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Stone v. Thompson

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 3, 2019

A. Marion Stone, III, Respondent,
v.
Susan B. Thompson, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2017-000227

          Heard October 16, 2018

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

          Appeal from Charleston County Jocelyn B. Cate, Family Court Judge

          Donald Bruce Clark, of Donald B. Clark, LLC, of Charleston, for Petitioner.

          Alexander Blair Cash and Daniel Francis Blanchard, III, both of Rosen Rosen & Hagood, LLC, of Charleston, for Respondent.

          JUSTICE HEARN.

         We granted certiorari to determine whether a family court order finding a common-law marriage was immediately appealable under our general appealability statute, SC Code Ann. § 14-3-330. The family court bifurcated the proceedings to first determine whether the parties were married, and has yet to try the remaining issues. The court of appeals held the order was interlocutory because it did not end the case, and further, that it was not immediately appealable under the statute. Stone v. Thompson, 418 S.C. 599, 795 S.E.2d 49 (Ct. App. 2016). Because the order involved the merits of the causes of action, we reverse.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Stone and Thompson met in 1983 and began a romantic relationship shortly thereafter. Thompson was married to another man at the time and obtained a divorce from him in 1987. Later that year, Stone and Thompson had their first child. After Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston in 1989, the parties had their second child and started living together. They continued to live, raise their children, and manage rental properties together for approximately 20 years, but ultimately ended their relationship after Thompson discovered Stone was having an affair with a woman in Costa Rica.

         In 2012, Stone filed an amended complaint in family court alleging, inter alia, he was entitled to a declaratory judgment that the parties were common-law married, a divorce, and an equitable distribution of alleged marital property.[1] Thompson answered, contending the parties were not common-law married, asserting several counterclaims, and seeking dismissal of the case. Thompson also asked the court, if it would not dismiss the case, to bifurcate the issues to first determine whether the parties were common-law married. After a hearing, the family court denied Thompson's motion to dismiss but granted her motion to bifurcate, ordering a trial on the sole issue of whether a common-law marriage existed between the parties. The court reasoned that, should it determine no marriage existed, it would not need to address the other issues in the case.

         The family court held a 7-day trial that featured 29 witnesses, 12 videotaped depositions, and nearly 200 exhibits. The court determined the parties had expressed the intent and held themselves out to be married beginning in 1989, and accordingly, the parties had been married since that time. The family court's judgment stated it was a "Final Order," but also that it did not end the case, as the divorce and equitable distribution actions were still pending.

         Thompson appealed, and Stone argued the order was interlocutory and not immediately appealable under section 14-3-330. The court of appeals agreed with Stone. The court determined the order was interlocutory because, although the family court ruled that a common-law marriage existed and captioned the order "Final," it expressly noted the order did not end the case due to the still-pending divorce and equitable distribution causes of action. The court concluded the order did not involve the merits because the family court exercised its discretion to bifurcate the case and adjudicated the preliminary issue of marriage before proceeding to the remaining issues. Moreover, the court determined the order did not affect Thompson's substantial rights because it did not deprive her of a mode of trial, and she would be able to challenge any error in the future. Consequently, the court dismissed Thompson's appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         Section 14-3-330 of the South Carolina Code provides this Court ...


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