Can’t Understand How the Court Decided Your Divorce?
Posted by Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC on November 1, 2019
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It’s not necessarily a case of some legal “mumbo jumbo.” Truth be told, if you can’t understand how the court decided your divorce, you might not be alone. In fact, sometimes even an Appeals Court can’t decipher the rationale that led to a lower court judge’s decision.
It’s not something you see every day in cases referred to the higher court. However, in John Mark Porter v. Betsy Hillis Porter, it’s a great part of the reason the trial court’s decision was vacated, and the case remanded back.
Tennessee is no different than any other state when it comes to certain aspects of divorce. During the trial, the judge looks to findings of fact in making a determination. When that’s not properly documented, it makes it difficult to understand how the court made its decision.
In the Porter matter, the wife challenged two aspects of the trial court’s ruling. For one, she disagreed with what the final decree said as far as the grounds for divorce. Meanwhile, Betsy also questioned how the court ordered the division of the marital estate.
Just so you know, this case hits somewhere close to home. Judges who decided cases as part of the Tennessee Court of Appeals sit in three separate locations throughout the state. This matter went before the panel in Nashville.
Appeals Court Couldn’t Conduct Meaningful Review
Notably, the Porter matter was decided by Memorandum Opinion on October 15, 2019. Essentially, this means the case does not represent precedent and remains unpublished. In other words, it cannot be “cited or relied on for any reason in any unrelated case.” Nonetheless, the court’s opinion provides some valuable insight.
The Porters married in 2013 and have no minor children. On June 20, 2017, John filed the divorce complaint, alleging inappropriate marital conduct. Betsy never answered the complaint, and on October 19, 2017, John submitted the paperwork for a default judgment.
Although Betsy never answered the divorce complaint, she did file an opposition to the default judgment and requests for other relief. Betsy said she was never served with the divorce complaint and then provided the court with her legal mailing address.
The address provided by Betsy seemed to indicate that she was confined to a Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama. After receipt of Betsy’s address, John’s lawyer filed a notice of hearing and sent a letter to Betsy in November of 2017.
Among other things, the correspondence informed Betsy that the judge denied the default judgment and accepted Betsy’s letter as an answer to the divorce complaint. John’s divorce attorney further advised Betsy that John had turned over her personal belongings to Betsy’s family.
Apparently, the Porters had a mortgage on a home together. The lawyer informed Betsy that the bank foreclosed on the property. Fortunately, the balance of the loan was satisfied at the Foreclosure Sale.
Lastly, John’s divorce attorney let Betsy know that a conviction felony was grounds for divorce according to Tennessee law.
Divorce Hearing Scheduled at Trial Court Level
In May of 2018, a notice of hearing set the case for a hearing on June 27, 2018. Five days before the scheduled date, Betsy filed an affidavit with the court regarding equitable division of assets and mutual responsibility of debt. She also attached affidavit exhibits, which she said represented the parties’ debt. For whatever reason, Betsy submitted the same documentation again – two days before the hearing date.
On July 2, 2018, the trial court ordered the final divorce decree, which is a mere two pages. Interestingly, the final decree states that John was granted the divorce on the “grounds and acts of inappropriate martial [sic] conduct.”
Additionally, the divorce decree references the foreclosed property and states that John turned over Betsy’s personal property to her brother.
What did it say about the parties’ debt? First, it documented that John that has assumed all of his own personal debt during the last two years. Next, the court indicated that it appeared there were no assets or liabilities that existed between the parties requiring division.
While a couple of other issues are also addressed in the final decree, these particular ones prompted Betsy to file an appeal. In response, the Court of Appeals cited a procedural issue. (Parenthetically, Betsy represented herself at the trial level and the appeal.)
Subsequent to the notice from the Court of Appeals, Betsy filed a statement of the evidence with the trial court. Ultimately, the trial court entered an order striking her statement. In doing so, the court found that Betsy was incarcerated and not present at the hearing.
According to the trial court, since Betsy wasn’t there, she had no knowledge of the testimony or evidence presented. Furthermore, the judge found that Betsy’s Statement of the Evidence was inaccurate.
Not to be stopped, Betsy filed a second statement of the evidence. However, it was stricken from the record and the court entered an order reiterating the reasons for the denial.
Court of Appeals for Divorce
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals intervened and entered an order to show cause to the trial court. The directive calls for the court to either approve Betsy’s statement or prepare its own statement.
Instead of complying with the order to show cause, the trial court’s clerk submitted a certification stating that she was transmitting the appeals court a 75-page technical record and one transcript volume. Remarkably, the latter was not sent and in its place, the clerk sent Betsy’s previously stricken statement of the evidence.
In consideration of the appeal, the Appeals Court first pointed out the trial court failed to comply with the order to show cause. As a result, the Appeals Court had no transcript or statement of the evidence that clarified what happened at trial.
Furthermore, the Appeals Court found that the language of the final decree contained only sparse factual findings. Therefore, the Appeals Court did not understand the trial judge’s rationale as far as making the decision as it was made.
It may be difficult for some litigants to understand how the court decided their divorce. However, this should not have been the case in this particular matter. Had the trial court complied with the order to show cause or provided more information in the decree, it would have made it easier to review.
Accordingly, the Appeals Court remanded the case back to the trial court and again called for either approval of Betsy’s evidence or a statement from the court itself.