THOMAS M. DENNIS
SHELIA F. DENNIS
OF JUDGMENT: 02/05/2016
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).
DICKINSON, P.J., KING AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.
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. We affirm the decision of the chancellor.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On March 28, 1994, Thomas Dennis ("Dennis") and
Sheila Sims Dennis ("Sims") were married to each
other. 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.
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'
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. According to Dennis, he exercised
his visitation rights with J.R.H. until the child refused to
see him anymore.
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."
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 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."
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
I. Whether there is a legal basis for child support or,
alternatively, whether the collapse of the relationship
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.
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).
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.
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, ...