Christians v. Christians, 21543.

Decision Date05 December 2001
Docket NumberNo. 21543.,21543.
Citation2001 SD 142,637 N.W.2d 377
PartiesConnie Cutler CHRISTIANS, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Michael Arlo CHRISTIANS, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtSouth Dakota Supreme Court

David R. Strait of Austin, Hinderaker, Hopper, Strait & Bratland, Watertown, South Dakota, Attorney for plaintiff and appellee.

Rick A. Ribstein of McCann, Ribstein & Hogan, Brookings, South Dakota, Attorney for defendant and appellant. SABERS, Justice (on reassignment).

¶ 1 Connie Cutler Christians (Connie) was granted a divorce from her husband Michael Arlo Christians (Michael). Michael appeals raising nine issues. We affirm all issues, except Issue 5, which we remand for recalculation of child support to include alimony.

FACTS

¶ 2 Connie and Michael were married on September 18, 1993 in Minnesota. They have one child, Cara, born December 19, 1995. At the time of trial, Connie was 31 years old and Michael was 37. Both Connie and Michael are in good health.

¶ 3 Michael is a graduate of South Dakota State University (SDSU) with a B.S. degree in Dairy Production. Michael has held various jobs over the length of the marriage, and, at the time of dissolution, he was making approximately $61,000 per year as a sales representative for Degussa Huls, a chemical manufacturer.

¶ 4 Connie is also a graduate of SDSU with a B.S. degree in Ag Business and Rural Sociology. After graduation, Connie worked at Cenex/Land O' Lakes beginning in 1991. She quit her job after she married Michael in 1993. In June of 1994, she started working at Norwest Bank in Watertown as a loan officer and earned approximately $28,000 annually. Soon after filing for divorce, she was fired from her position at Norwest Bank. She claims her firing was caused by Michael's misconduct.

¶ 5 Connie filed for divorce on March 26, 1999. She amended her complaint on October 6, 1999, to include numerous causes of action including a count of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.

¶ 6 The trial was held on January 20, 25, and February 2, 2000. After hearing the evidence, the trial court: 1) granted Connie a divorce on the basis of extreme cruelty; 2) granted Connie custody of Cara with visitation by Michael pursuant to the court's expert, Dr. Clayborne; 3) divided the marital property; 4) established child support in the amount of $637.00 per month to be paid by Michael; 5) awarded Connie permanent alimony; 6)awarded Connie $8,000 in attorneys' fees and costs; 7) granted a permanent injunction, restraining Michael from disclosing confidential information of customers of the bank where Connie had worked; 8) directed that all exchanges for child visitation take place through the Family Visitation Center operated by the Woman's Resource Center in Watertown, South Dakota; 9) awarded Connie $20,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress; and 10) assessed punitive damages against Michael in the amount of $7,000.

¶ 7 Michael appeals the following issues:

1. Whether the trial court erred in dividing the property.
2. Whether the trial court erred in grantingpermanent alimony.
3. Whether South Dakota law permits a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on conduct which occurred after the filing for divorce, but prior to its completion, and if so, whether Connie established the required elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
4. Whether the trial court erred when it failed to consider the alimony award when calculating child support.
5. Whether the trial court adopted Dr. Clayborne's report as stipulated to by the parties.
6. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting Connie a divorce based on extreme cruelty.
7. Whether the trial court erred in granting punitive damages of $7,000 to Connie.
8. Whether the trial court erred in allowing Connie to file her proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law after the statutory deadline.
9. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in awarding Connie attorneys' fees and costs of $8,000.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 8 It is well settled that the trial court has broad discretion with respect to property division and, absent an abuse of discretion, its judgment will not be set aside. Caughron v. Caughron, 418 N.W.2d 791, 792 (S.D.1988); Tate v. Tate, 394 N.W.2d 309, 311 (S.D.1986). "The term `abuse of discretion' refers to a discretion exercised to an end or purpose not justified by, and clearly against reason and evidence." Paradeis v. Paradeis, 461 N.W.2d 135, 137 (S.D.1990) (citing Bradeen v. Bradeen, 430 N.W.2d 87, 91 (S.D.1988)). All of these issues are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard.

¶ 9 1. Whether the trial court erred in dividing the property.

¶ 10 After calculating all real and personal property owned by Michael and Connie, the trial court determined the couple's net worth at $537,234.82. Included in this figure, the trial court found Connie's premarital net worth to be $19,425 and Michael's premarital net worth to be $277,700.56. After also subtracting a $14,890 line of credit, the court arrived at a marital estate of $254,999.26. This amount was equally divided between the parties with each receiving $127,499.63. Michael contends that his premarital net worth was much higher than that recognized by the trial court. Specifically, he asserts that the trial court undervalued the 320 acres of farmland he inherited.

¶ 11 At trial, Michael testified that the farmland, which he inherited prior to the marriage, was worth $229,000. Connie, on the other hand, offered evidence that the value of the farmland was $100,280.

¶ 12 This Court has noted: "[i]n making an equitable division of property, the trial court is not bound by any mathematical formula, but is to make an award on the basis of the material factors in the case, having due regard for equity and the circumstances of the parties." Garnos v. Garnos, 376 N.W.2d 571, 572-73 (S.D.1985). Although a trial court is not required to accept either party's proposed valuation, the value must be within the range of evidence presented to the court. Johnson v. Johnson, 471 N.W.2d 156, 162 (S.D.1991); Strickland v. Strickland, 470 N.W.2d 832, 837 (S.D.1991); Studt v. Studt, 443 N.W.2d 639, 641 (S.D.1989).

¶ 13 The trial court determined the value of the farmland to be $120,000. This was within "the range of evidence." See Johnson, supra; Strickland, supra; Studt, supra. While the trial court did not wholly adopt the figures of either party, the court's final valuation of the farmland was well within its discretion and supported by the conflicting valuations. Paradeis, supra. "This represents another case where we are being asked to fine-tune the handiwork of those to whom the division of martial property has been entrusted. We refuse to do this without a stronger showing than is presented here." Buseman v. Buseman, 299 N.W.2d 807, 810 (S.D.1980). Therefore, we find noerror.1 ¶ 14 2. Whether the trial court erred in granting permanent alimony.

¶ 15 The trial court granted Connie permanent alimony with the following distribution schedule: $1,300 the first month, decreasing $200 each month. Once the figure reached $300, the amount of alimony would remain at $300 per month until either party dies or if and when Connie remarries.

¶ 16 Factors considered in deciding alimony are: 1) length of the marriage; 2) respective earning capacity of the parties; 3) their respective age, health and physical condition; 4) their station in life or social standing; and 5) relative fault. DeVries v. DeVries, 519 N.W.2d 73, 77 (S.D.1994). Our review of the trial court's award of alimony is based on the abuse of discretion standard. Id.

¶ 17 The trial court took into account that the marriage lasted approximately six years. Over that time period, Connie contributed substantially to the couple's accumulation of wealth by being the primary caregiver to their daughter as well as maintaining certain assets while Michael was away on business. The court considered the age and health of the parties and determined that they were both of good health and found their physical condition to not affect their ability to earn a living. The court did, however, find that Michael's earning potential far exceeded that of Connie, as Michael was currently making $61,000 per year and Connie was unemployed.

¶ 18 Likewise, Michael was found to be at fault for the dissolution of the marriage. The record is replete with instances where Michael's treatment of Connie was less than respectful. As the trial court found, Michael attempted to control Connie's behavior regarding use of their vehicles, her job, social life, and especially with the spending of money. We have often emphasized that relative fault is an important factor in determining whether alimony is warranted. Vander Pol v. Vander Poi, 484 N.W.2d 522, 525 (S.D.1992); Kanta v. Kanta, 479 N.W.2d 505, 511 (S.D.1991). Michael's fault for the dissolution of the marriage is clear.

¶ 19 A review of the factual findings entered by the trial court shows a consideration of all factors and its findings on this issue are supported by the record. Evans v. Evans, 1997 SD 16, ¶ 31, 559 N.W.2d 240, 247 (citation omitted). Thus, the permanent alimony award is affirmed.

¶ 20 3. Whether South Dakota law permits a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on conduct which occurred after the filing for divorce, but prior to its completion, and if so, whether Connie established the required elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

¶ 21 A claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress is a separate and independent tort. In the divorce setting, we have made it clear that the conduct leading to the dissolution of marriage is not grounds for an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Pickering v. Pickering, 434 N.W.2d 758, 761 (S.D.1989). Independent torts,...

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