Das v. Das

754 A.2d 441 133 Md. App. 1
Vincent DAS v. Anuradha DAS.  – No. 2319, Sept. Term, 1999.
Court of Special Appeals of Maryland. June 28, 2000.
Argued before SALMON, EYLER, and THIEME, JJ.

Discussion Issue: Was there grounds to give the wife an Absolute Divorce based on Cruelty/Vicious Conduct?

FACTS: The parties were married on August 13, 1978, in New Dehli, India. Two children were born of the marriage: Radha, on October 7, 1983, and Jaya, on October 3, 1985.

The parties separated in January 1998, following entry of a domestic violence protective order granted to Wife by the District Court of Montgomery County. At trial, Wife testified that she had been subject to repeated acts of physical and mental cruelty during the marriage. Her brother corroborated this testimony.

On August 19, the court granted Wife an absolute divorce on the grounds of cruelty and excessively vicious conduct, legal and residential custody of the parties’ minor children, child support, use and possession of the family home and family-use personalty, a monetary award, and attorney’s fees.

On October 19, the court denied his Motion to Vacate Order of Default, Stay Entry of Judgment, Permit Filing of Responsive Pleadings, Grant a New Trial and/or Reconsider Award of Custody, and Certain Other Relief. Husband then, on October 26, filed a pleading styled Defendant’s Unopposed Motion to Strike Order Dated October 19, 1999, and Set Hearing in Open Court, to which Wife filed opposition. By letter dated November 16, 1999, the court addressed this motion by advising counsel: “I do not believe that there is any requirement that I schedule a hearing on Defendant’s Motion to Vacate Order…. However, I will agree to schedule a hearing on the condition that Mr. Das and the minor child, Radha, are present.” Husband noted a timely appeal on November 24.

The Grounds for Divorce Discussion

Husband asks if the trial court erred or abused its discretion in granting Wife an absolute divorce. He argues that the facts alleged by Wife at the August 11 hearing do not support grounds for divorce based on either cruelty or excessively vicious conduct because they lack sufficient specificity and fail to reach the level of egregiousness described in some of our older cases. He also claims that Wife’s testimony was uncorroborated. The court disagreed.

Whether the events that brings a divorce complainant to court constitute cruelty or excessively vicious conduct has never been the stuff of which bright line rules are made, and even now the standards are shifting. In 1998, the legislature make cruelty and excessively vicious conduct grounds for absolute divorce in Maryland. Before that time, cruelty of treatment gave grounds for limited divorce only. “The cruelty which entitles the injured party to a divorce … consists in that sort of conduct which endangers the life or health of the complainant, and renders cohabitation unsafe.”

Ordinarily a single act of violence slight in character did not constitute cruelty of treatment as a cause for divorce. But it is now accepted in Maryland, as well as generally throughout the country, that a single act may be sufficient to constitute the basis for a divorce on the ground of cruelty, if it indicates an intention to do serious bodily harm or is of such a character as to threaten serious danger in the future.

Under this more modern definition, the historic cases for limited divorce on grounds of cruelty and excessively vicious conduct show remarkable tolerance for abusive behavior. In reviewing these oft-cited cases on cruelty and excessively vicious conduct, the court noted that most are quite old and give victims little relief from their aggressive partners by modern standards. They were not be granted except for grave and weighty causes, and even then the evidence must be clear and the corroboration satisfactory and in accordance with the law…. “Parties to the marriage must realize that the relationship is seldom perfect, and that it is essential to the happiness and contentment of the parties, as well as for the benefit of society, that each tolerate inconveniences, annoyances, even hardships, and make sacrifices for the common welfare.” Disapproval of limited divorce likely colored past analysis in the cases where cruelty or excessively vicious conduct was alleged.

In more recent years, however, a greater awareness and intolerance of domestic violence has shifted the public policy toward allowing the dissolution of marriages with a violence element. Against this background, the court turned to the instant case. Husband claims that his conduct toward Wife never “endangered her life, person, or health, or would have otherwise caused her to feel apprehension of bodily suffering,” and, to be sure, during her brief time on the witness stand on August 11, Wife did not account for the particulars of specific violent incidents. Nevertheless, from Wife’s direct testimony and in the pleadings, the court below learned that the history of violence between Husband and Wife justified entry of a one-year protective order in January 1998, after a particularly violent incident that was “one in several cases of domestic violence.” Wife went on to testify that the parties’ marriage was an arranged marriage, which “in our culture … the way it is conducted is basically subservience.” She spoke of on-going cruelty, including “making me stay up all night in order to listen to him, isolating me from my friends and from my family, and not allowing contact as much as possible…. Hitting, pinching, pulling hair, etc.” Wife testified in some detail how husband’s controlling behavior harmed her previously close relationship with her family. She told the court how she has continuing health problems, including cardiac arrhythmia brought on by the “stress of the marriage and the tensions at home.” Wife also spoke with fear of Husband’s taunting questions about what she might do when the protective order expired. Although Wife’s testimony did not track Husband’s mistreatment of her in minute detail, it is clear from that testimony and the very existence of a protective order that Husband’s conduct far exceeded mere sallies of passion, harshness, and rudeness, and in fact threatened Wife’s physical and emotional well-being. “[W]here violence has been inflicted and threats have been made,” as in the instant case, “a Court of Equity should not hesitate to grant relief, especially where the facts indicate a probability that violence might be repeated.” Timanus v. Timanus, 177 Md. 686, 687,.

Husband also claims that Wife’s testimony was largely uncorroborated. If true, Husband’s assertion would be fatal to the final judgment, for under MD Code, “[a] court may not enter a decree of divorce on the uncorroborated testimony of the party who is seeking the divorce.”

The corroboration required varies with the circumstances of each case; as the likelihood of collusion decreases, so does the degree of corroboration needed. For this reason, if the case precludes the possibility of collusion, only slight corroboration is required.

Here, despite the quality of proof needed to prove cruelty and excessively vicious behavior, Wife needed only slight corroboration for her testimony, for there was almost no likelihood of collusion. The problems between the parties had long been known to the courts. Domestic violence proceedings had taken place the prior year, culminating in the entry of a one-year protective order. CINA proceedings against Husband were ongoing, because he had allowed Radha to skip school. Husband had fled the jurisdiction of the court, taking Radha with him.

Wife’s brother, Arjun Duggal, corroborated her testimony and that was sufficient to establish Wife’s entitlement to an absolute divorce. Duggal told the court that Wife had sought refuge in his home in January 1998 after Husband assaulted her. He further testified that he had “observed a pattern of stress, tension in her life since 1986,” when he first immigrated to the United States. He also addressed Husband’s efforts to isolate Wife from her family, corroborating his sister’s testimony in that regard. Duggal’s testimony tracked with all major tenets of Wife’s testimony, empowering the trial judge to find that Wife told the truth. It thus met the legal standard for corroboration, and we affirm the trial court’s judgment of absolute divorce.