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Williams v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

August 22, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/09/2015




         EN BANC.

          LEE, C.J.

         FOR THE COURT:

         ¶1. In this domestic-relations case, we must determine whether the chancellor properly granted Ursel Williams's request for separate maintenance from her husband, William Williams (Wayne). We must also determine whether the chancellor erred in denying Wayne's request for a divorce from Ursel on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Finding no error, we affirm.


         ¶2. Ursel and Wayne married in October 1983. Wayne left the marital home in December 2013, which prompted Ursel to file a complaint in August 2014 for separate maintenance. In December 2014, the Lamar County Chancery Court entered a temporary support order awarding Ursel separate maintenance. Wayne then filed a counterclaim for divorce alleging habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. After a trial, the chancellor denied Wayne's claim for divorce, and granted separate maintenance to Ursel. Wayne now appeals.


         ¶3. Ursel and Wayne married in 1983, later settling in Jones County, Mississippi. Wayne is a disabled veteran. Wayne testified that he has a variety of illnesses and is in poor health. Ursel testified that she also has health issues. According to Ursel, her health renders her unable to work, but she has not been deemed medically disabled and has not actively sought employment in over six years. The parties admittedly have a tumultuous relationship-Wayne described their relationship as "roommates" who argued constantly.

         ¶4. Wayne testified that in March 2012, September 2012, August 2013, and December 2013, he had heart trouble while at the marital home, and that in each instance, Ursel refused to take him to the hospital. On three of those occasions, Wayne stated that he had to rely on others for transport to receive medical treatment, namely Deloris Williams (no relation) and Michael Murdoch. In December 2013, however, Wayne testified that he had to drive himself on his motorcycle to the hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from the marital home in Moselle, Mississippi. Instead of returning home following his release from the hospital, Wayne instead moved into Deloris's home. Wayne testified that at one time he had a romantic relationship with Deloris prior to his marriage to Ursel, but his current relationship with Deloris was platonic. Ursel implied that Wayne was having an affair during the marriage.


         ¶5. It is well settled that appellate courts are bound by a limited standard of review in domestic-relations matters. Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So.2d 921, 930 (Miss. 1994). The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that a chancellor's findings of fact "will generally not be overturned by this Court on appeal unless they are manifestly wrong." Fancher v. Pell, 831 So.2d 1137, 1140 (¶15) (Miss. 2002) (citing Nichols v. Tedder, 547 So.2d 766, 781 (Miss. 1989)). The chancellor must have been manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, or have applied an erroneous legal standard for the findings to be overturned. Montgomery v. Montgomery, 759 So.2d 1238, 1240 (¶5) (Miss. 2000). "For questions of law, our standard of review is de novo." Shoffner v. Shoffner, 909 So.2d 1245, 1249 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005).


         I. Separate Maintenance

         ¶6. Wayne asserts that the chancellor erred in awarding Ursel separate maintenance. During discovery, Wayne sent requests for admissions to Ursel, who failed to timely answer. As a result, the chancellor deemed the requests admitted. Because the requests were deemed admitted, Wayne argues that Ursel was prevented from proving the essential elements of her separate-maintenance claim. Wayne objected to this issue during trial when Ursel began giving contradictory testimony regarding Wayne's refusal to support her. The chancellor allowed both parties to offer testimony regarding Wayne's financial support.

         A. Requests for Admissions

         ¶7. Rule 36 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure governs requests for admissions. The rule states, in pertinent part, that a matter will be deemed admitted if the party upon whom the request was served does not timely respond or file an objection addressed to the matter. M.R.C.P. 36(a). A timely response equates to one being made within thirty days. See id. Thereafter, the matter is conclusively established unless the court permits the admission's withdrawal or amendment. M.R.C.P. 36(b). "A matter that is deemed admitted does not require further proof." Locklear v. Sellers, 126 So.3d 978, 981 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). Still, while "Rule 36 is to be applied as written, . . . 'it is not intended to be applied in Draconian fashion.'" In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock & Hamby, 23 So.3d 424, 432 (¶28) (Miss. 2009) (quoting DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So.2d 796, 801-02 (¶26) (Miss. 2002)). Specifically, "[a] certain amount of discretion is vested in the [chancellor] with respect to whether he or she will take matters as admitted." Earwood v. Reeves, 798 So.2d 508, 514 (¶19) (Miss. 2001) (citation omitted).

         ¶8. The problem here is that the admissions produced contradictory results. Some of the requests asked Ursel to admit that: the separation was her fault, Wayne did not refuse to support her, and Wayne did not abandon her. However, another request asked Ursel to admit that "there is no significant conduct on [y]our part that negatively impacts the enjoyment of the marriage contract." Ursel obviously admitted to this statement in her untimely response. As such, we fail to see how the matter could be conclusively established as Wayne argues; thus, it was within the chancellor's discretion to rely on the trial testimony to resolve any conflicts. Furthermore, the chancellor recognized that it was within her discretion to review the reason for Ursel's failure to timely answer the requests for admissions. The chancellor found the delay of thirty-three days was not "critical, " and we can find no abuse of discretion in this instance. The dissent states that Wayne's requests for admissions were deemed admitted for Ursel's failure to timely reply and that the contradictory admission does not encompass the essential elements of Ursel's separate-maintenance claim. However, the dissent concedes that it is within the chancellor's discretion whether to take matters as admitted. In this instance, we cannot find error by the chancellor.

         B. Amount of Separate Maintenance

         ¶9. In the alternative, Wayne argues that the chancellor erred in awarding $600 per month in separate maintenance to Ursel and ordering him to pay the mortgage of $365 per month. A chancellor may award separate maintenance when (1) the parties have separated without fault by the wife and (2) the husband has willfully abandoned the wife and refused to support her. Jackson v. Jackson, 114 So.3d 768, 775 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). "[A] wife is not required to be totally blameless to allow an award of separate maintenance, 'but her (mis)conduct must not have materially contributed to the separation.'" Daigle v. Daigle, 626 So.2d 140, 145 (Miss. 1993) (quoting Lynch v. Lynch, 616 So.2d 294, 296 (Miss. 1993)). There are six factors a chancellor should consider in determining the amount of separate maintenance to be awarded: (1) the parties' health; (2) the parties' combined earning capacity; (3) the reasonable needs of the spouse requesting separate maintenance and any children; (4) the necessary living expenses of the payor; (5) the fact that the payee spouse has use of the marital home and furnishings; and (6) any other pertinent facts. Id.

         ¶10. Although the chancellor did not explicitly list each factor, her findings indicate that she did consider them. The chancellor reviewed the parties' financial statuses, including their earning capacity, Wayne's living expenses, and Ursel's financial needs. The chancellor noted that Wayne admitted the following: he willfully abandoned the marital home, Ursel had asked him to return to the marital home, and he adamantly refused to return. The chancellor concluded that Wayne's support of Ursel since the separation had been "haphazard" at best, even after the temporary support order was entered in December 2014. Although admitting that they fought constantly, Ursel testified that she loved Wayne and wanted him to return to the marital home. Ursel further testified that Wayne was not supporting her financially, that he had "changed the bank ...

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