The Supreme Court has affirmed the denial of the husband’s motion to set aside the parties’ settlement agreement in their divorce case after the trial court reviewed the agreement, found it to be within the bounds of the law and incorporated it into the final judgment. The Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion, since the husband voluntarily signed the agreement, no evidence showed misrepresentation or fraud and the wife’s non-compliance with a provision requiring her to pay a debt did not constitute repudiation of the agreement or otherwise divest the trial court’s discretion.

In Haley v. Haley, the Georgia Supreme Court has affirmed a Dougherty County trial court’s award of attorney fees in a child support modification case. Chief Justice Sears wrote for the majority. The Court held that Ms. Haley’s claim for attorney fees rested not on OCGA § 19-6-19 (d), as Mr. Haley asserted, but on the parties’ settlement agreement in which Mr. Haley agreed to increase child support payments and the parties agreed to  ubmit the issue of Ms. Haley’s claim for expenses and attorney fees to the trial judge. The Court found that by agreeing to submit the attorney fees issue to the trial court for resolution, the parties authorized the trial court to exercise its discretion to consider whatever factors it found to be relevant to determine if Ms. Haley was entitled to attorney fees, including whether she was a prevailing party in the litigation, and to award the amount of fees the court found to be appropriate and reasonable under the circumstances.

Presiding Justice Hunstein wrote a concurring opinion to rebut the dissent’s position that an award of attorney fees to Ms. Haley was not proper under OCGA § 19-6-19 (d), observing that nothing in the statute precluded an award of attorney fees to a party who prevails in the settlement of a modification of alimony proceeding. She also stated that the dissent’s position, instead of promoting the settlement of disputes over alimony, would exacerbate the bitter battles that too often follow divorce by adding attorney fees and other litigation expenses to the list of contested items that parties would have to address before an agreement outside of the courtroom could be reached. Justice Carley concurred in the judgment only.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Melton asserted that there was no statutory or contractual basis for the award of attorney fees in this case. He found that because each party in this case compromised something in order to bring about an end to the dispute, the trial court was not authorized to find that Ms. Haley was a prevailing party on the underlying child support modification claim under OCGA § 19-6-19 (d) unless the parties otherwise agreed. Contrary to the majority’s findings, Justice Melton concluded that the language of the settlement agreement did not authorize the attorney fees award, noting that the parties did not agree about whether Ms. Haley was legally or factually entitled to any fees and that Mr. Haley expressly refused to waive any defenses to Ms. Haley’s attorney fees claim and challenged whether Ms. Haley was the “prevailing party” pursuant to the statute.

SOURCE: Supreme Court of Georgia and Fulton County Daily Report