Justia South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Family Law
by
Husband Michael Buist and Wife Katie Buist married in 1999 and had one child. In 2007, Wife filed for divorce, seeking, inter alia, attorneys' fees and costs. In 2009, the family court granted the couple a divorce on the grounds that they had lived separate and apart for one year. In November 2009, the family court conducted a final hearing, receiving testimony from Husband, Wife, their witnesses, and a guardian ad litem (GAL) regarding contested issues of division of marital assets, child custody and visitation, and child support. At the hearing, Wife's attorney submitted a fee affidavit requesting approximately $15,000 in attorneys' fees. Husband's attorney did not object to the affidavit, but submitted his own fee affidavit regarding his earlier motion for a rule to show cause. In the final divorce decree, the family court ordered Husband to pay $8,000 towards Wife's attorneys' fees and costs within 180 days. The court also ordered Husband and Wife to each pay half of the $2,768.90 owed to the GAL within 180 days. Finally, the family court ordered Wife to pay Husband's attorney $3,050 in regards to Husband's motion for a rule to show cause. Husband appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the family court erred in failing to apply the factors set forth in "Glasscock v. Glasscock" or "E.D.M. v. T.A.M" prior to awarding attorneys' fees to Wife. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court, finding that because Husband was not sufficiently specific in his objection to the family court's final divorce decree, he waived any objection that the family court did not adequately apply the Glasscock or E.D.M. factors. View "Buist v. Buist" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
by
Birth Mother was twenty-three years old when she learned that she was pregnant very late in the pregnancy. She received no prenatal care. She did not tell her parents she was pregnant, even though she lived with them. She gave birth alone after presenting to the emergency room when she went into labor with Baby Girl. Shortly after the birth, Birth Mother mentioned to hospital staff that she might be interested in placing Baby Girl for adoption. Other hospital workers were aware that Birth Mother was considering adoption, including the nurse midwife who delivered Baby Girl. The nurse midwife told Birth Mother that the nurse midwife's cousin, Adoptive Mother, was considering adoption, and gave her Adoptive Mother's telephone number. Birth Mother agreed to have Adoptive Mother adopt Baby Girl. Adoptive Mother's lawyer rented office space in an executive suite shared by other law firms, including the law firm where the attorney-witness worked. On the morning of the adoption, Adoptive Mother's lawyer asked the attorney-witness to act as a witness to the execution of the Consent. In addition, Adoptive Mother's lawyer asked a legal assistant from another law firm that also shared the office suite to be the second witness to the adoption. The legal assistant was present when Birth Mother signed the Consent, but did not see her initial the remainder of the document. She understood her role to be that of a witness to Birth Mother's signature. Adoptive Mother's lawyer notarized Birth Mother's signature. However, the attorney-witness did not enter the room until after Birth Mother signed the Consent, although she had the impression that Birth Mother had signed the Consent shortly before she entered the room. Neither witness was present for any discussions between Adoptive Mother's lawyer and Birth Mother regarding the Consent. The attorney-witness testified that she believed that Adoptive Mother's lawyer had explained the Consent to Birth Mother outside of her presence. Once the witnesses were in the room, Adoptive Mother's lawyer restated his prior conversation with Birth Mother in summary fashion. The witnesses signed the Consent, and the attorney-witness's law clerk notarized their signatures. The entire transaction lasted approximately ten minutes. Birth Mother left the office with Adoptive Mother's mother, who drove Birth Mother back to the local hotel where she had spent the previous night. Birth Mother spent time alone with Baby Girl there, and then relinquished Baby Girl to Adoptive Mother. However, Birth Mother explained that she "felt immediately that something was not right with the process." Five days later, Birth Mother sent a registered letter to Adoptive Mother's lawyer formally revoking her consent. The family court issued an order in a bifurcated hearing finding the Consent was invalid and requiring Baby Girl's immediate return to Birth Mother. In its order, the family court noted the only issue presented to the court was "whether the consent document was properly executed and, based on that ruling, whether Birth Mother's request for emergency transfer of legal and physical custody of the minor be granted." The court held that the relevant statutory provisions were clear and mandatory, such that strict compliance was required. Adoptive Mother appealed the court of appeals' decision affirming the family court order. Finding no error, the Supreme Court also affirmed. View "Brown v. Baby Girl Harper" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
by
In August 2012, then-sixteen-year-old Appellant Stephen W. was charged with possession of marijuana. At the adjudicatory hearing, Appellant moved for a jury trial, claiming that he was entitled to a jury trial under the United States and South Carolina Constitutions. The family court denied Appellant's motion. The family court adjudicated Appellant delinquent and ordered that Appellant spend six consecutive weekends at the Department of Juvenile Justice, complete an alternative educational program, and continue with his prior probation for a period of time not to exceed his eighteenth birthday or until he obtained a G.E.D. Appellant directly appealed to the Supreme Court. He argued that the family court erred in denying his motion for a jury trial in a family court juvenile proceeding. Because there was no constitutional right to a jury trial in a family court juvenile proceeding, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Interest of Stephen W." on Justia Law

by
Appellant-wife Shirley Crossland contended on appeal to the Supreme Court that the court of appeals erred in reversing the family court's award of alimony, in modifying the equitable division of the marital estate, and in remanded an issue over attorney fees. With regard to the alimony issue, Wife argued the court of appeals erred in holding that, for the purposes of awarding alimony, income should be imputed to her based on her eligibility for social security retirement benefits she has not applied to receive. "Indeed, the family court may, but is not in all cases required to, consider eligibility for government benefits, and under the circumstances of this case, the family court did not commit reversible error. Thus the court of appeals erred in finding the family court was required to impute income to Wife based on social security benefits she is eligible to receive at age sixty-two. Although voluntary decreases in income may prompt a family court to consider a party's earning capacity instead of actual income, it is clear that 'the failure to reach earning capacity, by itself, does not automatically equate to voluntary underemployment such that income must be imputed.'" The Supreme Court agreed with Wife with regard to her remaining issues, reversed, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Crossland v. Crossland" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
by
Jane Doe appealed a family court's order declaring her to be a "vulnerable adult" and in need of protective services pursuant to the South Carolina Omnibus Adult Protection Act. Doe contended the South Carolina Department of Social Services ("DSS") failed to prove that she was at substantial risk of neglect due solely to her advanced age. Doe wanted reversal of the family court's order so that she may be released from involuntary protective custody and returned to her home. Because the Supreme Court found that Doe did not meet the statutory definition of a vulnerable adult under the Act, the Court reversed. However, because there may have been significant changes to Doe's physical and mental health and to the condition of Doe's home during the pendency of this appeal, the Court remanded the case in order for the family court to conduct a review hearing to assess the current status of Doe's case. View "In the Interest of Jane Doe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
by
Father appealed his conviction for sexually abusing his two young daughters. He challenged the trial court's order requiring that he be entered on the Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect, and that prohibited him from visiting his four children until successful completion of a treatment plan. Father argued the family court erred in its interpretation of S.C. Code Ann. 19-1-180 (Supp. 2012) and in permitting the playing of videotape forensic interviews of the non-testifying child victims. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court concluded the videotapes were inadmissible under 19-1-180(G) and reversed. View "SCDSS v. Pringle" on Justia Law

by
In an expedited appeal, Michelle G. challenged the termination of her parental rights to two of her three sons. The family court terminated her rights as to two, and denied the mother's motion to dismiss on grounds that section 63-7-2570(1) was unconstitutionally vague. On appeal, the mother argued that the TPR statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment and was void for vagueness. After review of the facts of this case, the Supreme Court found no reversible error, and affirmed the family court's termination decision. View "SCDSS v. Michelle G." on Justia Law

by
Jetter Pittman (Husband) and Gloria Pittman (Wife) were married in April 2000 and separated in March 2007. Wife petitioned for divorce on adultery grounds. Wife argued to the family court that Husband's land surveying business, Pittman Professional Land Surveying, Inc., was transmuted into marital property and was thus subject to equitable apportionment. Husband challenged the court of appeals' decision that affirmed the family court's finding of transmutation, which resulted in the inclusion of the land surveying business in the marital estate. Although the Supreme Court found the court of appeals erred in affirming the family court's reliance on the parties' premarital conduct in the transmutation analysis, it nevertheless affirmed based on the parties' conduct during the marriage. The Supreme Court found the evidence supported the finding that the parties intended the land surveying business to be the common property of the marriage. View "Pittman v. Pittman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Family Law
by
This action involved competing claims to the retirement benefits of the late Thomas Sullivan, a former National Football League (NFL) running back for the Philadelphia Eagles. Thomas married Lavona Hill in Maryland in 1979. They separated in 1983, but never divorced. In 1986, Thomas purported to marry Barbara Sullivan in South Carolina. Sullivan was unaware of Thomas' prior marriage to Hill. In 1991, Thomas submitted pension forms to the NFL indicating Sullivan was his current spouse. Thomas died in 2002. Thereafter, Sullivan filed a claim with the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan (the Plan), which provided benefits to a player's surviving spouse, defining the term as "a [p]layer's lawful spouse, as recognized under applicable state law." In November 2002, the Plan began paying Sullivan monthly benefits. Four years later, Hill contacted the Plan to request benefits. Following an investigation, the Plan suspended payments to Sullivan pending a court order identifying Thomas's surviving spouse. After Hill failed to obtain that order, the Plan resumed payments to Sullivan. In 2009, Hill filed this action against the Plan in Pennsylvania state court, claiming entitlement to Thomas's retirement benefits. The Plan promptly removed the case to federal district court and filed an interpleader counterclaim, joining Sullivan as a party. The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question to the South Carolina Supreme Court over whether South Carolina law recognized the "putative spouse" or "putative marriage" doctrine. The Supreme Court answered the certified question "no." View "Hill v. Bell" on Justia Law

by
Suits were filed in Alabama and South Carolina in this divorce case. In 2007, the husband filed for divorce in Alabama, alleging he was a resident of Alabama, and his wife was a resident of South Carolina. Wife accepted service of the complaint, but approximately one month later, sued in South Carolina effectively responding point for point to the husband's Alabama case. After the wife's attempts to serve her husband failed, she was permitted to serve her husband by publication in Alabama. The husband never responded to her pleading. An Alabama attorney filed a limited notice of appearance on the wife's behalf in Alabama, challenging jurisdiction and moving the court to dismiss the husband's complaint. The Alabama court denied the wife's motion and set the matter for trial. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, the court awarded the wife alimony and divided the marital property. The South Carolina court found it had jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter jurisdiction over the division of property, noting the husband's Alabama attorney sought to have the South Carolina action dismissed, but was not admitted pro hac vice in South Carolina, and therefore did not respond to husband's motion. A hearing was held in Alabama; wife's counsel had withdrawn and was not replaced. The Alabama court found it had jurisdiction over the parties and their property, declared the South Carolina judgment null and void, and divided the parties' marital property. With his Alabama judgment, the husband filed a Rule 60(b) motion in South Carolina to have wife's judgment vacated. Upon review, the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded: the Alabama court's grant of divorce should be given full faith and credit; the wife was not entitled to bring her South Carolina action for division of property or attorney's fees; by making a limited appearance in Alabama, wife was bound by Alabama law, and abandoned her opportunity to contest personal jurisdiction there. Since Alabama would have given its order res judicata effect, it was entitled to full faith and credit. Therefore, the husband's Rule 60(b) motion the South Carolina orders should have been granted. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Ware v. Ware" on Justia Law