Pleading the Spousal Domestic Abuse HCIT Ground

March 24, 2020 § Leave a comment

Ever since the legislature amended MCA 93-5-1 in 2017 to add “spousal domestic abuse” as a form of HCIT there has been a lingering question whether one is required to plead the enhanced ground, or whether it is sufficient simply to plead HCIT and nothing more. A recent MSSC decision comes close to answering the question.

Karrah Wangler filed her Complaint for Divorce against her husband Richard on January 3, 2018. On October 16, 2018, the day before trial, she moved the court to amend her complaint to track the 2017 amendment verbatim. The chancellor denied her motion. On appeal, she charged that the chancellor erred in denying her motion.

In Wangler v. Wangler, handed down March 12, 2020, the court affirmed. Justice Griffis wrote the 7-2 majority opinion:

¶6. “[M]otions for leave to amend are left to the sound discretion of the trial court. This Court reviews such determinations under an abuse of discretion standard and unless convinced that the trial judge abused his discretion, we are without authority to reverse.” Church v. Massey, 697 So. 2d 407, 413 (Miss. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting McCarty v. Kellum, 667 So. 2d 1277, 1283 (Miss. 1995)).

¶7.

[Mississippi] Rule [of Civil Procedure] 15(a) declares that leave to amend “shall be freely given when justice so requires”; this mandate is to be heeded . . . if the underlying facts or circumstances relied upon by a plaintiff may be a proper subject of relief, he ought to be afforded an opportunity to test his claim on the merits. In the absence of any apparent or declared reason—such
as undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, futility of the amendment, etc.—the leave sought should, as the rules require, be “freely given.”

Webb v. Braswell, 930 So. 2d 387, 393 (Miss. 2006) (quoting Moeller v. Am. Guar. and Liab. Ins. Co., 812 So. 2d 953, 962 (Miss. 2002)).

¶8. Karrah argues that the chancellor should have granted her motion to amend the complaint because under Rule 15(a), “leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Miss. R. Civ. P. 15(a). This Court disagrees and finds that the amendment was futile. Alternatively, any error by the chancellor was harmless.

¶9. Mississippi Code Section 93-5-1 (Rev. 2018) provides twelve causes for divorce. Among those causes is habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-1. Effective July 1, 2017, the Legislature amended Section 93-5-1 to include “spousal domestic abuse” as a form of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. S.B. 2680, Reg. Sess., 2017 Miss. Laws ch. 427, § 6 (codified as amended at Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-1 (Rev. 2018)).

¶10. Karrah filed her complaint for divorce on January 3, 2018, and alleged that Richard was “guilty of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.” More than nine months later, on October 16, 2018, Karrah moved to amend her complaint to allege spousal domestic abuse, specifically,

that Richard . . . ha[d] engaged in a pattern of behavior against [her] of threats of intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, and false accusations of marital infidelity, coupled with episodes of abandoning [her] at all times of the day or the night on the sides of public highways and in public places which pattern of behavior rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.

According to Karrah, “[o]ut of an abundance of caution and so as to avoid any ‘surprises’ or misunderstandings, [she] . . . filed her motion to amend to explicitly and almost verbatim track the language of amended section 93-5-1 . . . .” Karrah explained that she moved to amend her complaint in order “to spell out the new . . . standard for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment . . . .”

¶11. But as previously noted, the legislative amendment to Section 93-5-1 was effective July 1, 2017, approximately six months before Karrah and Richard separated and Karrah filed her complaint for divorce. Thus, Karrah had ample time to include in her complaint any
allegation of spousal domestic abuse. Notwithstanding her failure to do so, the 2017 amendment to Section 93-5-1 was still applicable to Karrah’s complaint alleging habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. In other words, because Karrah filed for divorce on the ground
of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment after July 1, 2017, the effective date of the amendment, the amended language of Section 93-5-1 applied to her complaint. Additionally, the record shows that the parties participated in discovery and exchanged documentation
regarding Karrah’s allegations of spousal domestic abuse. Thus, Karrah’s last-minute motion to amend the complaint to “track the language of amended section 93-5-1” and to “spell out” the new standard was futile. Accordingly, the chancellor did not err by denying the motion.

¶12. Alternatively, even if the chancellor’s denial of Karrah’s motion to amend the complaint was erroneous, such error was harmless. The record shows, and Karrah admits, that “Karrah had already spelled out her evidence in her responses to discovery.” Moreover,
the record shows that Karrah testified at trial regarding her allegations of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, including spousal domestic abuse. At the conclusion of Karrah’s case-in-chief, the chancellor granted her motion to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b). As a result, the chancellor considered all of the testimony and evidence offered by Karrah in support of her claim for divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, including spousal domestic abuse. Therefore, as acknowledged by Karrah, any error by the chancellor in denying the motion to amend the complaint was harmless.

Random thoughts:

  • One of the key advantages of the 2017 amendment is to do away with the strict corroboration requirement. It replaces corroboration with a determination of credibility by the court. So the concern of practitioners has been over how much is necessary to be pled in order to preserve the no-corroboration advantage.
  • This decision seems to say, without coming right out and saying it, that all you need to do is plead HCIT and the spousal abuse amendment is invoked.
  • As a practice consideration, if I were you, I would plead both HCIT and HCIT/spousal abuse, and I would probably spell out as much of the offensive behavior as applies. Why? Well, it eliminates the argument that the other side was not put on notice, and if you don’t choose to invoke it at trial it is mere surplusage in the pleading.
  • I did rule in the only case that has come before me with this issue that it was adequate to plead HCIT without the other language, but I still think that the better, most airtight way to approach it is to plead in detail.

The Proof is in the Pudding

April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Two recent COA decisions are flip sides of the same coin that you can not get a divorce on the ground of HCIT unless it is supported by substantial, corroborated proof.

The COA affirmed the chancellor’s R41(b) dismissal of a divorce action in Pittman v. Pittman, handed down March 24, 2015. Judge James expounded for the unanimous court:

¶11. A party seeking a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment bears the burden of proving his ground by a preponderance of the evidence. Hoskins v. Hoskins, 21 So. 3d 705, 707 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). We have defined habitual cruel and inhuman treatment as:

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.

Id. (quoting Kumar v. Kumar, 976 So. 2d 957, 961 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008)). In addition, the Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “[h]abitual cruel and inhuman treatment may be established only by a continuous course of conduct . . . . [S]uch conduct must be habitual, that is, done often enough or so continuously that it may reasonably be said to be a permanent condition.” Holladay v. Holladay, 776 So. 2d 662, 677 (¶64) (Miss. 2000). Thus, the evidence required to support granting a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment requires “more than mere unkindness, rudeness, or incompatibility.” Id.

¶12. In granting Ty’s motion for an involuntary dismissal, the chancellor, viewing the evidence fairly, found that the evidence presented did not meet the elements of cruel and inhuman treatment. The chancellor noted that, although Propst [the wife] claimed that Ty [the husband] forced her into bankruptcy, Propst testified that she was represented by counsel. The chancellor found there was no evidence that Ty coerced Propst into bankruptcy. As to physical abuse, the chancellor noted that Propst made general allegations of abuse without specificity, except regarding the occasion in which Ty grabbed her from behind when she attempted to leave his house with important papers and the occasion outside Propst’s accountant’s office when Ty forcefully took papers from Propst. However, the chancellor noted that at no time were the police called, nor were medical records produced documenting abuse.

¶13. “This Court must give great deference to the factual findings of the chancellor that are supported by substantial evidence.” Wilbourne v. Wilbourne, 748 So. 2d 184, 187 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). Upon reviewing the record of the proceedings below, we find that there is sufficient evidence to support the chancellor’s finding that Propst is not entitled to a divorce on the ground of cruel and inhuman treatment. Propst failed to demonstrate a continuous course of conduct that was so unkind, unfeeling, or brutal as to endanger her, or put her in reasonable apprehension of danger to life, limb, or health. Gallaspy v. Gallaspy, 459 So. 2d 283, 285 (Miss. 1984). Furthermore, many of her complaints were uncorroborated, except the incident at the Barn that was corroborated by Tyler. Nevertheless, even if taken as true, the complained of incidents are remote and isolated events and fail to rise to the level of conduct that is habitual or so continuous that it may reasonably be said to be a permanent condition.

¶14. We agree with the chancellor that the parties likely have irreconcilable differences; however, “mere incompatibility is not enough to show habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.” Id. “Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is not the catch-all category to permit a divorce . . . [and,] [a]bsent an agreement . . . that would permit an irreconcilable differences divorce, neither party is entitled to be granted a divorce without providing the proof necessary to support the grounds that are alleged.” Crenshaw v. Crenshaw, 767 So. 2d 272, 276 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000). Accordingly, we find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion by dismissing Propst’s complaint for divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. This issue is without merit.

The other case is Walker v. Walker, also decided March 24, 2015. In that case, the COA reversed the chancellor’s ruling that granted a divorce, finding that it was unsupported by substantial evidence, and that the evidence was uncorroborated.

The takeaway is that you need to be sure that the conduct complained of was: (a) habitual, meaning regularly recurring and not isolated incidents; and (2) cruel and inhuman, meaning more than unkindness, with a discernible effect on the complaining party. And there must be corroboration. And all of that is at a minimum. There are some wrinkles, so before you go crashing off into court on an HCIT case, be sure to research the case law.

CLEARLY CONVINCING

May 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Several chancery matters require proof by clear and convincing evidence.

There are others, I am sure, but you get the point. Muster the necessary quality of proof or fail.

So, what exactly does constititute clear and convincing evidence, anyway? The COA in Hill v. Harper, 18 So.3d 310, 318 (Miss. App. 2005), defined clear and convincing evidence as:

“That weight of proof which produces in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established, evidnce so clear, direct and weighty and convincing as to enable the fact finder to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts of the case. Moran v. Fairley, 919 So.2d 969, 975 ¶24 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Travelhost, Inc. v. Blandford, 68 F.3d 958, 960 (5th Cir. 1995)). ‘Clear and convincing evidence is such a high standard that even the overwhelming weight of the evidence does not rise to the same level.’ Id. (Citing In re C.B., 574 So.2d 1369, 1375 (Miss. 1990).”

 30 Am.Jur.2d, Evidence, §1167, provides this:

“The requirement of “clear and convincing” … evidence does not call for “unanswerable” or “conclusive” evidence. The quality of proof, to be clear and convincing has … been said to be somewhere between the rule in ordinary civil cases and the requirement of criminal procedure — that is, it must be more than a mere preponderance but not beyond a reasonable doubt. It has also been said that the term “clear and convincing” evidence means that the witnesses to a fact must be found to be credible, and that the facts to which they have testified are distinctly remembered and the details thereof narrated exactly and in due order, so as to enable the trier of facts to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the weighing, comparing , testing, and judging its worth when considered in connection with all the facts and circumstances in evidence.

THE CURSE OF HCIT STRIKES AGAIN

April 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Amanda Alexander filed for divorce charging her husband, Khari, with the sole fault ground of adultery. She had discovered amorous emails on Khari’s computer. For his part, Khari admitted being attracted to other women, and even having flirtations with them, including one episode in which he was alone in a hotel room with a woman and put on a condom, but he denied adultery.

Amanda also testified that Khari threatened her and used profane language, slapped a phone out of her hand when she attempted to call the police, and took her car keys so that she had to get the help of police to get them back. 

At the conclusion of the trial, the special chancellor found that Amanda had not proven adultery and suggested that she move to amend her pleadings under MRCP 15 to seek a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, which she immediately did, and the judge granted Amanda the divorce on that ground.

Khari appealed, complaining that it was improper to allow the amendment because the requirements of MRCP 15(b) were not met to allow an amendment.

The COA reversed. In Alexander v. Alexander, decided March 27, 2012, Judge Lee, writing for the court, said, beginning at ¶8:

“Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 15(b) states that “when issues not raised by the pleadings are tried by expressed or implied consent of the parties, they shall be treated in all respects as if they had been raised in the pleadings.” We find the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment was not pled by express or implied consent of the parties. The bulk of the testimony in this case centered around Khari’s e-mails to other women from his personal computer. Acts of adultery may be used as a factor to prove habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Fisher v. Fisher, 771 So. 2d 364, 368 (¶13) (Miss. 2000). However, the chancellor found Amanda failed to prove adultery.

¶9. Further, even if habitual cruel and inhuman treatment was tried by express or implied consent of the parties, the evidence does not support a divorce on this ground. In order to establish the basis for a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, the claimant must show by a preponderance of the evidence conduct that:

either endanger[s] life, limb, or health, or create[s] a reasonable apprehension of such danger, rendering the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or in the alternative, be so unnatural and infamous as to make the marriage revolting to the offending spouse and render it impossible for that spouse to discharge the duties of the marriage, thus destroying the basis for its continuance.

S. Hand, Mississippi Divorce, Alimony and Child Custody § 4-12 (2d ed. Supp. 1991); Gardner v. Gardner, 618 So. 2d 108, 113-14 (Miss. 1993). A causal connection between the treatment and separation must exist. Fournet v. Fournet, 481 So. 2d 326, 329 (Miss. 1985). “It is an extreme set of facts that will prove a divorce based upon habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.” Moses v. Moses, 879 So. 2d 1043, 1047 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004) (quoting Keller v. Keller, 763 So. 2d 902, 908 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000)).

The court went on to find that Amanda’s proof did not meet the standard required to prove habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (HCIT). As Judge Lee pointed out, Amanda, when asked in her testimony what was the reason she was seeking a divorce, answered “Adultery,” and said that the reason for the separation was the inappropriate relationships with other women. Judge Lee noted that the conduct that is the ground for divorce must be the cause of the separation, not some other ground, and he pointed out that, although adultery can be considered HCIT, in this case the trial judge had found that there was inadequate proof of adultery.

This is yet another case that hammers home 2 points: (1) Make sure your pleadings are in order and map out what you are going to try to prove at trial and how to get there; and (2) You might as well not even try to get an HCIT divorce unless you have the requisite proof.

Judge Ishee wrote a dissent, joined by Judge Carlton, concluding that the chancellor did have adequate proof to support a finding of HCIT, but the dissent did not carry the day.

Two more points:

First, this case is another unfortunate example where the chancellor tried to do what he felt needed to be done, but did not have either the proof in the record or proper pleadings to go on. It’s up to the attorney to make sure that the pleadings cast a wide enough net to cover everything that needs to be covered, and that there is sufficient direct and corroborating evidence to support the judge’s ruling.

Second, I had to laugh out loud when I read this statement by the special chancellor: ” … but under the new rules an amendment can be made right up to the final order.” No, I’m not laughing at the distinguished and respected former chancellor and COA judge who made that statement. I’m laughing at myself. Here’s why: several months ago I was talking with a young lawyer about a procedural matter, and I commented that “Under the new rules … ” we now have to do so and so. Her face clouded up, and I asked her whether I had confused her. “It’s not that,” she said “it’s only that I didn’t know we had some new rules.” I explained that I still called the MRCP, put into effect in 1983 (that’s almost 30 years ago), the “new rules.” She laughed innocently and said, “1983? I was still in diapers then!” Yikes. I have since tried to purge my speech of any reference to the “new rules,” at least until  we actually do have some new rules. Still, it’s hard not to feel old as Moses when someone tells you something like that.    

DIVORCE F*A*I*L

November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the most valuable service you can render your clients is to convince them that it is indeed difficult to get a divorce in Mississippi without an agreement therefor.

Most clients present facts that would fall generally in the ballpark of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (HCIT), if anything. And yet, HCIT is not an easy ground upon which to obtain a divorce. The Mississippi Supreme Court’s stringent definition of the ground has really not changed since its pronouncement more than eighty years ago:

“Conduct only as endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of danger thereto, thereby rendering the continuance of the marital relation unsafe for the unoffending spouse, or such unnatural and infamous conduct as would make the marital relation revolting to the unoffending spouse and render it impossible for him or her, as the case may be, to discharge the duties thereof.”  Russell v. Russell, 128 So. 270, 272 (Miss. 1930)

In the decades following Russell, Mississippi trial and appellate courts in practice allowed the HCIT divorce where the chancellor was satisfied that the parties “need to be divorced from each other,” even when the offending conduct was less than that defined. In essence, HCIT became an incompatibility ground.

In 1984, however, the MSSC returned to a strict adherence to the Russell standard in Gallaspy v. Gallaspy, 459 So.2d 283, 285 (Miss. 1984). Since then, the appellate decisions reflect the stricter standard, and your case will F*A*I*L if  it does not measure up.

To complicate matters, there is the requirement of corroboration.

As for the facts supporting the ground, there is a breathtaking scope of opinions showing what has not passed muster as HCIT. Here is a sampling:

  • Wife’s weight ballooned from 165 to 210 because she drank too much beer, but husband bought the beer for her and drank with her, and she was not exactly undernourished at the time when the parties tied the knot.  When husband would come home in the evenings a few minutes late, wife would cry and complain that he had been off somewhere with some other woman.  Husband said that wife’s treatment had caused him to become nervous and upset, and he had lost 11 pounds, but the court found that he was not at home enough for his health to have been materially affected by any habitual conduct on wife’s part.  Husband testified: ‘If I was a few minutes late getting home, she would be waiting and crying under the assumption that I had been out to see another woman, which was untrue;’ and further that she would not have supper prepared for him, and that he would sometimes have to cook his own supper and his own breakfast; and that she was indifferent to her own personal appearance.  The court pointed out, on the other hand, that wife had been able to hold a position of employment as cashier at a restaurant for a long period of time.  F*A*I*L: Skelton v. Skelton, 111 So.2d 392, 393 (Miss. 1959).
  • Wife complained about the marital residence that ‘the location wasn’t right’; it was ‘too far out of town’; she ‘would not make any choice in the selection of colors’; and ‘she said she was not going to live in that house.’  The parties had many differences, compounded by their son’s congenital hypospadias that required numerous, expensive surgeries that the husband resisted.  Wife complained that husband was not employed in a respectable job and was not making enough money; his friends ‘were not much’, and were not welcome in her house; she did not like his work and the hours were too long for what he was making.  They would quarrel. He would try to ‘shut up’ at first, and if that would not stop her he would walk out of the house. ‘She would run me off from the house.’ He and his son got along all right on minor corrections, but, if she did not agree, she would attempt to overrule him in the boy’s presence. Husband wanted his son’s condition to be corrected, but thought it could be done in the South nearer home and the doctor told him that it could be done here but she would not hear to this and said that she was going to continue with the doctors in New York. He said that the effect of her attitude and treatment were such that it was on his mind all of the time; he would neglect his work; he would forget things and have to re-do his work; and that this troubled him very much all of the time. ‘There were times when he did not think that he would be able to live any more.’ However, when she was away, there was no domestic trouble on his mind. He did not think that they could live together with reasonable happiness and satisfaction. He was willing to accept the full custody of the boy and contribute to his support within his means.  F*A*I*LTaylor v. Taylor, 108 So.2d 872, 873-874 (Miss. 1959).
  • Husband, an attorney, marries wife for the second time.  There are accusations of infidelity, a failed business, overspending, heavy debt, and hostility that ripens like a rotting peach into genuine mutual hatred.  F*A*I*LWilson v. Wilson, 547 So.2d 803, 804-805 (Miss. 1989).
  • Husband and wife have differences in religious views, wife is not as fastidious a housekeeper as husband would like, and wife is not demostrative enough to suit husband, so that husband is seriously unhappy in the marriage.  F*A*I*LMarble v. Marble, 457 So.2d 1342, 1343 (Miss. 1984).
  • Husband gave wife the “silent treatment.”  He has called her stupid on occasion and sometimes would not listen to her.  Wife complained that she suffered from stress. She took the position that husband’s conduct endangered her health and created apprehension of danger, to such an extent, that she felt the relationship was unsafe, even though she did admit, several times in the record, that husband never physically abused her.  F*A*I*LAyers v. Ayers, 734 So.2d 213, 214 (Miss. App. 1999).
  • Wife contended that husband’s conduct created a reasonable apprehension of danger, rendering the relationship unsafe for her, based on: (1) Husband threw her onto a bed to take her pants off; (2) husband punched a hole in the bedroom door and put a gun barrel into his mouth; (3) husband hit her several times during an altercation; and (4) husband hit the car windshield in front of the parties’ son. She also complained of husband’s abusive name-calling and his constant nagging and complaining about her make-up, clothes, and hair style.  Wife also argued that husband’s accusing her of being homosexual constituted “conduct 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.” She cited Hibner v. Hibner,217 Miss. 611, 613, 64 So.2d 756, 757 (1953), for the proposition that false and malicious charges of adultery or immoral conduct which would “naturally tend to cause shame, humiliation or disgrace” would justify a divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.  Wife conceded, however, that husband had never actually called her a lesbian, and there was no evidence that David ever accused her of being such to anyone else, other than “insinuating” it to the children by saying “[y]our mother loves another woman more than she loves you.”  The supreme court rejected wife’s argument that she was entitled to a divorce under Muhammad v. Muhammad, 622 So.2d 1239, 1250 (Miss.1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1047, 114 S.Ct. 698, 126 L.Ed.2d 665 (1994), which held that a party is entitled to a divorce “if a spouse’s actions which cause deep personal misery that has no foreseeable end is the gravamen of the action for divorce by reason of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.” That case involved a situation where the husband had moved the family into the community of an oppressive religious cult whose rules and social order were extremely oppressive to women and dictated virtually every facet of life, so that the wife had been “relegated … to a status and set of living conditions that would be unbearable to a great many, if not a majority, of the women living in our modern society.” Id. at 1250.  The appellate court found that her situation did not reach that level.  The chancellor had said that “[t]here is a great conflict in evidence in this case. And I’m sure that everyone that sat here and heard this case knows. There is almost irreconcilable conflict in many areas of the case …  most of the evidence in this case had to do with the parties fussing back and forth with each other with a few physical altercations. It seems to the Court that each party gave about as good as they got when they had these physical altercations. The Court is not impressed by the trips of either party to Magee General Hospital in order to try to bolster their case, which the Court believes was contrived on the part of both parties.”  F*A*I*LBowen v. Bowen, 688 So.2d 1374-1376-1378 (Miss. 1997).
  • Husband charged that wife was disinterested in having sex, and that they had gone six months without a sexual encounter.  Wife conceded lack of interest, but said that they had sex more frequently than husband claimed.  The parties had frequent, intense arguments over finances and wife’s spending habits.  F*A*I*LTackett v. Tackett, 967 So. 2d 1264, 1267 (Miss. App. 2007).
  • “Boorish, obnoxious and selfish behavior.”  Too much to catalog in this space. F*A*I*L: Talbert v. Talbert, 759 So.2d 1105, 1109 (Miss. 1999).
  • Controlling behavior by husband, clinical depression of wife, questions about whether wife was a lesbian, husband severly beat wife’s post-separation boyfriend.  F*A*I*L: Morris v. Morris, 804 So.2d 1025, 1029 (Miss. 2002).

The number of misfires has dwindled over the years as the “consent” divorce has come to the fore. Every now and then, however, an HCIT case comes through, raising with it the issue whether the ingredients of the Russell recipe are present in the case. Before you launch off into the treacherous waters of the HCIT divorce, consider the shoals, rocks and cross-currents that await your client. You might want to plot an alternate course.

In my opinion,. HCIT requires some creative thinking to make it work. You have to look at the totality of the circumstances and craft your case as strongly as possible to demonstrate the impact of the offending spouse’s behavior on the innocent spouse. Check out Judge Maxwell’s latest on the subject. It’s about as good an exposition on the subject as you will find.

ONE TOKE OVER THE LINE

October 24, 2011 § 5 Comments

MCA § 93-5-1 lists the statutory grounds for divorce. Ground “Sixth” is “Habitual and excessive use of opium, morphine or other like drug.”

The somewhat archaic language of the statute has given rise to some obvious questions, including:

  • What frequency of drug use is required to be considered habitual?
  • When is use of opium, morphine and “other like drugs” excessive (and, for that matter, when is it not excessive?)
  • What drugs are included in the definition of “other like drugs?”

Perhaps the leading case to address these questions has been Ladner v. Ladner, 436 So.2d 1366 (Miss. 1983), in which the MSSC held that the husband’s daily use of drugs was so excessive that he had lost the ability to control his use, and the prescription drugs that he used and abused had an effect on him similar to that which would have been produced by opium or morphine, including adverse effects on his cognitive abilities, social and family relationships, and work.

In the case of Carambat v. Carambat, decided by the MSSC on October 20, 2011, the court held that marijuana is a drug included in the definition of “opium, morphine and other like drugs,” and affirmed the grant of a divorce on the ground. The court spelled out that the ground requires that the plaintiff prove the spouse’s drug use was: (a) habitual and frequent; (b) excessive and uncontrollable; and (c) that it involved opium, morphine, or drugs with a similar effect as opium or morphine. Habitual use is proved with evidence that the spouse customarily and frequently used drugs. Excessive use is proven by showing that the offending spouse abused drugs. In determining whether a drug fits the definition of “other like drug,” the trial court should consider the using spouse’s ability or inability to support his wife and family, or to properly attend to business, as well as the guilty spouse’s ability or incapacity to perform other marital duties, or his causing the marital relationship to be repugnant to the innocent spouse.

The court found that evidence in the record did support the chancellor’s findings that the husband’s use of marijuana was habitual and excessive, and that it did have an effect similar to opium and morphine in that it did affect his ability to work and support the family, his family relationships and the family’s financial stability, rendering the marital relationship repugnant to the wife.

At trial, the husband had attempted to argue that the wife knew about his marijuana use before the marriage, and that she condoned his use during the marriage, but the chancelor refused to entertain his objections. On appeal, the MSSC upheld the chancellor, noting that MRCP 8 requires that an affirmative defenses such as condonation must be specifically pled as required, and if not pled is waived. The husband had failed to plead condonation, and the wife timely objected when he attempted to interpose the defense. The MSSC held that the defense was waived.

The husband had also attempted to raise the defense of recrimination on appeal, claiming that the wife had committed adultery. He had not, however, filed a counterclaim or otherwise raised the issue in any pleading, resulting in the same result as that for his failed condonation claim. The court also noted that MCA § 93-5-2 does not mandate denial of a divorce when there is evidence of recrimination.

In a cogent dissent, Justice Carlson takes the position that Mississippi is the first state to hold that marijuana use is a ground for divorce. He also opines that the court’s ruling will open the floodgates to many more divorces. His dissent is worth a read for his argument highlighting the differences between opiates and marijuana, and their statutory treatment in our law. Justices Dickinson and Kitchens joined Carlson’s dissent.

A few points I glean from this case:

  • The court has fairly well spelled out the abc’s of what it will take to get a divorce on this ground. If your case fits the recipe, you will likely have some success.
  • The key to whether the drug in your case will fit the definition is what effect it has on the life of the using party and its effect on the other spouse and the marriage.
  • I agree with Justice Carlson that many cases that formerly were purely habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (HCIT) cases with marijuana use are now candidates for this ground, which could spell an increase in the number of cases. BUT, keep in mind that the burden of proof for ground the Sixth is clear and convincing evidence, which is a considerably heavier burden than the preponderance required for HCIT.
  • A side effect of this decision will be to remove any doubt that marijuana use can be included in the discussion of the kind of drugs that can trigger a divorce. Again, the turning point will be the effect on the other spouse and the marriage itself because of the offending spouse’s conduct. What about “synthetic marijuana’ and marijuana substitutes?
  • If you expect to raise condonation or recrimination as defense, whether at trial or on appeal, you had better plead them as required in MRCP 8(c).

CORROBORATION PROBLEMS = DIVORCE PROBLEMS

January 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

I posted here about how crucial it is for the proof of grounds in fault-based divorces to be corroborated. 

In Ladner v. Ladner, decided December 14, 2010, the court of appeals again emphasized the strength of the corroboration rule.  The court stated at ¶ 10 the familiar principle that “The corroborated testimony must show conduct that ‘endangers life, limb, or health, or creates reasonable apprehension of such danger, rendering it impossible for [the other] spouse to discharge the duties of the marriage, thus destroying the basis for its continuance.'”     

Deborah Ladner charged her husband Philip with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment  She testified that Philip had been abusive toward her and assaulted her.  She offered into evidence two police reports and two rpotective orders, which both the trial judge and the court of appeals found not to be corroborative because all of the information they contained was provided by Deborah.  The appellate court also found uncorroborative a statement in a police report that the parties’ son was afraid of his father, and that Philp had broken his daughter’s door in anger because those showed only a troubled relationship with the children and did not corroborate Deborah’s testimony about violence directed at her.  The court reversed the chancellor’s decision granting Daborah a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. 

Justice Carlton in her dissent would have found the testimony adequately corroborated to grant Deborah a divorce on habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.  She quoted from Professor Bell’s treatise that the corroborating evidence need not be sufficient in itself to establish the ground, but only needs to be enough for the court to conclude that the plaintiff’s testimony is true.  

An interesting twist in this case is that the chancellor granted both parties a divorce.  He granted Deborah a divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, and he granted Philip a divorce on the ground of adultery.  Philip had raised the issue that it was improper for the chancellor to grant dual divorces, but the court of appeals held that issue to be moot, based on its reversal of Deborah’s divorce.

There are several points chancery practitioners need to come away from this case with:

  • No corroboration = no divorce.  The requirement of corroboration is alive and well, and you need to be sure you have a corroborating witness or two lined up to support your case.
  • Self-corroboration will not work.  The information Deborah submitted to corroborate her claims that she generated was found not to be corroboration, and that makes perfect sense.  It’s easy for a party to generate police reports and file charges to build a case.  Those kinds of documents are nothing more than her own statements, so they corroborate nothing. 
  • The corroboration has to be linked to the conduct charged.  Deborah’s proof about her son and daughter was not tied to conduct directed at her.  Maybe the result would have been different if the son had testified that he was afraid of his dad because the son saw him threaten or physically mistreat the mom; if the door-breaking incident had been tied to a rampage in which Philip manhandled Deborah, that may have been the link she needed.

The easiest thing in the world is to tell your client, “Be sure to bring a witness to court who can back up your testimony about how he mistreated you.”  That’s a ticket to failure, though.  You need to investigate and identify who are the witnesses and what is the competent evidence that will make your client’s claim.  It is no less important than discovering the value of that securities account or uncovering that hidden bank account.

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