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Smith v. Smith

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

May 16, 2019

Terry Ann Smith
Andrew Smith.

          Providence County P 14-2875 Family Court Patricia K. Asquith Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Jesse Nason, Esq.

          For Defendant: Andrew Smith, Pro Se

          Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia JJ.


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice.

         The pro se defendant, Andrew Smith, appeals from decisions of the Family Court granting an absolute divorce to defendant and his former wife, Terry Ann Smith, the plaintiff, and ordering an equitable distribution of their marital assets. This case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on March 5, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After a close review of the record and careful consideration of the parties' written and oral arguments, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the decisions of the Family Court.

         Facts and Travel

         This contentious litigation began on November 11, 2014, when plaintiff filed a complaint for divorce from defendant and the case was assigned to the Family Court general magistrate. The defendant, who was represented by counsel at the time, filed an answer and counterclaim for divorce on December 23, 2014.[1] Both parties cited irreconcilable differences that led to the irremediable breakdown of the marriage as the grounds for divorce.

         Soon thereafter, on January 16, 2015, the parties were heard on their motions for temporary allowances and, pursuant to a consent order, agreed, inter alia, to sell four parcels of real estate. However, defendant's obstructive and bad-faith interference with the efforts to sell the real estate led the general magistrate to appoint a commissioner to effectuate the transactions. Nevertheless, defendant-determined to prevent the sales-filed several disingenuous motions seeking to block the sales and remove the real estate commissioner; filed mechanic's liens on two parcels; and, most egregiously, purportedly conveyed one of the properties to a third party for the consideration of one cent.

         The record also reflects that defendant deliberately sought to deceive the court, refused to comply with discovery requests, and engaged in vexatious litigation practices by filing a multitude of frivolous motions and appealing nearly every decision by the general magistrate.[2]The plaintiff appropriately sought sanctions pursuant to Rule 11 of the Family Court Rules of Procedure for Domestic Relations, claiming that defendant's motions were meritless and designed to harass and cause unnecessary delay, thereby needlessly increasing the costs of litigation. Given defendant's numerous pending appeals and frivolous motions, this case was ultimately reassigned to a justice of the Family Court.

         On December 18, 2017, three years after the initial complaint was filed and after testimony spanning five months, the trial justice granted both parties an absolute divorce and issued a ninety-five-page written decision. The trial justice made 113 findings of fact as to the procedural history of the case. Next, the trial justice reviewed the testimony and set forth the various assets and debts of the parties. After reviewing the parties' circumstances and conduct during the marriage, the trial justice then proceeded to an equitable distribution of the marital property in accordance with G.L. 1956 § 15-5-16.1. Notably, when addressing "either party's wasteful dissipation of assets[, ]" the trial justice recounted defendant's "egregious behaviors in this case[, ]" as well as his unwavering efforts to prevent the Family Court from granting a divorce, all while depleting the marital assets.

         The trial justice addressed defendant's request for alimony, which, after examining the statutory factors set forth in § 15-5-16 and reincorporating her previous findings, she denied. The trial justice then considered plaintiff's complaint for protection from abuse. She found that defendant had placed plaintiff in fear of imminent physical harm, and, thus, granted the relief. Finally, the trial justice addressed plaintiff's request for Rule 11 sanctions against defendant and concluded that, given "[d]efendant's vexatious filing of baseless [m]otions" for the "sole purpose and intent to harass the [p]laintiff and dissipate the marital assets[, ]" defendant had violated Rule 11, and, thus, ordered him to pay plaintiff's attorneys' fees.

         Lastly, the trial justice made ninety-seven additional findings of fact. Notably, she found that, in light of defendant's willful depletion of marital assets and interference with plaintiff's efforts to preserve the value of the marital assets, it was equitable to award plaintiff a disproportionate amount of the marital assets. She awarded plaintiff 70 percent of various sums that defendant had withdrawn or withheld from the joint marital account. She further awarded plaintiff $30, 394.81, which represented 70 percent of the "marital assets which were depleted from the marital estate solely due to [d]efendant's misdeeds[, ]" as well as $82, 550, which represented plaintiff's 50 percent share of the value of the property that defendant had conveyed for the consideration of one cent. Upon granting the parties' prayers for divorce, the trial justice proceeded to divide the marital estate. From this decision, defendant appealed. Thereafter, on June 19, 2018, on remand from that appeal, the ...

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