This post isn’t about a case that’s particularly significant or controversial. It’s about a case I found amusing, in one particular respect . . . and I think there’s room for the occasional amusing-case-blog-post. I hope you agree.
The case is Jennings v. Jennings, 2010 WL 4968060 (Tennessee Court of Appeals 2010), and it arose from the divorce proceedings between Joni Lynn Jennings and Mark Allen Jennings. The two divorced in 2007 and Joni
was named primary residential parent of the parties' minor child. Thereafter, the parties filed cross petitions for orders of protection. In May 2009, the parties entered a document styled `Consent Injunctions’ in the Shelby County Chancery Court, which provided in relevant part:
Each party is enjoined from telephoning, contacting or otherwise communicating with the other, either directly or indirectly, except as provided herein. . . .
All future contact between the parties shall be limited to emails and any emails between the parties shall solely relate to the parties' minor child. . . .
If either party violates this Order, that party may be held in contempt of court and punished by incarceration in the Shelby County Jail.
Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
On August 7, 2009, Joni filed a
petition for contempt and scire facias in the chancery court claiming that [Mark] had violated the Consent Injunctions by sending a July 22, 2009 email which did not relate to the parties' child and which she alleged constituted stalking, in violation of the injunction. [Mark] filed a counter-complaint for contempt and scire facias against [Joni], alleging harassment through phone calls, notes and e-mails, as well as unwelcomed visits. Following a hearing, the chancery court entered an order finding [Mark] in criminal contempt and dismissing his counter-complaint against [Joni].
Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
The chancery court’s order provided, in part, as follows:
Based on the evidence introduced in this matter, the Court finds that Defendant Mark Allan Jennings is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of criminal contempt for violation [of the Consent Injunctions] order.
Specifically, the Court finds that Defendant Mark Allan [Jennings] sen[t] an email with the following text to Plaintiff on or about July 22, 2009:
From: Mark Jennings [ ]
Date: July 22, 2009 6:13:44 PM CDT
To: Joni [ ]
Please remove the spyware from your computer. After you do that please change all of your passwords. I got everything I need and don't forget to remove your ad with Mommies in Memphis looking 4 roommates.
Jennings v. Jennings, supra. Having found Mark in criminal contempt, the chancery court sentenced him to
10 days imprisonment, suspended, and after finding the parties' child in custody of the paternal grandmother, it modified the Consent Injunctions to prohibit any future contact between the parties unless either party regained custody.
Jennings v. Jennings, supra. Mark appealed the finding of contempt and the sentence. Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
On appeal, he argued that “the Consent Injunctions order, the violation of which was the basis of [his] criminal contempt conviction, was entered in error, and therefore, that his criminal contempt conviction cannot stand.” Jennings v. Jennings, supra. This was the premise of his argument, and this was the court’s reaction to it:
[Mark] points out that he did not sign the Consent Injunctions. He claims Mitzi Johnson, who signed the order as his counsel, was without authority to do so because she only represented him in juvenile proceedings, and not in chancery court. However, [he] cites no direct evidence limiting Ms. Johnson's representation to juvenile court.
Instead, his argument is based upon a lack of evidence. He claims the record does not contain [her] notice of appearance of counsel, and that with the exception of the Consent Inunctions Ms. Johnson's signature does not appear in the record. He further claims the chancery court's docket sheet does not reference Ms. Johnson as ever representing [him] with regard to the Consent Injunctions, but provides no citation to the `docket sheet’ and we are unable to find such document within the record.
From our review of the very limited record, we find no indication that [Mark], prior to this appeal, challenged either Ms. Johnson's authority to sign the Consent Injunctions or the court in which it was filed. In fact, it was for alleged violations of the Consent Injunctions that [he] filed his counter-complaint for contempt against [Joni]. . . .
After noting that it is “`well established that the appellate courts of this state will not entertain issues raised for the first time on appeal’”, the Court of Appeals held that because Mark failed to “challenge Ms. Johnson's authority to sign the Consent Injunctions or its entry in chancery court, and because [he] has failed to provide sufficient evidence from which to review these issues, we find the Consent Injunctions order was properly entered.” Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
Originally, Mark also argued “that the trial court lacked sufficient evidence to find him guilty of criminal contempt beyond a reasonable doubt”, but later backed off on that argument. Jennings v. Jennings, supra. In his reply brief, he “conceded `that the record is void of any transcript or statement of evidence,” which meant that a review of the chancery court judge’s “`factual findings [was] not possible.’” Jennings v. Jennings, supra. He still, though, argued that the Consent Injunctions were not properly entered, which meant his criminal conviction could not stand, but the Court of Appeals found “this issue without merit” based on what it had already found with regard to the Consent Injunctions. Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
Finally, Joni had asked the court to require Mark to pay her attorney’s fees in connection with the appeal in accordance with a Tennessee statute that lets a court award such fees if it finds that an appeal “was frivolous”. Jennings v. Jennings, supra (quoting Tennessee Code § 27-1-122). In deciding whether to grant her request, the Court of Appeals noted that Mark’s “initial brief [on appeal] was filed pro se” and took into account the fact that pro se litigants tend to have no legal training and little familiarity with the judicial system. Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
It also noted that it needed to “ensure that we are not unfair to the opposing party”, i.e., to Joni. Jennings v. Jennings, supra. The Court of Appeals concluded that because Mark’s “appeal had `no reasonable chance of success,’” it was granting Joni’s request “for attorney fees based on a frivolous appeal.” Jennings v. Jennings, supra.
When I said I found this case amusing, I obviously wasn’t referring to the friction between Mark and Joni. I don’t find their post-marital discord amusing in the least, and can’t imagine that anyone would.
What I found amusing is that after Mark had apparently used spyware successfully – and surreptitiously – for some period of time, he found it necessary to inform Joni as to what he’d done, and what he’d learned. . . which turned out to be a pretty bad idea. . . .
(Oh, and if you're wondering what the photo is, it's of a historic English Chancery Court.)