In the case titled Satterfield v. Satterfield, No. E2012-COA-R3-CV, Slip Copy, 2014 WL 793978 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 28, 2014) Tennessee family law attorneys learn whether res judicata applies to a second motion when a first motion requesting termination of periodic alimony payments was denied pursuant to the trial court's interpretation of an MDA provision, when the second motion applies a new legal theory, but is seeking the same relief as the first motion.
Facts: Husband and Wife were divorced in 1997. As part of the MDA, Husband was required to pay $800.00 per month in periodic alimony (hereinafter referred to as "alimony") payments to Wife.
In January 27, 2012, Husband filed a motion to terminate the alimony payments alleging Wife was cohabitating with another man. In his motion, Husband referred to a clause that stated in relevant part:
5. ALIMONY: Husband shall pay as periodic alimony the amount of $800.00 per month until such time as Wife remarries with said alimony payments to begin January 1, 1997. In addition to the aforementioned alimony, Husband shall pay the utilities for the marital residence on behalf of his Wife, until such time as she remarries, cohabits with another man, or moves from the marital residence, whichever comes first, at which time his obligation will cease.
Ms. Satterfield filed an answer in which she admitted she was cohabitating with an adult male, but argued the alimony should not terminate pursuant to the MDA. At the hearing, the trial court ruled orally Husband was relieved from paying the utility bills at the marital residence. However, pursuant to the MDA, Husband was not relieved of the alimony obligation. The order for this hearing was not entered by the court until July 2012.
In June 2012, Husband filed a second motion seeking termination or suspension of the alimony payments, but applied different legal grounds for his argument. In this second motion, Husband averred that a rebuttable presumption existed under the law that Wife was being supported or was supporting her cohabitating partner, and based on this presumption the alimony should be terminated.
A hearing was held on Husband's second motion and the trial court entered its order holding that res judicata resolved the second motion and Husband's alimony obligation would not be terminated. In its order the trial court ordered, "...the issues of the original Plaintiff/Petitioner were the same issues raised by Motion to Terminate or Suspend Alimony..."and rendered Husband's argument in his second motion moot. Husband appealed.
Analysis and Conclusion: On appeal, Husband asked the appellate court to consider whether the trial court erred in denying his first motion to terminate his alimony obligation and in its application of res judicata to his second motion.
In regard to Husband's first motion, the appellate court had to decide the matter based on contract law. Applying these principles, the appellate court found the MDA had two distinct clauses in regards to Husband's alimony obligation. The clause that stated Husband was to pay alimony to wife until she remarries was separate from the clause regarding utilities. Therefore, it was found that Wife cohabitating with another man did not end Husband's obligation to pay the alimony obligation.
In reference to Husband's second motion, the legal doctrine res judicata is the concept that a matter that has already been decided by a competent court may not be re-litigated by the same party. This doctrine provides finality to litigious matters by barring a second suit between the same parties or their privies on the same cause of action with respect to all issues which were or could have been litigated in the first action.
In order to prove a res judicata defense, a party must show: (1) a court of competent jurisdiction rendered a judgment in the matter, (2) the judgment rendered was final and on the merits of the case, (3) the same parties or their privies were involved in both proceedings, and (4) both proceedings involved the same cause of action. Simply having a prior judgment in a cause of action neither prohibits a later consideration of rights if those rights have changed since the cause of action, nor prohibits a reexamination of the same question between the same parties when the facts have changed or new facts have arisen that altered the parties' legal rights.
Here, the appellate court found that the trial court's decision entered on the first motion was not a final judgment. A judgment is deemed to be final when an order is entered and there is nothing left for the court to do. In this case, Husband filed his second motion prior to the trial court entering its order; therefore, the court still had something left to do. For this reason, the appellate court found the trial court erred in holding that res judicata applied to Husband's second motion.
For the foregoing reasons, the appellate court affirmed the trial court's ruling on Husband's first motion advising the MDA did not stipulate the alimony obligation of Husband ended if or when Wife cohabitated with another man. It remanded the case back to the trial court for a hearing regarding Husband's second motion to terminate the alimony payments consistent with the appellate court's Opinion.