Res Judicata and the Foreign Divorce

September 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

After Lisa Crew and Ellis Tillotson were divorced from each other in North Carolina, Lisa filed a complaint for equitable distribution in Mississippi, where the parties’ property was located. Following a trial the chancellor divided the marital estate.

Lisa appealed, complaining that the distribution was inequitable and erroneous. Ellis cross-appealed that the North Carolina judgment rendered the equitable distribution claims res judicata, and the chancellor erred in accepting jurisdiction.

In Crew v. Tillotson, decided August 20, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Tindell wrote the 6-3 decision:

¶15. With regard to the application of res judicata in divorce cases, this Court previously explained:

The doctrine of res judicata reflects the refusal of the law to tolerate a multiplicity of litigation. It is a doctrine of public policy designed to avoid the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and foster reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibilities of inconsistent decisions. Res judicata bars all issues that might have been (or could have been) raised and decided in the initial suit, plus all issues that were actually decided in the first cause of action.

Article IV, § 1 of the United States Constitution requires that full faith and credit be given to the judicial proceedings of sister states. However, those proceedings are only entitled to full faith and credit where the rendering court properly has subject matter and personal jurisdiction. The United States Supreme Court has applied the Full Faith and Credit Clause in the context of divorce actions.

Lofton v. Lofton, 924 So. 2d 596, 599 (¶¶14-15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Our caselaw further recognizes “that a divorce action involving multiple states is ‘divisible.’ That is, a divorce action involving one resident party and one foreign party may or may not be able to adjudicate personal rights, though it can sever a marriage as long as at least one party is a resident of that state.” Id. at 601 (¶27). In addition, “Mississippi law is clear that where the case in the foreign court is not decided on its merits, while suit might be barred from any other court in the state where the judgment was rendered[,] it is not res judicata in Mississippi.” Weiss v. Weiss, 579 So. 2d 539, 541 (Miss. 1991) (internal quotation mark omitted).

¶16. Here, Ellis contends the chancellor erroneously found that North Carolina did not possess personal jurisdiction over him. We agree with Ellis that the record reflects he voluntarily submitted to North Carolina’s personal jurisdiction when he entered a general appearance in the divorce proceeding. Our analysis therefore focuses on Ellis’s arguments that North Carolina statutory law required Lisa to raise equitable distribution in the divorce proceeding there and that her failure to do so barred her from asserting the issue in a subsequent action in Mississippi. Ellis relies on North Carolina General Statute Annotated section 50-11(e) (2013), which provides:

An absolute divorce obtained within this State shall destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under [North Carolina General Statute Annotated section] 50-20 unless the right is asserted prior to judgment of absolute divorce; except, the defendant may bring an action or file a motion in the cause for equitable distribution within six months from the date of the judgment in such a case if service of process upon the defendant was by publication pursuant to . . . [North Carolina General Statute Annotated section] 1A-1, Rule 4 and the defendant failed to appear in the action for divorce.

¶17. The North Carolina divorce judgment adjudicated three matters. The divorce decree granted the parties an absolute divorce under North Carolina law, allowed Lisa to resume the use of her maiden name, and allowed Lisa’s attorney to withdraw from the case. No dispute exists that Lisa’s North Carolina divorce complaint never raised the issue of equitable distribution and that the matter was therefore neither litigated in nor adjudicated by the North Carolina divorce proceeding. Lisa argues, however, that the North Carolina court lacked in rem jurisdiction to dispose of the parties’ property located outside the state. For this reason, Lisa asserts that she did not attempt to raise the issue in the divorce proceeding and that her failure to do so poses no bar to her current Mississippi action. To support her argument, Lisa cites North Carolina General Statute Annotated section 50-11(f), which states:

An absolute divorce by a court that lacked personal jurisdiction over the absent spouse or lacked jurisdiction to dispose of the property shall not destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under [section] 50-20 if an action or motion in the cause is filed within six months after the judgment of divorce is entered.

(Emphasis added).

¶18. As the United States Supreme Court has previously recognized:

[W]hen claims to the property itself are the source of the underlying controversy between the plaintiff and the defendant, it would be unusual for the State where the property is located not to have jurisdiction. . . . The State’s strong interests in assuring the marketability of property within its borders and in providing a procedure for peaceful resolution of disputes about the possession of that property would also support jurisdiction, as would the likelihood that important records and witnesses will be found in the State.

Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 207-08 (1977) (footnotes omitted).

¶19. As we have already noted, Mississippi recognizes divisible divorce actions. Lofton, 924 So. 2d at 601 (¶27). Here, during the North Carolina divorce proceeding, neither party ever raised the issue of equitable distribution of their marital property located in Mississippi. Further, as reflected by its decree, the North Carolina court never addressed the issue. Normally, under North Carolina statutory law, a party’s failure to raise equitable distribution waives the issue in a future proceeding. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 50-11(e). But as the North Carolina Supreme Court has recognized, exceptions do exist. “Chapter 50 clearly contemplates the survival of those rights[to equitable distribution and alimony] under certain circumstances[,]” and section 50-11(f) provides an exception that “applies to cases wherein the trial court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant or jurisdiction to dispose of the property.” Stegall v. Stegall, 444 S.E.2d 177, 179, 180 (N.C. 1994).

¶20. We believe that such circumstances exist in the instant case. Because the North Carolina court never exercised jurisdiction to dispose of the parties’ marital property, the grant of divorce did not destroy Lisa’s right to equitable distribution under section 50-11(f) because she filed such an action within six months of the entry of divorce. We therefore find no error in the chancellor’s determination that res judicata failed to bar Lisa’s action in Mississippi. Accordingly, we find that Ellis’s argument as to this assignment of error lacks merit.

Judge Jack Wilson, joined by Barnes and Corey Wilson, wrote a well-reasoned dissent.

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