Construction of Judgments


Graham v. Graham, [Ms. 2180856, Sept. 11, 2020], ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2020). The court (Moore, J.; Thompson, P.J., and Edwards, J., concur; Hanson, J., dissents, with writings; Donaldson, J., recuses) affirms a judgment of the Mobile Circuit Court interpreting and enforcing provisions of a divorce judgment concerning ownership of a life insurance policy. The former husband appeals contending the trial court erred by denying him full ownership of the policy. Rejecting the former husband’s contentions, the court explains how appellate courts construe trial court judgments:

Our supreme court has stated:

“Courts are to construe judgments as they construe written contracts, applying the same rules of construction they apply to written contracts. See Hanson v. Hearn, 521 So. 2d 953, 954 (Ala. 1988). Whether a judgment is ambiguous is a question of law to be determined by the court. See Chapman v. Chapman, 634 So. 2d 1024, 1025 (Ala. Civ. App. 1994); Grizzell v. Grizzell, 583 So. 2d 1349, 1350 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991). If the terms of a judgment are not ambiguous, then they must be given their usual and ordinary meaning and their ‘legal effect must be declared in the light of the literal meaning of the language used’ in the judgment. Wise v. Watson, 286 Ala. 22, 27, 236 So. 2d 681, 686 (1970); see Moore v. Graham, 590 So. 2d 293, 295 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991). However, if a term in a trial court’s judgment is ambiguous, then the trial court’s interpretation of that term ‘is accorded a heavy presumption of correctness and will not be disturbed unless it is palpably erroneous.’ Chapman, 634 So. 2d at 1025.”

State Pers. Bd. v. Akers, 797 So. 2d 422, 424-25 (Ala. 2000) (emphasis added).

Ms. **9-10. In this case, the trial court judge in post-judgment proceedings explained in an order what she understood the original judgment to mean. The Court of Civil Appeals held that it will “not disturb that interpretation unless it is palpably erroneous.” Ms. *10, citing Akers, supra. The court further explains that in construing the trial court’s judgment, it is to be construed like any other written instrument:

In Boykin v. Law, 946 So. 2d 838, 848 (Ala. 2006), our supreme court stated, in pertinent part:

“[An appellate court will] construe the trial court’s judgment like other written instruments: the rules of construction for contracts are applicable for construing judgments. Hanson v. Hearn, 521 So. 2d 953, 954 (Ala. 1988); Moore v. Graham, 590 So. 2d 293, 295 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991). We are free to review ‘all the relevant circumstances surrounding the judgment,’ and ‘the entire judgment ... should be read as a whole in the light of all the circumstances as well as of the conduct of the parties.’ Hanson, 521 So. 2d at 955.”

Ms. *10. Because the former husband failed to demonstrate that the trial court’s post-judgment order was palpably erroneous, that judgment is due to be affirmed.

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