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Haynes v. Bass

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Hot Springs Division

December 19, 2019

VICTORIA L. HAYNES f/k/a BASS PLAINTIFF
v.
BENTON NED BASS DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT T. DAWSON, SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendant on August 30, 2019. (ECF No. 16). The Plaintiff responded on September 27, 2019. (ECF No. 21). The parties contest whether subject matter jurisdiction is proper, and whether the Plaintiff filed suit within the applicable statute of limitations period. These matters are now ready for consideration. Upon review, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment should be GRANTED because the lawsuit falls within the domestic relations exception to subject matter jurisdiction. Furthermore, even if jurisdiction were proper, this matter would be barred by the statute of limitations.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Victoria L. Haynes and Benton Ned Bass entered their second marriage in 1995.[1] They signed a postnuptial agreement, respectively, on the 19th and 21st days of December 2007. Haynes filed for divorce several days later, on December 26th. During their three-day divorce trial, held in September 2013, neither party contested or raised the validity of the postnuptial agreement. The Garland County Circuit Court entered a divorce decree on January 24, 2014.

         After twelve years of litigation, the divorce action has still not been finalized. Haynes has twice appealed the divorce decree within the Arkansas state court system. Most recently, on February 13, 2019, the Arkansas Court of Appeals dismissed her second appeal for lack of finality. Haynes had argued the circuit court erred in ordering her to reimburse Bass for servicing a certain amount of marital debt and related expenses for property to be sold pursuant to the divorce decree.[2] The Court of Appeals granted Bass's motion to dismiss because Haynes filed her appeal before Marla Lammers, a CPA appointed by the circuit court to verify the amounts owed, completed an amended report of her findings. Bass v. Bass, 2019 Ark.App. 95, at 4-6 (2019). The circuit court must now adjudicate the issue of how much money Haynes owes Bass for servicing the marital debt. Id.

         Haynes filed this diversity action on September 7, 2018, alleging one count of fraud arising from the sale of a business once owned by her and Bass.[3] The postnuptial agreement identifies this business as Brady Mountain Resort, and it also designates this business as a marital asset. (Postnuptial Agreement, ECF No. 16-3, at 3, ¶ 1). The business was in the process of being sold at the time the parties entered the agreement. The closing date took place on April 10, 2008, approximately four months after the agreement was signed. (See Closing Statement, ECF No. 16-1). The closing statement identifies the sellers as Benton Ned Bass, Vicky Bass, and Bass Management, Inc., an entity owned by Haynes and Bass. (Decree of Divorce, ECF No. 16-7, at 5, ¶ 12). The buyers are identified as CNL Income Brady Mountain Marina, LLC, and CNL Income Brady Mountain Marina TRS Corp.

         The postnuptial agreement stated that proceeds derived from the sale of the business would be distributed to Haynes and Bass in equal portions. Each party received approximately $3, 200, 000 from the sale. Haynes claims that in 2016, she learned of various misrepresentations causing her to receive less money than what she was owed. She alleges that Bass lied about the following: (1) there being mortgages on the business property in excess of $5, 000, 000, and (2) that the business was sold to an unrelated third party. Haynes now claims there were not any mortgages on the property, and she also asserts the business was sold to an entity owned by Bass. She further alleges the business was sold for less than its market value so that Bass could purchase it for a lesser price. The business was sold for $14, 000, 000, but she claims it was worth an excess of $20, 000, 000.

         III. SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

         In general, diversity jurisdiction exists when “the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs, and [involves] citizens of different States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). But federal jurisdiction does not extend to “the so-called ‘domestic relations' and ‘probate' exceptions.” Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 299, 126 S.Ct. 1735, 1741, 164 L.Ed.2d 480 (2006). The domestic relations exception divests federal courts of jurisdiction over the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 704, 112 S.Ct. 2206, 2215, 119 L.Ed.2d 468 (1992). The exception is not mentioned in the text of Article III or the federal diversity statute. See U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1; 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). It exists as a matter of judicial construction, recognizing congressional silence as acceptance of the longstanding rule that federal courts should refrain from domestic relations matters. Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 700-01, 112 S.Ct. at 2213; Barber v. Barber, 21 How. 582, 584, 16 L.Ed. 226 (1858).

         The issue here is whether this case belongs within the sphere of domestic relations for purposes of subject matter jurisdiction. Haynes and Bass are completely diverse from each other, and the amount in controversy clearly exceeds $75, 000. Haynes argues this dispute is not a domestic relations matter, but rather a “matter of fraud between business co-owners.” (Pl.'s Brief, ECF No. 22, at 5). Bass contends the issues in this case are inextricably intertwined with the parties' divorce action. (Def.'s Brief, ECF No. 17, at 16).

         In Wallace v. Wallace, 736 F.3d 764 (8th Cir. 2013), the Eighth Circuit noted that when claims are “inextricably intertwined” with a state court divorce proceeding, such claims are not within the scope of federal jurisdiction. Id. at 767. (emphasis added). In affirming the denial of subject matter jurisdiction, the court held that a husband's requested remedy would have required a federal court to undermine a state court judgment. Id. The husband in Wallace accused his spouse of stealing his social security number and other personal information in order to obtain several credit cards. Id. at 765. The husband then accused his spouse of accumulating approximately $40, 000 in charges on the cards. Id. The state court labeled the credit card debt as “marital.” Id. at 767. (emphasis in original). The Eighth Circuit held that federal court action could potentially “remove the label of ‘marital debt'” and reallocate how the debt should be distributed. Id. Thus, the federal case was “inextricably intertwined” with the state action because the husband's requested relief could effectively nullify part of the state court's judgment. Id. Accordingly, the domestic relations exception applied, and subject matter jurisdiction was improper.

         The property at issue in this case is indisputably marital. The postnuptial agreement classifies Brady Mountain Resort as marital property. The agreement contemplates the sale of this business and states that Haynes and Bass should receive equal portions of the proceeds. In 2014, the state court divorce decree said that neither Haynes nor Bass contested the validity of the postnuptial agreement. (Decree of Divorce, ECF No. 16-7, at 1-2, ¶ 4). The court then held the agreement was valid and enforceable. (Id.).

         Haynes now requests relief that would essentially require this Court to decide upon an issue already determined throughout the divorce proceedings. Both the state court and federal actions are inextricably intertwined to the extent that relief from this Court would affect the distribution of marital assets under the postnuptial agreement. See Kahn v. Kahn, 21 F.3d 859 (8th Cir. 1994) (court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over former wife's tort claims against former husband when claims were “so inextricably intertwined” with a property settlement agreement made by the parties incident to their divorce proceedings); Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 704, 112 S.Ct. 2206 (“federal courts lack power to issue [domestic relations] decrees because of the special proficiency developed by state tribunals over the past century and a half in handling issues that arise in the granting of such decrees”); Budorick v. Maneri, 2016 WL 10636371, at *3 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 19, 2016), aff'd, 697 App'x 876 (7th Cir. 2017) (“Marshalling the marital property and dividing it goes to the heart of the responsibility of the divorce court.”). Any action from this Court would undermine the state court's obligation to evaluate the validity of a postnuptial agreement and to ensure the agreement's contents are fair and ...


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