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Brent v. Mathis

Supreme Court of Mississippi

November 6, 2014

DR. CHARLES RONALD BRENT
v.
VENNIT B. MATHIS, II, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NEXT FRIEND OF VENNIT B. MATHIS, III AND ALEXA MATHIS, MINORS

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/07/2013.

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: JONES COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. BILLY JOE LANDRUM.

FOR APPELLANT: WILLIAM EDWARD BALLARD, MICHAEL J. MALOUF.

FOR APPELLEE: CHUCK McRAE, GRETA LYNETTE KEMP.

BEFORE DICKINSON, P.J., PIERCE AND COLEMAN, JJ. WALLER, C.J., DICKINSON AND RANDOLPH, P.JJ., LAMAR AND PIERCE, JJ., CONCUR. KITCHENS, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY CHANDLER AND KING, JJ.

OPINION

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - OTHER

Page 843

COLEMAN, JUSTICE.

¶1. Following his divorce, Vennit Mathis, individually and as next friend of his two minor children, sued Dr. Charles Brent for tortious interference of a marriage

Page 844

contract, alienation of affection, and reckless infliction of emotional distress. Dr. Brent moved for summary judgment on the children's claims, but the trial court denied the motion. The Court granted Dr. Brent's petition for interlocutory appeal.

Statement of the Facts

¶2. Vennit and Nicole Mathis married in October 2005; they had two children, Vennit B. Mathis III and Alexa Mathis. Vennit and Nicole divorced in August 2010, after Nicole had an affair with Dr. Charles Brent. Nicole and Dr. Brent met in December 2008 when Nicole saw Dr. Brent for neck pain. Dr. Brent performed a cervical diskectomy on Nicole in February 2009. Nicole had post-operative appointments with Dr. Brent in February and April, but she cancelled her May appointment. Dr. Brent got Nicole's cell phone number from her patient records and personally contacted her about the cancelled appointment. Nicole and Dr. Brent began talking on the phone and exchanging text messages; they eventually met in person several times. They engaged in consensual sexual relations on two occasions. After the second encounter in the fall of 2009, they did not see each other again and communicated only sporadically.

¶3. In March 2010, Vennit discovered text messages from Dr. Brent in Nicole's phone. Vennit left immediately after the discovery and pursued a divorce. The divorce was final on August 18, 2010. Vennit then sued Dr. Brent individually and as next friend of Vennit III and Alexa, alleging tortious interference with a marriage contract, alienation of affection, and reckless infliction of emotional distress.[1] Dr. Brent moved for summary judgment on the children's claims.[2] After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion. The judge let the parties discuss only standing at the hearing. The order denying summary judgment consisted of one sentence, thus, we do not have any insight into the judge's rationale on any issues. The Court granted Dr. Brent's petition for interlocutory appeal regarding the trial court's denial of Dr. Brent's motion for summary judgment as to the children's claims.

Standard of Review

¶4. The Court reviews the trial court's grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment de novo. Price v. Clark, 21 So.3d 509, 517 (¶ 10) (Miss. 2009). Summary judgment should be granted " if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The evidence is viewed " in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion has been made." Handy v. Nejam, 111 So.3d 610, 612 (¶ 4) (Miss. 2013) (quoting Kilhullen v. Kan. City S. Ry., 8 So.3d 168, 174-75 (¶ 14) (Miss. 2009)). However, the party against whom the motion is made " may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but his response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(e).

Discussion

¶5. Dr. Brent asserts that the trial court erred in denying his motion for summary

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judgment as to the children's claims. He raises four issues: (1) whether the children have standing to bring alienation of affection claims; (2) whether the children failed to meet their burden of production on their alienation of affection claims; (3) whether the children should be allowed to proceed with claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (4) whether the children's claims of tortious interference with a marriage contract and reckless infliction of emotional distress should be dismissed because the claims do not exist under Mississippi law.

I. Whether the minor children have standing to bring claims of alienation of affection.

¶6. Dr. Brent asserts that the minor children's claim that he alienated the affection of their mother fails as a matter of law because the children lack standing to bring such a claim. Questions of standing are reviewed de novo. Hall v. City of Ridgeland, 37 So.3d 25, 33 (¶ 23) (Miss. 2010). " Mississippi's standing requirements are quite liberal. . . . [P]arties have standing to sue 'when they assert a colorable interest in the subject matter of the litigation or experience an adverse effect from the conduct of the defendant, or as otherwise provided by law.'" Id. at 33 (¶ 24) (footnote omitted) (quoting Burgess v. City of Gulfport, 814 So.2d 149, 152-53 (¶ 13) (Miss. 2002)). For plaintiffs to establish standing based on an adverse effect from the defendant's conduct, the adverse effect suffered by the plaintiffs " must be different from the adverse effect experienced by the general public." Hall, 37 So.3d at 34 (¶ 24) (citing Burgess, 814 So.2d at 153 (¶ 14)).

¶7. Dr. Brent argues that the children do not have standing, because only an aggrieved spouse has standing to bring a claim of alienation of affection. Vennit responds that alienation of affection can be used to protect the family unit, not just spouses. Dr. Brent maintains that the Court has never allowed minor children to recover against a third party for the alienation of their parent's affections. The Court has never " allowed" minor children to recover because whether minor children have standing to bring alienation of affection claims regarding their parents is a matter of first impression.

¶8. Though whether children have standing for alienation of affection claims is an issue of first impression, the Court has enjoyed ample opportunity to develop its jurisprudence on the general tort over the years. The Court has written the following about alienation of affection: " where a husband is wrongfully deprived of his rights to the services and companionship and consortium of his wife, he has a cause of action against one who has interferred [sic] with his domestic relations." Camp v. Roberts, 462 So.2d 726, 727 (Miss. 1985) (internal citations omitted), overruled on other grounds by Saunders v. Alford, 607 So.2d 1214 (Miss. 1992) (abolishing the tort of criminal conversation). In 2007, the Court refused to abolish the tort on public policy grounds " in the interest of protecting the marriage relationship and providing a remedy for intentional conduct which causes a loss of consortium." Fitch v. Valentine, 959 So.2d 1012, 1020 (¶ 16) (Miss. 2007).[3]

Alienation of affections is the only available avenue to provide redress for a spouse who has suffered loss and injury

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to his or her marital relationship against the third party who, through persuasion, enticement, or inducement, cause or contributed to the abandonment of the marriage and/or the loss of affections by active interference.

Id. In every case considered by the Court, a husband or wife has brought the claim for alienation of affection.

¶9. However, Vennit argues that " some of the earliest recognitions of alienation of affection involve claims having nothing to do with extra-marital affairs," but deal with intrusion into the family unit by an outside party. Vennit and the dissent cite the 1896 case of Tucker v. Tucker, in which a wife sued her father-in-law and the Court recognized his potential liability for intruding on his son and daughter-in-law's marriage. The Court ultimately held that the father-in-law was not liable to his daughter-in-law for the alienation of his son's affections if that alienation was prompted by parental concern. Tucker v. Tucker, 74 Miss. 93, 19 So. 955, 956 (1896). Vennit and the dissent cite Sivley v. Sivley, which dealt with payment of attorneys' fees, but the underlying case on which the attorneys sought payment was a wife's suit against her mother-in-law for alienation of her husband's affection, in which the jury had awarded $30,000 to the daughter-in-law. Sivley v. Sivley, 96 Miss. 134, 50 So. 552, 552 (1909). Vennit and the dissent also cite McRae v. Robinson, in which a husband sued his in-laws for alienation of his wife's affection. McRae v. Robinson, 145 Miss. 191, 110 So. 504, 505 (1926). Finally, Vennit cites a more recent case, in which a husband sued his wife's employer for allegedly allowing her to engage in an affair with a coworker. Children's Med. Group, P.A. v. Phillips, 940 So.2d 931, 932 (Miss. 2006). Vennit argues that the above-cited " family intrusion" cases support his position that alienation of affection claims are not limited to spouses.[4] We disagree. Although nonparamours were named as defendants, the party bringing the claim in each case was a spouse.

¶10. Vennit asserts that " Mississippi courts have not held that a claim of alienation of affection is specifically limited to a spouse injured through interference by a third party." While Vennit's statement is true on its face, the Court's precedent supports that the tort exists to protect the marital relationship, not the familial relationship as a whole. See Bland v. Hill, 735 So.2d 414, 418 (¶ 17) (Miss. 1999) (" We believe that the marital relationship is an important element in the foundation of our society. To abolish the tort of alienation of affections would, in essence, send the message that we are devaluing the marriage relationship." ); Saunders v. Alford, 607 So.2d 1214, 1215 (Miss. 1992) (" The purpose of a cause of action for alienation of affection is the 'protection of the love, society, companionship, and comfort that form the foundation of a marriage. . . . The right sought to be protected is that of consortium." ) (citations omitted). The Court has defined " loss of consortium" as follows:

The interest sought to be protected is personal to the wife [husband] and arises out of the marriage relation. She [He] is ...

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