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Morris v. Goodwin

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 26, 2016

MARGUERITE R. MORRIS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF KATHERINE SARAH MORRIS
v.
ISAAC JEROME GOODWIN

          Woodward, Kehoe, Arthur, JJ.

          OPINION

          WOODWARD, J.

         Appellant, Marguerite R. Morris, personal representative of the estate of her daughter, Katherine Sarah Morris, filed a pro se petition to annul Katherine's marriage to appellee, Isaac Jerome Goodwin, in the Circuit Court for St. Mary's County. Appellant alleged that the marriage was based on fraud. The circuit court dismissed her petition with prejudice on the grounds that appellant did not have standing to sue for the annulment of Katherine's marriage to appellee.

         Appellant presents two questions for our review, which we have slightly rephrased:

1. Does a personal representative have standing to prosecute a petition for annulment of the decedent's marriage on the basis of fraud?
2. Did the circuit court err in not granting appellant a hearing before dismissing her petition for annulment for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted?

         For the reasons set forth below, we shall affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

         BACKGROUND

         On August 3, 2011, Katherine married appellee in Arlington County, Virginia. At that time, appellee was a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Katherine was a fourth-year student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Following the wedding, appellee returned to Fort Bragg, and Katherine continued to reside on campus. Katherine committed suicide on or about May 6, 2012.[1] On September 11, 2012, appellant was appointed personal representative of Katherine's estate by the Orphans' Court for St. Mary's County.

         On June 14, 2013, appellant, acting pro se, filed in the circuit court a petition to annul Katherine's marriage to appellee on the basis of appellee's fraud.[2] Appellant alleged in her petition that appellee (1) married Katherine in order to increase his military housing allowance, (2) "continued his sexual relationships with several other women during the course of the marriage[, ]" and (3) never shared his military benefits with Katherine "until [appellee] was ordered to do so by military superiors[.]" According to the petition, appellee "received an Article 15 from the United States Army for misappropriation of government funds" in June of 2011, and in July of 2011 "financial sanctions were levied on [appellee] of $545 a month and his Basic Allowance for Housing was reduced to approximately $409 a month." Appellant also alleged that as a result of his marriage to Katherine, appellee "kept for his own personal use approx[imately] $700 a month allowance and did not provide any care or benefits to Katherine[.]" Finally, appellant acknowledged in the petition that Katherine "by her own admission discovered that [appellee] married her for fraudulent reasons." [3]

         On June 26, 2013, appellant filed an Emergency Motion to Post Summons Due to Evasion of Service. Appellant's motion was supported by an affidavit of a process server stating that appellee was evading service. The next day, the circuit court denied appellant's emergency motion, but, in a separate order, ordered that service be made by mail. On July 10, 2013, an Affidavit of Process Server was filed, stating that service was made on appellee by first class mail on June 28, 2013.

         When no responsive pleading was filed by appellee, appellant filed a "Motion for Judgement [sic] by Default" on August 28, 2013. The circuit court denied appellant's motion two days later. On September 10, 2013, appellant filed a Motion for Reconsideration and Hearing on Judgment by Default. The court denied appellant's motion on October 3, 2013, adding a handwritten note on the order: "Default inappropriate. Set in for hearing."

         On October 9, 2013, an attorney entered his appearance on behalf of appellant and filed a Request for Order of Default. No action was taken by the clerk of the court on appellant's request. On November 22, 2013, appellant filed a request for a hearing on the Order of Default. Again, no action was taken by the clerk of the court on appellant's request. On November 26, 2013, appellant's attorney filed a motion to withdraw his appearance on behalf of appellant. The circuit court never ruled on the motion to withdraw.

         On December 30, 2013, the circuit court sent a Notification of Contemplated Dismissal, stating that the case "will be 'DISMISSED FOR LACK OF JURISDICTION OR PROSECUTION WITHOUT PREJUDICE[, ]'" unless appellant filed a motion showing good cause within thirty days. On January 8, 2014, appellant filed a Motion Not to Dismiss, a second Request for Order of Default, and a second request for a hearing on the Request for Order of Default. In her motion, appellant asserted that Maryland Rule 2-507 did not apply, because "it has not been one year since the last docket entry[, ]" and service on appellee had been effected fourteen days after the filing of the petition.

         On June 5, 2014, without holding a hearing, the circuit court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order, dismissing appellant's petition for annulment with prejudice, because appellant lacked standing to sue for annulment of Katherine's marriage to appellee. Appellant filed her notice of appeal on June 30, 2014.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Appellate review of a trial court's dismissal of a complaint is de novo. See Gomez v. Jackson Hewitt, Inc., 427 Md. 128, 142 (2012). An appellate court reviews only "the four corners of the complaint and its incorporated supporting exhibits, if any." Forster v. Office of Pub. Defender, 426 Md. 565, 604 (2012). "[A]ll well-pleaded facts and allegations contained in the complaint, as well as all inferences that may reasonably be drawn from them, " are viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Gomez, 427 Md. at 142. An appellate court need not consider "bald assertions [or] conclusory statements, " and construes against the plaintiff "[a]ny ambiguity or uncertainty in the [factual] allegations[.]" Forster, 426 Md. at 604; Shenker v. Laureate Educ., Inc., 411 Md. 317, 335 (2009). The dismissal will be upheld "only if the allegations and permissible inferences, if true, would not afford relief to the plaintiff, i.e., the allegations do not state a cause of action for which relief may be ...


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