What it Takes to Prove HCIT

October 14, 2019 § Leave a comment

Cobbling together enough evidence and corroboration to meet your burden of proof in an habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (HCIT) case can be quite a challenge.

In the COA’s recent case, Littlefield v. Littlefield, appellant Eddie Littlefield argued that the chancellor erred in granting his wife Brooke a divorce on the ground. The COA affirmed in a decision handed down August 27, 2019. Judge Tindell’s opinion first set down the legal standard for HCIT:

¶8. Eddie first argues that the chancellor erred in granting a divorce in favor of Brooke on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-1 (Rev. 2018) allows a chancellor to grant a divorce based upon habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Divorce is properly granted upon this ground if the claimant establishes, by a preponderance of the evidence, conduct that either:

(1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger and renders the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or

(2) is so unnatural and infamous as to render the marriage revolting to the non-offending spouse, making it impossible to carry out the duties of the marriage, therefore destroying the basis for its continuance.

Alexander v. Alexander, 95 So. 3d 696, 699 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing N. Shelton Hand, Mississippi Divorce, Alimony and Child Custody § 4:12 (2d ed. Supp. 1991)). In addition, there must be a causal connection between the treatment and the actual or threatened harm to the claimant’s health or well-being. Bias v. Bias, 493 So. 2d 342, 345 (Miss. 1986); see also Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992); Farris v. Farris, 202 So. 3d 223, 232 (¶33) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). To establish such a causal connection, there must be some corroboration to the moving party’s testimony of the offensive conduct, except in cases of isolation. Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 478 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Evidence of something more than “mere unkindness, rudeness, petty indignities, frivolous quarrels, incompatibility or lack of affection” is required to establish habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Id. at 469 (¶9).

There follows five pages in which the court recites the evidence at trial supporting the chancellor’s findings.

As for Eddie’s arguments that Brooke had failed to offer sufficient corroboration, the court said:

¶18. Eddie asserts that Brooke’s testimony lacked corroborating evidence. But the testimony of Jean, Erhart, and Eddie himself corroborated the vast majority of Brooke’s allegations. We have held that a claimant’s 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 the [claimant’s] testimony is true.” Williams v. Williams, 224 So. 3d 1282, 1287 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). In this case, the chancellor was provided more than enough testimony and evidence to corroborate Brooke’s testimony.

And finally, with regard to the sufficiency of the evidence, the court said:

¶19. Eddie also argues that the evidence provided at trial was insufficient to prove habitual cruel and inhuman treatment by a preponderance of the evidence. As the trier of fact, the chancellor “evaluates the sufficiency of proof based on the credibility of the witnesses and the weight of their testimony.” Rawson v. Buta, 609 So. 2d 426, 431 (Miss. 1992). Divorces based upon habitual cruel and inhuman treatment are necessarily fact-intensive and require a case-by-case analysis. James Shelson, Mississippi Chancery Practice § 38:5 (2019). The chancellor must dually focus on both the alleged conduct of the offending spouse as well as the impact of that conduct on the complaining spouse and the marriage. Heimert v. Heimert, 101 So. 3d 181, 184 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). Upon review, we “must employ a subjective standard,” rather than an ordinary, reasonable person standard, understanding that the impact of the conduct on the complaining spouse is crucial. Harmon v. Harmon, 141 So. 3d 37, 42 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992)).

¶20. Eddie correctly argues that a more extreme set of facts is required than a showing of “mere unkindness, rudeness, and incompatibility.” Reed v. Reed, 839 So. 2d 565, 570 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). But “our supreme court has specifically noted that ‘[t]here are many kinds of acts such as wilful failure to support, verbal abuse, neglect, and the like which, if taken alone will not constitute cruelty, but when taken together will manifest a course of conduct as a whole which may amount to cruelty.’” Rakestraw v. Rakestraw, 717 So. 2d 1284, 1288 (Miss. Ct. App. 1998) (citing Savell v. Savell, 240 So.2d 628, 629 (Miss.1970)). Also, abusive conduct that is routine and continuous suffices to meet the requisite burden. Lomax v. Lomax, 172 So. 3d 1258, 1261 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016); see also Burnett v. Burnett, 271 So. 2d 90, 92 (Miss. 1972) (The “conduct must be habitual, that is, done so often, or continued so long, that its recurrence may be reasonably expected whenever occasion or opportunity present itself.”). For example, in Harmon, the offending spouse’s conduct included continuous sexual degradation, cursing and yelling, jealousy and constant accusations of infidelity, irrationality, and habitual name-calling. Harmon, 141 So. 3d. at 40 (¶¶5-11). Because the cumulative effect of the offending spouse’s behavior constituted cruelty, we upheld the chancellor’s judgment of divorce. Id. at 42 (¶17).

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