Denise M. Williams
John R. Williams
Appeal from Elmore Circuit Court (DR-13-9000304)
Denise M. Williams ("the wife") and John R. Williams ("the husband") were married on October 20, 2004. There are no children of the marriage. On October 2, 2013, the wife filed a complaint seeking a divorce from the husband, a division of the assets and debts of the marriage, an award of alimony, and an order declaring that the parties' prenuptial agreement was void because, she asserted:
"This agreement was not fair, just, or equitable to the Wife. The Wife was pressured by the Husband to enter said agreement the night before the parties were married and without the opportunity to seek advice of independent legal counsel. Further, the agreement did not represent a full and fair disclosure of the Husband's assets, nor was the Wife aware of the extent of the Husband's assets when she entered the agreement."
On December 2, 2013, the wife filed a set of interrogatories, requests for production, and a "renewed" motion for a pendente lite hearing. On December 11, 2013, the circuit court entered an order indicating that the parties had settled the pendente lite issues and that the wife's motion seeking a pendente lite hearing was moot. On January 20, 2014, the wife filed a second renewed motion for a pendente lite hearing, asserting that, although the parties had requested that the circuit court not conduct a pendente lite hearing, the wife needed "intervention of the court to obtain pendente lite relief."
On January 21, 2014, the husband responded to the wife's second renewed motion for a pendente lite hearing, asserting that the parties had entered into a "valid Prenuptial Agreement on October 19, 2004, " wherein the wife had "waiv[ed] all of her claims to property settlements, alimony, and support" and that the wife did not need temporary support. That same day, the husband filed a Rule 56(b), Ala. R. Civ. App., motion seeking the entry of a partial summary judgment in his favor.
The narrative summary of undisputed facts in the husband's partial-summary-judgment motion included general assertions that the wife had filed a complaint seeking a divorce, a division of the assets and debts of the marriage, and an award providing for medical insurance and alimony. The husband argued that, upon entry of a judgment divorcing the parties, there would be "no outstanding issues" for the circuit court to decide because, he asserted, the wife had waived any right to a property settlement or to "alimony, maintenance, or support" by entering into the prenuptial agreement. The husband appended a copy of the prenuptial agreement that was executed on October 19, 2004, and its exhibit A, which was a copy of the husband's disclosure of his financial assets. That same day, January 21, 2014, the circuit court set a hearing for February 18, 2014.
On February 11, 2014, the wife filed a Rule 56(c)(1) statement in opposition to the husband's motion seeking the entry of a partial summary judgment. See Rule 56(c)(2)("any statement or affidavit in opposition shall be served at least two (2) days prior to the hearing"). She appended her affidavit, in which she asserted that the circumstances surrounding her execution of the prenuptial agreement were in dispute, to her statement in opposition. Specifically, the wife contended that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding the validity of the prenuptial agreement because, according to the wife, the husband had presented the prenuptial agreement at 6:30 p.m. on October 19, 2004, and the marriage ceremony had been scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on October 20, 2004. She asserted that the husband had waited until the "eleventh hour, " had not provided her a copy of the prenuptial agreement to keep, had not allowed her to "fully read and understand" it, and had intentionally created circumstances that had not allowed her to consult an attorney. Also on February 11, 2014, the wife filed a motion to compel discovery, asserting that the husband had refused to respond to her December 2, 2013, interrogatories and requests for production and that he had "ignored" her "multiple attempts" to obtain discovery before the hearing, which was scheduled for February 18, 2014. The circuit court failed to enter an order on the wife's motion to compel discovery.
Four days before the hearing, on February 14, 2014, the husband filed a "response" to the wife's statement in opposition to his motion for a partial summary judgment, a copy of a quitclaim deed, and an unverified affidavit of Burt W. Newsome, the husband's attorney, who had drafted the prenuptial agreement; on the day of the hearing, the husband filed a copy of Newsome's verified affidavit. As the wife points out in her brief on appeal, the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure do not contemplate a summary-judgment movant's filing of a "response" to materials filed in opposition to the summary judgment motion, and, subject to an exception not relevant in this case, Rule 56(c)(2), requires that all materials in support of a motion for a summary judgment be "served at least ten (10) days before the time fixed for the hearing."
The circuit court held a "summary judgment/pendente lite" hearing on February 18, 2014, and, on March 27, 2014, it entered an order granting the husband's motion for a partial summary judgment. The circuit court considered the contents of the husband's motion, the prenuptial agreement, the wife's statement in opposition, the wife's affidavit, the husband's "response, " the husband's affidavit, and Newsome's affidavit. The circuit court twice concluded that the disputed validity of the prenuptial agreement based upon the timing of the husband's presentation of the prenuptial agreement to the wife was not "material or critical to the ruling" or was "not material to the outcome of the case." The circuit court found that, although there was a dispute as to when the wife received the prenuptial agreement, there was no dispute that the wife "[k]new for a month before the wedding" that the husband would be "getting or requiring" a prenuptial agreement. That information was gleaned from the wife's affidavit; however, in context, the wife actually stated:
"A month prior to signing the agreement, [the husband] told me that his sister suggested that he have a prenuptial agreement executed before he got married. However, he never again mentioned the document to me and never presented any document to me to review prior to the night before our wedding. I believed he had decided that we didn't even need a prenuptial agreement because so much time had passed since we talked about it, and he never told me that I had to sign a prenuptial agreement in order to marry him. He also knew that I had premarital property of value, but instead of asking me for my disclosures, I now know that he simply stated in the agreement that I had nothing of value. I believe he didn't ask me for these disclosures because he didn't want me to know that he was going to give me a prenuptial agreement to sign, and he didn't want me to have the time to consult with an attorney of my own prior to signing it."
The circuit court concluded that "the law of this State mandates that a [partial] summary judgment be entered in favor of the Husband."
The circuit court certified the March 27, 2014, partial-summary-judgment order as a final judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b), Ala. R. Civ.P. On April 22, 2014, the wife filed a motion to alter, amend, or vacate the order, in which she alleged that the circuit court had erred by entering a partial summary judgment because, she asserted, the circuit court had considered improperly submitted evidence, the husband had failed to comply with her discovery requests, the circumstances surrounding the husband's presentation of the prenuptial agreement were "underhanded and coercive, " and "certain disputed facts" were material. That same day, the wife filed another motion seeking an order to compel discovery.
The wife filed a notice of appeal as to the March 27, 2014, partial-summary-judgment order in this court on April 24, 2014; the appeal was held in abeyance pending a ruling on the wife's postjudgment motion. See Rule 4(a)(5), Ala. R. App. P. The wife's postjudgment motion was denied by operation of law on July 21, 2014. See Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ. P.
On appeal, the wife argues that the circuit court erred by entering a partial summary judgment in favor of the husband because, she asserts, it considered evidence not properly before it, it deprived the wife of the opportunity to discover evidence to oppose the husband's motion for a partial summary judgment,  it wrongly determined that the dispute regarding the timing of the execution of the prenuptial agreement was not a genuine issue of material fact, it improperly concluded that the prenuptial agreement was valid, and it misinterpreted the prenuptial agreement.
As an initial matter, we must determine whether the circuit court exceeded its discretion by certifying the March 27, 2014, order as a final judgment pursuant to Rule ...