State ex rel. St. Clair v. Howard, No. 20-0442

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtWOOTON, Justice
Citation856 S.E.2d 638
Parties STATE of West Virginia EX REL. J. William ST. CLAIR, Petitioner v. The Honorable Gregory L. HOWARD, Judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit, the Honorable Jara Howard, Family Court Judge of the 6th Family Court Circuit, and Molly M. P. St. Clair, Respondents
Decision Date26 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-0442

856 S.E.2d 638

STATE of West Virginia EX REL. J. William ST. CLAIR, Petitioner
v.
The Honorable Gregory L. HOWARD, Judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit, the Honorable Jara Howard, Family Court Judge of the 6th Family Court Circuit, and Molly M. P. St. Clair, Respondents

No. 20-0442

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Submitted: March 2, 2021
Filed: March 26, 2021


Scott D. Maddox, Esq., Maddox Law Office, PLLC, Huntington, WV, Counsel for Petitioner.

R. Lyne Ranson, Esq., Lyne Ranson Law Offices, PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, Mike Kelly, Esq., Mark W. Kelley, Esq., Ray, Winton & Kelley, PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondent.

WOOTON, Justice:

856 S.E.2d 644

The parties to the underlying divorce proceeding, J. William St. Clair ("Husband") and Molly M. P. St. Clair ("Wife")1 were married on January 5, 2012, separated on August 6, 2018, and filed for divorce on September 7, 2018. Together with Husband's petition for divorce and Wife's answer, the parties submitted a signed property settlement agreement and financial statements that were less than skeletal, both containing a written notation that the parties waived the requirement of full financial disclosures. All of these documents were drafted and filed by Husband, an attorney. Because there were no parenting issues2 and there was a written property settlement agreement signed by both parties, Husband filed the case in the Circuit Court of Cabell County pursuant to West Virginia Code § 51-2A-2(b) (Supp. 2020), which gives concurrent jurisdiction to circuit courts and family courts under these circumstances. On October 1, 2018, without holding a hearing and without giving notice to Wife, the court entered a final divorce order, which had also been drafted and tendered to the court by Husband.

Exactly one year later, on October 1, 2019, Wife filed a Motion to Vacate and Set Aside Final Divorce Order pursuant to Rule 60(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. The circuit court held a hearing on the motion on April 20, 2020,3 and thereafter entered an order on June 12, 2020, granting the motion to vacate in part and transferring the case to family court for resolution of all issues of support and equitable distribution. On June 30, 2020, Husband filed the instant Petition for Writ of Prohibition, challenging both the court's ruling on the motion to vacate and its authority to transfer the case to family court. On September 3, 2020, following review of the parties’ briefs and appendix records,4 this Court issued a rule to show cause. We now deny Husband's Petition for Writ of Prohibition for the reasons set forth in this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

The parties were married on January 5, 2012, in Ohio, and shortly thereafter moved to Huntington, West Virginia. During the marriage, Husband earned a living first as a Methodist minister and then as an attorney working for Legal Aid. Significantly, for purposes of this petition for extraordinary relief, Husband also had an interest in several real estate companies, BLT Realty, Wahoowa, and SUVAC, that he claims were derived from or exchanged for his shares in Huntington Realty Corporation, a family-owned business. These interests allegedly generated more than five million dollars in income to

856 S.E.2d 645

Husband during the couple's six-year marriage, although he claims that this income was not marital property. See text infra. Wife was a homemaker, having given up her career as a university counselor when she married Husband and moved from Ohio to West Virginia with him.5 Wife claims that she knew almost nothing about the couple's finances and that Husband "kept me ‘out of the loop’ substantially on any decisions regarding management of our finances."

At the time Husband and Wife separated, they began discussions as to division of the marital assets. In their respective pleadings the parties give starkly different accounts of this process, with Husband characterizing the interactions as a "negotiation" while Wife characterizes it as a time during which Husband bullied and exerted ceaseless pressure on her, telling her that "if I didn't go along with his proposed separation agreement I needed to remember ... what [Husband] did to [a previous wife]. She didn't get anything." Wife claims that during this entire period and up until the moment she discovered that the divorce had already been granted, she sent numerous and lengthy emails to Husband pleading for time to "salvage[ ] our marriage." In this regard, the appendix record submitted by Wife, see supra note 4, contains copies of numerous emails exchanged between the parties from August 14, 2018, to October 1, 2018. Suffice it to say that these documents provide ample support for the circuit court's ultimate conclusion, long after the fact, that "[Wife] did not want to divorce."

What is not disputed, however, is that despite her desire to reconcile, Wife signed all of the documents prepared by Husband, including the property settlement agreement. As part of the settlement, Husband agreed to pay Wife the sum of $205,000.00, which he represented to be far in excess of that to which she was statutorily entitled;6 further, it was agreed that Wife would retain a 2014 Ford F-150 truck, a joint Wesbanco checking account, and certain household goods, specifically, "the baby grand piano, the butcher block and other items which she acquired prior to marriage." Husband retained the marital residence, a 2016 Mini Cooper, a 1983 Citroen 2CV, a 1967 Ford Ranchero, his 401 accounts with the United Methodist Church and TIAA CREF, his whole life insurance policy, and certain household goods including "the three Alvar prints." The parties also agreed that each would retain "as their sole and separate property," the following:

[Husband] shall retain as his sole and separate property his shares of stock in BLT Realty, Inc., Wahoowa, Inc., SUVAC, Inc., his membership interest in BLT Clearwater, LLC, his IRA and other account with Vanguard, the children's trust with Raymond James, the 2018 Buick Regal, and his bank accounts with Wells Fargo and Wesbanco[.]

[Wife] shall retain as her sole and separate property her accounts with USAA and a vehicle which [Husband] intends to buy at auction, such as a Subaru Outback (which [Husband] will pay for with his separate property).

Significantly, none of these assets – marital or separate – were enumerated, valued, or even mentioned in the parties’ financial disclosures, which contained nothing but their names, addresses, birth dates, ages, and phone numbers, followed by the handwritten notation that "[b]oth parties waive formal disclosure of assets and liabilities per separation agreement."7 Husband does not dispute

856 S.E.2d 646

that he inserted the handwritten notation on Wife's disclosure as well as his own.

Husband filed the divorce papers – Petition, Husband's financial disclosure, Answer, and Wife's financial disclosure – on September 7, 2018. Of note, the Answer contained language "accept[ing] service of the Petition, [and] waiving formal service of process of the pleading[,]" and thus Wife did not receive formal notice of the institution of the divorce proceeding. Thereafter, on October 1, 2018, the circuit court entered its final order, which was prepared by Husband but signed by both Husband and Wife below the following text: "By signing below, both parties acknowledge they have read and understand the terms, import and effect of the foregoing Order. They agree that the Order accurately reflects their agreements. They ask the Court to enter the Order."

Exactly one year later, on October 1, 2019, Wife filed her Motion to Vacate and Set Aside Final Divorce Order, alleging the following facts, among others:8 that at the time of the parties’ separation, she was emotionally and mentally unstable; that Husband, an attorney, prepared her Answer and Financial Statement, and her sole input into the process was to sign the documents; that Husband also prepared and submitted the final divorce order, again without input from Wife or any explanation as to the document's import; that although Wife signed the settlement agreement and had some participation in modifying its terms, she did not know the extent and value of the parties’ marital property, having not had access to joint tax returns from 2012-2016 and having been refused access to the 2017 return; that Wife had only recently, through newly retained counsel, obtained limited information concerning the potential value of the marital estate; that contrary to Husband's assertions, some of Husband's business assets were acquired during the marriage; that when Wife attempted to question the fairness of the agreement or the value of the marital estate, Husband stated, "Do you remember what I did to [a former wife] when she fought me? She didn't get anything[,]" after which Husband said that if Wife didn't sign the separation agreement by August 30, 2018, he would withdraw the offer; that throughout the period of time between the parties’ separation and the entry of the divorce order, Wife sent Husband a number of emails indicating that she did not want a divorce; that Husband's responses were couched in such a way as to make Wife believe that a reconciliation was indeed possible; that during this entire period...

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    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 26, 2021
    ...upon the all the factual discrepancies set forth by the circuit court that existed between Sgt. Jarrell's testimony, Mr. Hester's 856 S.E.2d 638 testimony, and the security video, the circuit court determinedthat the Nitro Police Department Civil Service Commission committed clear error in ......
1 cases
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    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • March 26, 2021
    ...upon the all the factual discrepancies set forth by the circuit court that existed between Sgt. Jarrell's testimony, Mr. Hester's 856 S.E.2d 638 testimony, and the security video, the circuit court determinedthat the Nitro Police Department Civil Service Commission committed clear error in ......

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