A Helpful Primer on HCIT

June 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

Judge Maxwell of the COA often includes lucid, concise explanations of the law in his opinions. I find his statements of the law to be a helpful guide in resolving issues that come before me.

One of the most confusing areas of domestic law is how to define what is and is not habitual cruel and inhuman (not “inhumane”) treatment (HCIT), per MCA 93-5-1. In the case of Harmon v. Harmon, handed down June 3, 2014, the COA affirmed the chancellor’s award of a divorce in favor of Linda Harmon against Courtney Harmon on the ground of HCIT. Judge Maxwell, for the unanimous court, set out this helpful exposition on what constitutes HCIT under our law:

¶14. Courtney first argues the chancellor wrongly granted Linda a divorce based on habitual cruelty. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-1 (Rev. 2013). To prove cruelty, a party mustshow conduct that either:

(1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger, rendering the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or (2) is so unnatural and infamous as to make the marriage revolting to the non[]offending spouse and render it impossible for that spouse to discharge the duties of marriage, thus destroying the basis for its continuance.

Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1262 (¶10) (quoting Richard v. Richard, 711 So. 2d 884, 889 (¶22) (Miss.1998)). “The conduct must consist of something more than unkindness or rudeness[.]” Jackson v. Jackson, 922 So. 2d 53, 56 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Horn v. Horn, 909So. 2d 1151, 1155 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). Want of affection or incompatibility is not enough. Id. The complaining party must prove one of these two prongs by a preponderanceof the credible evidence. Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1262-63 (¶10).

¶15. Generally, habitually cruel conduct must be “routine and continuous.” Jackson, 922So. 2d at 56 (¶4) (citing Moore v. Moore, 757 So. 2d 1043, 1047 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App.2000)). However, a pattern is not always required. Sometimes, a single act of physical violence is sufficient. Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1263 (¶13) (citing Curtis v. Curtis, 796 So. 2d1044, 1047 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001)). But in cases like this where there is no physical violence, we consider the frequency and severity of the conduct, and the impact on the offended spouse. Id. “[V]erbal abuse, neglect, and the like,” considered independently, willnot amount to cruelty. Id. (quoting Jackson, 922 So. 2d at 57 (¶8)). But if these combinedacts manifest a course of revolting conduct, they may give rise to cruelty.Id.

¶16. In reviewing a cruelty-based divorce, “there is a dual focus on the conduct of the offending spouse and the impact of that conduct on the offended spouse.” Id. at 1263 (¶11)(quoting Bodne v. King, 835 So. 2d 52, 59 (¶24) (Miss. 2003)). This specific inquiry is subjective. Id. (citing Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992)). Instead of using an ordinary, reasonable-person standard, we concentrate on the conduct’s effect on the particular offended spouse. Id. (citing Faries, 607 So. 2d at 1209). Though a party alleging cruelty must generally corroborate his or her testimony, an exception is made “where corroboration is not reasonably possible because of the nature of the accusation.” Id. at(¶12).

On that last point — corroboration — Judge Maxwell adds this helpful footnote: “For example, corroboration may be unnecessary in unusual cases, such as isolation. Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 478 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Further, “‘the corroborating evidence need not be sufficient in itself to establish the ground,’ but rather ‘need only provide enough supporting facts for a court to conclude that the plaintiff’s testimony is true.’” Id. (quoting Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 4.02[8][d] at 74(2005)).

That is essentially a hornbook on HCIT, complete with supporting authority, that you can use to your client’s benefit next time you have an HCIT case. 



§ 2 Responses to A Helpful Primer on HCIT

  • Bob Wolford says:

    Judge, is it true that, since the passage of the ID statute, courts have more strictly construed the HCIT section because before the the passage of ID, some courts would grant a divorce under HCIT because there was no other ground available? Seems like I read or heard that in the past.

    • Larry says:

      When I first entered practice in the 1970’s, it was commonplace for chancellors to grant HCIT divorces, even where the proof was deficient, because “these people need a divorce.” That ended in the 80’s when the MSSC signalled that it would adhere to the standard that we know today, and began reversing cases that did not meet the burden of proof. Some opined that the MSSC did that to throw the gauntlet down to the legislature, so to speak, to add a less stringent gound for a contested divorce, since even from its earliest days the ID divorce proved to be susceptible to “divorce blackmail, robbing it of its intended effect. If that were the intent of the MSSC by tightening the standard, the ploy did not work exactly as planned. The legislature did add the consent ID divorce, which alleviates the problem to a degree, but still requires the agreement of both parties to achieve.

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