Relief Beyond the Pleadings

July 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

How far can a chancellor go to effect complete relief between the parties when there is no pleading specifically praying for the relief granted?

That was one of the questions before the COA in the case of Stasny v. Wages, decided June 25, 2013.

Lori Stasny had filed a petition to modify child support and asking the court to order her ex, John Michael Wages, to pay college support for the parties’ daughter, Sarah. The petition was one of several filed between the parties post-divorce, in which each sought to have the other held in contempt, and included a pleading in which Stasny sought to terminate Wages’ parental rights, a pleading in which Sarah joined as a party.

In the course of the hearing, Sarah testified that she had “other priorities” that she she considered more important than her relationship with her father, and that she had refused to speak with him at her high school graduation. She added that she had not visited her father in more than two years.

The chancellor ruled that Sarah’s estrangement from her father was extreme enough to warrant cessation of his support obligation, and he took the issue under advisement, allowing Stasny time to file a brief. Wages filed a motion to conform his pleadings to the proof to add the issue of termination of support. The chancellor granted the motion. Ultimately the chancellor terminated Wages’ duty to support the child, and Stasny appealed.

The COA affirmed the chancellor’s decision that Sarah was estranged from her father to the extent that he should be relieved of the support obligation. As to the termination of child support being outside the scope of the pleadings, Judge Fair’s majority affirming opinion set out the rationale:

¶16. Stasny next argues the chancellor erroneously granted Wages relief he did not request in his response to her petition. But procedurally, the fact that Wages did not specifically raise the issue of termination of his support obligation in his response is immaterial. See Evans v. Evans, 994 So. 2d 765, 772 (¶23) (Miss. 2008) (holding chancellor’s order that directed the parents be responsible for a child’s financial obligation “without either party raising the issue in their respective pleadings is not a procedural concern”). By petitioning to cite Wages for contempt and to modify the settlement agreement to include child support, Stasny submitted the issue of Wages’s financial support of Sarah to the chancellor—and this submission “include[d] all matters touching on that subject.” Brennan v. Brennan, 638 So.2d 1320, 1325 (Miss. 1994). Further, at the conclusion of the hearing, both Stasny and Wages moved for the pleadings to be amended to conform to the evidence presented at the hearing, which included evidence that Sarah’s actions amounted to forfeiture of her father’s financial support. So the issue of terminating support was properly before the chancellor.

¶17. Stasny also asserts the chancellor lacked authority to terminate Wages’s financial obligations towards Sarah because those obligations—in particular, the obligation to contribute to Sarah’s college trust fund—were based on a contract between Stasny and Wages. While Mississippi law does favor honoring the contractual agreements entered as part of divorce settlements and takes a “dim view” of attempts to modify them, Weathersby v. Weathersby, 693 So. 2d 1348, 1351 (Miss. 1997), these agreements are “quasi-contracts.” Varner v. Varner, 666 So. 2d 493, 496 (Miss. 1995) (citing Grier v. Grier, 616 So. 2d 337, 340 (Miss. 1993)). In contrast to a contract, “the chancellor always has the discretion to modify the [divorce] decree’s terms, and all such decrees are subject to the court’s approval.” Arrington v. Arrington, 80 So. 3d 160, 164 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Varner, 666 So. 2d at 496-97).

¶18. Stasny, at least implicitly, recognized the quasi-contractual nature of the settlement agreement. Stasny and Wages had already sought the chancellor’s approval to modify the settlement agreement once in 2008. And in her 2010 petition, it was Stasny who asked the court to modify the settlement agreement. Though Stasny had argued a material change in circumstances warranted modifying the agreement to increase Wages’s child support, the chancellor instead found a material change in circumstances—namely, the attempt to terminate Wages’s parental rights—warranted a termination of support. See Varner, 666 So. 2d at 497 (holding that, in order to modify an agreement incorporated into a divorce decree, there must be a material change in circumstances). Because we affirm the chancellor’s decision that Wages in under no obligation to pay child support or other expenses, we need not address Stasny’s final argument—that the chancellor erred by not requiring Wages produce to her his Rule 8.05 disclosure form, which he had presented to the chancellor in camera. See UCCR 8.05.

¶19. In Markofski v. Holzhauer, 799 So. 2d 162, 166-67 (¶¶21-24) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001), an ex-wife asked the court to enforce a voluntary agreement by her ex-husband to pay for his stepchild’s college expenses, an agreement that was part of their divorce settlement. The chancellor found the stepfather had no financial obligation to pay, in part because of the stepdaughter’s behavior towards her father. Id. at 167 (¶24). The chancellor “found that under the present circumstances, it would be unreasonable to require a man to pay for the college education of a former stepchild who accused him of molesting her, charges of which he was eventually acquitted.” Id. And relying on Hambrick, this court found no abuse of discretion. Markofski, 799 So. 2d at 167 (¶¶24-25) (citing Hambrick, 382 So. 2d at 477). While the facts here are not as egregious as the accusation in Markofski, the chancellor found that under the circumstances in this case—Sarah’s participation in the proceedings to terminate her father’s parental rights, coupled with her refusal to visit him—it would be unreasonable to enforce the provision in the divorce decree that her father pay into her college trust account.

¶20. Because there is evidence supporting the chancellor’s decision to terminate Wages’s financial obligations, we find no abuse of discretion and affirm.

A lot to chew on here, quasi contracts and all.

But the point is that when all of the parties are assembled and within the jurisdiction of the court, and the judge makes a fundamental ruling that affects the relationship among the parties, the chancellor should have the authority to reach out and effect complete relief. Our chancery courts are still courts of equity, according to the Mississippi Constitution. The MRCP did not erase the great maxims of equity from our jurisprudence. Here are two that would appear to be particularly applicable here:

  • Equity will not suffer a wrong without a remedy; and
  • Equity delights to do complete justice and not by halves.

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