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Justices: Agreement was impermissibly modified

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A LaPorte Superior judge made an impermissible modification to a divorced couple's settlement agreement by giving the bank's lien on the family farm priority over the ex-wife's lien, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

In their dissolution agreement, Robert Johnson agreed to pay Gina Johnson her interest in a family farm through a series of lump sums and installment payments until 2013. To operate the farm, Robert would take out a loan at the bank every April 15 to finance seasonal expenses, which is repaid after fall harvest. The line of credit is secured by an all-assets security agreement that is cross-collateralized with all other collateral with the bank as well as personal guarantees from the farm's owners. The bank requires first position on all assets securing the farm's debt.

The bank required Robert to get an agreement from Gina ensuring her interests in the farm wouldn't subordinate its own. Gina refused so Robert sought a declaratory order subordinating her lien, which the trial court granted.

The Supreme Court reversed in Gina Johnson v. Robert Johnson, No. 46S04-0907-CV-346. At issue is whether Gina agreed to waive her priority on lines of credit entered into after the settlement only up to the amount taken out for the farm's operations in the past or whether she waived her priority without limit. Robert attempted to take out money to cover the farm expenses as well as covering the payments he needed to make to Gina.

The agreement is silent on this issue, but the Supreme Court found the agreement undeniably assumes for the farm's continued operation in the manner Gina had grown accustomed, which requires renewing the lines of credit at issue in the case.

But the funds for Robert to pay Gina aren't implied as necessary to the agreement. Gina may have impliedly agreed to a subordinate position when it comes to the continuing operating expenses of the farm, but she wouldn't have assented to Robert taking on a large amount of debt to finance his payments to her. That would offer her little protection if he defaulted, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

"An order declaring Gina's judgment lien subordinate to the lien securing the annual line of credit would not constitute a modification but an enforcement because it implies the continued financing of the farm's operations," he wrote. "Conversely, an order subordinating her lien to the bank's for amounts over and above such an amount would constitute an impermissible modification."

The justices also noted that if Robert's declarations about the state of his finances are accurate, he may have trouble repaying Gina without financing higher debt on the farm. The justices suggested they negotiate an agreement allowing Robert to meet his obligations and encouraged them to avoid further litigation on the issue.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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