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Jones v. Jones

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

January 31, 2019

THOMAS CLIFTON JONES APPELLANT
v.
SHANDA HOLDER JONES APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/24/2016

          JACKSON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. D. NEIL HARRIS SR. JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: DIANNE HERMAN ELLIS.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: MARK H. WATTS.

         EN BANC.

          GRIFFIS, C.J.

         ¶1. Thomas Clifton Jones and Shanda Holder Jones were divorced on January 9, 2006. Thomas and Shanda agreed to joint legal custody of their two minor children. Shanda maintains primary physical custody of the children.

         ¶2. Pursuant to the parties' property-settlement agreement, Thomas agreed to maintain dependent coverage for health and dental insurance for both children. Thomas and Shanda agreed that "all medical expenses not covered by insurance [would] be equally divided between the parties and/or reimbursed within ten (10) days of submitting invoices for same, including deductible." Thomas and Shanda further agreed to be "equally . . . responsible for the costs of school[-]related expenses, extracurricular activities[, ] and any miscellaneous expenses which may arise."

         ¶3. Additionally, in the property-settlement agreement, Thomas agreed to pay $682 per month in child support, with the sum of $341 to be paid twice per month. In other words, Thomas agreed to pay $341 twenty-four times per year. A wage-withholding order was subsequently entered but, for unknown reasons, was never issued. As a result, Thomas paid his monthly child support directly to Shanda.

         ¶4. On May 18, 2009, without a petition filed or process served, a modified wage- withholding order was entered and issued. Pursuant to the modified order, $341 was withheld from Thomas's paycheck on a biweekly basis (i.e., every two weeks). As a result, beginning in 2009, Thomas paid $341 twenty-six times per year.

         ¶5. On May 13, 2014, Shanda filed a "Complaint for Contempt of Court and Other Relief" and claimed Thomas had failed to pay child support and his portion of the children's medical and school expenses. Shanda sought attorney's fees incurred as a result of Thomas's contempt of court. Thomas subsequently filed his answer along with a counterclaim for contempt and modification of custody. Additionally, Thomas asserted that he had overpaid child support since 2009 as a result of the modified wage-withholding order.

         ¶6. A three-day trial was held on January 13, 2015, February 16, 2016, and March 11, 2016. On March 24, 2016, the chancellor entered his "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Final Judgment of the Court" wherein he found Thomas to be in willful and contumacious contempt of court for his failure to pay child support as well as his portion of expenses. Specifically, the chancellor found Thomas owed $708 in unpaid child support, $5, 565.15 in unpaid medical expenses, and $6, 946.39 in unpaid school and/or extracurricular expenses, for a total arrearage of $13, 219.54.

         ¶7. The chancellor further found that due to the modified wage-withholding order that was not properly filed or served, Thomas had overpaid child support since 2009.[1] As a result, the chancellor credited Thomas $4, 200 against the total arrearage. However, the chancellor denied Thomas's request for credit for the payments his family made on behalf of the children. The chancellor entered a judgment against Thomas in the amount of $9, 019.54.

         ¶8. Additionally, the chancellor awarded Shanda $6, 500 in attorney's fees due to Thomas's contempt. The chancellor found no evidence of a material change in circumstances adverse to the minor children and therefore denied Thomas's request for a modification of custody. The chancellor further denied all other requested relief, including Thomas's counterclaim for contempt of court against Shanda.

         ¶9. Thomas now appeals and argues the chancellor erred in: (1) finding him in contempt for failing to pay his portion of the expenses, (2) finding him in contempt for his failure to pay child support, (3) failing to find Shanda in contempt for her noncompliance with the property-settlement agreement, and (4) awarding Shanda attorney's fees.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶10. "Chancellors are vested with broad discretion, and this Court will not disturb the chancellor's findings unless the court's actions were manifestly wrong, the court abused its discretion, or the court applied an erroneous legal standard." Johnston v. Parham, 758 So.2d 443, 445 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000).

         ANALYSIS

         I. Whether the chancellor erred in finding Thomas in contempt for failing to pay his portion of the expenses.

         ¶11. "A party can be held in contempt for noncompliance with a judgment issued by the chancellor." Weeks v. Weeks, 29 So.3d 80, 86 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citing Mississippi Code Annotated section 9-1-17 (Rev. 2002)). "Failure to comply with a court order is prima facie evidence of contempt." Evans v. Evans, 75 So.3d 1083, 1087 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). "To rebut a prima facie case of contempt, [the non-moving party] must show an inability to pay, that the default was not willful, that the provision violated was ambiguous, or that performance was impossible." Id. (citation and internal quotation mark omitted).

         ¶12. We find the property-settlement agreement, which was drafted by Shanda, to be vague and ambiguous regarding the expenses to be reimbursed. It requires the parties to be "equally . . . responsible for the costs of school[-]related expenses, extracurricular activities[, ] and any miscellaneous expenses which may arise." Yet, it fails to define or explain what is meant by such expenses. Thus, under the property-settlement agreement, Shanda contends that any activity in which the children participate is subject to reimbursement. The support for this argument is the fact that the property-settlement agreement not only requires payment for expenses of school and extracurricular activities, but also "miscellaneous" activities. Based on this language, there appears to be no limit to such activities or expenses. Thus, Thomas may be required to pay half of all expenses no matter the cost or his ability to pay.

         ¶13. Additionally, under the property-settlement agreement, the parties agreed that "all medical expenses not covered by insurance [would] be equally divided between the parties and/or reimbursed within ten (10) days of submitting invoices for same, including deductible." (Emphasis added). The property-settlement agreement requires an invoice to be paid or reimbursed within ten days of submission, but it does not place any limitation on the amount of time each party has to submit an invoice. Thus, under this language, a party could wait months or even years to submit various invoices and then demand payment of those invoices within ten days of submission, after the invoices have reached a substantial amount.

         ¶14. The property-settlement agreement requires the submission of an "invoice," not an explanation of benefits (EOB). The record shows Thomas received various EOB statements regarding the children's medical appointments and procedures. But an EOB is not an invoice. Although an EOB provides a statement of what insurance has covered, it does not provide proof of who has paid the balance, or whether the balance has been paid.

         ¶15. According to Thomas, he did not receive bills or invoices for the children's medical expenses and school and/or extracurricular activities until 2014. Thomas's wife, Sherri, also testified that Thomas did not receive any bills prior to March 2014. Sherri explained that in March 2014, she and Thomas picked up the children on a Friday. Shanda handed Thomas a "big huge folder" of unpaid bills and advised that she would need "$5, 000 by Sunday or she was taking him to court." Sherri further ...


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