Nienow v. Nienow, 20361

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Citation232 S.E.2d 504,268 S.C. 161
Decision Date09 February 1977
Docket NumberNo. 20361,20361
PartiesBarbara A. NIENOW, Appellant, v. Arthur E. NIENOW, Respondent.

Page 504

232 S.E.2d 504
268 S.C. 161
Barbara A. NIENOW, Appellant,
Arthur E. NIENOW, Respondent.
No. 20361.
Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Feb. 9, 1977.

Page 506

[268 S.C. 163] Kermit S. King and Donald W. Tyler, Columbia, for appellant.

[268 S.C. 164] M. M. Weinberg, Jr., and Robert W. Brown, Sumter, for respondent.

[268 S.C. 165] NESS, Justice:

This protracted domestic suit was instituted by the appellant, Barbara A. Nienow, on August 4, 1972, seeking a divorce as well as ancillary questions of alimony and attorneys' fees. The respondent-husband on August 2, 1972, instituted an action for divorce in the State of Florida which ultimately resulted in a dissolution of the marriage on February 1, 1973. The Florida court did not secure In personam jurisdiction over the appellant-wife who filed a special appearance. By supplemental pleadings, the respondent interposed the Florida decree as an absolute bar to this action and the appellant replied that the decree would have no effect on her claim for alimony, suit money, and attorneys' fees.

The master found that the parties were married in the State of Florida on April 24, 1971, after cohabiting continuously since

Page 507

August or September of 1968; and, that prior to June 1, 1972, the domicile of the parties was the State of Florida. Thereafter, the appellant established a physicial presence, registereed to vote, and obtained a driver's license in South Carolina, evincing a change of domicile. [268 S.C. 166] The master concluded that appellant was entitled to a lumpt sum alimony in the amount of $15,000.00, no temporary alimony or support, attorneys' fees in the amount of $5,000.00, and the costs of the action.

Upon plenary exceptions of both parties, the circuit court judge held appellant's residence in this State was 'mala fide' as opposed to 'bona fide,' and concluded our courts should not exercise jurisdiction in this action, which in his opinion constituted forum shopping. In spite of his jurisdictional pronouncement, the trial judge attempted to approach the substantive issues by concurring with the master that no temporary support or alimony should be granted and the Florida decree effectively dissolved the marriage. Furthermore, contrary to the conclusions of the master, the trial judge found no entitlement to attorneys' fees, alimony, or costs of the action. He also attempted to hold, alternatively, that if he was in error as to the issue of basic entitlement, he would concur with the master as to the Amount of the awards.

The threshold issue is the jurisdictional element which the circuit court raised. The clear majority of authorities concur that jurisidctional statutes requisite to divorce actions 1 are not applicable to independent actions for alimony or separate maintenance; and, therefore, a wife any institute such an action even if the court does not have jurisdiction to grant a divorce. 2

Considering both the original and supplemental pleadings, 3 it is clear that this action is not one for divorce, but an independent action for alimony, attorneys fees and costs. Unquestionably the wife has a right to maintain such an action pursuant to the 'divisible divorce' doctrine. Murdock v. Murdock, 243 S.C. 218, 133 S.E.2d 323 (1963).

[268 S.C. 167] There are no statutory residence requirements attendant to independent actions for alimony or support. 4 It is uncontested that the lower court obtained In personam jurisdiction of the respondent by personal service and a voluntary general appearance in this action. Additionally, a portion of the respondent's real estate in South Carolina, which is valued at three million dollars, was attached. The appellant, regardless of her 'mala fide' or 'bona fide' residency, voluntarily submitted to jurisdiction by filing her pleadings for relief. It follows that our courts had jurisdiction of both the parties and the subject matter of this action. 5 The issue presented by the circuit court is whether our forum should refuse to exercise its jurisdiction.

Forum non conveniens is the discretionary precept which allows a court with proper jurisdiction to dismiss an action, when such would further the ends of justice and promote the convenience of the parties. Del Rio v. Ballenger Corp., 391 F.Supp. 1002 (D.S.C.1975). Intertwined with the doctrine are the traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. 'The exercise of discretion implies conscientious judgment, not arbitrary action, and takes account of the law and particular circumstances of the case, being directed by the reason and conscience of the judge to a just result.' State v. Hill, 266 S.C. 49, 51, 221 S.E.2d 398, 399 (1976).

It is axiomatic that a plaintiff's choice of forum, given In personam jurisdiction

Page 508

over a defendant, 'should not be disturbed except for weighty reasons' and the 'action will not be dismissed unless a suitable alternative forum is available to the plaintiff.' Restatement, [268 S.C. 168] 2d, Conflict of Laws, § 84(c). 6 The doctrine is generally invoked where the forum has little or no relations to the transitory cause of action.

In marital disputes courts have accorded weight to the amenability and willingness of the defendant to accept service of process in another state and tangible or intangible contacts between the forum and the parties. 7

The voluminous transcript 8 in the instant case reveals an itinerant history of the respondent, at least since the inception of the relationship between the parties. The couple met in Minnesota in 1968 and for the next four years they traveled throughout the United States and Canada. Although Florida was the apparent domicile, the parties maintained no permanent residence as they rented quarters in a lodge while intermittently living in the State. Immediately after their marriage in 1971, the parties leased an apartment in Georgia and made plans to build a home in Florida. After several months the couple left Georgia and moved to Sumter, South Carolina, pending the completion of the house in Florida, which when completed was only briefly occupied before their marital relationship became strained and their respective actions were instituted.

Throughout the parties' travels, visits were made to Sumter where the couple would remain for brief intervals of time. The vast majority of the respondent's assets as well as the center of his business operations are in the State of South Carolina. Respondent was a registered agent for service of process in Sumter for two South Carolina corporations and he received mail at this address. He also maintained banking[268 S.C. 169] accounts within this State as well as a South Carolina driver's license.

The respondent has not established that he had suffered any prejudice by the appellant's choice of a forum and his past history of movement about the country, bolsters our predilection to afford appellant a forum to seek her relief. 9

The contacts of the parties with the State of South Carolina are not insubstantial. This is not a case where the cause of action does not rise even in part within the forum. Much of respondent's assets which will constitute the collateral for any judgment are situated here.

The party asserting Forum non conveniens has a heavy burden of proof. Courts should not...

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