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Trial Court “Wholly Failed” To Consider New Evidence In Divorce Proceeding

Posted on Wednesday, December 25, 2019

In this divorce action, the trial court’s order denying the ex-husband’s motion for a new trial must be vacated and the case remanded because the trial court did not review the substance of the defendant’s motion for a new trial or decide whether the requirements for a new trial were satisfied, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

The Jackson County Circuit Court in Patterson v Patterson (Docket No. 347415), issued a judgment of divorce and a custody determination following a bench trial. The plaintiff was awarded primary physical custody of the parties’ minor children. When the defendant reportedly discovered text messages after the trial had concluded, allegedly showing the plaintiff’s infidelity, undisclosed health concerns and the untruthfulness, he filed a motion for a new trial. The trial court denied the motion.

The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s decision and remanded the case.

“Because the trial court wholly failed to substantively address [several of the defendant’s contentions] when it denied defendant’s motion for a new trial, we vacate the order denying defendant’s motion for a new trial, and remand for the trial court to either articulate a proper reason for denying defendant’s motion or grant a new trial,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

Judges Mark J. Cavanagh, Cynthia Diane Stephens and Colleen A. O’Brien were on the panel that issued the opinion.

“Full Consideration” Required

On appeal, the defendant argued the trial court 1) erred by awarding the plaintiff primary physical custody of their two minor children and this determination was against the weight of the evidence and 2) abused its discretion by not granting his motion for a new trial after he offered newly discovered evidence.

“In his motion for a new trial, defendant claimed to possess text messages – found sometime after trial concluded – apparently demonstrating (1) sexual infidelity by plaintiff, (2) that plaintiff suffered from undisclosed health concerns, and (3) that plaintiff was deceitful during her trial testimony,” the Court of Appeals said. “Judge Schmucker presided over the bench trial, but Judge Rappleye entered the judgment of divorce. Defendant’s motion for a new trial was before Judge Rappleye.”

Rather than conducting “even a minimal inquiry into whether the evidence that defendant presented satisfied the requirements for a new trial under MCR 2.611(A)(1)(f),” the trial court denied the defendant’s motion “because it believed that the judge that presided over the parties’ hearing was capable of properly deciding the case,” the Court of Appeals observed. “But neither Judge Schmucker’s judicial qualifications nor Judge Rappleye’s ‘high level of comfort with Judge Schmucker’ are relevant considerations for whether defendant presented newly discovered evidence warranting a new trial,” the Court of Appeals said.

“The trial court needed to review the substance of defendant’s motion and decide whether it satisfied the requirements for a new trial under MCR 2.611(A)(1)(f),” the Court of Appeals wrote. “By refusing to do so and instead relying on irrelevant considerations, the trial court abused its discretion. On remand, the trial court should review the substance of defendant’s motion and make a ruling on its merits.”

The Court of Appeals further noted it was “at least plausible” that the newly discovered evidence could have impacted the marital property distribution. “One or more of the insinuations of plaintiff’s marital infidelity, undisclosed health issues, or deceitfulness, if borne out, could reasonably result not only in a different custody determination, but also in the trial court altering its decision that it was equitable to equally split the net equity of the marital home,” the Court of Appeals said. Therefore, the evidence “required full consideration.”

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals relied on Kessler v Kessler, 295 Mich App 54 (2011), to conclude that the trial court made a clear legal error by not addressing whether the children had an established custodial environment with either or both of the parties before making its custody determination. On remand, if the trial court denies the defendant’s motion for a new trial, it “must make a factual determination about the children’s established custodial environment,” the Court of Appeals held.

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