CHARLESTON – Former spouses often squabble over child support, but only once have they squabbled at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Without lawyers to act as buffers, Michael Allen of Spencer and Shelia Elias of Letart took turns disparaging each other in oral arguments on Sept. 23.
The emotional temperature in the chamber soared from the friction, with one standing at the podium while the other sat close enough to reach out and touch.
Both wore rings, apparently signifying current marriages.
After Elias alleged that Allen purposely earned less than he could earn, Justice Margaret Workman said, "Mr. Allen, are you not ashamed of yourself?"
He said she won $100,000 in the lottery.
"If any part of me is ashamed, I'm ashamed I'm not able to make more money and pay more child support," he said.
In 1998, they ended their marriage and started a child support dispute that has reached the Supreme Court twice.
Last year, Roane Circuit Judge David Nibert adjusted Allen's monthly payment to $630.49 and ordered eight years of retroactive payments.
Nibert denied a motion from Allen to impose sanctions on Elias's lawyer, Beth Sears, but Nibert relieved Sears as counsel.
Allen appealed, claiming Nibert miscalculated.
Elias answered that, "Mr. Allen vowed to me in 1997, at the beginning of this divorce, that any money I received for child support, I would pay out in attorney fees."
She wrote, "That is exactly what has happened."
She wrote, "I would love nothing more than to go on with my life, with my family, and not wonder what Mr. Allen will find next to harass me and the courts over."
At oral argument, Workman asked Allen how many children they had. He said two.
Workman asked if the support order was 600 and some. He said yes.
Elias said she paid $30,000 in legal fees. She said he appealed every new calculation.
She said he lost a job in 2001 and claimed hardship. She said his tax return for the year showed he earned $152,567.29.
"I earn 18,000 a year," she said. "He is profiting at the expense of his children."
She said he paid 12 of the last 32 months.
Workman said, "You are kidding."
Elias said her son has gone to college and her daughter is 14.
She said Allen is a certified public accountant. "He spends more time arguing how to get out of child support than he is working," she said.
That moved Workman to ask Allen if he was ashamed.
"I caught the emotion," he said. "My income is $20,000."
He said he was the subject of character assassination by his employer. He said he continues looking for work.
The Justices took it under advisement.