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COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA
Present: Judges Annunziata, Clements and Kelsey
Argued at Salem, Virginia
Record No. 0197-03-3
PATSY ANNE EAKIN WILLIAMS
JAMES MICHAEL WILLIAMS
JUDGE ROSEMARIE ANNUNZIATA
OCTOBER 28, 2003
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF ROANOKE COUNTY
Robert P. Doherty, Jr., Judge
Frank W. Rogers, III (Mundy, Rogers & Frith, L.L.P., on
No brief or argument for appellee.
Patsy Anne Eakin Williams (wife) filed a suit for divorce from
James Williams (husband)
on the grounds of willful desertion, constructive desertion, and
cruelty. The trial court sustained
the husband’s demurrer to the wife’s amended bill of complaint.
Wife appeals the decision.
I. Procedural Background
Wife filed her first bill of complaint seeking a divorce from
husband in 2002. Husband
filed a demurrer to that bill, which the trial court sustained
by order dated July 2, 2002. Wife’s
motion for leave to file an amended bill was granted by the same
order. She filed her amended
bill of complaint on July 11, 2002. Husband filed an answer and
cross-bill on July 31, 2002.
At a subsequent hearing, husband orally noted a demurrer to the
pleading, which the trial
court indicated it would accept subject to the filing of a
written demurrer. The written demurrer
was not filed until October 29, 2002. By opinion letter dated
November 5, 2002, the trial court
sustained the demurrer and entered an order to that effect on
December 23, 2002. This appeal
followed. Finding no error, we affirm.
II. Standard of Review
A demurrer tests the legal sufficiency of a bill of complaint.
Thompson v. Skate
America, 261 Va. 121, 128, 540 S.E.2d 123, 126 (2001).
While a demurrer does not admit the correctness of the
conclusions of law, it "admits the truth of all material
facts that are
properly pleaded, facts which are impliedly alleged, and facts
which may be fairly and justly inferred." Thus, the sole
to be decided by the trial court is whether the facts thus
implied, and fairly and justly inferred are legally sufficient
a cause of action against the defendant. In this context, a
challenging on appeal the sustaining of a defendant’s demurrer
the trial court need only show that the trial court erred in
that the pleading failed to state a cause of action, and not
plaintiff would have prevailed on the merits of that cause.
Id. at 128, 540 S.E.2d at 126-27 (citations omitted) (quoting
Cox Cable Hampton Roads, Inc. v.
City of Norfolk, 242 Va. 394, 397, 410 S.E.2d 652, 653 (1991)).
The appellate court thus accepts all allegations in the bill of
complaint as true, as well as
all reasonable inferences that flow from them. Ward’s Equipment,
Inc. v. New Holland N.
America, Inc., 254 Va. 379, 382, 493 S.E.2d 516, 518
(1997). If the allegations sufficiently state
a cause of action cognizable in Virginia, the suit should be
allowed to proceed.
The record establishes that wife filed an amended bill of
complaint seeking a divorce
from bed and board on the grounds of willful desertion,
constructive desertion, and cruelty. In
support of her amended bill of complaint, wife alleged that: 1)
husband cursed her repeatedly; 2)
husband chose to spend evenings with his friends rather than
with her; 3) husband was seen on
February 1, 2001 at Cheers, a local bar, drinking and dancing
with an unknown female; 4)
husband was seen fondling and kissing this female and mouthing
the words "I love you" to her;
5) "within the last several weeks [of the filing of the
bill of complaint on July 11, 2002],"
husband moved out of the marital bedroom and began sleeping in
the basement; 6) husband
reestablished himself in the marital bed on July 7, 2002 and
refused to leave, and husband told
wife "he could do whatever he wanted in his house"; 7)
husband’s statement that "he could do
whatever he wanted" made wife fear for her safety and has
caused her much stress, emotional
pain, and difficulty sleeping; 8) wife consequently sought the
attention of a health care provider;
and 9) both wife and husband have advised their children,
family, and friends that they are
getting a divorce.
A. Wife Failed to State a Cause of Action for a Divorce from
Bed and Board on the Ground of Cruelty
Code ? 20-95 authorizes a decree of divorce from bed and board
for "cruelty, reasonable
apprehension of bodily hurt, willful desertion or
abandonment." "In reality, there are only two
grounds for a divorce [from bed and board]—desertion and
cruelty—because cruelty and
reasonable apprehension of bodily hurt are so closely related in
the matter of proof and effect."
Haskins v. Haskins, 185 Va. 1001, 1007, 41 S.E.2d 25, 28 (1947).
The general rule, expressed long ago, is that "the cruelty
that authorizes a divorce is
anything that tends to bodily harm and thus renders cohabitation
unsafe." Latham v. Latham, 71
Va. (30 Gratt.) 307, 320-21 (1878). Furthermore, a single act of
physical abuse will not
constitute cruelty unless "it is so severe and atrocious as
to endanger life" or is likely to be
repeated in the future. DeMott v. DeMott, 198 Va. 22, 28, 92
S.E.2d 342, 346 (1956); accord
Davis v. Davis, 8 Va. App. 12, 15, 377 S.E.2d 640, 642 (1989).
Latham also stated, however, that severe mental cruelty,
accompanied by malice or actual
menace, may be sufficient under the statute.
[T]here may be cases in which the husband, without violence,
actual or threatened, may render the marriage state impossible
be endured. There may be angry words, coarse and abusive
language, humiliating insults, and annoyances in all the forms
malice can suggest, which may as effectually endanger life or
health as personal violence, and which, therefore, would afford
grounds for relief by the court.
Latham, 71 Va. (30 Gratt.) at 321. Subsequent decisions have
interpreted this language as an
exception to the general rule that physical cruelty tending to
bodily harm must be established.
The authorities generally, including those in our own State,
allow for exceptional cases in which there may be extreme
without the slightest violence. Mental anguish, repeated and
unrelenting neglect and humiliation, may be as bad as physical
wounds and bruises, and may be visited upon an unoffending
spouse in such degree as to amount to cruelty even in the very
strict sense in which that term ought always to be used in the
Ringgold v. Ringgold, 128 Va. 485, 487, 104 S.E. 836, 840
(1920). The exception to the general
rule also must be understood and applied in light of Virginia’s
unwillingness to grant a faultbased
divorce for light or transient transgressions against the
marital relationship. See, e.g., Coe
v. Coe, 225 Va. 616, 619, 303 S.E.2d 923, 925 (1983) ("A
fault divorce cannot be granted
merely because a husband and wife are unable to live together in
peace and harmony."); Latham,
71 Va. (30 Gratt.) at 321 ("what merely wounds the feelings
without being accompanied by
bodily injury . . . [such as] rudeness of language, want of
civil attention . . ., or even occasional
sallies of passion that do not threaten harm, although they be
high offenses against morality in
the married state, does not amount to legal cruelty").
Accepting wife’s allegations as true, we find they do not rise
to the level necessary to
maintain a suit for divorce on cruelty grounds. She has not
alleged physical cruelty, and she has
not alleged anything that tends to bodily harm. She alleged a
general fear for her safety, but
Her allegations that husband cursed her, chose to spend some
nights with his friends
rather than with her, and told her that "he could do
whatever he wanted" in his house, show no
more than mere profane language, rudeness, inattentiveness, and
a dictatorial manner. The
conduct alleged does not evince the repeated verbal abuse,
humiliation, and unrelenting neglect
necessary to sustain a charge of cruelty. See Ringgold, 128 Va.
at 497, 104 S.E. at 840; cf.
Baytop v. Baytop, 199 Va. 388, 392, 100 S.E.2d 14, 18 (1957)
(finding mental cruelty where
husband fathered an illegitimate child while married, mentally
abused his wife for a "long period
of time," and "detrimentally effected [sic] [his
wife’s] health and nervous system); Sollie v.
Sollie, 202 Va. 855, 857-59, 120 S.E.2d 281, 282-84 (1961)
(finding mental cruelty where
husband physically abused his wife on numerous occasions).
Here, wife’s alleged facts show only that she and her husband
could not live together
happily. "’The law,’" however, "’does not permit
courts to sever marriage bonds and to break up
households merely because husband and wife, through unruly
tempers, lack of patience and
uncongenial natures, live unhappily together.’" Upchurch v.
Upchurch, 194 Va. 990, 1000, 76
S.E.2d 170, 176 (1953) (quoting Butler v. Butler, 145 Va. 85,
88, 133 S.E. 756, 757 (1926)).
Wife has thus failed to allege sufficient facts to sustain a
suit for divorce on the ground of
B. Wife Failed to State a Cause of Action for a Divorce from
Bed and Board on the Ground of Willful Desertion
Willful desertion is a ground for divorce from bed and board in
Virginia. Code ? 20-95.
Willful desertion consists of the breaking off of marital
cohabitation and an intent to desert in the
mind of the offender. Petachenko v. Petachenko, 232 Va. 296,
298-99, 350 S.E.2d 600, 602
(1986). Moreover, desertion cannot occur unless "one spouse
breaks off marital cohabitation
with the intent to remain apart permanently, without the consent
and against the will of the other
spouse." Barnes v. Barnes, 16 Va. App. 98, 101, 428 S.E.2d
294, 297 (1993). Willful desertion
also has been found to exist when an unjustified withdrawal of
the privilege of sexual intercourse
is coupled with the willful breach and neglect of other marital
duties, rendering "’the marriage
state well neigh intolerable, and impossible to be
endured.’" Jamison v. Jamison, 3 Va. App.
644, 647, 352 S.E.2d 719, 721 (1987) (quoting Chandler v.
Chandler, 132 Va. 418, 430-31, 112
S.E. 856, 860-61 (1922)).
Accepting all of wife’s allegations as true, we find that she
has failed to state a case of
willful desertion. She pled that the parties no longer cohabit
together. She failed to plead facts,
however, that establish her husband had the requisite intent to
desert. On the contrary, the facts
she presented support the conclusion that her husband did not
intend to desert. She alleged that
on July 7, 2002, he tried to reestablish himself in the marital
bed. She also stated in her amended
bill of complaint that "[t]he parties have . . . advised
their children, family and friends that they
are getting a divorce," an allegation which shows that the
decision to divorce was mutual. See
Barnes, 16 Va. App. at 101, 428 S.E.2d at 297 (affirming trial
court’s ruling that no desertion
occurred where "[t]he facts establish[ed] that both parties
had ‘accepted that the marriage had
ended, that both intended to separate at some time in the
future, and that the husband acquiesced
in the separation’").
Assuming, without deciding, that it is reasonable to infer from
wife’s pleading that sexual
intercourse has been withdrawn, she nonetheless failed to plead
that her husband abandoned any
other marital duty. Wife, therefore, has not alleged sufficient
facts to support her pleading for a
divorce on the ground of willful desertion. Cf. Jamison,
3 Va. App. at 648, 352 S.E.2d at 721-22
(finding desertion where unjustified withdrawal of sexual
intercourse was coupled with the
breach of other significant marital duties).
C. Wife Failed to State a Cause of Action for a Divorce from
Bed and Board on the Ground of Constructive Desertion
Constructive desertion may be established by cruelty on the part
of one spouse that
justifies the other spouse’s decision to discontinue marital
cohabitation. See Hoffecker v.
Hoffecker, 200 Va. 119, 125-26, 104 S.E.2d 771, 776 (1958);
Hundley v. Hundley, 182 Va. 14,
16, 27 S.E.2d 902, 902 (1943); Elder v. Elder, 139 Va. 19, 26,
123 S.E. 369, 371 (1924);
Zinkhan v. Zinkhan, 2 Va. App. 200, 208, 342 S.E.2d 658, 662
(1986). In other words,
constructive desertion, unlike willful desertion, requires that
the abandoning spouse have some
justification in leaving the marital relationship. A spouse is
justified in doing so if the other
spouse’s conduct amounts to cruelty. See id.
Wife’s claim of constructive desertion dissipates without
evidence of cruelty. As
discussed above, she did not plead facts sufficient to support a
claim of cruelty. Accordingly,
she cannot argue constructive desertion based on husband’s
cruelty towards her.
Furthermore, wife’s reliance in her opening brief on husband’s
intent to desert as support
for her claim of constructive desertion is misplaced. She
misapprehends the nature of
constructive desertion. Contrary to her assertions, constructive
desertion cannot, by force of
logic, require an intent to desert in the mind of the offender.
The intent to desert is actually held
by the offended spouse.
For the reasons stated, we affirm the decision of the trial
court sustaining husband’s
Code ? 17.1-413, this opinion is not designated for publication.