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HUSBAND'S MERITLESS CLAIM OF DURESS LEADS TO AWARD OF WIFE'S FEES ON APPEAL

In the case of Trigg v Trigg, (No. E2014-00860-COA-R3-CV. Jan 5, 2015), the court finds that Husband was not under duress in signing a contract due to the fact that Wife used dismissal of Order of Protection violations as leverage. Further, the Court of Appeals found Husband's appeal frivolous and awarded Wife fees expended in the appeal. 

Facts

Wife filed for divorce in 2012 after 24 years of marriage. There was an Order of Protection put in place that prevented Husband from contacting Wife in any way for any reason, which Wife claims he violated incessantly. In January of 2013, both parties signed a Guaranty to Mediate and Sign Divorce Documents. Next, the parties entered into a Marital Dissolution Agreement (MDA), which was also signed by both parties and their counsel. In March, the Final Judgment of Divorce was entered by the trial court, incorporating the MDA. In April, Husband filed a Motion for New Trial or alternatively a Motion to Alter or Amend the Final Judgment. Husband argued that the Final Judgment of Divorce should be set aside because the trial court failed to conduct a formal hearing before entering the judgment. He also claimed that the MDA was invalid because he was coerced into signing it and was under duress. He supported his motion with an affidavit.
In April, Wife filed a Motion to Set Aside the Final Judgment of Divorce or in the Alternative Motion to Amend the Final Judgment to an Order of Legal Separation. Wife also filed a Motion to Strike in order to have Husband's affidavit removed from the record along with any reference to said affidavit. She described Husband's affidavit as false and malicious. In November, the trial court entered an order giving the couple the option to work out their disputes through mediation or settle everything at a later court date. The record does not state whether or not mediation took place between the two, but a hearing took place in February of 2014.

At that hearing, the Wife immediately withdrew her Motion to Set Aside the Final Judgment and her Motion to Strike was granted. The trial court discerned that there was actually no need for a formal hearing to be conducted before the divorce was made final, due to the plain language of the law. A hearing is not required if the grounds for divorce is irreconcilable differences. The trial court also took into consideration Husband's argument that he was coerced into signing the documents. However, no proof of coercion was presented by Husband, so his motion was denied and Husband timely appealed.

Review

Husband presents two issues on appeal: whether or not the court erred in failing to set aside the MDA due to Husband being coerced into signing divorce documents and whether or not the court erred in failing to set aside the MDA on the grounds that there was no formal hearing conducted prior to the final divorce judgment. First, the court of appeals must decide whether or not Husband was under duress and coerced into signing the divorce documents. The court recognizes that both parties signed the Guaranty and the MDA and that both parties were represented by counsel during the mediation. Husband claims that he was coerced into signing the documents with the promise that the Order of Protection and his violations of the order would be dismissed. He claims that the pending violations were used as leverage to force him into signing the papers.

Much of Husband's argument relies on his previously entered affidavit. However, the court denies Husband's request to recall any information from said affidavit due to Wife's Motion to Strike, which was granted in December of 2014 and which husband did not appeal.

Husband also references two cases to support his claims. First, he cites Pride v. Baker, 64 S.W. 329 (Tenn. Ct. Ch. App. 1901), which defined duress as "a condition of mind produced by the improper external pressure or influence that practically destroys the free agency of a party and causes him to do an act or make a contract not of his own will but under such wrongful external pressure." Considering this definition alone, this would apply to Husband's case. However, in that same case, there are several other conditions mentioned to consider a document invalid due to duress. In Pride v. Baker the following conditions were considered to determine if the external pressure is enough to destroy the free agency of the party in question: age, sex, intelligence, experience, force of will, nature of the act, and other facts and circumstances of the case.

Here is where Husband's case begins to differ from this example. Husband is middle aged and a competent business man. He has both a bachelors and masters degree. He was also represented by counsel during the entire process. In reviewing the MDA, the court also finds that agreements were not favorable to Wife and actually seemed to favor Husband. In contrast, in Pride v. Baker, the person in question was a very young girl with little life experience who was also in mourning over her father. The party's circumstances are not the only things that differ between the two cases. The pressure applied to Husband is not considered wrongful, as in Pride v. Baker, where the woman was threatened with death or other bodily harm. In this case, wife had the right to obtain an order of protection, and the record shows no evidence that the order was obtained for malicious reasons. There are also several instances where husband admits to violating the order of protection, showing that there was possible retribution facing husband on this matter, and that the "threats" were not fabricated by Wife. The court finds this case incomparable to Pride v. Baker.


The next case cited is Simpson v. Harper, 111 S.W.2d 882 (Tenn. Ct. App.1937), where defendant was not held liable for a document she signed because she was considered to be under duress. In this case, the defendant was threatened with bad faith threats of criminal prosecution of her husband. Though this may seem comparable to the topic case since both involve threats of criminal prosecution, the threats made in Simpson v. Harper were not in good faith because there was no real threat present to the Husband. Contrastingly, the record shows evidence that the negotiations in the case at hand were not in bad faith as they reflected facts, and the penalties facing Husband for violating Wife's order of protection were a reality. Again, the court looks at the circumstances of Husband, finding him more able to negotiate his situation than Ms. Harper. This is reflected in the record where Husband, on several occasions, negotiated certain aspects of the documents, to the point where the MDA actually favored Husband. Based on these findings, the court of appeals finds that Husband was not under duress when signing the documents in question. The court recognizes the MDA and Guaranty as valid and enforceable contracts.

Next, we move on to Husband's argument that a hearing should have been held before the divorce was granted. Here, Husband cites Hyneman v. Hyneman, 152 S.W.3d 549 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).The court finds this argument without merit, as the excerpt cited by Husband was misquoted. Where Husband argues that the excerpt states that a hearing must be held for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, it actually says the exact opposite. A divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences, under Tennessee Code Annotated 36-4-114, is an exception from the general rule, where a hearing is required before granting divorce. In the case at hand, the MDA, which was signed by both parties, clearly lists "irreconcilable differences" as grounds for divorce. Therefore, the court of appeals finds no error in the trial courts failure to conduct a hearing.

Last, we look at Wife's request for frivolous appeal damages. Awards for damages only occur when an appeal is found to be without merit. Husband's appeal has several characteristics that may qualify it as frivolous, including: his dependence on his stricken affidavit, poor review of case law, oversight of the court compliance, and incorrect and misleading quote from Hyneman v. Hyneman.In consideration of these factors, the court of appeals awards Wife damages for frivolous appeal.

In conclusion, the court of appeals remands this case to the trial court for entry of damages in the favor of Wife, which will cover her attorney fees and all other expenses incurred in her defense. All issues of Husband's appeal are denied.

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