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Saunders v. Saunders

Supreme Court of Wyoming

August 1, 2019

MARK A. SAUNDERS, Appellant (Plaintiff),
SIBYL H. SAUNDERS, Appellee (Defendant).

          Appeal from the District Court of Fremont County The Honorable Norman E. Young, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Melinda S. McCorkle of Kline, McCorkle & Pilger, LLP, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

          Representing Appellee: Devon P. O'Connell, Dustin J. Richards and Albert K. Walsh of Pence and MacMillan LLC, Laramie, Wyoming.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

          KAUTZ, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Appellant Mark A. Saunders appeals from the district court's order dismissing his divorce action against Appellee Sybil H. Saunders on the grounds of improper venue and/or forum non conveniens. The district court erred by dismissing Mr. Saunders' action for improper venue, and it did not apply the proper test when it dismissed for forum non conveniens. Consequently, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         [¶2] The issues on appeal are:

1. Whether the district court erred by dismissing Mr. Saunders' divorce complaint for improper venue under W.R.C.P. 12(b)(3).
2. Whether the district court erred by dismissing Mr. Saunders' divorce complaint under the doctrine of forum non conveniens.


         [¶3] The Saunders married in North Carolina in 1989. On February 9, 2018, Mr. Saunders filed a complaint for divorce in the district court in Fremont County, Wyoming. Mr. Saunders stated he lived in Fremont County and had resided in the State of Wyoming for more than sixty days immediately preceding his filing of the complaint. He also stated two children were born as issue of the marriage, but they were adults. Mr. Saunders requested the district court grant him a divorce from Mrs. Saunders and equitably divide their marital property. Mrs. Saunders was served with the complaint and summons in North Carolina on February 20, 2018.

         [¶4] On February 21, 2018, Mrs. Saunders filed a divorce complaint in North Carolina. That document is not part of the record on appeal, but her amended complaint, which she filed on April 9, 2018, is included in the record. Mrs. Saunders then filed a motion to dismiss the Wyoming action pursuant to W.R.C.P. 12(b)(3), [1] claiming Wyoming was an improper venue for the parties' divorce and/or forum non conveniens.

         [¶5] Mrs. Saunders filed a personal affidavit in support of her motion to dismiss. She declared the parties had lived together in North Carolina and had never resided in Wyoming as a married couple. Mrs. Saunders also stated Mr. Saunders has interests in approximately forty-four North Carolina businesses. According to her, he had engaged in extensive business dealings and real estate ventures in southeastern North Carolina for over thirty years, including a business named "Mark Saunders Luxury Homes," which has "a significant number of employees[.]" Mrs. Saunders stated Mr. Saunders and/or his companies were involved in thousands of real estate transactions over an unidentified period of time.[2]

         [¶6] As for liabilities, Mrs. Saunders stated Mr. Saunders' businesses were involved in "a great number of lawsuits" and there was an outstanding lien of $74, 000, 000, although it is unclear who the lien had been filed against. She also stated the parties had a federal tax lien of $3, 000, 000 filed against them in North Carolina and Wyoming. Mrs. Saunders claimed the "identification, classification, and evaluation of all marital assets, together with the number of competent witnesses who may testify in the . . . action[] are primarily from the State of North Carolina." She asserted, given the complex nature of the marital properties and debts, North Carolina would be the "most convenient forum to litigate" the issues associated with their divorce.

         [¶7] In his verified response, Mr. Saunders claimed the district court in Fremont County had jurisdiction over the subject matter and parties. He recognized Mrs. Saunders had filed a complaint in North Carolina but stated he had not been served with process in that suit. Mr. Saunders also admitted he continued to have significant business and personal connections in North Carolina. He conceded there were pending lawsuits against him and his business entities and a federal tax lien had been filed in North Carolina and Wyoming against the parties. He did not specifically deny the $74, 000, 000 lien but stated the documents from the Register of Deeds, which were apparently on the thumb drive, see supra n.2, speak for themselves.

         [¶8] Mr. Saunders claimed to have moved permanently to Wyoming and to have substantial real property and business interests in this State. He averred he had possessed and operated a ranch in Wyoming for over thirteen years and had interests "in at least 10 Wyoming-based business entities." Mr. Saunders asserted his choice of Wyoming as the forum to litigate the divorce was entitled to deference.

         [¶9] The North Carolina court stayed Mrs. Saunders' divorce action "until the determination of venue and any other possible jurisdictional matters are resolved by the Wyoming Courts." After a hearing, the district court in this case issued an order granting Mrs. Saunders' "Motion[] to Dismiss for Improper Venue." Mr. Saunders appealed.


         [¶10] We generally review a district court's rulings regarding venue and forum non conveniens for abuse of discretion. Bourke v. Grey Wolf Drilling Co., LP, 2013 WY 93, ¶ 14, 305 P.3d 1164, 1167 (Wyo. 2013) (venue); Burnham v. Coffinberry, 2003 WY 109, ¶¶ 5, 8, 76 P.3d 296, 298-99 (Wyo. 2003) (venue and forum non conveniens); West Texas Utils. Co. v. Exxon Coal USA, Inc., 807 P.2d 932, 935 (Wyo. 1991) (citing Booth v. Magee Carpet Co., 548 P.2d 1252 (Wyo. 1976)) (forum non conveniens).

Judicial discretion is a composite of many things, among which are conclusions drawn from objective criteria; it means a sound judgment exercised with regard to what is right under the circumstances and without doing so arbitrarily or capriciously.

Burnham, ¶ 5, 76 P.3d at 298. However, to the extent resolution of this case requires us to address legal issues, our review is de novo. BTU W. Res., Inc. v. Berenergy Corp., 2019 WY 57, ¶ 14, 442 P.3d 50, 54-55 (Wyo. 2019); Bourke, ¶ 15, 305 P.3d at 1167 (interpretation of venue statutes is reviewed de novo).

         [¶11] Given Mrs. Saunders filed a Rule 12(b)(3) motion to dismiss, the court generally accepts the well-pleaded facts in Mr. Saunders' complaint as being true. See Espinoza v. Evergreen Helicopters, Inc., 376 P.3d 960, 982 (Ore. 2016); 5B Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1352 (3d. ed. 2019) (discussing the identical F.R.C.P 12(b)(3)). Additionally, "the court must draw all reasonable inferences and resolve all factual conflicts in favor of the plaintiff." 5B Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1352. A district court may, however, "examine facts outside the complaint" to determine whether a case should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(3). Id. Thus, as in this case, the parties may submit affidavits setting forth facts relevant to the district court's determination of venue and/or forum non conveniens. Id.


         [¶12] Mr. Saunders' complaint stated he had been a Wyoming resident for more than sixty days immediately preceding his filing and he resided in Fremont County. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-107 (LexisNexis 2017) sets forth the requirements for a Wyoming district court to acquire jurisdiction over a divorce action:

(a)No divorce shall be granted unless one of the parties has resided in this state for sixty (60) days immediately preceding the time of filing the complaint, or the marriage was solemnized in this state and one of the parties has resided in this state from the time of the marriage until the filing of the complaint.
(b) A married person who at the time of filing a complaint for divorce resides in this state is a resident although his spouse may reside elsewhere.

         [¶13] Mrs. Saunders did not dispute the district court had jurisdiction over the action pursuant to § 20-2-107. She also acceded to the court's personal jurisdiction over her. Mrs. Saunders asserted, however, North Carolina was the more appropriate forum for the parties' divorce and the distribution of their marital property. Her motion to dismiss the action and the district court's ...

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