Fletcher v. Feutz, 012221 DESC, 566, 2019

Docket Nº566, 2019
Opinion JudgeMONTGOMERY-REEVES, JUSTICE
Party NameWILLIAM A. FLETCHER, JR. [1] , Petitioner-Below, Appellant, v. MELISSA N. FEUTZ, Respondent-Below, Appellee.
AttorneyBonnie Egan Copeland, Esquire, COPELAND TAYLOR LLC, Wilmington, Delaware; for Appellant William A. Fletcher Gretchen S. Knight, Esquire and R. Eric Hacker, Esquire, MORRIS JAMES LLP, Wilmington, Delaware; for Appellee Melissa N. Feutz.
Judge PanelBefore SEITZ, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and MONTGOMERY-REEVES, Justices.
Case DateJanuary 22, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Delaware

WILLIAM A. FLETCHER, JR. [1] , Petitioner-Below, Appellant,

v.

MELISSA N. FEUTZ, Respondent-Below, Appellee.

No. 566, 2019

Supreme Court of Delaware

January 22, 2021

Submitted: October 28, 2020

Court Below - Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. CK05-02113 Petition No. 18-01135

Upon appeal from the Family Court of Delaware. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, and REMANDED IN PART.

Bonnie Egan Copeland, Esquire, COPELAND TAYLOR LLC, Wilmington, Delaware; for Appellant William A. Fletcher

Gretchen S. Knight, Esquire and R. Eric Hacker, Esquire, MORRIS JAMES LLP, Wilmington, Delaware; for Appellee Melissa N. Feutz.

Before SEITZ, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and MONTGOMERY-REEVES, Justices.

MONTGOMERY-REEVES, JUSTICE

William A. Fletcher, Jr. challenges the Family Court's denial of his petition to modify or terminate alimony payments to his ex-wife, Melissa N. Feutz. Fletcher argues that the Family Court erred by ruling that (i) Feutz was appropriately employed; (ii) there was not a substantial change in circumstances that warranted the termination or modification of alimony; (iii) Feutz was not cohabitating with her paramour; and (iv) Feutz was entitled to the attorney's fees awarded.

Having reviewed the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, this Court holds that the Family Court did not err in finding that Feutz was properly employed and that she was not cohabitating with her paramour. This Court remands the issue of whether there was a substantial change in circumstances. Finally, this Court holds that the Family Court erred in awarding Feutz attorney's fees for the defense of Fletcher's Motion to Modify or Terminate Alimony.

I.

BACKGROUND

Fletcher and Feutz divorced on September 29, 2005, after twenty-nine years of marriage, and signed a Consent Order and Agreement (the "Agreement") dated January 22, 2007, to resolve matters ancillary to the divorce.[2]

Under the terms of the Agreement, Fletcher retains the marital residence in Smyrna, Delaware while Feutz retains the property in Rehoboth, Delaware.3

The Agreement also compels Fletcher to pay Feutz alimony in the amount of $2, 250.00 per month.4 But, the Agreement provides three means by which Fletcher may seek to modify or terminate his alimony obligation. First, Paragraph 18(a) provides that "[i]f not terminated earlier, [Fletcher's] alimony obligation to [Feutz] shall terminate upon the death of either party or the remarriage or cohabitation of [Feutz] as provided in 13 Del. C. § 1512(g)."5 Second, Paragraph 18(b) specifies that Fletcher can seek to modify or terminate his alimony obligation in a future proceeding based on the appropriateness of Feutz's employment, as defined in 13 Del. C. § 1512(e).6 Third, the Agreement states that "the alimony obligation provided for herein shall be subject to modification or termination as provided in 13 Del. C. § 1519(a)(4)[, ]" which relates to a real and substantial change of circumstances.[7]

Fletcher filed his petition in January 2018, and Feutz answered in March 2018.8 The Family Court held trial on April 8, June 7, and June 25, 2019. The pertinent facts warrant a breakdown focused on testimony from key witnesses.

A. Melissa N. Feutz

Feutz is a certified teacher, and she taught for two years, from 2002-2004; however, she spent the bulk of her career (twenty-five plus years) employed in an administrative capacity.9 At the time the parties entered into the Agreement, Feutz was earning $24, 432 per year as a secretary with the Capital School District and had $4, 128 in monthly expenses.10Feutz was promoted to senior secretary in 2006, which included additional responsibilities such as speaking to visitors, planning events, assisting with enrollment, and working closely with the principal.11 Feutz testified that she received above-average performance evaluations.[12] In 2010, she received a pay increase of $13, 981, which brought her yearly earnings to $42, 921.13 While she was employed, Feutz did not alert Fletcher of any increase in her income.[14]

On June 30, 2016, Feutz retired from her employment with the school. At the time she earned $1, 808.31 biweekly, which equates to $47, 016 annually.15 Feutz was 57 at the time of retirement with 20.4 years of service.16 She was entitled to a monthly pension payment of $1, 096.16.17

Feutz cites serious fatigue due to chronic insomnia and anxiety as the reason for her early retirement.18 She experienced numerous traumatic events in a short amount of time, namely the death of her son (which resulted from an opioid overdose), the loss of her marriage, and the death of her father.[19] Feutz attended counseling from 2004-2008 and took medication for depression and anxiety. She stopped taking this medication and refused other medicinal treatment due to the fear of dependence caused by her son's opioid overdose.20

Feutz continued to build a productive career, but her symptoms persisted. Feutz testified that her insomnia began to affect her work by inhibiting her ability to handle her duties, especially in the afternoon. For example, Feutz testified about an incident where, due to her symptoms, she accidentally released a child into the custody of the wrong parent in violation of a Family Court order.[21] She also testified about having to pull off the road during her commute due to her fatigue.22

Feutz also had thyroid cancer and, as a result, had her thyroid removed. She takes Synthroid or the generic equivalent.23 But, she has declined to attend routine follow-up appointments or see any doctor because she "[does not] go to the doctors hardly ever for anything."24 Feutz had resumed therapy as of the time of the trial.25

Feutz offered no objective corroborating medical evidence regarding her mental or physical health.26 Instead, she proffered testimony of her former boss at Capital School District, Kevin Brown, 27 and of her sister-in-law, retired Superior Court Judge Jane Brady.28Both testified about witnessing Feutz's struggles with insomnia and anxiety. And both corroborated Feutz's details about the effects of the insomnia on her, especially with the performance of her job and her commute. But neither witness had a medical background.

After her retirement, Feutz had a job offer closer to her home, but it fell through before she began working. She did not seek other employment in 2016. She began babysitting for a family friend in 2017, but she refused pay and only accepted gift cards. Feutz did not seek other employment until April 2018, after she filed her Answer to Fletcher's Petition.29 In May 2018, Feutz received an offer from Troop 7 in Lewes, Delaware for a seasonal part-time clerical position earning $13.43 per hour.[30] She works on average 29.5 hours each week and receives biweekly paychecks of $792.76.31 In addition to this income, Feutz receives her monthly pension.32

Feutz also had a tenant from May 2018 to April 2019, who helped around the house but did not pay rent.[33] Feutz planned to have another tenant reside with her beginning in June 2019 and expected to have the same arrangement.

Feutz testified that even though she tried to live within her means, money was still tight.34 Feutz claims her current expenses total $4, 047.64.35 To meet her financial needs in 2017, she withdrew approximately $12, 365.97 from her investment account.36 In 2018, she had to rely on a partial disbursement of her IRA and her new position with Troop 7.37 Feutz acknowledged that working, instead of withdrawing these sums, would have been the prudent course of action.38 Concerning the $150, 000 dollar lump sum payment she received under the Agreement, Feutz testified that she used this money primarily for home improvements and maintenance.39 She states her current living standard is below the standard of living she enjoyed while married to Fletcher.40

Regarding her paramour, Feutz and her partner began an exclusive relationship in 2007 or 2008. They often go out together publicly and hold themselves out as a couple.[41]They began spending the night together in 2010.42 Both maintain separate residences as Feutz resides in Rehoboth while her partner lives and works in Dover. Due to her partner's demanding work schedule, and being on call every sixth or seventh weekend, the couple typically spends free weekends together at either house.43 They typically spend Saturday afternoon or evening to Sunday morning or afternoon together. Both partners have keys to the other's house, and either partner will use the key if the other cannot answer the door.44However, neither partner will enter the other's residence without permission.[45]

The couple enjoys bike riding, going to the movies, attending auctions, cooking, and entertaining family and friends.46 They have gone on numerous vacations and have spent holidays together.47 Feutz's partner helps with errands and helps pay when they go out to eat.[48] But, the partner does not pay any portion of the utilities or mortgage for the Rehoboth residence. Feutz's burial policy lists her partner as the beneficiary.49

B. William A. Fletcher Jr.

In 2006, Fletcher owned Fletcher Funeral Directors ("FFD"); his annual income was between $90, 000 and $100, 000; and his monthly expenses were $6, 221.50 When he filed the Petition to Terminate or Modify, Fletcher still owned and operated FFD.51 In 2017, Fletcher's annual income consisted of a $140, 362 salary plus $18, 000 in rent and $11, 687 in business income, totaling $170, 049.52

Fletcher sold FFD to his niece and her husband in June 2018 for $3, 177, 824.25 and received a promissory note of $300, 000 payable on November 9, 2021.53 Fletcher decided to sell the business due to a change in the business and personal health issues.54 Fletcher continues to...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP