Tommie Rae Brown has secured another legal victory in her effort to prove that her marriage to
legendary soul singer James Brown was the real deal.
“I feel good,” quipped her Charleston-based attorney, Robert Rosen, after the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a trial judge’s ruling that Tommie Rae’s marriage to Brown was valid and not bigamous.
“This is really very personal for her,” Rosen said during a phone interview while vacationing in Rhode Island. “She wants the world to recognize that she’s married to James Brown.”
Six of Brown’s children who were named in his will have contended that his marriage to Tommie Rae in 2001 was a sham, because she was already married to another man, Javed Ahmed. But a family court judge and, later, a trial judge held that the marriage never was—because Ahmed had tied the knot with at least one other woman before he met Tommie Rae at the end of the aisle.
The family court judge annulled the Tommie Rae-Ahmed marriage in 2004 and Aiken County Circuit Judge Doyet Early III affirmed that the marriage was invalid and bigamous in a 2015 order.
Tommie Rae has testified that while she thought she’d married Ahmed, after the ceremony he refused to live with her and revealed that he was already “married to three or more women in Pakistan,” according to the Court of Appeals decision published July 25.
“She claims the marriage was never consummated, and Ahmed only married her to become a United States citizen,” Judge Paul Short wrote in the unanimous opinion.
Attempts to speak with attorneys for Brown’s children were unsuccessful. They clashed with Tommie Rae after Brown died on Christmas Day 2006 and left behind a will that excluded Tommie Rae and the son she had with Brown.
She responded by asking the court to set aside the will for undue influence and fraud. In 2008, she entered into a private settlement agreement with Brown’s six children. While awaiting the court’s final approval on the agreement, Tommie Rae filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of the validity of her marriage to Brown. And the children turned around and sought summary judgment on the assertion that Tommie Rae was not Brown’s widow.
The trial court ruled in Tommie Rae’s favor, prompting Brown’s six children to appeal. Their case hinges, at least in part, on Brown’s separation with Tommie Rae in 2004, after he was arrested for domestic violence. At the time, Brown sought an annulment on the basis that their marriage was bogus because Tommie Rae was married to Ahmed. She filed for divorce on the grounds of physical cruelty and adultery.
But the pair later entered into a consent order to dismiss the case and, as part of the deal, Tommie Rae agreed that she would “forever waive any claim of a common law marriage to [Brown], both now and in the future.” Afterward, according to Tommie Rae, the two reconciled and lived together until Brown’s death.
In their appeal, Brown’s six children argued that Early, the trial judge, erred in using the 2004 annulment order from the family court to validate his marriage to Tommie Rae. In his order, Early wrote that state “law precludes this court from giving any effect whatsoever to a bigamous marriage.” He concluded that “the bigamous marriage never was a marriage,” meaning that nothing stood in the way of Tommie Rae marrying Brown.
In affirming Early’s ruling, the Court of Appeals noted that it didn’t matter that Tommie Rae had her marriage to Ahmed annulled, because it was bigamous and therefore invalid from the beginning.
The court went on to reject several other arguments that Brown’s children’s raised on appeal, including their assertion that Early granted Tommie Rae’s motion for summary judgment without any evidentiary support for his finding and that the annulment order underlying the ruling was inadmissible hearsay.
“The case has been one of the most litigated cases in the history of South Carolina,” said Rosen, Tommie Rae’s attorney. He noted that Brown’s children could challenge the decision, which is but a strand in a web of more than a dozen legal disputes, including a federal suit recently filed in California, that have tangled Brown’s estate.
But for Tommie Rae, who once stood crying outside the locked gates of Brown’s home after he died and trustees locked her out, the appellate court’s affirmation of her marriage is a major victory.
“She wanted to be declared the wife of James Brown … being the wife is very important to her,” Rosen said. “She has a child and wants to make sure that the parents were married at the time the child was born. That’s an important thing in life.”
The 11-page decision is Brown v. Sojourner (In re Estate of Brown) (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-069-18). An opinion digest is available at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz