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State border can’t help woman duck alienation award

David Donovan//August 19, 2013

State border can’t help woman duck alienation award

David Donovan//August 19, 2013

A North Carolina woman will be able to enforce a six-figure judgment against the woman who slept with her husband even though the woman had relocated to South Carolina, where courts have held that alienation of affection and criminal conversation torts violate the state’s public policy.SC Welcome sign

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of the judgment was required by the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but its unanimous ruling in Widenhouse v. Colson does little to tip its hand on its broader views on the doctrine, which is taking something of a star turn as states begin to split on the question of same-sex marriage. Legal scholars have pondered whether states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages would be required to honor orders from states that do recognize them. It is expected that courts will soon have to start making those decisions.

Sue Taylor Colson Widenhouse had sued Tammy Batson Colson in North Carolina under the state’s alienation of affections and criminal conversation torts. The causes of action allow a jilted spouse to sue a partner’s paramour for monetary damages. Widenhouse prevailed, and a North Carolina jury awarded her $266,000 plus interest and costs.

Colson relocated to South Carolina, which abolished the torts more than two decades ago. When Widenhouse came calling to collect the judgment there, Colson argued that the North Carolina judgment was not entitled to full faith and credit in South Carolina because alienation of affections and criminal conversation are contrary to the state’s public policy. In a unanimous decision, the state’s Supreme Court agreed that the torts violate state policy, but ruled that Widenhouse was still entitled to the money under Full Faith and Credit.

South Carolina’s Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act generally permits enforcement of judgments from other states, but explicitly does not apply to “judgments based on claims which are contrary to the public policies of this State.” South Carolina’s Supreme Court abolished the tort of criminal conversation (physical adultery) in 1988 and the tort of alienation of affections (breaking up a marriage) in 1992. In the latter case, the Supreme Court found that these torts “present opportunities for blackmail. They are often brought for mercenary or vindictive reasons [and] foster bitterness, promote vexatious lawsuits, put marriages on the marketplace, and use marriages as a means of character assassination.”

The torts were thus contrary to public policy, and the exclusions in the UEFJA clearly applied to them, the court ruled. However, it also ruled that applying the UEFJA to prevent enforcement of Widenhouse’s judgment would violate the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”

Although some exceptions to Full Faith and Credit exist—judgments rendered without jurisdiction or lacking due process, or produced through fraud or collusion—none were relevant to Colson’s case. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that otherwise one state cannot nullify another state’s judgment, even if the suit would be barred in that state.

“When a civil action has been reduced to a money judgment, the judgment is entitled to full faith and credit even if the cause of action upon which it is based is contrary to the forum state’s public policy,” Justice Costa M. Pleicones wrote for the court. “The [U.S.] Supreme Court has explicitly stated that no public policy exception to the full faith and credit clause exists where a civil dispute has been reduced to a money judgment.”

Justice Kaye G. Hearn concurred in the opinion. Chief Justice Jean Hofer Toal, Justice Donald W. Beatty and Justice John W. Kittredge concurred in the result only but did not offer a separate opinion.

Matt Lincoln and Scott Michael Tyler of Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte represented Widenhouse. David D. Armstrong of Armstrong Law Firm in Greenville, South Carolina represented Colson.

Preview of coming attractions

Lincoln said that the court explicitly chose to base its ruling on the narrowest grounds possible, limiting the ruling strictly to monetary judgments and leaving for a future day questions about whether equitable orders would also be subject to the demands of the Full Faith and Credit Clause. The decision, Lincoln said, might have some limited persuasive value when such issues eventually come before the court, but for now the court focused on an issue that was “a much cleaner and much easier decision for them.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has been very clear on this issue that … courts aren’t allowed to go behind a sister state’s courts and question the analysis and application of law when a claim in a civil action has been reduced to a money judgment,” Lincoln said. “So I’m not surprised that they found the narrowest grounds on which to rule, although they certainly could have gone further.”

Gregory Forman, a South Carolina family law attorney who was not involved in the case, agreed that the court’s ruling was a very narrow holding about monetary judgments and that its impact would therefore be limited. Questions about same-sex marriage, he said, would likely be resolved in challenges currently taking place at the federal level.

The six-page decision is Widenhouse v. Colson (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-099-13). The full text of the opinion is available online at

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan

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