Earls v Earls, 99-00035

CourtCourt of Appeals of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtMaynard
Citation42 S.W.3d 877
Decision Date31 May 2000
Docket Number99-00035


No. M1999-00035-COA-R3-CV


Decided May 31, 2000

Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. II-98458

Russ Heldman, Judge

This appeal involves a marriage irretrievably broken by a catastrophic injury to the wife. The parties separated after attempting to cope with the wife's condition for over one year, and the husband filed for an irreconcilable differences divorce in the Circuit Court for Williamson County. The wife agreed that the parties had irreconcilable differences but resisted the divorce because she desired to continue being covered by the husband's employer-provided group medical insurance. The trial court heard the evidence without a jury and declined to grant the husband a divorce or to declare the parties divorced. The trial court also awarded custody of the child to the wife despite the parties' agreement and the lack of evidence that the wife was physically and psychologically able to shoulder the responsibilities of being the custodial parent. The husband has appealed. We have determined that the record contains ample evidence to declare these parties divorced in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. ' 36-4-129(b) (Supp. 1999). We have also determined that the evidence does not support the trial court's decision to award custody of the parties' child to the wife and that the trial court's award of spousal support to the wife should be modified.

Tenn. R. App. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed in Part; Modified in Part; and Remanded

Thomas F. Bloom and Robyn Ryan, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Clark Matthew Earls.

R. E. Lee Davies, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellee, Shirley Ann Earls.

KOCH, J. delivered the opinion of the court in which COTTRELL, J. joined. COTTRELL, J. filed a concurring opinion. CAIN, J. filed a dissenting opinion.


Clark Matthews Earls and Shirley Ann Holman Earls met when they were approximately twenty years old. Both worked, and Mr. Earls also boxed professionally. Their son was born in July 1991, and they were married two years later in July 1993. While Ms. Earls had been married previously, this was Mr. Earls' first marriage. The parties returned to Williamson County in 1996 after Mr. Earls failed to establish himself as a boxer in Las Vegas. Following their return, Ms. Earls managed an apartment complex, and Mr. Earls held part-time jobs at Service Merchandise Company and United Parcel Service.

Ms. Earls suffered an unexpected and catastrophic injury in March 1997 when an aneurism near her spine burst. She was left a quadriplegic and faced a long, difficult period of rehabilitation to regain even partial use of her arms and legs and to provide even a minimal level of self-sufficiency. Mr. Earls took a leave of absence from work in order to help Ms. Earls with her rehabilitation. Mr. Earls' parents also moved to Middle Tennessee for eleven months to help their son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. When Ms. Earls was released from the rehabilitation center in June 1997, the parties moved to a mobile home in Wartrace because Ms. Earls wanted to be closer to her father. Mr. Earls agreed to move even though it significantly increased his commute to work.

The rehabilitation process was slow and difficult. For their own reasons, each party became discouraged and depressed. Mr. Earls was frustrated because he believed that Ms. Earls was not pursuing her rehabilitation as vigorously as she could, and Ms. Earls became depressed and angry about the cruel blow fate had dealt her. Unfortunately, each party became the target of the other's frustration and anger. Eventually, the pressure and strain drove the parties apart. They began to argue frequently and to call each other names. Eventually, the tension in the household became so intense that Mr. Earls' parents decided to move back to their home in Cleveland, Tennessee rather than endure the constant fighting between their son and daughter-in-law.

As time passed, the parties became less communicative and more distant. The constant pressure and tension extinguished their feelings for each other. From Ms. Earls' point of view, Mr. Earls kept providing her care, but he was only providing her Athe basics, you know, here's your food; here's your water; here's your pill; here's things that you need.@ From Mr. Earls' point of view, Ms. Earls continued to be angry and resentful about her injury and stopped expressing any affection for him or appreciation for his efforts to assist her. As Mr. Earls described it, Ms. Earls was Avery cold and bitter,@ and Aall I could do is to be there for her.@

Approximately fifteen months after Ms. Earls' injury, Mr. Earls told her that he had contacted a lawyer and that he wanted a divorce. Ms. Earls did not disagree that their relationship was irretrievably broken, and in early July 1998, she moved out of the handicapped accessible apartment where they had moved and went to live with her mother and step-father. The parties agreed to an irreconcilable differences divorce and, on July 16, 1998, signed a marital dissolution agreement. The agreement provided that the parties would have joint custody but that the child would live Aprimarily@ with Mr. Earls. It also provided that Ms. Earls would not be required to pay child support because Mr. Earls was receiving the child's SSI payments stemming from Ms. Earls' medical condition.

Mr. Earls filed the irreconcilable differences divorce complaint on July 17, 1998. Ms. Earls informed him that she no longer agreed to the terms in the marital dissolution agreement, and on August 5, 1998, she filed an answer and counterclaim. While she admitted that the parties had Airreconcilable differences@ that were Apermanent,@ she requested that the trial court declare the marital dissolution agreement void because it had been procured through undue influence and duress. She did not request a divorce of any sort, but she requested spousal support and a temporary restraining order preventing Mr. Earls from removing her from his employer-provided medical insurance and from concealing or dissipating marital assets. Mr. Earls denied the undue influence and duress claims, and on December 14, 1998, filed an amended complaint seeking a divorce on the ground of inappropriate marital conduct. Three days later, Ms. Earls denied the inappropriate marital conduct allegation and responded, in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann. ' 36-4-120(a) (Supp. 1999), that any ill conduct on her part was caused by ill conduct on the part of Mr. Earls.

The first day of trial occurred on March 10, 1999. By this time, Ms. Earls was still not requesting a divorce of any sort but was requesting spousal support. Before the proof was taken, Ms. Earls informed the court that the parties had agreed that Mr. Earls should have custody of the child but also insisted that she should have the right to reopen the custody question whenever she thought that she was sufficiently rehabilitated to take care of her son. The trial court responded to this announcement by suggesting joint custody with Mr. Earls being the Aresidential parent.@ When both parties agreed to the suggestion, the trial court announced: AThen that would be the decree of the court with respect to the custody issue.@ With the custody issue seemingly resolved, neither party presented the evidence normally associated with custody disputes.

The trial reconvened on March 26, 1999, and the parties concluded presenting their evidence and argument by noon. After deliberating for approximately two hours, the trial court returned to the bench to deliver its ruling. First, the court announced that Mr. Earls had not proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Ms. Earls had engaged in Acruel and inhuman treatment.(FN1) The court also concluded that Ms. Earls' Aright of privacy . . . estops this court from going so far as to finding any choice that she's made with respect to her body to be cruel and inhuman treatment towards Mr. Earls.@ Then, turning to the question of custody, the court awarded sole custody of the child to Ms. Earls because Mr. Earls' relationship with Laura Moore Ajeopardized the child in a moral sense.@ The court ordered Mr. Earls to pay Ms. Earls $570 per month in spousal support until her death, $300 per month in child support, as well as all her accrued and future medical expenses not covered by insurance. Finally, the court permanently enjoined Mr. Earls from Acoming around Laura Moore . . . to promote and protect the marriage relationship which exists and will exist in this case until I'm reversed or something new comes before the [c]ourt.@ On this appeal, Mr. Earls takes issue with the trial court's refusal to declare the parties divorced, its custody decision, its spousal and child support orders, and with the blanket injunction against associating with Ms. Moore as long as he was married.



The trial court, perceiving itself as the protector of the institution of marriage,(FN2) declined to divorce the parties on two grounds. First, it concluded that Mr. Earls failed to carry his burden of proving the existence of one of the grounds for divorce in Tenn. Code Ann. ' 36-4-101 (Supp. 1999). Second, the trial court concluded that the parties should not be divorced because Ms. Earls would Abe more aggressive in pursuing reconciliation@ once Mr. Earls' divorce complaint was dismissed. This reasoning demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the divorce statutes and a fanciful interpretation of the evidence.


For at least one hundred and fifty years, the courts of this state have been empowered to grant divorces when a spouse engages in Acruel and inhuman treatment or conduct towards the spouse as renders cohabitation unsafe and improper.@ Tenn. Code Ann. ' 36-4-101(11); Code of Tennessee ' 2449(1) (1858). The...

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