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.    

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