Supreme Court clarifies standard of review on family court appeals (and the Stoney appeal may never end)

Posted Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Appellate Procedure, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

On April 18, 2018, almost four months after the South Carolina Supreme Court remanded the appeal of Stoney v. Stoney back to the Court of Appeals to apply the correct standard of review, the Supreme Court issued a revised opinion clarifying that standard of review.

The revised opinion, Stoney v. Stoney, 422 S.C. 593, 813 S.E.2d 486 (2018), keeps in place the prior holding that in appeals from family court factual findings are reviewed de novo. The new issue addressed by this revised opinion is contained in footnote 2, which clarifies that “the standard for reviewing a family court’s evidentiary or procedural rulings” is “an abuse of discretion standard.”

The Court of Appeals opinion, from July 2016, often applied an “abuse of discretion” standard of review in finding numerous errors by the trial court that rendered the proceedings fundamentally unfair to Ms. Stoney. Rather than issue a revised decision on the contested issues or remanding the matter back for reconsideration by the trial court, the Court of Appeals remanded the case back for a whole new trial (relief that I believe is unique in published decisions of appeals from South Carolina’s family courts). Now, twenty-one months after the Court of Appeals opinion (an opinion that wasn’t issued until twenty months after oral argument), the Court of Appeals is being asked to address Ms. Stoney’s alleged errors again–under what will be for her a more favorable standard of review. This new opinion is unlikely to issue until 2019. Thereafter Mr. Stoney and his brother will be able to petition for certiorari. It will likely be 2021 or even 2022 before Ms. Stoney gets her new trial. Meanwhile, in petitioning for certiorari, her ex-husband has been able to delay resolution by approximately five years.

Given the less deferential standard of review, it can only get worse for Mr. Stoney on remand. However the Supreme Court has greatly delayed his day of reckoning. Ms. Stoney keeps “winning” on appeal but these victories delay her receiving the appropriate levels of child support and alimony and from receiving an equitable distribution of marital assets.

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