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Liberty New v. Bennett

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

June 4, 2018

Liberty New, Appellant,
Charles Bennett, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Bay County. Shonna Young Gay, Judge.

          Rachel R. Seaton of Seaton Law Offices, P.A., Panama City, for Appellant.

          Robert L. Sirianni, Jr., of Brownstone, P.A., Winter Park, for Appellee.

          M.K. Thomas, J.

         Liberty New appeals the Florida trial court's denial of her Petition for Domestication of a final order entered in Georgia. The Georgia order holds Charles Bennett, her former spouse, in contempt of court and orders his immediate incarceration until payment of child support arrearages. New argues that pursuant to the Full Faith and Credit Clause, a sister state's judgment must be recognized in the absence of jurisdictional invalidity or extrinsic fraud, neither of which were proven by Bennett. We agree and reverse and remand the case for domestication of the Georgia order.


         The parties were divorced in Okaloosa County, Florida, on October 23, 2008. The divorce decree requires Bennett to pay child support and provide health and dental insurance, among other financial obligations. Shortly after the parties divorced, New and the children relocated to Georgia. In December of 2013, New filed a complaint in Georgia requesting that the 2008 divorce decree entered in Florida be registered and enforced by the court in Coweta County, Georgia. The complaint, which was properly served upon Bennett, alleged Bennett's failure to comply with the divorce decree. A hearing was scheduled in Georgia for March 24, 2015, to address temporary relief. Prior to the hearing, Bennett filed a responsive pleading. Neither Bennett nor his attorney appeared for the hearing despite receiving notice. The Georgia trial court noted that upon review of Bennett's response it was unable to determine either the relief requested or the defenses asserted. As a result of the March hearing, a contempt order was entered on April 17, 2015. A final hearing was scheduled for December 7, 2015. Despite notice of the final hearing to all parties, Bennett and his attorney were again no-shows. As a result of the hearing, the Georgia trial court determined both that: 1) New had complied with the requirements to register the Florida divorce decree for enforcement in Georgia; and 2) the pleading filed by Bennett was intended as an objection to registration of the Florida divorce decree in Georgia. The Georgia trial court denied Bennett's objection to registration, held him in contempt and ordered his immediate incarceration until payment of $23, 417.85 in support arrearages and previously awarded attorney's fees.

         As of late 2016, Bennett had apparently not returned to Coweta County, Georgia, or had done so unbeknownst to law enforcement. Accordingly, he had not been incarcerated nor had he paid the outstanding child support. In further effort to obtain relief and to enforce the Georgia order, New filed in Florida a Petition for Domestication of Foreign Order in accordance with sections 55.503 and 55.505, Florida Statutes. New filed the petition in Bay County, Florida, where Bennett was living. In response, Bennett filed a Motion to Strike. A hearing was scheduled, and this time, Bennett and his attorney appeared. Ultimately, the Florida trial court denied New's request for domestication of the Georgia order, concluding the Georgia court lacked proper jurisdiction to find Bennett in willful contempt and subject to imprisonment - as the contempt order was issued without a jury trial. The trial court further concluded that the Georgia order lacked the requisite findings to order Bennett's incarceration, even if jurisdiction was proper, because the Georgia court did not find Bennett had the present ability to pay the amount awarded.[*] This appeal followed.


         "Florida enacted the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act, or Florida Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (FEFJA), in 1984." Patrick v. Hess, 212 So.3d 1039, 1042 (Fla. 2017); see also §§ 55.501-509, Fla. Stat. (2016). FEFJA was intended to provide an efficient method of enforcing foreign judgments without the undue cost and difficulty associated with filing a new, separate action to domesticate a foreign judgment. Pratt v. Equity Bank, N.A., 124 So. 3d 313, 315 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013). A foreign judgment domesticated under FEFJA has the same effect as a Florida judgment and is subject to the same legal and equitable defenses and rules of procedure. Desert Palace, Inc. v. Wiley, 145 So.3d 946, 947 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014).

         FEFJA stems from the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution, which states: "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial proceedings of every other State." U.S. Const. art. IV, § 1. In the Full Faith and Credit context, if the first state had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter, "'the validity of the claim on which the foreign judgment was entered is not open to inquiry."' M & R Invs. Co. v. Hacker, 511 So.2d 1099, 1101 (Fla. 5th DCA 1987) (quoting Trauger v. A.J. Spagnol Lumber Co., Inc., 442 So.2d 182, 183 (Fla.1983). "A foreign order of contempt is entitled to full faith and credit in Florida if it is valid in the state in which it was issued." Roosa v. Roosa, 519 So.2d 1108, 1109 (Fla. 4th DCA 1988).

         Pursuant to the Full Faith and Credit Clause, a sister state's judgment must be recognized, but it may be attacked for either lack of jurisdiction or extrinsic fraud. Hinchee v. Golden Oak Bank, 540 So.2d 262, 263 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989). "[T]he validity of the foreign judgment must be analyzed under the law of the foreign state." Id. at 263. If a Florida litigant shows that a sister state's judgment is valid and final and that subject matter and personal jurisdiction existed in the foreign state, the judgment is properly authenticated. See Robinson v. Robinson,487 So.2d 67, 68 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986). A Florida court should not "attempt to determine the validity of a judgment or decree of a ...

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