Reversal: Court wrongly denied divorce continuance after counsel withdrew

The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed the denial of a man’s motion to continue his divorce proceedings after his attorney withdrew as counsel just one day before the case’s final hearing.

One day before the final hearing in his dissolution of marriage proceeding, Rickey Smith fired his attorney, prompting the counsel to file a motion to withdraw that day. The attorney indicated that “a breakdown in the attorney client relationship has occurred” and that he would no longer be able to adequately represent Smith. Counsel also stated that Smith did not desire to have him continue representing the case and that he had been given a copy of his entire file.

Smith explained to the court that the attorney-client relationship broke down when his attorney called him a “liar” and that the attorney did not provide information about the couple’s assets.  Smith contended during the final hearing that he wished to continue the proceedings.

However, the Marion Superior Court denied his motion for a new divorce hearing, noting that there had been no contemplation of the need for a continuance and that the parties were “going to finish this today.” It ultimately granted Smith $318,858.26, or 49.87% of the couple’s marital assets.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in Rickey Smith v. Leslie M. Smith, 19A-DN-00926, finding that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Smith’s motion for a continuance without hearing argument by impeding his ability to show good cause as to why the motion should be granted.

“Shortly after denying Husband’s motion without argument, trial court pre-determined the outcome of the case, telling Husband that he was going to ‘split’ the marital assets ‘right down the middle.’ The trial court’s actions demonstrated a ‘myopic insistence upon expeditiousness,’” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the appellate court.

Specifically, the appellate panel noted that no evidence existed in the record that Smith was attempting to prolong the proceedings or engage in dilatory tactics, the dissolution hearing was held four months after the petition for dissolution was filed, the attorney had still not provided Smith with documents relating to the dissolution two weeks before the hearing, and that the denial came despite the trial court’s knowledge that Smith’s counsel withdrew one day before the hearing.

“Although Husband terminated his attorney, Husband was not provided ten-day notice of his attorney’s withdrawal as required by the local rule. We are mindful that the ‘unexpected and untimely withdrawal of counsel does not necessarily entitle a party to a continuance.’ Still, this consideration is relevant when looking at whether the trial court abused its discretion in failing to grant Husband’s motion to continue at a crucial stage in the proceedings, especially when not insignificant assets were at issue,” the panel wrote.

It therefore concluded that Smith was prejudiced by the trial court’s decision — which the appellate panel determined had infringed upon his due process rights — and thus reversed and remanded.

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