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Pierce v. Pierce

Supreme Court of Mississippi

February 20, 2014


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¶1. Martin and Star Pierce were married in Mississippi on October 8, 2000, and divorced by order of a Washington state court on July 24, 2007. Because the Washington court lacked personal jurisdiction over Star, it did not divide the parties' assets. Subsequently, Martin brought an action in the Second Judicial District of the Chancery Court of Harrison County requesting sale of the parties' Biloxi home and determination of the parties' financial obligations incurred during the marriage. Star filed a counterclaim requesting equitable distribution of the marital assets, alimony, and attorney's fees. The chancellor equitably divided the parties' assets and awarded Star alimony and attorney's fees. Martin appealed the chancellor's judgment, and the Court of Appeals reversed the property division and remanded for further proceedings.

¶2. On remand, Martin raised two jurisdictional challenges for the first time. First, he argued that the Washington judgment was res judicata as to Star's claims for equitable distribution and alimony; therefore, the chancery court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to divide the parties' assets. Second, he argued that, because he never consented to the chancery court's jurisdiction, the chancery court lacked personal jurisdiction to divide his military retirement benefits under the Federal Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (FUSFSPA). See 10 U.S.C.A. § 1408 (c) (2006). The chancery court found that it had subject-matter jurisdiction to divide the parties' assets and personal jurisdiction over Martin under the FUSFSPA. The chancery court ordered the sale of the marital home, with the equity to be divided equally between the parties, and awarded Star a pro rata share of Martin's military retirement accumulated during the marriage, half of Martin's thrift savings plan accumulated during the marriage, rehabilitative alimony, and attorney's fees. Martin renews his jurisdictional arguments on appeal and challenges the property division and award of rehabilitative alimony. He argues he was entitled to attorney's fees and that the chancellor should have denied Star's request for attorney's fees as a sanction.

¶3. We find that, because the Washington court lacked personal jurisdiction over Star and had no authority to divide the parties' assets, its judgment had no res judicata effect on property division, and the chancery court had subject-matter jurisdiction to equitably divide the parties' property. We also find that Martin consented to the personal jurisdiction of the chancery court under the FUSFSPA by making a general appearance and trying the issue of property division through appeal without ever challenging personal jurisdiction. We further find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in equitably dividing the parties' assets and in awarding Star rehabilitative alimony. We find that Martin was not entitled to attorney's fees and his sanctions argument is procedurally barred. Therefore, we affirm.


¶4. When Martin and Star were married, Martin was enlisted in the United States Navy. During the marriage, the Navy stationed Martin at several locations around the country, and he attended several

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training schools. Martin testified that dependents were discouraged from living at some of these locations. With the exception of Fallon, Nevada, Star did not live with Martin at any of these locations. Star testified that she suffered from numerous medical conditions including Crohn's disease, kidney disease, endometriosis, and arthritis. She testified that she had Crohn's disease and kidney disease before the parties were married, and that Martin had been aware of these conditions. Star never worked or attended school during the marriage, but she kept the house clean and paid the bills. No children were born of the marriage, but Star had custody of Kayla, her daughter from a previous relationship.

¶5. Beginning in 2001, Martin was stationed in Fallon, Nevada, for three years, where he lived with Star and Kayla. After two years, Star decided to move back to Mississippi with Kayla. She testified that she moved because she needed a hysterectomy and needed to be closer to medical providers. Martin testified that Star returned to Mississippi because she was homesick and missed her family. The parties never lived together again after Star's move to Mississippi. After Star's hysterectomy, they bought a home in Biloxi. Star and Kayla lived in the home, and Martin, now stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, visited on weekends. Although the home was titled in the names of Martin and Star, Martin paid the mortgage and all other household expenses.

¶6. In 2005, Martin was transferred to Whidbey Island, Washington. Shortly thereafter, he was deployed to Japan for six months and then returned to Whidbey Island. In May 2006, Martin called Star and said he wanted a divorce. The parties agree that May 2006 was the date of separation. After the separation, Martin continued sending Star money for household expenses. Once Martin had established residency in Washington, he filed for divorce. Martin served Star with process, but she did not appear in the Washington proceeding. On July 24, 2007, the Washington court granted the divorce. The court declined to consider property division, stating " [s]ince the court does not have personal jurisdiction over [Star], the court cannot make any award of property or debts."

¶7. On January 11, 2008, Martin filed a " Complaint to Adjudicate Real and Personal Property Rights and for Eviction of the Defendant" in the Second Judicial District of the Chancery Court of Harrison County. Martin asserted that he and Star had been divorced by order of a Washington court and attached a copy of the Washington divorce decree. Martin requested right, title, and possession of the marital home, that he be permitted to enter the home and recover his personal property, that the court determine the parties' marital debt obligations, and that the court order Star to pay for any damage to the home. Star filed an answer and counterclaim for equitable distribution. She requested, inter alia, an equitable share of the marital assets, possession and title of the marital home, periodic and lump-sum alimony, an order for Martin to pay all marital debts, a pro rata share of Martin's military retirement, to be named as the beneficiary of his Survivor's Benefits Annuity, and reasonable attorney's fees.

¶8. A hearing occurred on September 25, 2008. Martin testified that he had remarried on November 15, 2007. Although he met his current wife when deployed to Japan, he testified that they did not engage in sexual relations until after his separation from Star in May 2006. Star testified that she worked as a substitute teacher and a cashier at McDonald's. Star maintained that her illnesses prevented

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her from working full-time and that she was applying for disability. On December 23, 2008, the chancellor awarded Star possession of the marital home until she remarried or Kayla graduated from high school, sixty-five percent of Martin's military retirement that accrued during the marriage, half of Martin's thrift savings plan that accrued during the marriage, Martin's military Survivor's Benefits Annuity, $500 in permanent periodic alimony, $700 in periodic alimony to pay the mortgage, taxes, and insurance on the home, and Star's attorney's fees.

¶9. Martin appealed. He argued that the chancellor's equitable distribution excessively rewarded Star and constituted an abuse of discretion, that the chancellor had abused his discretion by awarding Star periodic alimony, and that the chancellor erroneously had awarded Star the marital home contingent on a child-related event. The Court of Appeals found that the chancellor did not manifestly err " in considering the parties' earning capacities and future needs" and that the award of attorney's fees was reasonable. Pierce v. Pierce, 42 So.3d 658, 664 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals found that the property division had to be reversed because the chancellor had failed to make any fact-findings on Star's contributions before awarding Star both the Survivor's Benefits Annuity and sixty-five percent of Martin's military retirement account. The Court of Appeals held that the lack of fact-finding supporting the Survivor's Benefits Annuity award and the military retirement award mandated reversal. And because " property division and alimony awards should be considered together," the court reversed those awards. The court also found that the chancellor erroneously had conditioned the alimony award on an event in the life of Star's daughter, which amounted to an order for Martin to pay child support for a step-child. The court stated that, due to the reversal of the property division and alimony awards, the chancellor also could revisit the award of attorney's fees on remand.

¶10. A second hearing occurred before the chancellor on May 7-8, 2012. Star testified that she continued to suffer from illnesses which hade prevented her from working full-time. She testified that her doctors had advised that her conditions would get worse and that she should seek disability. She testified that she had quit working entirely to qualify for disability, and that her sources of income included food stamps and money from her mother and churches. Star did not produce any medical testimony supporting her claim that she could not work and had been advised to seek disability. She testified that her disability application had been denied, and that she was awaiting a decision on appeal. Martin testified that, since the chancery court's original judgment, he had paid more than $78,000 in alimony and mortgage payments. He admitted that he had ceased paying Star alimony or consistently making the mortgage payments since the Court of Appeals' August 24, 2010, judgment reversing the alimony award.

¶11. The chancellor concluded that Star refused to work and that Martin was the sole party with earning capacity. The chancellor ordered that the marital home be sold, with the net proceeds to be divided equally. The chancellor also awarded Star half of the funds in the thrift savings plan accrued during the marriage and half of Martin's military retirement benefits accrued during the marriage. The chancellor awarded Star $500 per month in rehabilitative alimony for sixty months and reasonable attorney's fees.

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¶12. This Court will not disturb the decision of a chancellor that is supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor's decision was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or an incorrect legal standard was applied. Rogillio v. Rogillio, 101 So.3d 150, 153 (Miss. 2012). We apply de novo review to issues of personal and subject-matter jurisdiction. Baker & McKenzie, LLP v. Evans, 123 ...

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