Schneider v. Schneider, 98

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Citation644 A.2d 510,335 Md. 500
Docket NumberNo. 98,98
PartiesJanet Marie SCHNEIDER v. Mark Reynolds SCHNEIDER. ,
Decision Date01 September 1993

Barry J.C. Kissin, Frederick, argued for petitioner.

William R. Nicklas, Jr., argued and on brief (Mary Ann Ferguson, Doherty, Elliot & Nicklas, P.A., on brief), Frederick, for respondent.



Here, a divorced woman sought specifically to enforce against her former husband a contract for support that was not referred to in the divorce decree. The circuit court dismissed the plaintiff's complaint under the clean hands doctrine, because the complaint revealed that she had testified falsely in the divorce action as to the grounds for divorce. For the reasons explained below, we shall reverse.

The petitioner, Janet Marie Schneider (Janet), and the respondent, Mark Reynolds Schneider (Mark), were divorced a vinculo by a decree of the Circuit Court for Frederick County dated August 31, 1990. Janet was the plaintiff in that action. Two children had been born of the marriage, a daughter who was an adult at the time of the divorce, and a son who reached age eighteen on November 13, 1990. The decree provided for the absolute divorce of the parties, awarded custody of the son to Janet, charged Mark generally with the son's support, and made no other provisions.

Almost one year later Janet filed the subject "Complaint for Specific Performance" in the Circuit Court for Frederick County, thereby initiating a separate civil action. At the same time she also filed a motion to revise the final judgment in the divorce action. The complaint for specific performance incorporated by reference the allegations in the motion to revise the judgment in the divorce action. As originally filed, the motion to revise restated the purported facts of the adultery on which the divorce had been grounded, namely that on July 15, 1990, Janet had returned home from church to find her husband in bed with a blond-haired woman.

On November 22, 1991, Janet filed in the divorce action an amended motion to revise the judgment, and at the same time she amended the complaint in the instant specific performance action to incorporate the amended motion to revise the judgment. In the amended motion Janet acknowledged that she had not found her husband in bed with another woman.

Because judgment in this case was entered by the circuit court's dismissal of the amended complaint, we look to its allegations for the facts on which the circuit court's conclusion of law was based. In so doing

"we must assume the truth of all relevant and material facts that are well pleaded and all inferences which can be reasonably drawn from those pleadings. On the other hand, any ambiguity or uncertainty in the allegations bearing on whether the complaint states a cause of action must be construed against the pleader."

Sharrow v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 306 Md. 754, 768, 511 A.2d 492, 500 (1986) (citation omitted).

The parties were married in 1966. Two years later Mark received his bachelor's degree and, in 1976, a master's degree. "While the Defendant was going to school, the Plaintiff was raising the children during the day and working at night."

Mark is vice principal of a public elementary school in the City of Frederick, and he is also in charge of Frederick County's summer school program. He earns approximately $50,000 per year. For some unspecified period of time Janet had been a licensed real estate salesperson with a broker in Hagerstown.

Mark "dominated the Plaintiff throughout their marriage [and] completely controlled the parties' finances." He "not only dictated with respect to money matters--his was the final word on children issues and on the matter of what Plaintiff did with her life." In March 1990, Mark was diagnosed as a diabetic. He "insisted that Plaintiff surrender her real estate license and her job selling real estate ... so that she would be able to provide regular meals and otherwise be able to better care for the Defendant." Janet complied.

Two months later Mark "suddenly decided the Plaintiff needed to return to some job that would allow [her] to be home when the Defendant needed her. The Defendant suggested McDonald's in Thurmont. Plaintiff complied." The job at McDonald's paid $5.00 per hour.

On Sunday, July 15, 1990, Mark told Janet that he was going to look for a place in Frederick where he would live separately. 1 Mark returned to the home on July 19 in order to pick up some belongings, and he left a four-page, longhand letter with instructions. That letter in part reads: "I could send you $400.00 or $500.00 every two week[s] 24 times a year or $10,000.00+ per year as long as you need it or more[.]" The theory of the instant complaint is that this portion of the note evidences a contract to pay spousal support.

Janet alleges that on or about July 21, 1991, Mark telephoned her demanding that a family conference be arranged. He also told her that he "wanted a fast divorce because he did not want to waste another 18 months of his life [and] that the only way to obtain a fast divorce would be on the ground of adultery." Janet "replied that she would prefer a legal separation. Ultimately, however, [she] acquiesced and agreed to obtain a divorce on the grounds of adultery."

Shortly after July 21 the parties met with their children. Mark told them that the parties had "agreed to divorce, that there was no fault involved ... and that if the children happened to see in the newspaper that their mother was obtaining a divorce on the grounds of adultery, that that was only so the divorce could be obtained without a long waiting period."

After Mark had dismissed the children from the meeting, he told Janet that he did not want an attorney involved. Janet expressed the view "that it would take the assistance of an attorney to accomplish dissolution of the marriage." Mark agreed to have an attorney " 'handle the divorce part,' " but that the parties would " 'handle the settlement part,' " telling Janet, " 'I've already told you what I will do. You have it in writing.' " At that same meeting Mark promised to continue Janet as the primary beneficiary on his two life insurance policies. The benefit under one is $100,000. Under the other the benefit is twice Mark's salary from the Board of Education.

Janet hired an attorney "to prosecute an uncontested divorce that merely dissolved the marriage." She "relied upon Defendant's assurances that he would supply the necessary financial assistance," and she "abstain[ed] from seeking alimony and other relief." Her complaint for divorce, alleging adultery, was filed August 7, 1990. It appears from the statements of present counsel, but not as a matter of record in this appeal, that Mark answered pro se and under oath, admitting the allegations, and that Janet and a corroborating witness testified before an examiner. Janet avers that she

"does not believe there is any excuse for having participated in misleading the Court as to grounds for divorce. Mitigating circumstances include that she was very sick to the point of being ill from the tensions incident to her relationship with Defendant. Plaintiff was also physically afraid of Defendant."

The divorce decree was entered August 31.

Mark made two payments of $400 each to Janet in October 1990, and he made one payment of $400 in November 1990. Thereafter he refused to make any payments. At some point Janet also discovered that her former husband had removed her as beneficiary on his life insurance policies. In June 1991, Janet requested assistance from Mark to enable her "to go back to school so that she could qualify to teach elementary school." He "suggest[ed] that she apply to Social Services for help. The Plaintiff had already done that and was found to be ineligible."

Janet gave up working at McDonald's in May 1991. When the complaint was filed in August of that year, she was doing "some" home teaching, and she worked twenty hours per week taking care of elderly nuns for which she was paid $5.75 per hour.

The complaint and the contemporaneously filed motion state that her "first choice of remedy is specific performance." 2 Mark moved to dismiss the complaint on multiple grounds, including unclean hands. The circuit court granted that motion after concluding:

"In this case, the matters which the Plaintiff attempts to litigate ... could and should have been disposed of in the divorce action. Where the Plaintiff obtained her divorce on admittedly perjured testimony, this court refuses to recognize her action in this case under the doctrine of unclean hands." 3

Janet appealed to the Court of Special Appeals which affirmed the dismissal. Schneider v. Schneider, 96 Md.App. 296, 624 A.2d 1319 (1993). On that appeal Janet's principal arguments were that (1) dismissal on the pleadings, based on unclean hands, is rarely appropriate, particularly in matrimonial litigation, (2) a sufficient nexus between her inequitable conduct and the relief sought was lacking, and (3) although both parties committed the same wrong, her conduct resulted from oppressive influence by Mark.

As to Janet's first contention, the Court of Special Appeals "refuse[d] to characterize the present case as 'matrimonial' in nature," viewing it, rather, as a "standard contract" action. Id. at 309-10, 624 A.2d at 1326. 4

On the nexus issue, the intermediate appellate court held that Janet's perjury was "the source, or part of the source," of her claim. The court explained:

" 'It is only when the plaintiff's improper conduct is the source, or part of the source, of his equitable claim, that he is to be barred because of his conduct. "What is material is not that the plaintiff's hands are dirty, but that he dirties them in acquiring the right he now asserts." ' "

Id. at 306, 624 A.2d at 1325 (quoting Adams v....

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