McLeod v. Starnes

Decision Date07 March 2012
Docket NumberNo. 27100.,27100.
Citation723 S.E.2d 198,396 S.C. 647
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesKristi Glenn McLEOD f/k/a/ Kristi G. Starnes, Appellant, v. Robert Anthony STARNES, Respondent.


Jean Perrin Derrick, of Lexington, for Appellant.

J. Mark Taylor, of Moore, Taylor & Thomas, of West Columbia and Katherine Carruth Goode, of Winnsboro, for Respondent.

Justice HEARN.

Less than two years ago, this Court decided Webb v. Sowell, 387 S.C. 328, 692 S.E.2d 543 (2010), which held that ordering a non-custodial parent to pay college expenses violates equal protection, thus overruling thirty years of precedent flowing from Risinger v. Risinger, 273 S.C. 36, 253 S.E.2d 652 (1979). We granted permission in this case to argue against precedent pursuant to Rule 217, SCACR, so that we could revisit our holding in Webb. Today, we hold that Webb was wrongly decided and remand this matter for reconsideration in light of the law as it existed prior to Webb.


Kristi McLeod (Mother) and Robert Starnes (Father) divorced in 1993 following five years of marriage. Mother received custody of their two minor children, and Father was required to pay child support in the amount of $212 per week, which was later reduced to $175 per week by agreement, in addition to thirty-five percent of his annual bonus. At the time, Father earned approximately $29,000 per year plus a $2,500 bonus. However, his salary steadily increased to over $120,000 per year and his bonus to nearly $30,000 by 2007. In 2008, his salary was almost $250,000. During the same time period, Mother's income increased and fluctuated from less than $12,000 per year to a peak of approximately $40,000 per year. Despite the rather sizable increases in Father's income, Mother never sought modification of his child support obligation because, as Father admitted, she had no way of knowing about them.

In August 2006, the parties' older child, Collin, reached the age of majority and enrolled as a student at Newberry College.1 To help take advantage of this opportunity, he sought all scholarships, loans, and grants that he could. Father wholly supported Collin's decision to attend Newberry. Indeed, Father wrote an e-mail in March 2006 agreeing to repay all of Collin's student loans upon graduation. He even co-signed a promissory note for Collin's student loans. Furthermore, in an August 2006 letter, Father agreed to pick up “odd expenses from [Collin]'s education” and told Collin to call him whenever he “needs a little help.” Interestingly, Father took it upon himself in that same letter to unilaterally decrease his weekly child support from $175 to $100. Mother later acquiesced in this reduction, apparently in consideration of Father's assurances that he would support Collin while he was in college. However, Father did not uphold his end of the bargain, nor did he regularly pay the percentage of his bonus as required.

Mother brought the instant action in March 2007 seeking an award of college expenses, an increase in child support for Jamie, and attorney's fees and costs. Father counterclaimed, asking that the court terminate: (1) his child support for Collin because he had attained the age of majority and graduated from high school; (2) his support for Jamie upon graduation from high school; (3) and the requirement that he pay a percentage of his annual bonus as child support. He also denied that he should be required to pay any college expenses for Collin. A temporary order was filed in June 2007 that set child support for Jamie at $235 per week, ordered Father to contribute $400 per month towards Collin's college expenses, and left intact the thirty-five percent of Father's annual bonus payable as support.

The final hearing was not conducted until March and July 2009. The court dismissed Mother's claim for college expenses on the ground that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. 2 Furthermore, the court found that Jamie's mental and physical disabilities required a continuation of child support beyond the age of majority and as long as the child's disabilities exist. However, the court reduced Father's obligation for Jamie after recalculating the base obligation using different figures than those used in the temporary order. Furthermore, the court reduced the percentage payable from his annual bonus from thirty-five to ten.3 The court accordingly found Father had overpaid child support for the two years the temporary order was in effect and reduced his monthly payments by fifteen percent until the overpayment was discharged. Finally, the court required both parties to pay their own attorney's fees and costs.


Mother raises three issues on appeal:

I. Did the family court err in not awarding college expenses?

II. Did the family court err in lowering the current support for the younger child and awarding Father a credit for alleged overpayment of child support during the pendency of this case?

III. Did the family court err in not awarding Mother attorney's fees and costs?


Mother argues the family court erred in finding that an order requiring Father to pay college expenses for Collin violates equal protection. We agree.

In Webb, we held that requiring a parent to contribute toward an adult child's college expenses violated the Equal Protection Clause.4 387 S.C. at 332–33, 692 S.E.2d at 545. We are not unmindful of the imprimatur of correctness which stare decisis lends to that decision. However, stare decisis is not an inexorable command: “There is no virtue in sinning against light or persisting in palpable error, for nothing is settled until it is settled right.... There should be no blind adherence to a precedent which, if it is wrong, should be corrected at the first practical moment.” Smith v. Daniel Const. Co., 253 S.C. 248, 255–56, 169 S.E.2d 767, 771 (1969) (Bussey, J., dissenting) (quoting Sidney Spitzer & Co. v. Comm'rs of Franklin County, 188 N.C. 30, 123 S.E. 636, 638 (1924)). Furthermore,

[w]hen the court is asked to follow the line marked out by a single precedent case it is not at liberty to place its decision on the rule of stare decisis alone, without regard to the grounds on which the antecedent case was adjudicated.... An original case could not possibly gain authority by a mere perfunctory following on the principle of stare decisis.State v. Williams, 13 S.C. 546, 554–55 (1880). In that vein, stare decisis is far more a respect for a body of decisions as opposed to a single case standing alone. See Langley v. Boyter, 284 S.C. 162, 180, 325 S.E.2d 550, 560 (Ct.App.1984), quashed on other grounds, 286 S.C. 85, 332 S.E.2d 100 (1985) (“The doctrine of stare decisis says that where a principle of law has become settled by a series of court decisions, it should be followed in similar cases.” (emphasis added)). This is not to say that a single case garners no protection from stare decisis, for even in those circumstances we should hesitate to revisit and reverse our decisions without good cause to do so. Our precedents simply make clear, however, that such a case is not rendered immutable by stare decisis.

Therefore, [s]tare decisis should be used to foster stability and certainty in the law, but[ ] not to perpetuate error.” Fitzer v. Greater Greenville S.C. Young Men's Christian Ass'n, 277 S.C. 1, 4, 282 S.E.2d 230, 231 (1981), superseded by statute on other grounds, S.C.Code Ann. § 33–55–200 et seq. (2006). Stare decisis applies with full force with respect to questions of statutory interpretation because the legislature is free to correct us if we misinterpret its words. Layton v. Flowers, 243 S.C. 421, 424, 134 S.E.2d 247, 248 (1964). However, the doctrine is at its weakest with respect to constitutional questions because only the courts or a constitutional amendment can remedy any mistakes made. Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 236, 117 S.Ct. 1997, 138 L.Ed.2d 391 (1997).

We are at the first practical moment to reexamine Webb, a “single precedent case” concerning a constitutional question because it is the first and only case in this State finding an equal protection violation in these circumstances. We now believe Webb reversed the burden imposed on parties operating under rational basis review for equal protection challenges and should therefore be overruled.

In Webb, we were asked to determine whether requiring a non-custodial parent to pay college expenses was a violation of equal protection. 387 S.C. at 330, 692 S.E.2d at 544. “The sine qua non of an equal protection claim is a showing that similarly situated persons received disparate treatment.” Grant v. S.C. Coastal Council, 319 S.C. 348, 354, 461 S.E.2d 388, 391 (1995). Absent an allegation that the classification resulting in different treatment is suspect, a classification will survive an equal protection challenge so long as it rests on some rational basis. Lee v. S.C. Dep't of Natural Res., 339 S.C. 463, 467, 530 S.E.2d 112, 114 (2000). Under the rational basis test, a classification is presumed reasonable and will remain valid unless and until the party challenging it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that there “is no admissible hypothesis upon which it can be justified.” Carolina Amusement Co. v. Martin, 236 S.C. 558, 576, 115 S.E.2d 273, 282 (1960). If we can discern any rational basis to support the classification, regardless of whether that basis was the original motivation for it, the classification will withstand constitutional scrutiny. Lee, 339 S.C. at 470 n. 4, 530 S.E.2d at 115 n. 4. The classification also does not need to completely achieve its purpose to withstand constitutional scrutiny. Id. at 467, 530 S.E.2d at 114.

In Webb, the majority viewed the classification created by Risinger for equal protection purposes as those parents subject to a child support order at the time the child is emancipated.5 387 S.C. at 332, 692...

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