William David Gatwood and Susan Gatwood (currently Susan Cooper, appellant in this case). That decree required Gatwood to pay child support as well as life insurance, medical insurance, and medical expenses for his minor children. For thirteen years, Gatwood timely paid the child support but did not provide the required insurance or contribute to the children's medical expenses. In 2009, Cooper brought a contempt action against Gatwood in Lamar County Chancery Court based on his failure to pay the insurance premiums and medical expenses, but not for child support. On September 28, 2009, the chancellor awarded Cooper $68,671.27. However, because Cooper had waited an extended period of time to bring the action, and because Gatwood had made substantial financial contributions for the children's upbringing beyond regular child support, the chancellor reasoned that " equity required" the award not be paid in a lump sum but rather ruled that it be " paid at the rate of $200.00 each month." The chancellor did not award interest.

¶ 3. More than a year later, on December 1, 2010, Parsons filed on Cooper's behalf a suggestion for writ of garnishment in the Lamar County Circuit Court against Lamar Auto Salvage, asserting that Lamar Auto was Gatwood's employer and that Gatwood was the judgment debtor for $68,671.27, plus interest at a rate of eight percent from the date of judgment. However, Parsons failed to disclose critical facts: specifically that the chancellor had ruled the award be paid in monthly installments, without interest due. Moreover, Parsons failed to disclose that Gatwood was current on all monthly payments due under that order.

¶ 4. In February 2011, after receiving no response from Lamar Auto Salvage, the circuit court issued a default judgment against Lamar Auto. Then, on July 28, 2011, the circuit court entered an order granting Lamar's motion to set aside the default judgment against Lamar based upon an agreement reached between Lamar and Cooper, that Lamar would remit $35,885.50 to Cooper. Upon receipt of the funds, Parsons was to communicate confirmation of same to the circuit clerk so the clerk could then cancel the default judgment against Lamar. Shortly thereafter, Lamar paid $35,885.50 to Parsons on behalf of Cooper for the garnishment action. On Monday, August 8, 2011, Gatwood filed a Motion to Amend/Alter Judgment for a New Trial and Other Relief. In October 2011, after receiving a letter from Parsons stating that the garnishment against Lamar remained in full force and effect and that Lamar was to continue withholding the statutory allowance, Lamar paid an additional $4,963.49 on the garnishment action to Parsons on behalf of Cooper. In November 2011, Gatwood filed a motion for sanctions based on Parson's representations to the circuit court. In December 2011, the circuit court entered an order staying further execution on the garnishment. Cooper thereafter filed a motion to dismiss, claiming inter alia that Lamar was not a party to the suit and thus had no standing to file any pleadings in the action. (According to the circuit court, Cooper meant to assert that Gatwood was not a party to the garnishment action.)

¶ 5. The circuit court joined Gatwood as a permissive party under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 19, though the motion was filed one day past the ten-day deadline. (The deadline fell on a Sunday.) The circuit court found that Parsons had violated the Litigation Accountability Act and Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 11

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by materially misrepresenting the terms of the Lamar County Chancery Court's 2009 judgment. The judge accordingly issued sanctions, awarded attorneys' fees to both Gatwood and Lamar Auto, and voided the garnishment judgment against Lamar Auto. Gatwood died on June 29, 2012. The Estate of William David Gatwood was substituted as appellee (" Gatwood" ).

¶ 6. On appeal, Cooper raises six issues:

1. The court erred when it considered the motion to amend/alter judgment for a new trial and other relief because it was not filed as required by Rule 59 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.
2. The court lacked jurisdiction to change the chancery court judgment when the judgment stated " for which let proper execution issue."
3. William David Gatwood had no standing to become a party in the garnishment proceedings. The debtor is not necessary ...

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