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Hiatt v. Hiatt

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

December 5, 2018

SHERMAN HIATT APPELLANT
v.
SHEILA HIATT APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE SEBASTIAN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, GREENWOOD DISTRICT [NO. 66GDR-15-272] HONORABLE JIM D. SPEARS, JUDGE

          Brett D. Watson, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by: Brett D. Watson, for appellant.

          Dusti Standridge; and Cullen & Co., PLLC, by: Tim Cullen, for appellee.

          N. MARK KLAPPENBACH, JUDGE

         This appeal stems from a divorce case between Sheila Hiatt and Sherman Hiatt. On appeal, Sherman contends that the circuit court erred by allowing Sheila to reopen her case to present additional proof of grounds for divorce. He also argues that, because Sheila initially failed to prove and corroborate her grounds for divorce, the circuit court erred by denying the motion for directed verdict that he made at the conclusion of her case-in-chief. We conclude that the circuit court abused its discretion by allowing Sheila to reopen her case and that Sheila initially failed to corroborate her grounds for divorce. Accordingly, we reverse and dismiss.

         I. Background

         In September 2015, after nine years of marriage, Sheila filed a complaint for divorce against Sherman based on general indignities. Sherman answered her complaint and later counterclaimed for divorce based on general indignities. A temporary order issued by the circuit court required Sherman to pay Sheila $1600 a month in spousal support.

         The final trial of the matter was initially scheduled for August 26, 2016. On that day, Sheila presented her case. Her witnesses included herself, her friend Mary Whitten, appraiser Ken Colley, and accountant Rickey Leding. The bulk of the testimony related to the division of the parties' property.

         After Sheila rested, Sherman moved for a directed verdict, [1] claiming she failed to prove grounds for divorce and failed to corroborate grounds for divorce. In the colloquy that followed, the circuit court indicated that it was caught "by surprise" and that it considered the motion a "total waste of the court's time." During the discussion, Sherman's counsel advised the circuit court that he had notified Sheila's counsel in advance of the trial that he was contesting grounds for divorce. The circuit court denied Sherman's motion, and in ruling so, it emphasized the time and effort that had been spent to get to this point in the proceedings. The court then stated that it would entertain a motion to treat this case as an action for separate maintenance. Sheila's counsel requested the relief proposed by the court. The hearing was adjourned with the understanding that it would be reset after the parties had lived separate and apart for eighteen months so that the divorce could be granted on these grounds. Notably, this ground was not raised by either party in the pleadings.

         Four days later, on August 30, 2016, Sheila filed a motion asking the circuit court to reconsider and uphold its ruling to deny the motion for directed verdict or to alternatively reopen her case, alleging that she could "prove additional facts to corroborate the grounds for divorce." On October 4, 2016, the circuit court entered an order that denied Sherman's motion for directed verdict, finding that Sheila proved and corroborated grounds for divorce at the August 26 trial. The order also granted the alternative relief requested by Sheila and reopened the case.

         Following the entry of the October 2016 order, further testimony was taken at a hearing on November 1, 2016. At that hearing, Sheila offered additional evidence in support of her claim for divorce based on general indignities. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court granted Sheila's request for divorce based on general indignities. The circuit court took the remaining issues, which primarily related to the disposition of property, under advisement.

         In a letter opinion filed on December 16, 2016, the circuit court announced its decision in this case. The circuit court's rulings were incorporated into a decree of divorce, which was filed of record on December 28, 2016. Sherman timely appealed.

         II. The Motion to Reopen the Case

         We begin our analysis by considering whether the circuit court erred when it granted Sheila's motion to reopen the case. From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that Sherman moved for a directed verdict on the basis that Sheila failed to prove and corroborate her grounds for divorce. Had the circuit court granted his motion, the case would have been dismissed as corroboration of grounds is a ...


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