Theisen v. Theisen, No. 27041.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtJustice HEARN.
Citation394 S.C. 434,716 S.E.2d 271
PartiesEileen Frances Theresa Busto THEISEN, Appellant,v.Clifford Richard THEISEN, Respondent.
Decision Date19 September 2011
Docket NumberNo. 27041.

394 S.C. 434
716 S.E.2d 271

Eileen Frances Theresa Busto THEISEN, Appellant,
v.
Clifford Richard THEISEN, Respondent.

No. 27041.

Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Heard April 5, 2011.Decided Sept. 19, 2011.


[716 S.E.2d 272]

Robert M. Rosenfeld, of Porter & Rosenfeld, of Greenville, for appellant.Joseph M. Ramseur, Jr., of Greenville, and Steven E. Buckingham, of Gallivan, White & Boyd, of Greenville, for respondent.Justice HEARN.

[394 S.C. 438] This case presents the novel issue of whether an action for separate maintenance and support can be pursued when the parties are still living together. We hold that it cannot and affirm the family court's decision to dismiss this action. Due to our conclusion that this action fails a matter of law, we further hold that the family court did not err in cancelling the lis pendens and request for attorney's fees filed in conjunction with this suit.

[716 S.E.2d 273]

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Eileen (Wife) and Clifford (Husband) Theisen were married in 1980. Aside from various forms of seasonal employment, Wife was a homemaker for the vast majority of the marriage. Husband currently receives dividend payments from his interest in his family's business as well as some compensation for serving as a director of the business, but the current economic crisis placed a strain on the parties' other financial resources. At the time of this action, the parties owned three properties: the marital home, which is in Wife's name, and two rental properties, both of which are in Husband's name.

Husband readily acknowledges that he and Wife have had their fair share of difficulties during the course of their thirty-year marriage. In fact, Wife has filed for divorce 1 on two [394 S.C. 439] previous occasions, at least one of which was premised on the fault ground of physical cruelty. Husband and Wife reconciled following the first petition, and the second was dismissed because the proceedings were not concluded within one year from the date of filing. In Husband's view, these actions were “nothing more than efforts to get [his] attention.... [They] stay living together, she calms down and life goes back to normal.”

Wife subsequently filed this action for separate maintenance alleging Husband “has engaged and continues to engage in a course of conduct making it unreasonable and unfair to require [Wife] to continue to live with him.” In particular, Wife complained of Husband's unilateral control and disposal of marital assets, creation and non-payment of debts in Wife's name, and present emotional and verbal abuse. In her complaint, Wife asked the family court to award the following: (1) separate maintenance and support; (2) custody of the minor children; 2 (3) child support; (4) spousal support; (5) sole and exclusive use and possession of the marital home; (6) sole and exclusive use and possession of one of the parties' vehicles; (7) equitable division of marital assets and debts; and (8) attorney's fees. She also moved for temporary relief and filed a lis pendens on each of the rental properties in Husband's name. Despite alleging that Husband's conduct was so unreasonable and unfair that Wife should not have to live with him, Husband and Wife continued to live in the same house before and after she filed the instant action, albeit sleeping in different rooms.3

Husband counterclaimed for equitable distribution of the marital assets and debts as well as attorney's fees. He contended that the parties' difficulties were the result of their recent financial situation, not a course of conduct designed to denigrate Wife. Husband further made motions to dismiss Wife's complaint under Rule 12, SCRCP, for lack of subject [394 S.C. 440] matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Both motions were premised on the fact that Husband and Wife were not living separate and apart. He also moved to cancel the lis pendens placed on his rental properties.

The family court held a combined hearing on Wife's motion for temporary relief and Husband's motions to dismiss and cancel the lis pendens. The court found it “has the jurisdiction to order separate support and maintenance, [but it] does not have the authority to do so when the parties are living together.” Accordingly, the court concluded “Wife has failed to state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action” and dismissed her complaint. Based on that finding, the court cancelled each lis pendens, denied Wife temporary relief, and denied each party attorney's fees. This appeal followed.

ISSUES PRESENTED

Wife raises four issues on appeal:

[716 S.E.2d 274]

I. Does the family court have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a claim for separate maintenance when the parties are still living together?

II. Did the family court err in dismissing Wife's complaint because it failed to allege the parties are no longer living together?

III. Did the family court err in cancelling Wife's lis pendens on Husband's rental properties?

IV. Did the family court err in not awarding Wife attorney's fees?

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

Wife first argues the family court erred in not exercising jurisdiction over this matter. However, Wife's argument misconstrues the court's finding that it lacks “authority” to hear the claim as a finding that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction.

“Subject matter jurisdiction is ‘the power to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong.’ ” [394 S.C. 441] Dove v. Gold Kist, Inc., 314 S.C. 235, 237–38, 442 S.E.2d 598, 600 (1994) (quoting Bank of Babylon v. Quirk, 192 Conn. 447, 472 A.2d 21, 22 (1984)). Because the family court is a creature of statute, it is a court of limited jurisdiction. State v. Graham, 340 S.C. 352, 355, 532 S.E.2d 262, 263 (2000). Accordingly, “[i]ts jurisdiction is limited to that expressly or by necessary implication conferred by statute.” Id. Section 63–3–530(A)(2) of the South Carolina Code (2010) provides that “[t]he family court has exclusive jurisdiction ... to hear and determine actions for divorce a vinculo matrimonii, separate support and maintenance, legal separation, and in other marital litigation between the parties.”

Section 63–3–530(A)(2) therefore expressly confers upon the family court the power to hear all actions for separate maintenance. Indeed, the family court expressly found it had jurisdiction over this matter. Wife, however, interprets the word “authority” as meaning the court found its jurisdiction to be limited, and she accordingly engages in a discussion of the differences between “jurisdiction,” “exercise of jurisdiction,” and “authority.” This argument misapprehends the nature of the family court's ruling, and it confuses and conflates the concepts of subject matter jurisdiction and the statutory elements to receive the relief sought. The court's order merely found that it lacked authority to award separate maintenance because Wife failed to plead its essential elements, not because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, her arguments are more properly directed towards the court's dismissal of her claim under Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP.

II. FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM

Wife next argues the family court erred in dismissing her complaint because she failed to allege she was living separate and apart from Husband. We disagree.

Section 20–3–130(B)(5) of the South Carolina Code (Supp.2010) contains the following provisions regarding separate maintenance:

Alimony and separate maintenance and support awards may be granted pendente lite and permanently in such amounts [394 S.C. 442] and for periods of time subject to conditions as the court considers just including, but not limited to:

....

(5) Separate maintenance and support to be paid periodically, but terminating upon the continued cohabitation of the supported spouse, upon divorce of the parties, or upon the death of either spouse ... and terminable and modifiable based upon changed circumstances in the future. The purpose of this form of support may include, but is not limited to, circumstances where a divorce is not sought, but it is necessary to provide for support of the supported spouse by way of separate maintenance and support when the parties are living separate and apart.

Initially, we note that section 20–3–130(B)(5) does not specifically state whether the parties must live separate and apart prior

[716 S.E.2d 275]

to petitioning the court for separate maintenance. However, the very name separate maintenance and support connotes separation between the parties. “Separate” means “to set or keep apart” or “become divided or detached.” Merriam–Webster Dictionary, http:// www. merriam- webster. com/ dictionary/ separate. Thus, the purpose of separate maintenance is to provide support for a spouse when he or she is living apart from the other spouse. The statute also specifically states that it applies when the parties are living separate and apart but a divorce is not sought. The fact that separate maintenance terminates upon the continuous cohabitation of the supported spouse with another is more evidence of the same; the supported spouse cannot cohabitate with another unless he has already separated from the payor spouse. Furthermore, Wife's emphasis that she sleeps in a different room than Husband appears to be a tacit recognition on her part that at least some degree of separation is required.

We implicitly have recognized for years that living separate and apart is a requirement for separate maintenance. Under South Carolina law, a spouse does not need grounds that would merit a divorce in order to receive separate maintenance. Machado v. Machado, 220 S.C. 90, 103, 66 S.E.2d 629, 635 (1951). We have thus refused to define any specific grounds and instead have left this decision to the discretion of [394 S.C. 443] the family court.4 Id. However, we have often searched for whether there was justification—whatever that...

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9 practice notes
  • Kosciusko v. Parham, Appellate Case No. 2017-000016
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • November 6, 2019
    ......."), cited with approval in In re Shaquille O'Neal B. , 385 S.C. 243, 247, 684 S.E.2d 549, 552 (2009) ; see also Theisen v. Theisen , 394 S.C. 434, 441, 443 n.4, 716 S.E.2d 271, 274, 275 n.4 (2011) (distinguishing the family court's subject-matter jurisdiction to hear actions for separat......
  • Ashburn v. Apr. Rogers & S.C. Dep't of Soc. Servs. Child Support Div., Opinion No. 5505.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • August 2, 2017
    ...of the family unit"). The public policy of South Carolina "encourages and promotes reconciliation between spouses." Theisen v. Theisen , 394 S.C. 434, 449, 716 S.E.2d 271, 278 (2011) (Pleicones, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part) (citing Towles v. Towles , 256 S.C. 307, 182 S.E.2d ......
  • Cottingham v. South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, 2013-UP-027
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • January 16, 2013
    ...to hear actions involving licensees and former licensees arising during the practice authorization period); Theisen v. Theisen, 394 S.C. 434, 440-41, 716 S.E.2d 271, 274 (2011) (stating subject matter jurisdiction is the power to hear cases of the general class to which the proceedings belo......
  • Cottingham v. S.C. Dep't of Labor, Appellate Case No. 2011-192826
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • January 16, 2013
    ...to hear actions involving licensees and former licensees arising during the practicePage 5authorization period); Theisen v. Theisen, 394 S.C. 434, 440-41, 716 S.E.2d 271, 274 (2011) (stating subject matter jurisdiction is the power to hear cases of the general class to which the proceedings......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
9 cases
  • Kosciusko v. Parham, Appellate Case No. 2017-000016
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • November 6, 2019
    ......."), cited with approval in In re Shaquille O'Neal B. , 385 S.C. 243, 247, 684 S.E.2d 549, 552 (2009) ; see also Theisen v. Theisen , 394 S.C. 434, 441, 443 n.4, 716 S.E.2d 271, 274, 275 n.4 (2011) (distinguishing the family court's subject-matter jurisdiction to hear actions for separat......
  • Ashburn v. Apr. Rogers & S.C. Dep't of Soc. Servs. Child Support Div., Opinion No. 5505.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • August 2, 2017
    ...of the family unit"). The public policy of South Carolina "encourages and promotes reconciliation between spouses." Theisen v. Theisen , 394 S.C. 434, 449, 716 S.E.2d 271, 278 (2011) (Pleicones, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part) (citing Towles v. Towles , 256 S.C. 307, 182 S.E.2d ......
  • Cottingham v. South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, 2013-UP-027
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • January 16, 2013
    ...to hear actions involving licensees and former licensees arising during the practice authorization period); Theisen v. Theisen, 394 S.C. 434, 440-41, 716 S.E.2d 271, 274 (2011) (stating subject matter jurisdiction is the power to hear cases of the general class to which the proceedings belo......
  • Cottingham v. S.C. Dep't of Labor, Appellate Case No. 2011-192826
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • January 16, 2013
    ...to hear actions involving licensees and former licensees arising during the practicePage 5authorization period); Theisen v. Theisen, 394 S.C. 434, 440-41, 716 S.E.2d 271, 274 (2011) (stating subject matter jurisdiction is the power to hear cases of the general class to which the proceedings......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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