Burleigh v. Burleigh

Decision Date11 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. 1284,1284
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland


No. 1284


September Term, 2019
May 11, 2020

Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County
Case No.


Graeff, Nazarian, Woodward, Patrick L. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by Nazarian, J.

* This is an unreported opinion, and it may not be cited in any paper, brief, motion, or other document filed in this Court or any other Maryland Court as either precedent within the rule of stare decisis or as persuasive authority. Md. Rule 1-104.

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This appeal arises out of a divorce proceeding between Lauren Burleigh ("Mother") and James Burleigh ("Father"). After an eight-day bench trial, the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County awarded joint legal and physical custody of the four minor children with a week on/week off schedule. The court also ordered Father to pay child support and five months of rehabilitative alimony to Mother and declined both parties' requests for attorney's fees. After trial, but before the court issued its memorandum opinion and entered judgment, Mother moved to reopen the case to take additional evidence on whether the new job Father landed after trial affected custody, alimony, and child support. The court denied Mother's motion.

Mother challenges the circuit court's decisions on custody, child support and alimony and the denial of her request for attorney's fees. She also challenges the court's denial of her Motion to Reopen Evidence and Take Additional Testimony. And she asserts generally that the trial court was biased against her and deprived her of a fair and impartial trial. We affirm the circuit court's decision to award joint legal custody and its decision that Father did not voluntarily impoverish himself. But we agree with Mother that the court abused its discretion when, under these circumstances, it denied her motion to reopen the record to take evidence about Father's new job and its potential impact on physical custody, alimony, and child support, and we vacate the physical custody, child support, alimony, and attorney's fees awards and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Mother and Father were married on July 31, 2005 in a religious ceremony, and they

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separated for the final time on December 19, 2017. Four children were born during the course of the marriage: I, born in 2008; D, born in 2009; L, born in 2011; and H, born in 2013. The record is voluminous and reflects high-tension, high-conflict disputes over many issues, especially custody.

During the marriage, Mother served as the primary caretaker of the children while Father worked full-time. Mother homeschooled the children, scheduled and attended their medical appointments, and arranged their extracurricular activities. At the time of trial, I and L were homeschooled by Mother three days a week and they attended a homeschooling co-op the other two. D was homeschooled by Mother for a time, but later attended Arnold Elementary School due to "some attention-deficit related learning and behavioral issues." H was to start homeschooling in the fall of 2019. Father was employed as a financial advisor at Valic and made an average of $250,000 per year, and as much as $350,000, until he was terminated on November 26, 2018. He later took a job as a commercial sales representative at a car dealership selling trucks to businesses, where he expected to make $65,000 a year.

The marriage unraveled over time—Mother testified that Father was absent, dismissive, and controlling, drank to excess, and demeaned her in front of the children, all of which Father disputes—and escalated on December 18, 2017 into a physical altercation. Mother left the marital home that night but returned the next day, where she found a knife and gun on Father's desk. Mother left with the children again the next day and went to Virginia to stay with family. After the holidays, she returned to Annapolis and rented a

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home from her relative while Father continued to live in the marital home. They have lived separately ever since.

On January 18, 2018, Mother filed a Complaint for Custody; Child Support; Spousal Support and Other Appropriate Relief. Later, on March 8, 2018, Mother filed an Amended/Supplemental Complaint for Limited/Absolute Divorce. A pendente lite hearing was held on June 8, 2018 to address custody, child support, and alimony, and a pendente lite order was entered on June 20, 2018. The order awarded the parties joint legal custody of the children and shared physical custody: Mother had the children during the school week and first weekend of every month, Father had them the other weekends during the school year, and they shared a week on/week off schedule during the summer. The order also awarded Mother $3,450 per month in child support and $2,500 per month in alimony.

On March 13, 2019, Mother filed an Amended and Supplemental Complaint for Absolute Divorce and Other Related Relief. Father responded on April 2, 2018 with a Counterclaim for Limited Divorce. Mother asked the court to award her sole legal and primary physical custody of the children on a schedule similar to the pendente lite schedule, to find that Father voluntarily impoverished himself and to impute to him an income of $250,000 a year, to award her indefinite alimony or rehabilitative alimony for ten years, and to award her child support and attorney's fees. Father asked the court for joint physical custody with a week-on/week-off schedule year-round; sole legal custody or joint legal custody with tie-breaking authority; to calculate child support based on his income of $65,000; to award Mother rehabilitative alimony for no more than five months; and to

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award him attorney's fees.

An eight-day bench trial was held between April 15 and May 1, 2019. At trial, Mother sought sole legal or joint legal custody with tie-breaking authority and primary physical custody. Father sought sole legal custody or joint legal custody with tie-breaking authority, and joint physical custody with a week on/week off schedule. After trial but before the memorandum opinion and order issued, Mother filed a Motion to Reopen Evidence and Take Additional Testimony on June 25, 2019. Mother alleged that within weeks of the trial ending, Father accepted a new job as a financial advisor. The court denied Mother's motion on July 2, 2019.

About a month-and-a-half later, on August 20, 2019, the court issued its memorandum opinion and order. The court granted the parties an absolute divorce and divided the marital property (property division is not challenged on appeal). The court ordered joint legal and physical custody of the children with a week on/week off schedule throughout the year. The court found that although the parties "had great difficulty communicating nicely with each other at times during the breakup of their marriage," they had been able during the marriage to co-parent their children and communicate with each other. The court also found that both parents were fit, that both parents had a close relationship with the children, that neither parent had work demands that would render them unable to spend time with their children, and that both parents were sincere in their requests for custody.

The court applied the child support guidelines and ordered Father to pay a total of

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$387 per month in child support. The court imputed income of $33,500 to Mother (based on a stipulation) and used Father's projected income of $65,000. The court found that Father did not fail purposely at finding work and didn't shirk his duty to provide for his children. Father continued to pay the mortgage on the marital home. And the court ordered Father to pay 66% of any expenses related to homeschooling and 66% of any extraordinary medical expenses incurred by the children.

With regard to alimony, the court ordered Father to pay $1,000 per month in rehabilitative alimony for five months. The court found there was no reason Mother could not reasonably be expected to become self-supporting, and credited Mother's stipulation that she could earn at least $33,500 annually within five months of beginning a job search. The court also found that although they had enjoyed a "good" standard of living for most of the marriage, the standard declined when Father lost his job and the parties continued to live above their means. The court reasoned that because Mother has a bachelor's degree and acknowledged an earning capacity of $33,500 per year, and because Father only earned $65,000 per year, an award of indefinite alimony was unwarranted.

Finally, the court denied both parties' requests for attorney's fees. Between them, the parties incurred attorney's fees totaling approximately $500,000. Because of their strained financial situations, grandparents had funded the litigation, but the court found that "[i]t was not reasonable or necessary for the parties to become indebted to the extent they have for the purpose of fighting over these limited issues, all of which could have been resolved long before the litigation costs were incurred."

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Mother noted this timely appeal. We supply additional facts below as necessary.


On appeal, Mother raises five issues that we condense and rephrase.1 First, Mother alleges that throughout the trial, the trial judge was biased against her and that as a result she was deprived of her right to a fair and impartial trial. Second, Mother asserts that the circuit court erred in awarding joint legal and physical custody, in finding Father had not voluntarily impoverished himself, in awarding only five months of rehabilitative alimony, and in denying attorney's fees. Third, Mother argues that the circuit court erred when it declined to reopen the case to consider evidence that Father obtained a new job between

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the end of trial and entry of the operative order.

We disagree that Mother was deprived of a fair and impartial...

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