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Goodson v. Bennett

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

September 26, 2018



          LaCerra, Dickson, Hoover & Rogers, PLLC, by: Lauren White Hoover and Marjorie R. Rogers, for appellant.

          The Henry Firm, P.A., by: Matthew Henry, for appellee.


         This is an appeal from a decree of divorce that the Circuit Court of Pulaski County entered on March 15, 2017. The appellant, Dean Goodson, raises ten points on appeal that challenge the circuit court's rulings on visitation, spousal support, division of marital property, attorney's fees, and the admission of evidence. He also alleges the appellee, Sharon Bennett, failed to properly serve him with the summons and complaint for divorce. Because several of these issues are not preserved for appellate review, and those that are preserved are without merit, we affirm the decree.

         I. Factual Background

         Sharon Bennett and Dean Goodson were married on June 7, 2009. They have one son, T.G., who is five years old. Goodson also has an eleven-year-old daughter, S.G., from a previous relationship with Mollie Yoder.

         Bennett filed a complaint for divorce and a petition for an order of protection on July 14, 2015, following a domestic-abuse incident that occurred two days earlier, on July 12, 2015. Goodson attacked Bennett with such force that he damaged her jaw and ruptured one of her eardrums. Goodson's children, S.G. and T.G., were in the home during the attack. After a hearing on August 3, 2015, the circuit court entered an order of protection that granted Bennett sole custody of T.G. and prohibited Goodson from having any contact with Bennett or T.G. for ten years. The circuit court also entered a ten-year order of protection on the petition of Mollie Yoder, who requested it for herself based on Goodson's conduct during their relationship, as well as for S.G., who was present in the home during Goodson's brutal attack on Bennett. Goodson did not file any appeal from the two ten-year orders of protection.

         Goodson filed an answer and counterclaim for divorce on August 17, 2015, as well as an amended counterclaim on July 29, 2016. Among other things, Goodson's counterclaim sought joint custody of T.G. A month later, on September 17, 2015, Goodson filed a motion to stay the final hearing until after the resolution of the criminal charges related to his attack on Bennett. Goodson argued the stay was warranted because his outstanding criminal charges would force him to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the divorce proceedings, leaving him unable to adequately litigate custody and visitation of T.G. In an order entered on November 9, 2015, the circuit court denied the motion to stay the final hearing but agreed to reserve "matters regarding custody and visitation" of T.G. until after the conclusion of the criminal case. Goodson later withdrew his request to reserve the determination of custody and visitation, however, after the criminal case was continued indefinitely.

         The final divorce hearing was set for August 31 and September 1, 2016. Goodson obtained new counsel, who entered their appearance on July 20, 2016. Goodson simultaneously sought a continuance, alleging his new counsel had scheduling conflicts with the scheduled trial dates. Goodson also alleged a continuance was warranted because he "[had] criminal charges pending which would prohibit him from testifying to material issues in [the] matter," and consequently, he would "be unable to adequately defend himself, the minor child, and the marital estate." The circuit court denied the motion for a continuance after a telephonic hearing that occurred on July 21.

         The case proceeded to a two-day final hearing as scheduled on August 31 and September 1. In addition to the physical and emotional abuse that she suffered during the marriage, Bennett testified about the couple's interests in their tree-trimming operation, Giraffe Tree Service, and its associated business, Giraffe Financial. Goodson owned Giraffe Tree Service prior to their marriage in 2009, and Giraffe Financial was a payroll service created, in part, to protect Goodson's income from Ms. Yoder's claims for increases in child support. Bennett testified that, at Goodson's instruction, she regularly "moved money between Giraffe Tree and Giraffe Financial," to "pay [her]self," as well as to "to keep the child support down" because "[Goodson] didn't feel that he should be paying that amount in support." According to Bennett, Goodson also gave her a "blanket authorization" to sign checks, insurance claims, and other documents associated with the businesses.

         Bennett further explained that both she and Goodson used money from the Giraffe business accounts, as well as a $25, 000 insurance loan, for various personal items, including guns, ammunition, horses, and jewelry. The couple also kept large amounts of cash in their home, including $50, 000 that was in a Browning safe in their garage when they separated in July 2015.

         In addition, Bennett testified about her infidelity, admitting having had affairs with two men during the marriage. She acknowledged she lent $2500 to one of her paramours and paid for the hotel rooms where the affairs took place. She also claimed she disclosed the affairs to Goodson as they underwent marriage counseling toward the end of their marriage.

         Goodson invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the final hearing, choosing instead to make his case through his cross-examination of Bennett and his own witnesses. Through cross-examination and the testimony of his financial expert, Timothy Ridge, Goodson attempted to demonstrate that Bennett made several fraudulent transactions with money from Giraffe Tree Service, and that she alone was responsible for the couple's failure to file income-tax returns during their marriage. Goodson also attempted to demonstrate that he was suitable for strictly supervised visitation with T.G. through the testimony of his stepmother, Betty Goodson, and a psychologist, Dr. Dawn Doray.

         On March 15, 2017, the circuit court entered a decree granting Bennett a divorce and awarding her attorney's fees and costs. The circuit court subsequently entered a separate order setting the amount of the fee and cost award at $30, 000. Goodson now appeals those orders.

         II. Issues on Appeal

         Goodson argues that reversal of the decree is warranted because (1) he was not served with the complaint and summons in accordance with Rule 4 of the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure; (2) the circuit court failed to exercise discretion or utilize any analysis under Arkansas Code Annotated 9-13-101 when it denied Goodson visitation with his minor son; (3) the circuit court abused its discretion by denying Goodson's motion for a continuance; (4) the circuit court abused its discretion when it admitted the transcript of a hearing on a petition for an order of protection; (5) the circuit court unequally divided the marital assets without making the findings required by Arkansas Code Annotated 9-12-315; (6) the circuit court erred when it awarded spousal support without analyzing the parties' financial needs, ability to pay, and other relevant factors; (7) the circuit court erred in awarding attorneys' fees to the appellee, Sharon Bennett; (8) the circuit court erred by not allowing Goodson to impeach Bennett's credibility; (9) the circuit court erred by denying Goodson's motion to reopen the record based on newly-discovered evidence; and (10) the circuit court's errors cumulatively denied Goodson a fair trial.

         III. Standards of Review

         This court generally reviews domestic-relations cases de novo, see Berry v. Berry, 2017 Ark.App. 145, at 2, 515 S.W.3d 164, 166, but applies the abuse-of-discretion standard to the circuit court's decisions denying motions for continuance, see James v. Arkansas Dept. of Human Servs., 2016 Ark.App. 276, at 2-3, and awarding alimony. See Williams v. Williams, 2018 Ark.App. 79, at 12, 541 S.W.3d 477, 484. We also review a circuit court's evidentiary rulings for abuses of discretion. See Southern v. Highline Tech., Innovations Inc., 2014 Ark.App. 613, at 4, 488 S.W.3d 712, 716. We will not find an abuse of discretion, however, unless a circuit court acted "improvidently, thoughtlessly, or without due consideration." Gerber Prods., Co. v. CECO Concrete Constr., LLC 2017 Ark.App. 568, at 6, 533 S.W.3d 139, 143.

         Likewise, we will not reverse a circuit court's finding of fact unless it is clearly erroneous. Berry, 2017 Ark.App. 145, at 2, 515 S.W.3d at 166. "A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that the circuit court has made a mistake." Id. "In reviewing a circuit court's findings of fact, [this court] gives due deference to the court's superior position to determine the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be accorded to their testimony." Id. Applying these standards to the decisions that Goodson challenges on appeal, we affirm the decree.

         IV. Discussion

         A. Service of the Summons and Complaint

         Goodson argues, for the first time on appeal, that the case should be reversed and dismissed because the record does not contain any proof demonstrating he was properly served with Bennett's summons and complaint. Additionally, relying on Raymond v. Raymond, 343 Ark. 480, 36 S.W.3d 733 (2001), and Criswell v. Office of Child Support Enforcement, 2014 Ark.App. 309, 436 S.W.3d 152, he suggests his appearance in the case cannot be grounds to apply the doctrines of estoppel or waiver. Because Goodson waived his challenge to the circuit court's personal jurisdiction by seeking affirmative relief, we affirm.

         "Arkansas law is long settled that service of valid process is necessary to give a court jurisdiction over a defendant." Affordable Bail Bonds, Inc. v. State, 2015 Ark.App. 44, at 4. The defense of personal jurisdiction, however, may be waived by the appearance of the defendant without raising an objection. Id. This court has "long recognized that any action on the part of a defendant, except to object to jurisdiction, which recognizes the case in court, will amount to an appearance." Id. "In deciding whether a defendant has waived his rights and entered an appearance, a determining factor is whether the defendant seeks affirmative relief." Id.

         As indicated above, Goodson filed an answer to Bennett's complaint for divorce and sought affirmative relief by filing a counterclaim-and an amended counterclaim-in the circuit court. He also sought affirmative relief in the form of a stay of the final hearing until after the conclusion of the criminal case against him. In addition, he never argued below, as he does here, that he was not properly served with Bennett's summons and complaint. Accordingly, Goodson waived his challenge to the circuit court's personal jurisdiction.

         Goodson's reliance on Raymond and Criswell is unpersuasive. While the defendants in each of those cases signed reconciliation and custody agreements demonstrating they had actual knowledge of the divorce proceedings, neither sought any affirmative relief, as Goodson so clearly did here. See Raymond, 343 Ark. at 487, 36 S.W.3d at 737 (observing that signing a reconciliation agreement does not constitute an appearance because it is "not a responsive pleading" and does not "request any relief from the court"); see also Criswell, 2014 Ark.App. 309, at 8, 436 S.W.3d at 157 (observing that defendant signed the custody agreement before filing of the complaint and "never filed any pleading or otherwise ...

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