Kentucky Supreme Court Reverse Court of Appeals, Remands to Jefferson Circuit Court for Reinstatement of Order Modifying Maintenance Based on Changed Circumstances

Charles F. Mahl v. Louanne Mahl, No. 2021-SC-0481-DG; and Louanne Mahl v. Charles F. Mahl, No. 2021-SC-0487-DG

Jefferson Circuit Court

Husband and Wife were married for 28 years. A divorce decree was entered in 2007, which divided the parties’ assets and provided a maintenance payment to Wife until Husband reached the age of 65 in 2017. Both parties appealed. In 2009, while their appeals were pending, the parties received notice that their funds held by West End Financial had been lost to a Ponzi scheme, resulting in a loss of over $1 million, $800,000 of which had been awarded to Wife as part of the decree. In 2016, Wife filed a Motion to Modify Maintenance, citing changed circumstances related to the loss of her $800,000 to the Ponzi scheme, Husband having returned to an active medical practice despite being disabled at the time of the 2007 divorce decree, and her loss of her own sums to the Ponzi scheme. The circuit court issued an order determining that the change in circumstances rendered the original maintenance award unconscionable, and later ordered that Wife receive a modified, increased maintenance award. The circuit court also ordered $46,000 in attorney’s fees to Wife’s attorney, payable directly to the attorney who could enforce the judgment in his own name.

Husband filed a notice of appeal and Wife filed a motion to dismiss for Husband’s failure to name Wife’s attorney as an appellee. The Court of Appeals concluded that the circuit court abused its discretion in granting Wife’s motion to modify maintenance, specifically disagreeing with the circuit court’s determination that the changes in circumstance rendered the original maintenance award unconscionable. Both parties filed motions for discretionary review in the Supreme Court, which reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanded to the circuit court for reinstatement of the order modifying maintenance.

The Supreme Court addressed three issues: whether the circuit court erred in modifying the original maintenance award; whether the failure to name an attorney with an enforceable attorney’s fees award is fatal to an appeal; and whether the attorney’s fee award was proper.

First, the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the circuit court’s modification of maintenance, because there was substantial evidence supporting its decision. Namely, the parties had been on equal financial footing at the time of the decree in 2007, but were not at the time of Wife’s motion to modify. The Court further opined that where there is a sufficient basis for the lower court’s conclusion, a reviewing court may not reverse simply because it would have decided the issue differently.

Second, the Court held that Husband’s failure to name Wife’s attorney as a party to the appeal was not a fatal error. The Court determined that though Husband had not strictly complied with the rules in adding the attorney as a party to the case, the attorney had adequate notice of appeal and the ability to protect his own interest in seeking affirmation of the attorney’s fee award, because he was named as Wife’s attorney on the first filing in the Court of Appeals and was included on the distribution list. The Court stated that under the new Rules of Appellate Procedure, the failure to name an indispensable party is no longer automatically fatal to an appeal.

Third, the Court held that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees because the circuit court properly considered the parties’ financial resources, incomes, and other factors, and awarded attorney’s fees accordingly.

Carter Anderson

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