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Huntley v. Huntley

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

July 12, 2016

CHARLES HUNTLEY
v.
LYDIA HUNTLEY

          Woodward, Kehoe, Zarnoch, Robert A. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION [*]

          WOODWARD, J.

         Appellant, Lydia Huntley ("Lydia"), filed a Complaint for Absolute Divorce in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County after twenty-eight years of marriage to appellee, Charles Huntley ("Charles"). Lydia requested, among other things, a monetary award, alimony, a portion of the marital share of Charles's retirement benefits, and attorney's fees. Charles filed an answer in which he denied Lydia's entitlement to a monetary award and asked the court to deny Lydia an award of alimony. Charles did not request any affirmative relief aside from the grant of a divorce.

         At trial, Charles requested a portion of the marital share of Lydia's retirement benefits, which were already in payout status. The trial court denied Charles's request on the ground that Charles had not included such request in his pleadings. The court awarded Lydia half of the marital portion of Charles's retirement benefits and a monetary award, but denied her request for alimony. The court did, however, grant Lydia an award of $3, 500 in attorney's fees.

         On appeal to this Court, Charles raises two issues for our review, which we have rephrased as questions:[1]

1. Did the trial court err by refusing to grant Charles a portion of the marital share of Lydia's retirement benefits because of
Charles's failure to include a request for such relief in his pleadings?
2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion by awarding attorney's fees to Lydia?

         For the reasons set forth herein, we answer these questions in the negative and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

         BACKGROUND

         Charles and Lydia were married on September 1, 1986, in Harford County. No children were born of the marriage; their two adopted children are emancipated. The parties separated on September 15, 2013.

         On October 14, 2014, Lydia filed a Complaint for Absolute Divorce in the circuit court. In her complaint, Lydia requested, among other things, that the court award her alimony, a monetary award, and a portion of the marital share of Charles's retirement benefits, along with attorney's fees. On December 2, 2014, Charles filed his Answer to Complaint for Absolute Divorce, in which he admitted and denied various allegations in the Complaint, including a denial of Lydia's allegation that she was entitled to a monetary award. In the answer, Charles requested no affirmative relief apart from the Court "grant[ing] him a Divorce, and deny[ing] [Lydia] alimony". Charles did not file a counter-complaint.

         The circuit court held a trial on May 1 and May 8, 2015. At that time, Charles was sixty years old, and Lydia was sixty-eight years old. The court found that Charles's annual income was approximately $130, 000, while Lydia, who was retired, received a total monthly income of around $3, 500 from her SSI and military pension, or about $42, 000 per year. The court also found that both parties had a considerable amount of debt: Lydia's debts totaled over $459, 000, while Charles's debts totaled $23, 500. In addition, the court found that the total value of the parties' marital property was almost $96, 000.

         At trial, Charles requested that he be awarded one half of Lydia's retirement benefits.[2]The trial court denied Charles's request on the ground that Charles had not requested such relief in his answer or by counter-complaint.

         At the conclusion of trial, the court issued an oral ruling awarding Lydia a monetary award of $42, 600. The court also awarded Lydia one half of the marital share of Charles's retirement benefits. In addition, the court noted that Charles "didn't ask for it, but he's entitled to [Lydia's] Social Security if she's getting Social Security." The court denied Lydia's request for alimony, but awarded her attorney's fees in the amount of $3, 500.

         On May 12, 2015, the court issued a Judgment of Absolute Divorce, memorializing its oral rulings.[3] On June 10, 2015, Charles noted his appeal to this Court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Maryland Rule 8-131(c) states:

When an action has been tried without a jury, the appellate court will review the case on both the law and the evidence. It will not set aside the judgment of the trial court on the evidence unless clearly erroneous, and will give due regard to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.

         A circuit court's classification of property as marital or non-marital is subject to review under the clearly erroneous standard, while a discretionary standard of review applies to the decision of whether to grant a monetary award and the amount of that award. Gordon v. Gordon, 174 Md.App. 583, 625-26 (2007). "Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence are not clearly erroneous." Richards v. Richards, 166 Md.App. 263, 272 (2005). Under the abuse of discretion standard, "we may not substitute our judgment for that of the fact finder, even if we might have reached a different result, absent an abuse of discretion." Gordon, 174 Md.App. at 626 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         As for attorney's fees, this Court has stated that an award of such fees

is governed by the abuse of discretion standard and such an award should not be modified unless it is arbitrary or clearly wrong. Abuse of discretion is determined by evaluating the judge's application of the statutory criteria as well as the consideration of the facts of the particular case. Consideration of the statutory criteria ...

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