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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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,
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. 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.
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
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.
"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).
Whether the chancellor erred in finding Thomas in
contempt for failing to pay his portion of the
"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).
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
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.
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.
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 ...