Bates v. Bates, 3D19-1884

CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM.
PartiesPaul Evan Bates, Appellant, v. Magda Jhovanna Bates, Appellee.
Docket Number3D19-1884
Decision Date31 August 2022

Paul Evan Bates, Appellant,

Magda Jhovanna Bates, Appellee.

No. 3D19-1884

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

August 31, 2022

An Appeal from a non-final order from the Circuit Court for Monroe County, Lower Tribunal No. 17-258-P, Sharon I. Hamilton, Judge.

Ross & Girten, and Lauri Waldman Ross, for appellant.

Law Office of Jack Bridges, P.A., and James R. (Jack) Bridges, for appellee.





Paul Evan Bates ("husband") appeals the trial court's non-final order that invalidated the parties' prenuptial agreement in part. A panel of this court affirmed the trial court order in Bates v. Bates, 46 Fla.L.Weekly D287, 2021 WL 358188 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb. 3, 2021). Thereafter, on the husband's motion for rehearing en banc, seven members of this court voted to rehear the matter en banc pursuant to Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.331(d)(1).

Upon en banc consideration, this court is evenly divided concerning disposition of the appeal, with Judges Emas, Logue, Scales, Miller and Lobree voting to deny rehearing en banc and Judges Fernandez, Lindsey, Hendon, Gordo and Bokor voting to grant the motion for rehearing en banc. Accordingly, the motion for rehearing en banc is denied and in accordance with the requirements of Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.331(a), the panel opinion remains the opinion of this court. See Fla. R. App. P. 9.331(a) ("The en banc decision shall be by a majority of the active judges actually participating and voting on the case. In the event of a tie vote, the panel decision of the district court of appeal shall stand as the decision of the court.")



LOGUE, J., concurring in denial of rehearing en banc.

The trial court determined that the prenuptial agreement at issue must be set aside as the product of coercion. The panel affirmed over a dissent. The Court sitting en banc has voted to deny the husband's motion for rehearing en banc thereby leaving intact the panel's opinion and affirming the trial judge. I concur in denying rehearing en banc and affirming the trial judge.

Strange as it may seem, the difference between the concurring judges and the dissenting judges boils down to diametrically opposed understanding of the facts. The concurring judges interpret the record as supporting the trial court's express written finding that "the [wife] has shown competent substantial evidence that the execution of the prenuptial agreement on August 31, 2001 is invalid as being the product of duress and coercion." Order Finding Prenuptial Agreement Invalid, Bates v. Bates, No. 2017-DR-258-P at *7, *11 (Fla. 16th Cir. Ct. Sept. 4, 2019). The dissenting judges, on the other hand, interpret the record to reflect the opposite, namely "the wife voluntarily signed the prenuptial agreement." Bates v. Bates, 46 Fla.L.Weekly D287, D291 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb. 3, 2021)


(Lindsey, J., dissenting) and "the trial court [found] the wife voluntarily entered into this agreement . . . ." Infra at 39 (Gordo, J., dissenting). If we could agree on the facts, I think we would agree on the result. But our conference is split on how we interpret the factual record.

In this regard, I must respectfully take issue with the dissenting opinions. They make their case somewhat selectively. Their analysis simply does not acknowledge the competent, substantial evidence that supports the trial court's decision. Not only do they overlook the competent, substantial evidence that supports the trial court, they also expressly reweigh the evidence. In doing so, the dissents are driving in a lane reserved for trial judges. When the competent, substantial evidence that supports the trial court is considered, this case presents a textbook model of coercion. This is true under any definition of coercion, including the definition used in the panel decision (which is quoted from Black's Law Dictionary), in this Court's precedent in Ziegler v. Natera, 279 So.3d 1240, 1243 (Fla. 3d DCA 2019), and in the dissenting opinions themselves. Because the dispute is merely over what competent, substantial evidence in the record should be considered, this case does not warrant en banc review.



After a sixteen-year marriage that produced five children, the parties filed petitions and counter-petitioners for dissolution of their marriage. During the proceedings, the husband moved to enforce, and the wife moved to set aside, a prenuptial agreement signed sixteen years earlier. That issue was bifurcated and set for an evidentiary hearing. After a four-day evidentiary hearing, the trial court issued the eleven-page order under review which painstakingly reviews the conflicting testimony of the wife and husband.

The dissents acknowledge some facts that emerged at trial, namely that:

• At the time the agreement was signed, the husband was a 41-year-old airline pilot living in the United States and the wife was an 18-year-old living in Colombia;
• The couple became engaged on the day they met and married within 3 months of meeting each other;
• The wife could not speak English and the husband could not speak Spanish;
• The wife testified "I would have signed anything. Anything."

The dissents, however, do not acknowledge or address other facts that emerged at the evidentiary hearing, some of which were admittedly hotly disputed, namely:

• In reliance on the plan to marry and immigrate, the wife jeopardized her ties to her strictly religious family by engaging in premarital sex with the husband (although she had previously been a virgin) and getting pregnant as a result;
• The wife terminated the pregnancy at the insistence of the husband two weeks prior to the wedding and was still suffering some pain from the procedure when the husband presented the wife with the prenuptial agreement;
• The husband presented the prenuptial agreement to the wife as an ultimatum two days before the wedding;
• The Colombian lawyer paid by the husband did not provide the wife any legal advice;
• At the instruction of the husband, the Colombian lawyer backdated the prenuptial agreement;
• The husband presented the prenuptial agreement as part of the immigration paperwork;
• In doing so, the wife expressly testified, referring to the prenuptial agreement, "[h]e misrepresented this paperwork, and that's the whole thing here"; and "I wish he would be forthcoming. To say, sign this, this is something you need to come to the United States, I wish he just didn't lie to me."

After reviewing the evidence, the trial court concluded "[a]ll of this shows that Mrs. Bates was indeed persuaded, coerced and under emotional duress when she executed the prenuptial agreement." The order goes on to state that the wife "has shown competent substantial evidence that the execution of the prenuptial agreement on August 31, 2001 is


invalid as being the product of duress and coercion." The trial court declared the prenuptial agreement was unenforceable.

The appellate panel affirmed the trial court. A majority of the conference of this Court initially voted to consider the husband's motion for rehearing en banc. On en banc consideration, however, the court divided evenly on whether to grant the motion, thus denying the motion and affirming the trial court's judgment. Fla. R. App. P. 9.331(a).


All of the factual findings listed above are directly supported by the wife's testimony, including the facts that the dissents do not acknowledge. No party contends on appeal that the trial court committed reversible error in admitting this evidence into the record. This evidence thus constitutes competent, substantial evidence. This is true regardless of whether we would have credited the wife's testimony had we been sitting as trier-of-fact.

Based on this competent substantial evidence, the question presented is: whether the trial court erred in finding that the prenuptial agreement was the product of coercion when the agreement was obtained by a 41-year-old male airline pilot from a 18-year-old woman based on his course of conduct that included (1) convincing the Colombian lawyer


purportedly representing the wife to backdate the documents; (2) misrepresenting that the documents had to be signed as part of the immigration process; and (3) raising the prenuptial agreement when the wife was under great time, medical, and social pressures he largely created.

Under our precedent in Ziegler, 279 So.3d at 1243, the trial court did not commit reversible error when it found that the wife was "coerced . . . when she executed the prenuptial agreement" and the husband's conduct reflected "clear coercion." In Ziegler, we affirmed the setting aside of a prenuptial agreement that stemmed from a substantially similar at-the-altar immigration ultimatum that "threatened life-altering consequences, by imperiling their shared, long-term plan to begin life anew with their children in the United States." Id.

The dissenting opinions never maintain that this competent, substantial evidence is insufficient to qualify as coercion. Instead, they simply decline to address these facts. Remarkably, the dissents do not acknowledge the specific circumstances that the trial court expressly stated it relied on for its finding of coercion, namely that "[the wife] had given her virginity to [the husband], got pregnant, had an abortion . . . coupled with fact that [she] came from a strict Catholic family that would not condone


having sex prior to the wedding day (not to mention . . . abortion)." The dissents do not address the specific circumstances constituting the husband's wrongful act-his essential...

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