A Divorce Misfire

June 2, 2020 § Leave a comment

When the chancellor finds that the plaintiff has failed to meet the burden of proof to establish a ground for divorce, I call that a “misfire.”

After Karrah Wangler rested her case in chief for divorce against her husband, Richard, he moved to dismiss pursuant to MRCP 41(b), and the chancellor granted the motion, dismissing the complaint. Dissatisfied with the misfire, Karrah appealed.

The MSSC retained the case and, in its March 12, 2020, decision in Wangler v. Wangler, the court affirmed. The outcome is not all that remarkable, but the majority opinion includes a helpful exposition on the ground of HCIT. Judge Griffis’s opinion:

¶13. At the conclusion of Karrah’s case-in-chief, Richard moved to dismiss her complaint. In granting Richard’s motion and dismissing Karrah’s complaint for divorce, the chancellor found as follows:

[H]aving reviewed the pleadings, I’ve looked through all 13 exhibits that were admitted into evidence by stipulation, looking at the notes that I took during testimony, the [c]ourt finds that [Karrah] has failed to present adequate proof of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment[,] and after reviewing the standard set by the case law in the State of Mississippi, the [c]ourt is of the opinion that [Karrah] is not entitled to a divorce on the grounds of [habitual] cruel and inhuman treatment. So the [c]ourt would grant the motion to dismiss by [Richard].

¶14. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) states, in pertinent part,

After the plaintiff, in an action tried by the court without a jury, has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant, without waiving his right to offer evidence in the event the motion is not granted, may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. The court may then render judgment against the plaintiff or may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence.

¶15. “The standard of review applicable on motion to dismiss under Rule 41(b) is different [from] that applicable to a motion for a directed verdict.” Stewart v. Merchs. Nat’l Bank, 700 So. 2d 255, 258 (Miss. 1997) (citing Century 21 Deep S. Props., Ltd. v. Corson, 612 So. 2d 359 (Miss. 1992)).

In considering a motion to dismiss, the judge should consider “the evidence fairly, as distinguished from in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,” and the judge should dismiss the case if it would find for the defendant. “The court must deny a motion to dismiss only if the judge would be obliged to find for the plaintiff if the plaintiff’s evidence were all the evidence offered in the case.” “This Court applies the substantial evidence/manifest error standards to an appeal of a grant or denial of a motion to dismiss pursuant to [Rule] 41(b).”

Id. at 259 (emphasis omitted) (citations omitted). “[This Court] will overturn the chancellor’s decision on a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence, or the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, or applied an erroneous legal standard.” Pittman v. Pittman, 195 So. 3d 727, 732 (Miss. 2016) (citing Stewart, 700 So. 2d at 259). “Legal questions, however, are reviewed de novo.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Sanford v. Sanford, 124 So. 3d 647, 652-53 (Miss. 2013)).

¶16. A divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment requires the following to be shown by a preponderance of the evidence:

[C]onduct 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 nonoffending spouse and render it impossible for that spouse to discharge the duties of marriage, thus destroying the basis for its continuance.

Osborne v. Osborne, 202 So. 3d 639, 641 (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (citing Richard v. Richard, 711 So. 2d 884, 889 (Miss. 1998)). Additionally,

Spousal domestic abuse may be established through the reliable testimony of a single credible witness, who may be the injured party, and includes, but is not limited to:

That the injured party’s spouse attempted to cause, or purposely, knowingly or recklessly caused bodily injury to the injured party, or that the injured party’s spouse attempted by physical menace to put the injured party in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; or

That the injured party’s spouse engaged in a pattern of behavior against the injured party of threats or intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, sexual extortion or sexual abuse, or stalking or aggravated stalking as defined in Section 97-3-107, if the pattern of behavior rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-1.

¶17. “The conduct must consist of something more than unkindness or rudeness or mere incompatibility or want of affection.” Osborne, 202 So. 3d at 641 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Horn v. Horn, 909 So. 2d 1151, 1155 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). “The offending spouse’s conduct . . . ‘must be shown to have been systematic and continuous.’” Baggett v. Baggett, 246 So. 3d 887, 892 (Miss. Ct. App. 2017) (quoting Horn, 909 So. 2d at 1155). “Further, the offended spouse must show a causal connection between the offending spouse’s conduct and the impact on the offended spouse.” Id. (citing Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1263 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011)). “Although in cases of violence a single incident may be sufficient for a divorce, generally the plaintiff must show a pattern of conduct.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Smith, 90 So. 3d at 1263). [Fn omitted]

The court went on for eight more pages to analyze the proof and ultimately agreed with the chancellor that Karrah had failed to meet her burden of proof.

In my court, where the grounds for divorce are contested, I require that the lawyers bifurcate the case and try it solely on the grounds. If the divorce is not granted, that is the end of that. If the divorce is granted, then the case proceeds to equitable distribution, alimony, and any other contested issues. The idea is that it saves the parties the expense of preparing to try the financial issues that the court might never reach if the divorce is denied. It also saves a couple of extra days in court if there is no divorce.

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