Patton v. Patton

Patton v. Patton, 2015 MT 7 (Jan. 13, 2015) (Shea, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court abused its discretion by declining to rule on Gail’s post-trial motions; (2) whether the district court erred in its review of the standing master’s report; and (3) whether the district court abused its discretion by adopting the standing master’s report, which excluded evidence of Bill’s alleged abuse, in determining maintenance.

Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) yes; and (3) no.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Gail and Bill married in 1998. When they married, Gail was 43, rented an apartment, drove a used car, and had about $30,000 in the bank. Bill had substantial real and personal property, including the marital home, a veterinary practice, and a working ranch. During the marriage, Gail was primarily a homemaker, but worked part-time as a music teacher and caterer. Her health declined considerably during the marriage. After the parties separated in early 2011, Gail moved into subsidized housing and had limited assets. In July 2012, the district court granted Gail six months’ temporary maintenance and $5,000 of attorneys’ fees.

The district court assigned the case to a standing master, who held a two-day bench trial in August 2012. The standing master entered her findings, conclusions, and final decree in March 2013. She valued the marital estate at about $1 million, with liabilities of $55,632. Gail’s share of the marital estate totaled $99,296.

Bill and Gail both objected to the standing master’s report. Gail also moved to introduce new evidence under Rule 59, asking for additional maintenance due to further physical deterioration and her inability to pay medical bills and attorneys’ fees. In May 2013, Gail was diagnosed with breast cancer, and moved the court to amend the findings to take that into consideration.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held a hearing in September 2013, but declined to rule on Gail’s Rule 59 motion or her motion to amend, stating it was “beyond the scope of judicial review.” In October 2013, the district court adopted the standing master’s report with minor adjustments, and ruled that Gail’s pending motions were to be left to the standing master, “who will resume jurisdiction of this case upon the filing of this Order.” Gail appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: (1) The Eighth Judicial District created a standing master position to assist the court with family law, child abuse and neglect, and guardianship and conservator cases. A district court has discretion to take supplemental evidence upon judicial review. If the standing master’s findings are not clearly erroneous and its conclusions of law are correct, the recommendations are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Under the plain language of Rule 53(e)(2) and § 3-5-126(2), MCA, the district court should have either ruled on Gail’s motions or, before adopting the report, recommitted the case to the standing master with instructions to consider and rule on the motions. The court’s failure to do so was an abuse of discretion.

(2) Under the Eighth Judicial District’s Charter Order, objections to a standing master’s report must be stated in writing with citations to the hearing transcript. Because Gail did not cite to the trial transcript in her objections or at the hearing, it was within the court’s discretion to subject Gail’s objections to an adverse summary ruling. However, the standing master’s finding that Gail’s significant contributions to the marriage as a homemaker were lessened by Bill’s retirement is erroneous. The standing master further erred by denying Gail maintenance after finding she qualified for maintenance, and by concluding that Bill’s payment of a portion of Gail’s debt was in lieu of maintenance. A payment of debt is not income-producing property that will help Gail meet her own needs in the future.

(3) Because maintenance is to be ordered without regard for marital misconduct, and Gail was permitted to testify about her physical and emotional condition, the standing master did not abuse her discretion by excluding evidence of Bill’s alleged role in causing Gail’s problems.