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Teal v. Jones

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

January 3, 2017

MARCI SKLAR TEAL APPELLANT
v.
ELAINE JONES APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/15/2014

         WARREN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. M. JAMES CHANEY JR.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: CHUCK MCRAE GALE NELSON WALKER SETH CLAYTON LITTLE CHRISTOPHER ANTHONY BAMBACH.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: MICHAEL JAMES MALOUF JR. LYNEILLE COUNTISS WILLIAMS WILLIAM EDWARD BALLARD JAMES MATTHEW LENDERMAN.

          BEFORE IRVING, P.J., FAIR AND WILSON, JJ.

          WILSON, J.

         ¶1. John Teal and Marci Sklar Teal were married on December 26, 2005. The couple divorced on June 2, 2008, on the ground of irreconcilable differences. After their divorce, Marci learned that John had a romantic relationship with Elaine Jones (Lainey) during their marriage. As a result, she filed a complaint for alienation of affections against Lainey in the Circuit Court of Warren County. At the close of trial, the jury found in favor of Marci on her claim for alienation of affections but awarded her no damages. Thereafter, Marci filed a motion for a new trial, judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), and additur, which the circuit court denied.

         ¶2. On appeal, Marci argues that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that she had destroyed evidence and that the jury should presume that the missing evidence was unfavorable to her. She also challenges a series of evidentiary rulings concerning post-separation and post-divorce events and her subsequent bankruptcy. We find no abuse of discretion in the trial court's decisions to admit or exclude evidence, but we hold that the spoliation instruction was erroneous and that a new trial is required. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. John met Marci in 2001. Marci was working as a bartender at the Cypress Cove Marina in Venice, Louisiana, and John was the captain of a charter fishing boat. They began dating and eventually lived together. Marci had a son, Hunter, from a previous marriage. Hunter was three years old when Marci and John began dating.

         ¶4. In 2004, John, Marci, and Hunter moved to Texas for John to captain Dan Murphy's fishing yacht. As the captain of Murphy's yacht, John spent most of the year traveling to various fishing tournaments in places such as Bermuda and the Bahamas. As a result, John was home only three or four months out of the year. John and Marci married on December 26, 2005. After they married, John, Marci, and Hunter moved to Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and John continued to captain Murphy's yacht. In January 2007, John and Marci purchased the Onward Store, a historic country store in Rolling Fork. Marci operated the store, and John assisted when he was home.

         ¶5. In April 2006, John met Lainey at a fishing tournament in the Bahamas. The next day, John, speaking in Italian, told Lainey that he had fallen in love with her at first sight. Lainey testified that John "chased" her as they continued to see each other at fishing tournaments, while John testified that Lainey pursued him. In any event, Lainey knew that John was married, but she admitted that the two became romantically involved in July 2006 and that their relationship continued until 2009.

         ¶6. In mid-2007, Marci "felt something was off" in her marriage and accused John of having an affair, but John denied that he was having an affair and made her think that she was "crazy" for even suggesting the idea. Marci began seeing a psychiatrist in the latter part of 2007, at least in part because of her concerns about her marriage.

         ¶7. On January 14, 2008, John was on a hunting trip with Lainey and others when Marci called him because she needed to discuss issues related to the Onward Store. The two argued, and John told her that he did not love her and wanted a divorce. John did not return home after the conversation. John and Marci filed for an irreconcilable differences divorce on or about April 1, 2008, and a final judgment of divorce was entered on June 2, 2008. As part of their property settlement agreement, John agreed to pay Marci $25, 000. Lainey ultimately provided John with $25, 000 so that he could make the payment.

         ¶8. After John asked for a divorce, Marci began dating and communicating with other men via Facebook, email, phone, and text messages. Days before her divorce was final, Marci went on her first date with Gene Barnett. Gene and Marci continued to date after her divorce was final.

         ¶9. On May 27, 2008, Lainey purchased approximately 200 acres of property near Edwards, Mississippi. Lainey and John referred to the property as "Wildwood." Lainey purchased the property "for John to be closer to Hunter and also as a hurricane hiding hole for [her] and [her] friends and family." According to Lainey, she and John first discussed buying land together when John visited her in Kiln, Mississippi, in early 2008. During the trip, Lainey told John that she did not "need a piece of paper to be married, " but John insisted that he would "make an honest woman out of" her.

         ¶10. Beginning in September 2008, John and Marci reconciled for a few months, although, unbeknownst to Marci, John was also still in a relationship with Lainey. During their reconciliation, Marci discovered that John had a romantic relationship with Lainey while they were married. Marci testified that in the spring of 2009, John left his email account open on her computer at the Onward Store, and she found emails that made clear that he had been having an affair with Lainey. After she learned of the affair, Marci ended her reconciliation with John.[1] On June 9, 2010, Marci filed a complaint against Lainey in circuit court for alienation of affections.

         ¶11. On September 2, 2011, Marci filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. As part of her bankruptcy filings, Marci listed her complaint against Lainey in her Statement of Financial Affairs, but she did not list the claim as an asset in her Summary of Schedules. As a result, the bankruptcy was administered as a "no asset" case, and an order discharging Marci's debts and closing her bankruptcy was entered on December 21, 2011.

         ¶12. On September 19, 2012, the bankruptcy trustee filed a motion to reopen Marci's bankruptcy to pursue the complaint as an asset of her estate. The bankruptcy court subsequently reopened the case and entered an order approving the employment of Marci's attorney, Chuck McRae, as special counsel for the trustee.

         ¶13. On August 22, 2012, Lainey's attorney sent Marci and her attorney a letter regarding her obligation to preserve electronically-stored evidence. On December 10, 2012, Lainey requested that Marci "produce for inspection any and all computers, in [Marci's] possession[, ] custody or control, that [Marci] used to communicate electronically with John . . . from the date of [their] marriage to the present." At Marci's deposition on February 27, 2013, she testified that she regularly deleted emails from John (and others) throughout the course of her marriage, so she was no longer in possession of any emails that they exchanged during their marriage. She also testified that she had thrown away her personal laptop a year and a half earlier because it was ruined after coffee was spilled on it. Finally, Marci testified that the desktop computer that she had used at work at the Onward Store was in storage. Her former boyfriend, Gene Barnett, had rented a storage unit for the store's equipment after the store closed.

         ¶14. On March 4, 2013, Lainey filed a motion to compel production of Marci's computers. On April 2, 2013, the court held a hearing on Lainey's motion, at which time the parties' attorneys revealed that they had learned that Barnett had sold the desktop computer at some point in 2012. Lainey's counsel stated that he needed to inspect the computer because it was his "understanding that as long as the e-mail has been viewed on a particular computer screen at some point in time, then there is a forensic software program that you run on the computer and it is a high probability that you can pull it off and get a copy of it." At the conclusion of the hearing, the court ordered Marci to produce all emails between her and John and any computers in her possession or control or, alternatively, provide a detailed explanation as to why the same could not be produced. The court reserved ruling on Lainey's request that the jury be instructed on spoliation at trial.

         ¶15. On April 17, 2013, Marci filed a memorandum with the court explaining that Barnett took possession of equipment from the Onward Store, including the desktop computer that she used, after the store went out of business. Barnett placed the computer and other equipment in a storage unit and advertised it for sale on Craigslist, beginning on July 15, 2012. By the end of July, Barnett had sold the computer for $300. Marci's memorandum noted that the sale occurred before Lainey's counsel requested access to the computer. The memorandum also stated that Marci's attorney had contacted Marci's email provider (MSN) in an attempt to retrieve any emails between Marci and John, but MSN advised that it retained deleted emails for only sixty days. On November 20, 2013, the court entered an order in which it continued to reserve a ruling on a jury instruction on spoliation.

         ¶16. The case proceeded to a two-day trial in September 2014. During the jury instruction conference, Lainey offered proposed instruction 13-A on spoliation. The proposed instruction stated:

The Court instructs the jury that the Plaintiff has destroyed evidence in this case. The Plaintiff has destroyed emails between herself and John Teal. The Plaintiff has also destroyed her computer while this lawsuit was pending. Therefore, a presumption is now raised that the emails and the computer contained evidence that would have been unfavorable to the Plaintiff. This presumption of unfavorability is not solely confined to the destroyed emails and computer. You are free to draw a general negative inference against the Plaintiff because of her act of destroying evidence.

         ¶17. Marci objected to the instruction, arguing that there was no evidence of spoliation. The court ruled that the jury should be instructed on spoliation, but the court struck the final two sentences of ...


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