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Deitz v. Deitz

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Third District, Union

October 30, 2017

PAUL DEITZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
JULIE DEITZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.

         Appeal from Union County Common Pleas Court Trial Court No. 10 DR 0010

          Thomas M. Tyack for Appellant

          Eugene R. Butler for Appellee

          OPINION

          PRESTON, P.J.

         {¶1} Defendant-appellant, Julie S. Deitz ("Julie"), appeals the April 16, 2017 judgment entry of the Union County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relations Division. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         {¶2} Plaintiff-appellee, Paul Deitz ("Paul"), and Julie were married in 2003 and were divorced in 2011. (Doc. No. 80); Deitz v. Deitz, 3d Dist. Union No. 14-11-06, 2012-Ohio-130, ¶ 2. One child was born as issue of the marriage. (Id.); Id. Paul appealed the trial court's final divorce decree.[1] (Doc. No. 84); Deitz at ¶ 5. We affirmed the trial court's final divorce decree on January 17, 2012. Deitz at ¶ 13.

         {¶3} From 2013 through 2015, the parties filed a number of additional motions that are not the subject of this appeal. (See Doc. Nos. 90, 106, 111, 114, 135, 143, 160, 163, 164, 173).

         {¶4} On May 13, 2016, Paul filed a motion requesting that the trial court find Julie in contempt for failing to provide to him the appropriate form for him to claim a federal tax exemption for the child. (Doc. No. 197). On November 7, 2016, Paul filed a motion requesting that the trial court "allow [him] the use of the child for income tax purposes in both odd and even years until such time as there exists a basis for the further post decree action such as [Julie's] gainful employment." (Doc. No. 209).

         {¶5} On November 18, 2016, Julie filed a motion requesting that the trial court award her attorney fees because "there is a substantial disparity in income and [she] has been subjected to ongoing litigation by [Paul]." (Doc. No. 212). Paul filed a memorandum in opposition to Julie's motion for attorney fees on November 21, 2016. (Doc. No. 213).

         {¶6} After a hearing on December 5, 2016, the trial court's magistrate issued his decision on January 5, 2017 finding Julie in contempt of court for failing to provide Paul the appropriate tax-exemption form; granting Paul attorney fees resulting from Julie's contempt of court; reallocating the tax dependency exemption for the child to Paul for each tax year; and denying Julie's motion for attorney fees. (Doc. No. 224). Julie filed her objections to the magistrate's decision on January 17, 2017. (Doc. No. 227). On February 2, 2017, Paul filed a memorandum in opposition to Julie's objections to the magistrate's decision. (Doc. No. 228).

         {¶7} On February 2, 2017, the trial court issued its order overruling Julie's objections to the magistrate's decision. (Doc. No. 229). On April 6, 2017, the trial court issued its entry finding Julie in contempt of court; awarding Paul attorney fees associated with Julie's contempt of court; reallocating the tax dependency exemption; and denying Julie's motion for attorney fees. (Doc. No. 230).

          {¶8} Julie filed her notice of appeal on May 4, 2017. (Doc. No. 232). She raises four assignments of error for our review. Because they are related, we address Julie's first and second assignments of error together, followed by her third and fourth assignments of error.

         Assignment of Error No. I

         The Trial Court Erred in Finding the Defendant Guilty of Contempt When There Was No Order Requiring Her to Prepare and Submit Documents to the Plaintiff With Regard to Claiming the Child as a Dependent.

         Assignment of Error No. II

         The Trial Court Erred in Ordering the Defendant to Pay in Excess of $2500.00 in Attorney Fees to the Plaintiff When the Record Was Clear that She Was, in Fact, Not Guilty of Contempt and Unemployed and the Court Used that Lack of Employment as a Predicate for Purporting to Change Her Right to Claim the Exemption Pursuant to the Provisions of Section 3119.82 of the Revised Code.

         {¶9} In her first assignment of error, Julie argues that the trial court erred in finding her in contempt of court for failing to provide Paul with the appropriate form for him to claim the tax dependency exemption for the child because the divorce decree did not include the requisite statutory language under R.C. 3119.82 mandating Julie to provide that form. In her second assignment of error, Julie argues that the trial court erred in imposing attorney fees since, according to Julie, she was not in contempt of the trial court's order. She further argues under her second assignment of error that the trial court erred in imposing attorney fees without properly considering R.C. 3105.73(B).

         {¶10} A trial court has inherent authority to enforce its prior orders through contempt. Dozer v. Dozer, 88 Ohio App.3d 296, 302 (4th Dist. 1993). See also R.C. 2705.02(A). "A finding of civil contempt requires clear and convincing evidence that the alleged contemnor has failed to comply with the court's prior orders." Moraine v. Steger Motors, Inc., 111 Ohio App.3d 265, 268 (2d Dist.1996), citing ConTex, Inc. v. Consolidated Technologies, Inc., 40 Ohio App.3d 94, 95 (1st Dist.1988). "'Clear and convincing evidence' has been defined as 'that measure or degree of proof which is more than a mere preponderance of the evidence, but not to the extent of such certainty as is required beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases, and which will produce in the mind of the trier of facts a firm belief or conviction as to the facts sought to be established.'" Ohio State Bar Assn. v. Reid, 85 Ohio St.3d 327, 331 (1999), quoting Cross v. Ledford, 161 Ohio St. 469 (1954), paragraph three of the syllabus.

         {¶11} Under "R.C. 3105.73(B), a trial court may award attorney fees in a post-decree motion or proceeding arising out of a divorce action if the court finds the award equitable." Roush v. Roush, 10th Dist. Franklin Nos. 15AP-1071, 16AP-264, and 16AP-388, 2017-Ohio-840, ¶ 50. When deciding whether to award attorney fees, the court may consider "the parties' income, the conduct of the parties, and any other relevant factors the court deems appropriate, but it may not consider the parties' assets." R.C. 3105.73(B).

         {¶12} This court will not reverse a finding of contempt absent an abuse of discretion by the trial court. State ex rel. Ventrone v. Birkel, 65 Ohio St.2d 10, 11 (1981); Dozer at 302. Likewise, because a trial court has discretion to award attorney fees in contempt proceedings, we review a trial court's attorney-fee award for an abuse of discretion. Rhea v. Rhea, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 16AP-609, 2017-Ohio-4141, ¶ 17, citing Grosz v. Grosz, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 04AP-716, 2005-Ohio-985, ¶ 24. See Walton v. Walton, 3d Dist. Union No. 14-10-21, 2011-Ohio-2847, ¶ 39. An abuse of discretion suggests the trial court's decision is unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable. Blakemore v. Blakemore, 5 Ohio St.3d 217, 219 (1983).

         {¶13} Julie does not dispute that she did not provide Paul the appropriate tax-dependency-exemption form within the appropriate timeframe. Rather, Julie argues that the trial court abused its discretion by finding her in contempt of court because the March 21, 2011 divorce decree is ambiguous and did not provide notice of her obligations-that is, that she was to "sign a certain federal form within appropriate time limits." (Appellant's Brief at 6). In support of her argument, Julie contends that the trial court's tax-dependency-exemption order did not reference the appropriate statutory provisions as it is required to do under R.C. 3119.82 to properly notify her of her obligations.

         {¶14} "A party cannot be found in contempt if the contempt charge is premised on a party's failure to obey an order of the court and the order is not clear, definite, and unambiguous and is subject to dual interpretations." Contos v. Monroe County, 7th Dist. Monroe No. 04 MO 3, 2004-Ohio-6380, ¶ 15, citing Chilcote v. Gleason Const. Co., 5th Dist. Ashland No. 01COA01397, 2002 WL 205851, *2 (Feb. 6, 2002), Collette v. Collette, 9th Dist. Summit No. 20423, 2001 WL 986209, *2 (Aug. 22, 2001), Marysville v. Wilson, 3d Dist. Union No. 14-94-8, 1994 WL 378992, *2 (July 20, 1994), Smith v. Smith, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 93 AP-958, 1994 WL 9055, *3 (Jan. 13, 1994), and In re Contempt of Gilbert, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga Nos. 64299 and 64300, 1993 WL 526788, *2 (Dec. 16, 1993). However, "[a]n order is not ambiguous merely because a party misunderstands the order and a misunderstanding of an unambiguous order is not a defense ...


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