An Alabama woman has been held in the Chilton County Jail since July 26, based on a divorce mediation that appears to have been unlawful on multiple grounds.
Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds ordered Bonnie Cahalane (Knox) Wyatt and Harold Jay Wyatt into mediation, which ended with a settlement agreement that had Ms. Wyatt paying $165,000 for her husband's interest in the marital home--even though she owned the house prior to the marriage. When Ms. Wyatt failed to pay the amount, Reynolds found her in contempt of court and ordered her arrest.
Court records show that mediation was to be conducted on March 9, 2011, with Clanton attorney Wayne Cordery. But multiple sources tell Legal Schnauzer that the parties and their attorneys met with Cordery that day for only about an hour before they were summoned to the Chilton County Courthouse. The mediation was completed before Reynolds, in his courtroom, even though that appears to violate at least three provisions of the Alabama Civil Court Mediation Rules.
We already have shown that Ms. Wyatt's incarceration is unlawful because a case styled Dolberry v. Dolberry, 920 So. 2d 573 (Ala. Civ. App., 2005) holds that a party is not subject to contempt, and possible incarceration, because of a property-related debt connected to dissolution of a marriage.
But now we learn that the settlement agreement itself is due to be set aside because it was produced via an unlawful mediation. In almost all cases, mediation is to include only the parties, their representatives, and the mediator. The only exception is in cases of alleged domestic violence, where the victim can have a supporting person of his or her choice. The presence of any other third party can come only with the permission of the parties and the consent of the mediator.
Judges appear to specifically be excluded from the process. Why did Reynolds summon the parties in Wyatt v. Wyatt to his courtroom and participate in the mediation? That is not clear, but it appears he had no grounds for doing so.
Let's consider three relevant provisions of the Alabama Civil Court Mediation Rules:
Rule 1. Definition of Mediation and Scope of Rules
(a) Mediation is an extra judicial procedure for the resolution of disputes, provided for by statute and by the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure.
Comment: The meaning of an "extra judicial procedure" is clear: It is outside the authority of a court. It does not take place in a judge's presence. This seems real easy to understand.
Rule 10. Privacy
Mediation sessions are private. An alleged victim of domestic or family violence may have in attendance at mediations a supporting person of his or her choice. In all other cases, persons other than the parties and their representatives may attend mediation sessions only with the permission of the parties and with the consent of the mediator.
Comment: Do you see a provision there for the presence of a judge? Neither do I. Can't get much more straightforward than this.
Rule 11. Confidentiality
(c) A court shall neither inquire into nor receive information about the positions of the parties taken in mediation proceedings; the facts elicited or presented in mediation proceedings; or the cause or responsibility for termination or failure of the mediation process.
Comment: This might be more straightforward than Rule 10. This one specifically tells judges to butt out.
How could such an unlawful mediation take place? Amanda Baxley, of Clanton, was Ms. Wyatt's attorney at the time, and we see no signs in the record that Ms. Baxley objected to the mediation. In fact, the court file shows that Ms. Baxley withdrew from the case shortly after the settlement agreement was reached.
Was Amanda Baxley out to lunch? Did she allow herself to be strong-armed by a corrupt judge? Did she feel powerless to do anything about it? We don't have answers to those questions, but it is clear that Amanda Baxley's client is paying a heavy price for a settlement agreement that was generated under unlawful conditions.
What motivation did Judge Sibley Reynolds have for inserting himself into the mediation process? Given that Ms. Wyatt wound up with the short end of the settlement-agreement stick, a reasonable person might conclude that Reynolds forced her into a bad deal.
Regardless of the judge's motivations, his participation in the mediation process was forbidden by law. And that appears to present grounds to have the settlement agreement set aside. A case styled Nero v. Chastang, 358 So. 2d 740 (Ala. Civ. App., 1978) spells it out:
When parties who are sui juris make a final settlement between themselves, such settlement is as binding on them in many respects as a decree of the court. However, such settlement may be opened for fraud, accident, or mistake. See Burks v. Parker, 192 Ala. 250, 68 So. 271 (1915).
I would classify Reynolds' actions as fraud. But an argument could be made that they come under the heading of "accident" or "mistake." Whatever terminology is used, Bonnie Wyatt has powerful grounds for having her settlement agreement set aside. And that is one of many reasons that she should be released from jail.