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Dennis v. Dennis

Supreme Court of Mississippi

August 3, 2017

THOMAS M. DENNIS
v.
SHELIA F. DENNIS

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/05/2016

         COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: LOWNDES COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. KENNETH M. BURNS MARC DARREN AMOS CARRIE A. JOURDAN LISA LYNN MEGGS J. TYSON GRAHAM TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: DAVID C. OWEN.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: SHELIA F. DENNIS (PRO SE).

          BEFORE DICKINSON, P.J., KING AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.

          CHAMBERLIN, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Thomas Dennis appeals from the judgment of the Chancery Court of Lowndes County, arguing that the chancellor erred by denying a petition to terminate his child-support obligations with respect to his step-great-grandchild, J.R.H.[1] We affirm the decision of the chancellor.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. On March 28, 1994, Thomas Dennis ("Dennis") and Sheila Sims Dennis ("Sims") were married to each other.[2] Prior to her relationship with Dennis, Sims had a daughter named Renee Wright. Renee then had a daughter named Courtney; thus, Courtney is Sims's granddaughter. Courtney married Josh Hartzell, and they are the natural parents of J.R.H. Therefore, Sims is J.R.H.'s great-grandmother and, by extension, Dennis was J.R.H.'s step-great-grandfather. J.R.H. and Dennis are not blood-related in any way.

         ¶3. In May 2005, the Mississippi Department of Human Services ("DHS") informed Sims that J.R.H.'s natural parents (the Hartzells) had gotten into legal trouble. According to Sims, DHS told her that she could either come get J.R.H. or that DHS would put the child "in the system." So, in October 2005, Dennis, Sims, and the Hartzells filed a Joint Petition for Child Custody in Lowndes County. All parties agreed that it would be in the best interest of J.R.H. to be placed in the custody of and reside with Dennis and Sims. In the petition, the Hartzells each agreed to pay $106 per month to Dennis and Sims for the care, maintenance, and support of J.R.H. The Hartzells also requested visitation rights for alternating weekends, holidays, and summers. On March 13, 2006, the Chancery Court of Lowndes County entered an order granting the parties' requests.

         ¶4. About six months later, on or around October 10, 2006, Dennis and Sims separated. Two years later, on June 11, 2008, Sims filed for divorce. A judgment granting an irreconcilable-differences divorce was entered one year later on June 23, 2009. Incorporated into the divorce decree was a Child Custody and Support and Property Settlement Agreement ("the Agreement") which gave Sims sole legal custody of J.R.H. In the Agreement, Dennis agreed to pay $400 per month to Sims for child support, and he was granted visitation rights with J.R.H.[3] According to Dennis, he exercised his visitation rights with J.R.H. until the child refused to see him anymore.

         ¶5. At some point after Dennis's and Sims's divorce, J.R.H. cut off any relationship with Dennis. According to Sims, Dennis told J.R.H. that he was happy that the child's grandmother (Sims's daughter Renee Wright) had died. Dennis denies making any such statement. Regardless of what was said, it is undisputed that J.R.H. currently refuses to see or speak to Dennis. Sims further stated that she will not make J.R.H. see Dennis and that the "relationship is terminated as long as [J.R.H.] wants it to be that way."

         ¶6. On November 20, 2015, Dennis filed an amended petition to consolidate the divorce matter and the child-custody matter and to modify the child-custody and support agreement. In his petition, Dennis argued that the chancellor should allow him to relinquish his custody of J.R.H. and to terminate any ongoing[4] child-support obligations. According to the petition, Dennis "wrongfully believed that some sort of legal duty existed pursuant to applicable law for him to pay child support." Dennis claimed to have "never developed any real parental/familiar relationship with J.R.H." and that J.R.H. had terminated any relationship with him. He also claimed that J.R.H.'s "parents still have parental visitation rights and have the legal obligation to provide child support."

         ¶7. The chancellor held a hearing and ultimately denied Dennis's requested relief. The chancellor concluded that no material change in circumstances had arisen. The chancellor also rejected Dennis's argument that his child-support obligations should be terminated because of J.R.H.'s refusal to see or speak to him for two years. He reasoned that the child was only twelve years old and therefore "not old enough to appreciate that [the] failure to have a relationship with Mr. Dennis is legally significant." Dennis now appeals, raising nine issues. We restate and combine these issues into three arguments for clarity:

I. Whether there is a legal basis for child support or, alternatively, whether the collapse of the relationship justifies termination.
II. Whether the natural parents' ongoing parental obligations establish that Dennis should not be required to pay child support.
III. Whether Dennis should be permitted voluntarily to terminate his custodial obligations.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8. Our review of a chancellor's decision is limited. Dep't of Human Servs., State of Mississippi v. Marshall, 859 So.2d 387, 389 (Miss. 2003). "We will not disturb a chancellor's findings unless the court was manifestly wrong, abused its discretion or applied an erroneous legal standard." Id. Legal questions receive de novo review. Sanford v. Sanford, 124 So.3d 647, 652-53 (Miss. 2013).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶9. We first note that Sims, who proceeded pro se below, failed to file an appellee's brief with this Court. Generally, the "[f]ailure of an appellee to file a brief is tantamount to confession of error and will be accepted as such unless the reviewing court can say with confidence, after considering the record and brief of appealing party, that there was no error." Sanders v. Chamblee, 819 So.2d 1275, 1277 (Miss. 2002) (quoting Dethlefs v. Beau Maison Dev. Corp., 458 So.2d 714, 717 (Miss. 1984)). "Where the appellant's brief makes out an apparent case of error . . ., we do not regard it as our obligation to look to the record to find a way to avoid the force of the appellants' argument." Id.

         ¶10. This Court, however, may choose to review a case on the merits of the record without an appellee's brief when the case "involves an issue affecting the public interest[.]" Id. Because this case concerns issues regarding child custody and support modification, as well as who may be held accountable for child-support obligations, we choose to review this case on the merits. See Allred v. Allred, 735 So.2d 1064, 1067 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) ("Because, to some extent, this proceeding touches on matters relating to the welfare of minor children, ...


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