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Coleman v. Coleman

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

June 8, 2016



          Robert A. Newcomb, for appellant.

          No response.


         Appellant Bernstine L. Coleman (now Bullard and hereinafter "Bullard") appeals the August 10, 2015 "Judgment Order" entered by the Jefferson County Circuit Court, in which she was held in willful contempt of an April 2005 Jefferson County divorce decree. In the 2015 order, Bullard was ordered to be incarcerated in the county jail for twenty days, and she was subjected to a judgment in favor of her ex-husband, appellee Michael L. Coleman (hereinafter "Coleman") in the amount of $143, 708. Bullard argues that the trial court erred when it (1) deprived her of due process by holding her in criminal contempt of court without proper notice; (2) imposed an unduly severe punishment of twenty days to serve in the county jail; and (3) awarded an excessive amount of money and awarded it to Coleman instead of the rightful owner, her stepdaughter Olivia Coleman (hereinafter "Olivia"). We affirm.

          I. Introduction

         Coleman has a daughter from a previous relationship, Olivia, who was born in 1996. Olivia's mother died in an industrial accident at an International Paper facility when Olivia was very young. As a result of her mother's death, Olivia was awarded workers' compensation benefits and social security benefits. The workers' compensation award appears to have been in the form of a $75, 000 lump sum payment and biweekly payments of $714 until she reached majority.[1] Those payments began in 1999.

         Sometime after the death of Olivia's mother, Coleman married Bullard. Bullard had two children from a prior marriage, and Coleman and Bullard had two children born of their marriage. Coleman, Bullard, and the five children resided together. During this time, the death benefits for Olivia were paid to Coleman.[2] Also during this time frame, Coleman admittedly used a substantial portion of Olivia's funds on "family expenses" and not just for the benefit of Olivia. The record does not indicate the amount of Olivia's money that was spent by Coleman in this manner. Coleman and Bullard divorced in 2005. Bullard received custody of her children from the prior marriage, custody of the two children of their marriage, and custody of her stepdaughter Olivia. As a result of the custody arrangement regarding Olivia, the benefits paid for Olivia were thereafter delivered to Bullard.[3] Coleman believed that, at that time, Olivia's account held approximately $5, 000. To protect and preserve Olivia's funds, the 2005 divorce decree contained a paragraph that specifically ordered Bullard not to spend or dispose of the workers' compensation funds or social security funds received for Olivia "without first obtaining an order of the Court."

         Bullard took out $2, 000 in November 2005 and deposited the money in her own account. In March 2007, Bullard petitioned the court to allow her to use $6, 000 of Olivia's money toward the purchase of a house. The circuit court denied the request in a June 2007 trial court order. Bullard did not make any subsequent effort to acquire court permission to use Olivia's funds. Instead, Bullard started making withdrawals from Olivia's account and depositing those funds into her personal bank account "to pay household expenses." Bullard knew that she was required to get court permission, but she admittedly did not because she was afraid that her request would not be approved and would cost her money to hire an attorney to seek approval. Bullard would occasionally make withdrawals from Olivia's account over the years for paying bills, "vacation, " "just shopping, " "doing different things for the kids, " and "just maintaining the household." She admitted that over a nine-year period, she had transferred $143, 708 from Olivia's account to her personal account. By the time Olivia reached the age of majority, the balance in Olivia's account was only $21, 000. Bullard wrote Olivia a check for $21, 000 and closed Olivia's account.[4]

          II. Procedural History

         In February 2015, Coleman filed a motion for contempt and for an accounting, accusing Bullard of failing to obtain a court order prior to spending substantial amounts of Olivia's money. Coleman asked for an order commanding Bullard to reimburse Olivia, to provide a detailed accounting of the funds, and to grant Olivia access to the accounts associated with those funds. Coleman also requested that an order be entered finding Bullard in willful contempt of the 2005 divorce decree. Both Olivia and Coleman verified the motion by providing notarized signatures. Bullard filed a response in March 2015 in which she asked that Coleman be dismissed as an unnecessary party and that Olivia be added as a necessary party because she was at present an adult and because the funds at issue were hers. An Order to Show Cause was filed on April 9, 2015 and served on Bullard setting the contempt hearing for 10:30 a.m. on June 1, 2015 and ordering her to appear and show cause why she should not be found in contempt of court based on Coleman's allegations.

         The hearing commenced on June 1. At the outset, the parties stipulated that Olivia was the real party in interest to the funds. Coleman's attorney stated that "it would be form over substance to require her [Olivia] to file a formal pleading to do that." The trial court responded, "So noted." Olivia was, however, never officially named in the caption of the case as a party, nor was Coleman ever dismissed as a party.

         Bullard testified that Olivia was placed in her custody at the time of the divorce and remained in her custody until she reached the age of majority. She said that Olivia's benefits commenced in April 1999, and Coleman was the one who received and spent those funds during the marriage. At the time of divorce in 2005, Bullard began to receive benefits for Olivia every two weeks. The $714 payments were directly deposited into an account designated for Olivia's money.[5] Over the years, Bullard admittedly withdrew a total of $143, 708 of Olivia's funds and deposited the money into her personal account.

         Bullard testified about her March 2007 attempt to acquire court approval for use of Olivia's money and about the subsequent denial by the trial court. Bullard admitted that she did not seek court approval again to use Olivia's money, although she knew that the decree required her to obtain court consent. Bullard said, "I can't give a definite financial figure of what went directly towards Olivia. I just know all the money was used for the upkeep, maintenance, and care of the family." The family consisted of Bullard, her new husband, and five children, which included Olivia.

         Bullard stated that the largest one-time withdrawal she made from Olivia's account was on May 20, 2009, in the amount of $10, 000, which she used to buy furniture-a dining room table, a bed, and a mattress. She admittedly took out the following amounts from Olivia's account, as shown on bank statements: $16, 000 in May 2009; $27, 300 in June 2009; $2, 000 in July 2009; $2, 500 in August 2009; $2, 500 in September 2009; and $7, 000 in December 2009. Bullard admittedly used $6, 000 of Olivia's money to fill in the in-ground pool in their back yard, explaining that it was ...

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