Abdullahi v. Zanini, 2390,Sept. Term,2017

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Citation211 A.3d 510,241 Md.App. 372
Docket NumberNo. 2390,Sept. Term,2017,2390,Sept. Term,2017
Parties Zeynab ABDULLAHI v. Gianni ZANINI
Decision Date26 June 2019

Argued by: Michael F. Callahan (James J. Gross, Thyden, Gross & Callahan, LLP, Chevy Chase, MD)(Jeffrey N. Greenblatt, Rama Taib-Lopez, Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, PA, Rockville, MD), on the briefs, for Appellant.

Argued by: Maureen M. Renehan (Bryan Renehan, Brodsky, Renehan, Pearlstein & Bouquet Chartered, on brief), Gaithersburg, MD, for Appellee.

Panel: Fader, C.J., Graeff, James R. Eyler (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Graeff, J. Zeynab Abdullahi ("Wife"), appellant, challenges the September 4, 2017, Order of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, and the November 29, 2017, Amended Order, which granted her an absolute divorce from Gianni Zanini ("Husband"), appellee, and divided marital assets. Wife presents multiple questions for this Court's review,1 which we have revised as follows:

1. Did the circuit court abuse its discretion in granting the monetary award and dividing the marital property?
2. Did the circuit court abuse its discretion in declining to award wife attorneys' fees?
3. Did the circuit court err in failing to grant an absolute divorce on the grounds of adultery?

For the reasons set forth below, we shall affirm, in part, and vacate, in part, the judgment of the circuit court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.Background and Marriage

Wife was born in Somalia and moved to the United States in August 1977. She met Husband in 1986 while they were attending school in California.2 They were married in a religious ceremony in California in 1986, and again in a civil ceremony in 1987 in Virginia. During the marriage, Wife and Husband had two children: Ebyan and Amanle, both of whom are now over 18 years old.

On January 5, 1987, Husband received a job with the World Bank, and he and Wife moved to the Washington, D.C. area. Wife initially worked for Bechtel Eastern Power, but she left her job to pursue a master's degree in energy systems at the University of Maryland. In 1995, Wife began working for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 1998, the parties purchased a home in Maryland.

Husband's work at the World Bank required that he travel frequently. Husband testified that, when he was home, he would participate in running the household, take the children to their activities, and go to school meetings. Wife testified that when Ebyan was young, Husband was involved in taking her to various activities, and he cooked for the family. At some point, though, Husband stopped helping to maintain the home.

In December 2010, Husband retired from his job at the World Bank. He testified that he retired because his department at the World Bank was phased out. He received a separation package and was permitted to work as a consultant.

In early 2011, Husband approached Wife to discuss moving to Italy for a year. Part of his separation package with the World Bank "was tied" to him going to Italy. From summer 2011 to summer 2012, the parties and their children resided in Italy.3

Wife returned to work on August 1, 2012, and Husband took two additional trips in 2012. In 2013, Husband took motorcycle trips across the United States, and he took trips to Italy and Southeast Asia. Prior to Husband leaving for his trips in July 2013, Wife requested that they attend marriage counseling together. Husband attended two sessions, and he then returned to his travels. After Husband returned from his travels at the end of October 2013, Wife found Viagra

, Cialis, and other "performance enhancers" in Husband's luggage.

At the end of 2013, Wife was told by her doctors that she needed surgery. Husband was traveling at the beginning of 2014 when Wife was initially scheduled to have the surgery, so she postponed it until April 2014. Wife asserted that Husband was present after her surgery, but "he did not do anything" for her.

In June 2014, Wife requested Husband to attend marriage mediation. He refused. Husband resumed traveling in June 2014 and returned in September 2014.4 When wife checked their laptop upon Husband's return, she found links to dating and escort sites, emails to "sex sites," and pictures.

II.Commencement of Divorce Action and Subsequent Filings

In September 2014, Wife decided to pursue a divorce, and she presented Husband with a settlement agreement. On November 25, 2014, following unsuccessful settlement negotiations, Wife filed a Complaint For Absolute Divorce, Child Support & Related Relief, citing adultery as the ground for divorce, alleging dissipation of marital funds by Husband, and requesting a division of marital assets and attorneys' fees. On December 29, 2014, Husband filed his Answer and Counterclaim, in which he alleged desertion as grounds for divorce and admitted to committing adultery after June 14, 2014. In April 2015, Wife and Amanle left the marital home that was purchased in 1998 and moved to an apartment.

Each party amended their pleadings more than once. On June 3, 2015, Wife filed a Second Amended Complaint for Absolute Divorce, Alimony/Spousal Support, Custody, Child Support & Related Relief. Wife made requests for custody and child support, as well as requests for a monetary award, a portion of Husband's pension, and attorneys' fees.

On June 29, 2015, the circuit court held a merits trial regarding custody of the minor child, Amanle.5 On August 18, 2015, the court issued a Custody Order, based on an agreement by the parties, awarding Wife primary physical custody and joint legal custody, with Wife having tie-breaking authority. On July 7, 2015, a magistrate conducted a hearing as to child support issues. Child support was awarded, but the record indicates that it ended when Amanle reached the age of 18 and completed high school.6

On November 14, 2016, Husband filed his Third Amended Counter-Complaint for Absolute Divorce and for Other Relief. Husband requested, among other things, that he "be granted an absolute divorce from [Wife] on the ground of a separation exceeding one year in duration," and that he "be awarded attorney's fees and legal costs incurred by him in connection with this matter."


Trial was scheduled to begin April 4, 2016, but counsel for Husband moved to strike his appearance and requested that the trial be postponed so that Husband could obtain new counsel. The court postponed the trial to June 28, 2016.

On June 28, 2016, the docket entries indicate that the court again postponed the trial because no judge was available. The court postponed trial to December 12, 2016.

On December 12, 2016, trial began. Although it was scheduled as a three-day trial, it continued for seven days, ending June 1, 2017.

The court bifurcated the issue of attorneys' fees and the merits, hearing argument on attorneys' fees first. Counsel for Wife argued that Husband was "both a cheat and a liar," and his lies forced wife to "expend significant amounts of time and attorney fees actually getting to the truth." He stated that any fees incurred after April 4, 2016, should be borne by Husband, who caused a postponement of the merits trial, noting that the judge who granted the continuance advised that Husband "would be chargeable for some of the additional expenses" incurred.

Addressing the merits of the suit, counsel for Wife stated, in pertinent part:

As Your Honor knows, the World Bank pension cannot be divided. The World Bank doesn't honor state orders, but they will divide his pension by way of a spousal support order, and we will provide the Court with that form, and we would ask the Court to award [Wife] one-half of the World Bank pension. We're also asking the Court [to] transfer the marital home to [Wife], and the reason for that simply is because as a result of this litigation, [Wife] has spent approximately $350,000 in counsel fees, the vast majority of which were all precipitated by [Husband's] behavior.[7 ]

Counsel also requested that the court reimburse Wife for all marital funds that Husband used "to pursue his girlfriends, to pursue his vacations, to pursue his motorcycles and various trips, et cetera," and he asked that the court transfer ownership of a Nissan Murano to Wife. Counsel requested that the court order that the contents of the former marital home be sold and the proceeds allocated between the parties and that the court award Wife attorneys' fees.

Husband's counsel stated that Wife's opening statement was more about the attorneys' fees than the facts of the case. He stated that, although the amount of attorneys' fees was unfortunate, "[w]hen you choose [to spend] money to have a PI to get adultery on someone who has admitted it, these are your choices."

On the merits, counsel noted that everyone agreed that there had been a one-year separation. He stated that there was no proof of adultery "inside of Maryland."

Counsel discussed the parties' marital and nonmarital property. He noted that the parties had received loans from Husband's family in the amount of $350,000, and Husband cashed in a third of his pension to pay off the mortgage on the marital home.

Regarding Wife's claims that Husband dissipated marital assets, counsel for Husband stated:

You're seeing dissipation claims made on credit cards on loans. They're not even assets, and then what you're looking at when you're looking at these accountings, I mean you're looking at ATM charges, like $2. The rules about dissipation or the definition of it is the wasting of marital property or the devaluing of bank accounts to exclude them from division in a divorce. I don't think you're going to find any of that for either one of these parties.

Counsel stated that Husband's payments to other women did not exceed $10,000, and if the court thought it was dissipation, he would pay it back.

Counsel stated that the parties' main assets were Husband's World Bank pension, Wife's FERS and a TSP pension, the house, which was ...

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