Pro Se Party Wins His Divorce Appeal
September 9, 2015 1 Comment
Chancery Court can be difficult even for lawyers. Things that appear insignificant can suddenly hit you like a sledge hammer on the pinky toe. A party without benefit of legal counsel is at a significant disadvantage. That doesn’t mean that self represented parties never win or the court disfavors them, but it is rare for a pro se party to succeed.
Dwayne Norris, representing himself, recently bucked the odds and prevailed in the appeal of his divorce case. The facts underlying Norris v. Norris, NO. 2014-CP-00939-COA, are relatively short:
Dwayne and Jacqueline were married in October 2008. They separated in May 2012. On June 20, 2012, Jacqueline filed her complaint for divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Dwayne was served with the summons and complaint. Dwayne filed two pro se responses on July 17, 2012, and again on July 24, 2012, which the chancery clerk filed. On January 13, 2014, Jacqueline filed her notice of service of discovery to which Dwayne did not respond. Jacqueline filed her motion to set trial on March 11, 2014, and a notice of hearing set for April 9, 2014. On April 9, 2014, the chancellor entered an order that set the trial for June 5, 2014. The chancery clerk filed a certificate of mailing that indicated Dwayne was sent a copy of the order setting trial on April 9, 2014. A trial was held on June 5, 2014. Dwayne did not appear. The trial was held in Dwayne’s absence. Jacqueline and Quinesha McCurdy, Jacqueline’s stepsister, both testified on Jacqueline’s behalf.. On June 12, 2014, the chancellor entered the final judgment that granted Jacqueline a divorce due to habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, changed her name, and allowed her to retain all property in her possession. The chancellor further awarded Jacqueline “$5,000 . . . as equitable distribution of the parties’ debt.”
Dewayne’s brief on appeal very colorfully challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the $5,000 award with a few zingers:
She got the goldmine, I got the shaft.
The trial transcript reflects the lack of specificity and completely unsubstantiated estimations.
There are no defaults in divorce cases, and the defendant’s failure to appear should note provide a plaintiff with a blank check and abrogate the necessity of having an evidentiary basis for the amount of the judgment.
Because the appellant was not present to give his perspective on the factual circumstances, the wife and her attorney had the courtroom all to themselves, free to make assertions with impunity, representations without fear of contradiction, and to paint the vilest portrait of your appellant uninterrupted by objections.
This is like buying a pig in a poke. There are no defaults in divorce cases, and the defendant’s failure to appear should not be license for a plaintiff to ring up the cash register without showing some evidentiary basis for the amount of the judgment.
The Court of Appeals sided with Dewayne:
Jacqueline did not introduce any documentary evidence to support her claim. Also, the record before us does not indicate that Jacqueline filed a financial statement, as required by Rule 8.05 of the Uniform Chancery Court Rules….Because we conclude that the chancellor’s findings are not supported by substantial evidence, we must also find that the chancellor’s award of $5,000 to Jacqueline was manifestly wrong.
So what do we learn here? Even if the other side doesn’t show up, put your proof in the record. Don’t rely on guestimates. Prepare a proper 8.05 financial statement and introduce it to support your request for an equitable distribution.
If you need to polish up on how to prepare a proper 8.05, take a look at Chancellor Primeaux’s 10 Tips For More Effective Rule 8.05 Financial Statements and his subsequent Five More Tips for More Effective Rule 8.05 Financial Statements.