The State of HCIT

April 11, 2017 § 1 Comment

If you need a nifty survey of the current law of HCIT in Mississippi, look no farther than the COA’s decision in White v. White, decided December 13, 2016. In that case, the chancellor found that Barbara White had proven her ground of HCIT against her husband, Anderson, despite Anderson’s claim that her proof was insufficiently corroborated, and that he denied her claims.

Judge Barnes wrote for the court:

¶11. First, Anderson argues that the facts asserted by Barbara at trial do not rise to the level necessary to establish habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. In response, Barbara argues that this Court should do as the chancery court did, and review the acts not in isolation, but as a whole. Finding no error with the chancery court’s analysis, we affirm the chancery court’s judgment.

¶12. In Rakestraw v. Rakestraw, 717 So. 2d 1284 (Miss. Ct. App. 1998), this Court
reiterated the long-held principle that:

Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment may be established by a showing of 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.

Rakestraw, 717 So. 2d at 1287 (¶8) (citing Daigle v. Daigle, 626 So. 2d 140, 144 (Miss. 1993)). “[S]uch conduct must be habitual, that is, done so often, or continued so long, that its recurrence maybe reasonably expected whenever occasion or opportunity presents itself.” Burnett v. Burnett, 271 So. 2d 90, 92 (Miss. 1972). “Although the cruel and inhuman treatment usually must be shown to have been ‘systematic and continuous,’ a single incident may provide grounds for divorce.” Rakestraw, 717 So. 2d at 1287 (¶8). “While ordinarily one act or an isolated incident will not establish a charge of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, one incident of personal violence may be of such a violent nature as to endanger the life of the complainant spouse and be of sufficient gravity to establish the charge of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.” McKee v. Flynt, 630 So. 2d 44, 48 (Miss. 1993). “[T]he charge ‘means something more than unkindness or rudeness or mere incompatibility or want of affection.’” Rakestraw, 717 So. 2d at 1287 (¶8) (quoting Daigle, 626 So. 2d at 144). Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence. Shavers v. Shavers, 982 So. 2d 397, 403 (¶35) (Miss. 2008).

¶13. “The party alleging cruel and inhuman treatment typically must corroborate the testimony.” Id. Nonetheless, “[c]orroborating evidence need not be sufficient in itself to establish habitual cruelty, but rather need only provide enough supporting facts for a court to conclude the plaintiff’s testimony is true.” Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1263 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 478 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (quoting Deborah H. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Family Law § 4.02[8][d] (2005))).

¶14. On appeal, Anderson asserts that the incidents presented in testimony and outlined by the chancery court in its judgment do not show a continuous pattern or course of habitual cruel and inhuman conduct by Anderson toward Barbara. Specifically, Anderson argues that Barbara failed to sufficiently corroborate her testimony regarding the black eye she received, as well as the events surrounding the cocked-gun incident. The chancery court, however, found otherwise, considering the actions described not in isolation, but as a whole. In doing so, the chancellor determined that “[a]s a whole [Anderson]’s conduct has been habitually mean and heartless[,] . . . exhibit[ing] a pattern or a course of conduct which as a whole amounts to cruelty.”

¶15. Regarding the black-eye incident, Anderson denied hitting Barbara, but admitted that Barbara did, in fact, possess the alleged injury. Anderson further testified, however, that he was unaware of how Barbara received the injury. In reviewing Anderson’s testimony, the chancellor specifically noted in her final judgment that Anderson “nonchalantly testified” regarding this incident, and that “[i]t would seem to the court that a husband would make it his business to know how his wife received a black eye.” In relation to the 2009 cocked-gun incident, Barbara, her mother, and her sister all testified that after an argument between the parties, Anderson angrily ran upstairs, where they then heard a gun “cock” or “click.” Barbara’s mother did, however, testify that she did not realize at that time the noise she heard related to the use of a gun. Anderson admitted he owned many guns, but denied that the incident ever occurred; in support, Anderson III also testified that Anderson did not leave the room where the argument took place.

¶16. Upon review, this Court is reminded that “[t]he chancellor is vested with the sole authority and responsibility to assess witness credibility as no jury is present.” Jones, 43 So.3d at 471 (¶10). The chancellor alone “hears the testimony and sees the demeanor of the witnesses.” Boutwell v. Boutwell, 829 So. 2d 1216, 1220 (¶16) (Miss. 2002). This Court “cannot, and will not, reweigh the evidence or reconsider the credibility of the witnesses.” Hammers v. Hammers, 890 So. 2d 944, 951 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). As such, the chancery court found “[t]he black eye and the gun incidents gave [Barbara] a reasonable apprehension of danger to her life, limb or health,” causing her “to be nervous and scared,” as Anderson’s conduct “occurred continually throughout the marriage and its recurrence [could] be reasonably expected whenever occasion or opportunity present[ed] itself.” In light of the corroborating testimony provided by Barbara’s witnesses, as well as that of Anderson himself, we find the record contains more than sufficient evidence to support the chancery court’s grant of a divorce based upon habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. See Gatlin v. Gatlin, 234 So. 2d 634, 635 (Miss. 1970) (holding testimony of the defendant may also provide corroboration of the plaintiff’s testimony).

The chancellor commented unfavorably on Anderson’s cavalier demeanor during his testimony. It cost him. As I’ve said here before, get your witnesses ready for the crucible of court, or be prepared to watch your patient get carved up like a Christmas goose while you stand by twiddling your thumbs.

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.

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