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Hoffman v. Hoffman

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

October 23, 2018


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/06/2017





          WILSON, J.

         ¶1. Brooke Nejam Hoffman sought a divorce from her husband Michael (Mike) Hoffman, alleging as grounds habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and constructive desertion. The chancery court found that Brooke failed to prove that she was entitled to a divorce on either ground and dismissed her complaint. The court also awarded Mike attorney's fees based on both Brooke's contempt and Mike's inability to pay. Brooke challenges both rulings on appeal. For the reasons discussed below, we find no error and affirm.


         ¶2. Brooke and Mike were married in January 2005. Their marriage has produced three children, born in 2005, 2011, and 2013. In October 2012, while pregnant with the couple's third child, Brooke moved out of the marital home. Brooke filed a complaint for divorce in January 2013, about two weeks before the child was born. She later filed an amended complaint that alleged both habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and constructive desertion. Mike answered and denied that Brooke was entitled to a divorce. The case eventually proceeded to trial in July 2014. The parties agreed to bifurcate the case and first try the grounds for divorce. The issues of child custody, support, and division of the marital estate were reserved pending the court's ruling on Brooke's entitlement to a divorce.

         ¶3. Brooke testified that she and Mike were in counseling "[p]retty much" from the start of their marriage until they separated. Brooke's mother agreed that the marriage was "troubled" from the start. She testified that she and her husband (Brooke's father) "kind of talked [Brooke and Mike] into getting married because . . . [Brooke was] pregnant." Brooke testified that she and Mike "both went to counseling," they would "follow and stick through it for a few weeks" at a time, and there was "some" intimacy in their marriage. But then they would argue, and "things would get back like they were."

         ¶4. Brooke alleged that during an argument in 2011, Mike "stabbed [her] back with a pencil while [she was] holding [their six-month old son] and pulled [her] hair and threw [her] down some steps." She filed a police report, but she testified that she later decided not to press charges. Brooke testified that photographs, taken by her mother, documented her alleged injuries. However, the police officer who took Brooke's report noted in the report that he "did not see any signs of physical abuse on [Brooke]."

         ¶5. The police were also called to the Hoffmans' home during an argument on the night that Brooke left the marital home in October 2012. Brooke testified that the incident initially resulted in charges against her, but the charges were later dropped.

         ¶6. Brooke testified that the incident with the pencil was the only "violent episode" during the marriage. However, Brooke and her mother claimed that Mike was verbally abusive. Brooke also alleged that Mike falsely accused her of using drugs during the marriage.[1]

         ¶7. Brooke alleged that after she moved out of the marital home, Mike destroyed, threw out, or gave away many of her personal belongings. She also accused Mike of vandalizing her new home with pink paint, although she had no direct proof that he was involved.

         ¶8. Brooke admitted that she had an affair in 2010. She told Mike about that affair, and they decided to stay together. Brooke also admitted that in 2012 she became romantically involved with a married man, Chad. Brooke claimed that her relationship with Chad did not become intimate until after she and Mike separated. However, a letter that Brooke wrote to Chad indicated that the affair began in September 2012. Brooke's letter also indicated that, although they both were still married, Chad had asked Brooke to marry him. At the time of trial, Brooke was still having an affair with Chad, who was also still married. Chad was called as a witness at trial and admitted to the affair.

         ¶9. Mike worked as a realtor and owned rental properties throughout the marriage. At some point, Mike also began working for an interior designer, Matt, who is related to Brooke and a godfather to one of the Hoffmans' children. Mike does not have any expertise in interior design but provided manual labor for Matt's business on an as-needed basis.

         ¶10. Brooke testified that Matt is gay. Brooke complained that Mike and Matt spent a lot of time together and went on business trips for "days at a time." She claimed that Mike would not answer his phone while he was out of town, and she did not believe that all of the trips were work-related. Brooke testified, "[I]t . . . was an ongoing problem in our marriage, and it caused [Mike] to be . . . emotionally and physically absent from the marriage, and it is not possible to have a marriage with three people involved in it." As the chancellor recognized, Brooke clearly implied that Mike was having an affair with Matt. However, Brooke was unwilling to make that accusation expressly, nor did she allege adultery as a ground for divorce.

         ¶11. Mike denied that there was any improper relationship between him and Matt. Mike testified that Matt was Brooke's relative, a friend, and a godfather to one of his children, but otherwise their relationship was "strictly business." Mike testified that he began working for Matt only because the real estate market went down, and he "was just doing everything [he could] to make ends meet to pay for Brooke and [his] young family." Mike stopped working for Matt after he and Brooke separated.

         ¶12. Matt's business partner also testified at trial. She testified that she worked and traveled with Mike and Matt on many occasions and never saw anything that suggested an inappropriate relationship. She testified that they all traveled together to ...

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