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Conklin v. Conklin

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 5, 2019

JOHN P. CONKLIN, Plaintiff,

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 31 October 2018.

          Appeal by plaintiff from order entered 29 November 2017 by Judge Jena P. Culler in District Court, Mecklenburg County, No. 13 CVD 13093 (JPC)

          Church Watson Law, PLLC, by Seth A. Glazer, for plaintiff-appellant.

          Myers Law Firm, PLLC, by R. Lee Myers, for defendant-appellee.

          STROUD, JUDGE.

         Father appeals from an order awarding attorney's fees. Although the parties ultimately settled their custody dispute in a manner more favorable to Father than Mother initially sought, the trial court did not err in determining that Mother acted in good faith in defending against Father's claims regarding child custody and child support and pursuing her own counterclaims. Where Father's monthly income was approximately nine times more than Mother's income, and she had recently declared bankruptcy, the trial court did not err in finding that Mother had insufficient means to defray the expense of this suit and was entitled to an award of attorney's fees. We therefore affirm the trial court's order.

         I. Background

         The parties married in 1999, separated in 2008, and later divorced. In 2009, they entered into a Separation and Property Settlement agreement which addressed child custody and child support for their three children; the parties had joint legal custody of the children, and Mother had primary physical custody. Father had visitation every other weekend and on designated holidays. In 2013, Father filed a complaint for child custody, child support, and attorney's fees, requesting that he have "no less than joint physical and legal custody of the minor children," for the court to establish child support, for attorney's fees, and for a temporary parenting arrangement. Mother filed a response to the request for temporary parenting arrangement and an answer and counterclaims for custody, child support, specific performance, and attorney's fees.

         Over the next three years, the parties engaged in discovery and filed many motions and counter-motions, and the trial court entered many orders. Finally, on 2 June 2016, the trial court entered a "Consent Order for Modification Permanent Child Custody and Dismissal of Motions for Contempt and Orders to Show Cause." The Consent order granted joint legal and physical custody of the children to the parties and includes extensive detailed provisions regarding decision-making, regular and holiday schedules, extracurricular activities, communications between the parties, use of drugs and alcohol by the parties, relocation, appointment of a parenting coordinator, and other matters. The Consent order provided that "[a]ny pending claims for attorney's fees and costs not resolved by this Order, shall remain open for determination by this Court." The trial court held a hearing on Mother's request for attorney's fees on 20 July 2017. The trial court entered an order awarding Mother $45, 000.00 in attorney's fees on 29 November 2017, and Father timely appealed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The issues on appeal arise from the trial court's award of attorney's fees to Mother under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.6:

In an action or proceeding for the custody or support, or both, of a minor child, including a motion in the cause for the modification or revocation of an existing order for custody or support, or both, the court may in its discretion order payment of reasonable attorney's fees to an interested party acting in good faith who has insufficient means to defray the expense of the suit.

          N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.6 (2017). Before awarding fees, the trial court must conclude that the party seeking an award of fees is "an interested party acting in good faith who has insufficient means to defray the expense of the suit." Id. "Whether these statutory requirements have been met is a question of law, reviewable on appeal. Only when these requirements have been met does the standard of review change to abuse of discretion for an examination of the amount of attorney's fees awarded." Schneider v. Schneider, __ N.C.App. __, __, 807 S.E.2d 165, 166 (2017). In addition, the trial court's findings of fact must be supported by competent evidence. See Simpson v. Simpson, 209 N.C.App. 320, 324, 703 S.E.2d 890, 893 (2011).

         III. Acting in Good Faith

         Father first argues that Mother has not acted or proceeded in good faith.[1] He argues that "[t]he reality of this case is that there was never a 'legitimate dispute' between the parties with respect to the custody of the minor children. The 'dispute' was at all times one-sided and manufactured by the [Mother's] bad faith resistance to allow [Father] to increase his parenting time of the minor children." He claims the trial court was "unjustly punishing" him with the award of attorney's fees. Father challenges the trial court's finding that "Mother has conducted herself as a reasonable party acting in good faith" and the trial court's related conclusion:

         5. Mother has proceeded and acted in this matter in "good faith" pursuant to N.C. G.S. §50-13.6.

         While there is not a legal definition of good faith in this context, our Supreme Court has previously adopted the definition of good faith as "honesty of intention, and freedom from knowledge of circumstances which ought to put one upon inquiry" for Rule 11 sanctions. Bryson v. Sullivan, 330 N.C. 644, 662, 412 S.E.2d 327, 336 (1992) (brackets omitted). "Because the element of good faith is seldom in issue a party satisfies it by demonstrating that he or she seeks custody in a genuine dispute with the other party." Setzler v. Setzler, 244 N.C.App. 465, 467, 781 S.E.2d 64, 66 (2015) (citation, quotation marks, and ellipsis omitted).

         Here, the record and transcript abundantly demonstrate that the parties had a genuine dispute over custody of the children. Father wanted joint legal and physical custody, with the children spending equal time with each parent, while Mother wanted to maintain their previous custody arrangement of weekend and holiday visitation to provide more stability for the children. Father argues that because the parties ultimately agreed to an equal custody arrangement in a consent order, that Mother did not act in good faith by defending against Father's custody claim and pursuing her own custody claim.

         Father's argument overlooks the history of the litigation regarding custody in this case and the many issues beyond the precise custodial schedule of the children. We will not recite the entire history of the litigation, but both parties filed many motions, including motions for contempt and to compel discovery. The trial court entered orders on many of ...

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