Bonnie Cahalane and Don Felder surely never set out to help illustrate a fundamental legal concept, one that often is accompanied by rancor, stress, and major doses of general unpleasantness. But their stories intersect in a way that spotlights a critical difference between a contract that is valid and one that is not.
That thought struck me the other night as I was watching History of the Eagles: The Story of an American Band, a Showtime documentary about the country-rock group that came to define the Southern California Sound of the 1970s. Produced by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, History of the Eagles likely will be one of the most-watched documentaries of 2013. Over the course of three hours, the film covers the band's 42-year history--from its formation in 1971, to a breakup in 1980, to a 14-year "vacation" that involved numerous solo projects, to a reunion in 1994, to its current status as one of the biggest concert draws on the planet.
I set out to watch the film mainly because I long have admired the Eagles' music, especially the contributions of the two remaining founding members, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Any list of the greatest songwriting teams in music history surely is topped by Lennon and McCartney. But Henley and Frey--whose partnership helped produce "Desperado," "One of These Nights," "Take It to the Limit," "Life In the Fast Lane," "New Kid in Town," "The Long Run," and many more--deserve a spot mighty high on the list.
History of the Eagles captures the conflicts and tension that drove the band to staggering heights--and the film is filled with the stories behind many songs that became staples of classic-rock radio, so there is much for the music lover to enjoy. But darned if I didn't come away thinking about the law--and one of our ongoing stories here at Legal Schnauzer.
How on earth did that happen? Well, it started from what I know about the legal travails of Clanton resident Bonnie Cahalane, who spent five months last year in the Chilton County Jail, known to many central Alabamians as "The Chilton Hilton." The facility's nickname might cause you to smile, but spending time behind bars there most assuredly is not fun--especially when you are there contrary to black-letter Alabama law.
(Note: We have referred to Ms. Cahalane in previous posts as Bonnie Cahalane Wyatt. But she now has a certificate of divorce from Harold Wyatt and goes by her maiden name of Bonnie Cahalane.)
Chilton County Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds held Cahalane in contempt and threw her in jail for failure to pay a property-related debt from her divorce case. Clear Alabama case law--perhaps best stated in a case styled Dolberry v. Dolberry, 920 So. 2d 573 (Ala. Civ. App., 2005) --holds that a party is not subject to contempt and incarceration because of a property-related debt from dissolution of a marriage.
Cahalane was released from jail on December 18, 2012, after an agreement was reached that she would sell her house to pay off an alleged debt to Harold Wyatt for his equity in the property.
Sources tell Legal Schnauzer that the agreement was reached in Reynolds' courtroom while Cahalane was wearing jail clothes. Court documents indicate she was going to return to jail that day if she did not agree to sell her house. The property currently is on the market, listed with a RealtySouth agent named Amber Darnell. We have a number of questions for Ms. Cahalane's attorney, Angie Avery Collins of Clanton, and we left a message at her office on Friday.
Does Amber Darnell have a valid contract to sell Bonnie Cahalane's house? No, she does not. That's because of a legal concept--well stated in a case styled Claybrook v. Claybrook (Ala. Civ. App., 2010)--that holds a contract is void when it is reached under duress. If the threat of being unlawfully returned to "The Chilton Hilton" is not duress, I'm not sure what is.
That brings us back to "Hotel California" and Don Felder. For all of the Eagles' hits, their signature song is "Hotel California," about a mythical resort where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." The song won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and ranks No. 49 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The song's closing guitar solo was voted the best solo of all time by readers of Guitarist magazine.
Like Bonnie Cahalane, Don Felder knows a thing or two about signing a contract under duress. That episode provides one of the key moments in History of the Eagles. The documentary surely was not designed to teach a mini seminar on contract law. But that's exactly what it does.
(To be continued)