Michael P. Thornton, Respondent,
Anita L. Thornton, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-001177
October 1, 2018
From Dorchester County William J. Wylie, Jr., Family Court
Catherine Hunt Dell, of Dell Family Law, P.C., of Charleston;
and Theresa Marie Wozniak Jenkins, of Theresa Wozniak
Jenkins, Attorney at Law, LLC, of Charleston, both for
Michael P. Thornton, of Ridgeville, pro se.
domestic relations matter, Anita L. Thornton (Wife) appeals
the family court's final divorce decree, arguing the
family court erred in (1) identifying, valuing, and
apportioning marital assets and debts; (2) miscalculating
Wife's child support obligation; (3) awarding primary
custody of the parties' two children to Michael P.
Thornton (Husband); (4) failing to find Wife prejudiced by a
"structural" error related to a hearing on her
petition to enforce visitation; (5) relying too heavily on
the guardian ad litem's (GAL) conclusions; (6) relying on
the forensic consultant, Dr. Marc Harari's conclusions,
which were based on information provided by the GAL; (7)
granting Husband a divorce on the ground of adultery; (8)
failing to find a conflict of interest regarding a personal
relationship between Husband and an employee of the
Dorchester County Clerk of Court; and (9) requiring the
parties to pay their own attorney's fees, requiring Wife
to pay a greater percentage of the GAL's fees and Dr.
Harari's fees, and requiring Wife to pay the private
investigator's fees. We affirm as modified.
and Wife married on November 16, 1996. The parties have two
emancipated children. In 2011, Husband introduced Wife to his
co-worker, Charles Stringfellow (Stringfellow). Stringfellow
and his son spent significant time with Husband, Wife, and
the parties' children. Wife indicated Husband encouraged
her relationship with Stringfellow. Wife and Stringfellow
began to spend time alone together, and Wife talked with
Stringfellow about the problems she and Husband had in their
relationship. In April or May 2012, Husband became suspicious
of Wife's activities after he witnessed Wife consistently
coming home late at night and discovered phone calls and text
messages between Wife and Stringfellow. When Husband
confronted Wife, she denied engaging in an extramarital
affair. Husband hired Steven Russell, a private investigator,
to follow Wife and document her activities because Husband
believed Stringfellow was Wife's paramour. Russell
observed Wife and Stringfellow at Stringfellow's
apartment on a number of occasions.
August 2012, Husband filed for divorce on the ground of
adultery. That action was administratively dismissed, and
Husband filed a new complaint on January 9, 2014, again
seeking a fault-based divorce on the ground of adultery. Wife
answered and counterclaimed against Husband, seeking a
divorce on the ground of one year's continuous
family court held an eight-day final merits hearing over the
course of three months and subsequently issued a final order
and decree of divorce (the Final Order), granting Husband a
divorce on the ground of Wife's adultery. The Final Order
awarded joint custody of the minor children to the parties
with Husband as the primary legal and physical custodian. The
Final Order required Wife to pay sixty-seven percent of the
GAL's fees and sixty-seven percent of Dr.
Harari's fees. Wife was also required to reimburse
Husband $3, 770 for his private investigator's fees. Each
party was responsible for his or her own attorney's fees.
equitable distribution, the Final Order found Wife was
entitled to one-half of the value of Husband's 401K
Account (the 401K Account) as of May 12, 2014 ($56, 040.69),
which amounted to $28, 020.35. The Final Order also required
each party to pay one-half of a $27, 100 debt owed to the
401K Account (the Loan), so the family court reduced
Wife's portion of the 401K Account and awarded Wife $14,
470 from the 401K Account. The Final Order subsequently
required Wife to pay one-half of the $12, 254.95 remaining
balance of the Loan (the Remaining Loan Balance). Each party
was ordered to pay one-half of the outstanding debt owed to
Verizon Wireless (the Verizon Debt). Wife was awarded
one-half of Husband's pension plan (the Pension Plan)
upon its vesting on June 8, 2016 ($72, 034.08), which
amounted to $36, 017.04. The Final Order required Husband to
pay Wife $6, 623.95 for her equity in a Jayco Hornet Camper
(the Camper). With regards to the former marital home (the
Home), both parties requested and the family court ordered
Husband to remove Wife's name from the mortgage,
refinance the Home within ninety days, and pay Wife one-half
of the equity. Wife filed a Rule 59(e), SCRCP, motion seeking
reconsideration, which the family court denied. This appeal
the family court err in identifying, valuing, and
apportioning marital assets and debts?
the family court err in granting a divorce to Husband on the
ground of adultery?
Did the family court err in requiring the parties to pay
their own attorney's fees, requiring Wife to bear a
greater portion of the fees incurred by the GAL and Dr.
Harari, and requiring Wife to reimburse Husband for the
private investigator's fees?
appellate court reviews decisions of the family court de
novo. Stoney v. Stoney, 422 S.C. 593, 596, 813
S.E.2d 486, 487 (2018) (per curiam). In a de novo review, the
appellate court is free to make its own findings of fact but
must remember the family court was in a better position to
make credibility determinations. Lewis v. Lewis, 392
S.C. 381, 385, 709 S.E.2d 650, 651-52 (2011).
"Consistent with this de novo review, the appellant
retains the burden to show that the family court's
findings are not supported by a preponderance of the
evidence; otherwise, the findings will be affirmed."
Ashburn v. Rogers, 420 S.C. 411, 416, 803 S.E.2d
469, 471 (Ct. App. 2017). On the other hand, evidentiary and
procedural rulings of the family court are reviewed for an
abuse of discretion. Stoney, 422 S.C. at 594 n.2,
813 S.E.2d at 486 n.2.
argues the family court erred in the equitable division of
the Loan, the 401K Account, the Camper, the Pension Plan, the
Verizon Debt, and the Home.
reviewing a division of marital property, an appellate court
looks to the overall fairness of the apportionment."
Brown v. Brown, 412 S.C. 225, 235, 771 S.E.2d 649,
655 (Ct. App. 2015). "Even if the family court commits
error in distributing marital property, that error will be
deemed harmless if the overall distribution is fair."
Doe v. Doe, 370 S.C. 206, 213-14, 634 S.E.2d 51, 55
(Ct. App. 2006).
argues the family court erred in (1) finding the Loan was a
marital debt and (2) equitably apportioning the Loan. We
affirm the family court's finding that the Loan was a
marital debt and the apportionment of the 401K Account, but
we modify the family court's apportionment of the Loan.
The Loan as ...