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Ben and Julianna Zobrist’s divorce trial is set to begin Monday in a Franklin, Tenn., courtroom, but the workings of those proceedings could be intertwined with those of the former Chicago Cubs player’s lawsuit against Byron Yawn, the former Nashville, Tenn., pastor who once counseled the couple during their marital problems but then had an extramarital affair with Julianna.
Here are five things to know about the divorce trial between the Zobrists and Ben’s $6 million civil lawsuit against Yawn — and where they intersect.
1. Byron Yawn might be called to testify in the divorce trial.
Yawn gave a deposition for the divorce case on Sept. 29, 2020, and while the court has the transcript, Yawn has been subpoenaed to be available as a witness, according to Yawn’s attorney, Christopher M. Bellamy of Nashville-based Neal and Harwell.
The trial testimony could lead off with Ben Zobrist taking the stand — the plaintiff presents his or her case first. Yawn might be asked to testify later in the week, but neither scenario is a given.
Who gets called as a witness is at the discretion of the attorneys and the judge.
2. Yawn has filed a motion to dismiss Ben Zobrist’s $6 million lawsuit.
In a separate case filed in Nashville in May, Zobrist sued Yawn for intentional infliction of emotional distress, blaming him for breaking up his marriage and helping end his baseball career, as well as for defrauding his charity, alleging that Yawn cashed $3,500 in paychecks for two months after he had been fired as executive director of Patriot Forward, a nonprofit support group to help athletes with mental health and life after sports.
Yawn’s attorney rejected Zobrist’s complaint in a memorandum filed July 26.
“The legal system is not intended to be a balm to ease the pain of the prideful and defeated, nor is it equipped to justly adjudicate questions of morality,” Bellamy wrote in the motion, according to a statement sent to the Tribune.
“This is a thinly veiled attempt by plaintiff to shed responsibility for the demise of his marriage, absolve himself of spiritual and emotional abuse against his estranged wife, Julianna Zobrist, and use this Court to place responsibility at the feet of Mr. Yawn.”
The motion alleged unspecified marital misconduct by Ben Zobrist and accused him of using “his faith, wealth and status as a professional baseball player” as a shield to avoid public scrutiny for his role in the divorce. Julianna’s pretrial brief also alleged inappropriate conduct but didn’t give specific allegations.
Larry Crain, the attorney representing Ben in the lawsuit, told the Tribune in an email statement that “these allegations are made out of whole cloth,” referring to Yawn’s motion.
“Mr. Zobrist fought very hard to preserve his marriage from the damage caused by Mr. Yawn’s usurpation of his role as the family’s minister,” Crain said via email.
Ben’s divorce attorney, Helen S. Rogers, also denied he committed any wrongdoing in her pretrial brief.
Bellamy added that he will argue Ben has missed the time limit to file his claim by at least a year.
“The claims are not time-barred because under Tennessee law, fraudulent deception on the part of Mr. Yawn serves to toll (or suspend) the running of the statute of limitation,” Crain told the Tribune.
Crain said he plans to file his response Sept. 6.
3. Yawn’s attorney confirmed Yawn and Julianna Zobrist are still together.
Bellamy contends that Ben Zobrist is pursuing a “meritless” lawsuit to “punish Ms. Zobrist for exercising her autonomy and right to self-determination to not remain in an abusive relationship.”
In his statement to the Tribune, Bellamy confirmed that Yawn and Julianna Zobrist plan to go forward as a couple.
“Plaintiff was aware at the filing of his lawsuit that Mr. Yawn voluntarily stepped away from (his) ministry nearly three years ago and that for the past two years Mr. Yawn and Ms. Zobrist have been in a healthy and emotionally secure relationship,” Bellamy wrote in the motion to dismiss. “Mr. Yawn and Ms. Zobrist’s relationship began after Plaintiff and Ms. Zobrist separated.”
However, Ben, in his pretrial briefing for the divorce, argues that the extramarital relationship started well before Ben filed for legal separation on May 13, 2019, and that they concealed the affair for nearly two years.
In the brief, Ben says that after examining Julianna’s cellphone records he “realized that she was spending huge amounts of time virtually every day, beginning in August 2018, talking and texting with Pastor Byron Yawn.”
According to divorce documents, Julianna testified in her deposition on Sept. 30, 2020, that “her relationship with Pastor Yawn ‘crossed the line’ in September of 2018.”
That December, according to Ben’s memorandum, Julianna spent $30,000 from their “farm account” on Yawn’s retirement party, where they danced with each other in “a provocative way” in front of friends.
“It was not until the spring of 2019 (shortly after Ben left for spring training camp) that wife first began to admit her inappropriate marital conduct to husband,” the memorandum says. “Wife initially admitted that she was having only an ‘emotional affair’ with Pastor Yawn, which prompted husband’s filing for legal separation.
“While husband does not claim to be perfect, he did not cause this divorce and did not give reason for wife to divorce him. Husband has been faithful to his marriage vows.”
Ben took a leave of absence from the Cubs from early May to the end of August 2019.
“During his leave of absence, the parties agreed to place the (divorce) litigation on hold to go to marriage counseling,” Ben’s memorandum says. “Wife continued her affair with pastor while the parties attended marriage counseling, even using burner phones to hide the deceit.”
On June 3, 2020, Julianna submitted her answers to Ben’s formal “request for admissions,” and “she was forced to admit her affair was not just ‘emotional’ but also physical.”
In Julianna’s pretrial brief, she contends that her friendship with Yawn “grew over a period of time and changed into a romantic relationship” and acknowledges: “In March of 2019, wife had an affair with Mr. Yawn and admitted this relationship to husband in May of 2019. Although she did not admit the adultery until later.”
According to Ben’s brief, Julianna admitted in her deposition that she was “engaging in sexual relations with both husband and Pastor Yawn prior to husband’s leave of absence” from the Cubs and continued “her sexual affair while the parties were attending marital counseling.”
4. Ben and Julianna Zobrist disagree about what constitutes marital property and how it should be divided.
How much is a World Series ring worth?
Does Ben owe Julianna for the salary he forfeited by taking a leave of absence from the Cubs to focus on marriage counseling?
These are just a couple of the issues Circuit Court Judge Michael W. Binkley will be asked to weigh during the divorce trial.
Here’s the rundown on a few key issues:
The memorabilia: Julianna hired a sports memorabilia expert to assess the monetary value of many of the items Ben accumulated during his 14-year Major League Baseball career. The issue comes down to whether those items legally should be considered Ben’s “separate property” or part of the marital estate.
“These things include uniforms, which were given to him by the teams, different bats, balls and gloves, some of which were used in games and many of which were not, his World Series rings (with the Royals in 2015 and Cubs in 2016) and All-Star Game rings, World Series trophies and the (2016 World Series) MVP Camaro vehicle gifted to him by General Motors,” Ben’s attorney, Helen S. Rogers, writes.
Zobrist was named World Series MVP for his pivotal role in helping the Cubs clinch the 2016 championship, their first in 108 years.
The replica World Series trophies, for example, are valued at $2,000 each, according to divorce documents. The Camaro is valued at $30,000.
Other items in question include gifts from teammates and friends such as a Roger Clemens-autographed baseball and a Ted Williams-signed bat.
“Mr. Zobrist does not consider these ‘sports memorabilia’ because he has no intention of selling them or doing anything but keeping them as mementos for himself and his family.”
Bottom-line dollar figures: While Julianna argues that Ben wasted about $8 million in potential salary by temporarily stepping away from the Cubs, Ben counters that Julianna overspent from the marital estate by more than $690,000.
Of the assets that aren’t in dispute, Ben proposes that he be awarded $14.4 million of a $24 million estate, or 60%, leaving $9.6 million for Julianna.
Julianna argues he’s undervaluing the estate and proposes that she be awarded just less than $15.5 million of nearly $31 million in assets.
The salary: In addition to an even split of the marital assets, Julianna is seeking up to an additional $4 million because Ben earned only a prorated $4.5 million of the $12 million he would’ve earned had he not taken leave from the Cubs and played the full 2019 season, leaving about $8 million on the table.
After taking off most of May as well as all of June, July and August, Ben returned to the Cubs in September and played out the end of the season. He never returned to baseball after that and says in court documents he has retired.
In the brief composed by Julianna’s attorney, Marlene Eskind Moses of Nashville-based MTR Family Law, Julianna says that while Ben took time off because of the divorce proceedings, he also “has no plans to create any income right now and is not sure if he plans on having employment of any kind in the future.”
“This caused the marital estate to suffer financially,” the brief says. “Whether husband’s actions were accidentally causing waste or recklessly causing waste to the marital estate does not matter because those actions can be considered for the purposes of equitable division. A spouse’s failure to preserve significant assets may justify a trial court’s unequal division of the marital estate favorable to the other spouse.”
In her brief, Rogers calls it an “utterly absurd claim.”
5. The divorce trial might not progress as expected.
The trial is set to begin Monday and run through Aug. 17, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule that it has to end on that date. It could end earlier or later.
Many depositions have been submitted to the court, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who might be called to the stand and when.
Even when the trial ends, a decree revealing the division of assets is not likely right away.
According to local attorneys who spoke with the Tribune, the judge is likely to take all of the facts, legal arguments and testimony of the trial into consideration and issue a “finding of facts” at a later date.
A final ruling could take weeks.