COA splits, reverses in divorce case after ‘flagrant injustice’ to pro se wife

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(IL file photo)

A trial court should have admitted a woman’s prenuptial agreement into evidence in her divorce case, and its failure to do so resulted in a “flagrant injustice,” a split Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in a Tuesday reversal.

According to court records, Maria del Carmen Casimiro Murietta and Guillermo Fernandez Romero were married in January 2016.

Prior to their marriage, Murietta and Romero had entered into a prenuptial agreement, which indicated that all property owned by Murietta prior to the marriage would not be considered part of the marital estate in the event of divorce.

On Dec. 9, 2021, Murietta filed for divorce. She was initially represented by counsel, who was forced to withdraw her representation after being suspended from the practice of law.

Murietta claimed to have provided counsel with numerous documents, including the prenuptial agreement.

She was then represented by subsequent counsel, who filed a motion to withdraw from representation prior to the evidentiary hearing, citing a breakdown of attorney-client communication.

Later, at a virtual evidentiary hearing in the Marion Superior Court, Murietta appeared pro se. Romero was represented by counsel.

Murietta indicated that she was ready to proceed, but it was clear from her statements to the court that she was unfamiliar with the legal process and the terminology used by the court.

Notably, she did not appear to have understood that presenting relevant documents — namely, the prenuptial agreement — to her attorney was not sufficient to ensure judicial review of the document.

Once it became clear to Murietta that submitting the agreement to her counsel had not been sufficient, she attempted to submit the agreement into evidence, but the trial court declined.

The court then issued a dissolution decree that included property that had been owned by Murietta prior to the parties’ marriage and ordered an equal division of the marital estate.

Murietta filed a motion to correct error, which the trial court denied.

She appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial where the prenuptial agreement could be presented for consideration, assuming a proper foundation for its admission can be met. The appellate court ruled the trial court had abused its discretion in denying Murietta’s motion to correct error.

Judge Cale Bradford wrote the opinion for the appellate court.

According to Bradford, the record reveals that Murietta’s motion made a very strong case that she was entitled to relief because the trial court’s judgment had resulted in a flagrant injustice to her.

“While she did not tender the Agreement as evidence during her case-in-chief, Maria made multiple references to it. She also attempted to tender the Agreement at the end of the hearing once she apparently came to understand that it had not previously been submitted to the court. At this point, the trial court simply denied her attempt to submit the Agreement with no further inquiry,” Bradford wrote.

While pro se litigants are generally held to the same standard as an attorney, the Indiana Supreme Court has indicated that a trial court may, under some circumstances, take steps necessary to prevent a good faith pro se litigant, like Murietta, from being placed at an unfair disadvantage, Bradford wrote, citing Zavodnik v. Harper, 17 N.E.3d 259 (Ind. 2014).

The appellate judge added that while Murietta had rested her case when she ultimately attempted to submit the prenuptial agreement, the evidentiary hearing had not concluded and the trial court easily could have allowed limited questions relating to the agreement.

“Based on the particular facts and circumstances of this case, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to admit the Agreement into evidence when tendered to the court by Maria,” Bradford concluded.

Judge Nancy Vaidik concurred.

But Judge Elaine Brown dissented with a separate opinion.

Brown wrote that she would find Murietta’s motion was a motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 60(B)(1), and the erroneous belief that her prior attorney had presented the agreement did not constitute mistake or excusable neglect.

Further, according to Brown, even if Murietta’s motion were a motion to correct error, it did not comply with Indiana Trial Rule 59(H)(1).

“A party may not offer by affidavit, in connection with his or her motion to correct errors, evidence which he or she neglected to present at the prior proceeding,” Brown wrote, citing Collins v. Dunifon, 323 N.E.2d 264, 268 (Ind. Ct. App. 1975).

The case is Maria del Carmen Casimiro Murietta v. Guillermo Fernandez Romero, 23A-DC-193.

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