The Supreme Court of Georgia recently reemphasized long standing Georgia law prohibiting a petition for modification of child support from being filed within two years of a previous petition for modification by the same parent. Bagwell v. Bagwell, S11A1316 (2012). In that case, the father filed a petition for downward modification of child support in May 2010, “alleging a substantial decrease in his income and financial status since the divorce, which decreased his ability to pay the previously awarded child support.” Id. After a hearing, the trial court granted the mother’s motion for sanctions due to the father’s failure to respond to discovery and dismissed the modification petition. Id. at 2. Two weeks later, the father filed another petition for downward modification of child support, with the same allegations as the previous petition. Id. at 2-3. The mother moved to dismiss the second petition in accordance with OCGA §19-6-15(k)(2) which states: “No petition to modify child support may be filed by either parent within a period of two years from the date of the final order on a previous petition to modify by the same parent except where (A) A noncustodial parent has failed to exercise the court ordered visitation; (B) A noncustodial parent has exercised a greater amount of visitation than was provided in the court order; or (C) The motion to modify is based upon an involuntary loss of income.”
Despite this clarity in this statute, the trial court allowed the second petition to continue “in the interest of fundamental fairness and judicial economy,” since it characterized the first order as a sanction, rather than a dismissal. Id. at 3. The mother appealed, and the Supreme Court of Georgia agreed with the mother.
The Court first held that the trial court’s dismissal of the father’s first petition was a final order for the purpose of OCGA §19-6-15(k)(2) because it was an involuntary dismissal, which “constitutes an adjudication upon the merits of a claim, unless the trial court in its order of dismissal specifies otherwise.” Id. at 4; OCGA §9-11-41(b). Further, the Court stated that classifying the dismissal as a sanction does not make a difference, as a dismissal for this reason is still adjudication on the merits. Id. at 5.
The Court additionally struck down the father’s argument that he had an involuntary loss of income and should, thus, fall under an exception to the two-year rule for two reasons. First, the father did not specifically invoke this exception in his second petition. Second, he would have had to have an involuntary loss of income in the two weeks between the dismissal of his first petition and the filing of his second petition. Id. at 7-8.
In reversing the trial court’s ruling, the Supreme Court of Georgia also held that there was no merit to the trial court’s judicial economy argument. Allowing the second modification action to proceed under these circumstances, it held, “is tantamount to abuse of the judicial system.” Id. at 9.