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Copeland v. Copeland

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

August 31, 2017

AMANDA M. COPELAND
v.
GARY NEAL COPELAND, JR.

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/24/2015

         TATE COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. PERCY L. LYNCHARD, JR. TRIAL JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEY: TRACY BUSTER WALSH

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: BYRON RUSSELL MOBLEY

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: A. E. (RUSTY) HARLOW, JR. KATHI CRESTMAN WILSON

          RANDOLPH, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Amanda Copeland appeals a Tate County chancellor's termination of Gary Copeland's child-support obligation to his two minor children. We affirm the chancellor's decision, as it is supported by the record before us.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. After their divorce, Gary and Amanda were awarded joint legal custody of their minor children, with physical custody awarded to Amanda and visitation awarded to Gary. Gary subsequently filed a Petition for Citation of Contempt and For Modification and a Motion for Temporary Relief. Gary prayed the court would, inter alia, find that there had been a substantial and material change in circumstances entitling Gary to custody of his minor children and attendant child support, inter alia, and grant any general relief deemed proper by the court.

         ¶3. During the trial on Gary's petition and motion, his seventeen-year-old daughter and thirteen-year-old son testified. Based on the children's unwavering testimony, including responses to questions by the chancellor and explicit exhibits, the chancellor found that they no longer loved their father and they wished to terminate any relationship with him. Each child acknowledged sending hateful emails and texts, which included expressed desires either to kill their father or see him dead. The numerous text messages and emails admitted into evidence were filled with vitriolic invectives, expressing deep-seated anger, resentment, and ill-will not only toward their father, but also toward his parents and sister, inter alia, supporting the chancellor's factual finding.

         ¶4. After reflecting on the testimony and evidence, the chancellor decreed that:

there had been a substantial and material change in circumstances which warranted an analysis of the Albright [1]factors, and that after such analysis, the court finds the Albright factors favor the Defendant [Amanda] retaining custody; therefore, any request for modification of custody is hereby denied.

         As to the child-support obligation, the chancellor decreed:

the conduct of the minor children is so egregious that the Court is hereby terminating any legal obligation of the Plaintiff [Gary] to provide support for the minor children in any manner, including, but not limited to, child support, health insurance, and medical expenses not covered by insurance, and any other form of support previously ordered by this court.

         The chancellor announced from the bench that "the relationship between father and children has deteriorated to a point unlike this court has seen." Relying on Caldwell v. Caldwell, 579 So.2d 543 (Miss. 1991), and its progeny, the chancellor concluded that the children had severed and terminated any relationship they may have had with their father. The chancellor stated that "the only time in which the children had any physical contact or personal contact with their father since this divorce was when they wanted something by way of money or possessions." The chancellor found that the children's conduct had severed the relationship to the point that Gary was relieved legally of any support of the children. The chancellor declared that he was "well aware that the case must be extreme in order to take this action, and I believe that it is." Yet the learned chancellor also left the door open for reconciliation and expressed his willingness to reconsider the resumption of child support. He found that "[t]he issue of child support may be revisited in the future, should the relationship between the Plaintiff and the minor children be amended."

         ANALYSIS

         ¶5. Amanda appealed, arguing that the chancellor's order abating Gary's support obligation was in error because (1) the chancellor was manifestly wrong in granting relief that was not requested; (2) the children's animosity towards their father existed at the time of the divorce; and (3) the chancellor's decision was not supported by the evidence. The standard of review in child-custody cases is well-settled:

This Court employs a limited standard of review in child-custody cases and will "affirm findings of fact by chancellors . . . when they are supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous or an erroneous legal standard was applied." Borden v. Borden, 167 So.3d 238, 241 (Miss. 2014). Additionally, "findings of fact made by a chancellor may not be set aside or disturbed upon appeal if they are supported by substantial, credible evidence." Marascalco v. Marascalco, 445 So.2d 1380, 1382 (Miss. 1984).

Carter v. Carter, 204 So.3d 747, 756 (Miss. 2016).

         I. The chancellor did not err by granting relief that was not specifically requested.

         ¶6. In his pleadings, Gary sought the following relief:

5. There has been a substantial and material change in circumstances since the entry of the prior Order of this Court which adversely affects the minor children of the parties to wit: . . . specifically, the prior Order should be modified to grant custody of the minor children to Plaintiff, and with regard to visitation, child support, and income tax exemptions. . . .
7. The Plaintiff is entitled to such other, different, or general relief as the evidence shows proper. . . .[2]

         The pleadings raised the issue of financial support for the children, inter alia. See Brennan v. Brennan, 638 So.2d 1320, 1325 (Miss. 1994) (When a party submits for the court's consideration the issue of child support, he submits all issues pertaining to the subject of that support).

         ¶7. Additionally, Rule 54(c) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure reads in pertinent part that ". . . every final judgment shall grant the relief to which the party in whose favor it is rendered is entitled by the proof and which is within the jurisdiction of the court to grant, even if the party has not demanded such relief in his pleadings. . . ." M.R.C.P. 54(c) (emphasis added). Furthermore, in Redmond v. Cooper, 151 Miss. 771, 119 So. 592 (1928), this Court affirmed a chancellor's decree and held that:

A prayer for general relief is as broad as the equitable powers of the court. Under it, the court will shape its decree according to the equities of the case, and, broadly speaking, will grant any relief warranted by the allegations of the bill, whether it is the only prayer in the bill, or whether there is a special prayer for particular and different relief; and defects in the special prayer are usually cured by a general prayer. If the facts alleged are broad enough to warrant relief, it matters not how narrow the specific prayer may be, if the bill contains a prayer for general relief. The prayer for general relief serves to aid and supplement the special prayer by expanding the special relief sought, so as to authorize further relief of the same nature. It may also serve as a substitute for the prayer for special relief, and authorize relief of a different nature when that specially prayed is denied.

Redmond, 119 So. at 593 (quoting 21 C. J. 679, ¶ 858).

         ¶8. Whether we analyze this issue under the specific request concerning child support or, alternatively, under the general request for relief, Gary prevails. Accordingly, we find that the chancellor neither abused his discretion nor applied an erroneous legal standard. His judgment complies with our laws.

         II.The chancellor did not err in determining the children's conductwas an after-arising ...


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