Classic Case of Signer’s Remorse

I don’t know Ronnie Ray Jones, Jr. From reading about his divorce case in Jones v. Jones, Case No. 2160014 (Ala. Civ. App. April 7, 2017), that’s probably for the best. Poor Mr. Jones can’t seem to hold on to a divorce lawyer or make up his mind. He fired his first lawyer and hired Delk, lawyer number 2. Working with lawyer number 2, Mr. Jones negotiated a settlement and signed a stipulation of agreement. A few days later, both parties and their counsel notified the court that they had settled. The court ordered them to submit final documents within 30 days. On that same day, the wife’s lawyer sent lawyer number 2 a draft of the final documents.

The husband never signed the documents. A few days after the 30-day deadline had run, lawyer number 2 asked to withdraw on the grounds that Mr. Jones instructed her to do so. That same day, the court set a hearing on “all pending motions” and immediately entered it on the State Judicial Information System. Four days before the scheduled hearing date, Belser, lawyer number three, entered an appearance on behalf of the husband.

Neither the husband nor lawyer number three showed for the hearing. The trial court called the office of lawyer number three and left a voicemail stating that unless he responded in half an hour, the court would continue the hearing without him. 34 minutes later, the court did so, ratifying the stipulated agreement and divorcing the parties.

Three weeks after the hearing and the court’s order of divorce, the husband filed a motion seeking to alter, amend, or vacate the judgment. The husband said he knew about the hearing but thought it related only to the withdrawal of lawyer number two and was therefore moot. Lawyer number three said he didn’t know about the hearing. Said he had looked on the Information System but hadn’t seen it.

The court scheduled a hearing on the husband’s motion. After the hearing, the husband filed an “addendum” to his postjudgment motion claiming confusion about what was in the stipulation of agreement.

Three days later, the trial court denied the husband’s motion, pointing out that he had the assistance of counsel when he signed the stipulation of agreement and that he had presented no evidence that he was illiterate or coerced when he signed. The husband appealed, arguing that there was no “meeting of the minds” at the time he had signed the stipulation of agreement. In a gutsy move, the wife did not respond to the husband’s arguments with a brief of her own.

The appeals court said the husband’s assertion is at odds with basic contract law.  “[One] may be ‘bound’ by a contract in ways that he did not intend, foresee, or understand.” The appeals court quoted Lilley v. Gonzales, 417 So.2d 161, 163 (Ala. 1982): “Where a contract is unambiguous and plain in expression, we know of no canon of construction that warrants an interpretation the only effect of which is to relieve a party to the contract from consequences deemed by him hard or unfair. Where the parties express without ambiguity their intention, no court can alter the agreement, and no room for judicial construction is left.”

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

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