Settlement agreements settling trust, estate or probate disputes often contain language reciting that the trial court that heard the case retains jurisdiction to enforce an order approving the settlement agreement. In Montgomery v. Morris, however, the Georgia Court of Appeals raised questions about the scope of such provisions in Georgia.
Woodie M. Montgomery and Walter S. Morris have been involved in long-running litigation over alleged improprieties in Montgomery’s handling of Montgomery and Morris’ late father’s estate, a trust, and a family limited partnership. After mediation, the parties agreed to settle the dispute. There were some further disputes about the settlement agreement, which the trial court resolved, and the trial court dismissed the case without prejudice and directed the clerk of the court to close the case. The trial court, however, put a provision in the order dismissing the case that it “retains complete jurisdiction to vacate this Order and to re-open the action if necessary.”
Almost a year after the order dismissing the case, Morris renewed a motion for contempt under the same case number as the action that had been dismissed, and alleged that Montgomery had wilfully failed to comply with the terms of the trial court’s prior orders. The trial court held a hearing on the motion and held Montgomery in contempt for failing to subdivide a piece of real property as required by the terms of the settlement agreement.
The Georgia Court of Appeals, however, found that, once the case was dismissed, the trial court lost jurisdiction to enter a finding of contempt with respect to its prior orders. Under Georgia law, with the exception of certain motions for attorney’s fees, the dismissal of a lawsuit generally deprives the trial court of jurisdiction to take further action in a case and leaves the parties in the same position as if the suit had never been filed. Any subsequent order entered by a court in a dismissed case is null and void.
All this is not to say that a party cannot seek enforcement of a settlement agreement or consent order, only that the party may need to be more creative about getting that complaint back in front of the judge most knowledgeable about the case.