Reprise: Making a Record

June 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Reprise replays posts from the past that you may find useful today.

In Evidence

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what the phrase “in evidence” means? We toss it around all the time. “Is that in evidence?” “Your honor, I object because that document is not in evidence.”

The phrase simply means that the judge or the jury can look at the document or hear the testimony, and can consider it in reaching a decision.

The meaning is simple, but the ramifications can be profound.

  • If something is not in evidence, it is not part of the record. If it is not part of the record, the judge can not consider it.
  • If you offered something into evidence and were denied, you must make the proffered evidence part of the record. If it was oral testimony, you must make an offer of proof (MRE 103(a)(2)). You can do this by requesting to make an “offer of proof,” or a “proffer.” The judge will then allow you to state on the record what the testimony would have been, or will allow you to do it in question-and-answer form (MRE 103(b)). If the ruling was one denying entry of a document in evidence, then you must ask that the document be marked for identification only, which request will always be granted. Remember that neither a proffer nor a document marked solely for identification may be considered by the judge in ruling on the merits; however, they are part of the record on appeal.
  • Pleadings are not evidence. Just because you pled something does not mean it is proven.
  • Never fail to put on proof based on your assumption that the judge will connect the dots and draw the conclusion favorable to your client. The judge might not. Or the judge might, but there will be inadequate evidence in the record to support the judge’s conclusions, which is the formula for reversal on appeal.

Make sure that every element or factor that you need to prove is supported by proof in evidence. A graphic illustrating this vital concept is here.

Social Security and its Impact on Alimony

June 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Susan and Thomas Leon Harris were divorced from each other in 2011. Their property settlement agreement provided that Leon would pay Susan $2,755 monthly in periodic alimony. The only contingency recited in the agreement was that the alimony would cease at Susan’s remarriage or death.

At some point after the divorce, Susan filed for and began receiving Social Security retirement benefits in the amount of $1,035 per month. Susan’s benefit was based on Leon’s earnings record and was described as “derivative” of his benefit.

After Susan filed a pleading asking the court to review part of the agreement, Leon counterclaimed to reduce or terminate the alimony because Susan had begin drawing benefits off of his earnings record. Following a hearing, the chancellor ordered that Leon should pay Susan only $1,720 per month in alimony, since he was already receiving $1,035 based on his earnings record. Susan appealed.

In Harris v. Harris, decided May 16, 2017, the COA affirmed. Since the opinion addresses two issues of interest to chancery practitioners, I am including Judge Irving’s entire analysis:

¶6. Susan asserts that the chancellor erred in modifying the Agreement before requiring Leon to show a material change in circumstances. Susan asserts that the Agreement is a binding contract that is devoid of fraud, unconscionability, or any other factors which would render it an invalid contract; thus, the chancellor erred by disturbing the Agreement’s terms. She cites Peebles, in which this Court held that a property-settlement agreement—like any other contract—is “an agreement made between the parties [and] should ordinarily be enforced, and the court should take a dim view of efforts to modify or reform the parties’ settlement agreement.” Peebles v. Peebles, 153 So. 3d 728, 732 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (quoting McFarland v. McFarland, 105 So. 3d 1111, 1119 (¶23) (Miss. 2013)). Susan also cites Lestrade, in which this Court held that property-settlement agreements “entered into by divorcing parties and incorporated into the divorce decree are not subject to modification, except in limited situations.” Lestrade v. Lestrade, 49 So. 3d 639, 642 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010).

¶7. In support of her argument that the chancellor erred when he granted Leon credit for the Social Security benefits that she was receiving without first requiring Leon to show that a material change in circumstances had occurred since entering into the Agreement, Susan cites this Court’s decision in Cockrell, which provides:

A payor spouse’s alimony obligation may be modified or even terminated if the spouse is able to show a material change of circumstances has occurred since the original divorce decree. West v. West, 891 So. 2d 203, 212 (¶21) (Miss. 2004) (citation omitted). However, “the material change must be one that was not reasonably anticipated at the time of the original decree.” Clower v. Clower, 988 So. 2d 441, 444 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (citing Holcombe v. Holcombe, 813 So. 2d 700, 703 (¶11) (Miss. 2002)). A material change in the income and expenses of both parties should be considered in determining any modification of periodic alimony. Austin v. Austin, 766 So. 2d 86, 90
(¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000) (citing Armstrong [v. Armstrong], 618 So. 2d [1278,] 1280 [(Miss. 1993)]).

Cockrell v. Cockrell, 139 So. 3d 766, 770 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). Susan contends that Leon cannot show a material change in circumstances, as his health status has not changed, and he is still working as a bank president like he was at the time of the divorce. Susan
argues that even if her receipt of Social Security benefits constitutes a material change, Leon should have reasonably anticipated at the time of the divorce that she would begin collecting Social Security benefits in a few years, since Leon was sixty-one years old and Susan was sixty years old at that time. She also points out that at the time the two entered into the Agreement, Leon could have reasonably anticipated the need for a clause addressing Susan’s probable receipt of Social Security benefits in a few years.

¶8. In response, Leon submits that neither Peebles nor Lestrade is proper authority for this issue because both cases address modification of property division, not modification of alimony. Leon references this Court’s decision in Clower, which provides that “[p]eriodic alimony can be modified by increasing, decreasing, or terminating the award due to a material change in circumstances.” Clower, 988 So. 2d at 444 (¶7). Leon asserts that he was not required to show a material change in circumstances because he was not attempting to modify his alimony payment; rather, he maintains that he was only seeking clarification from the court as to how to make his alimony payment, because the Agreement is devoid of language specifying from which source those payments may be derived.

¶9. Leon cites Spalding v. Spalding, 691 So. 2d 435, 439 (Miss. 1997), in support of his argument that the chancellor was correct in finding that he should be credited for Susan’s receipt of the Social Security benefits derived from his work record. The facts of Spalding are similar to those in the matter at hand. In Spalding, the appellant insisted that “the decision of the chancellor to credit derivative Social Security benefits against alimony represented a downward modification of the alimony granted to [the appellant],” and asserted that “[the appellee] failed to meet his burden of proof regarding a material change in circumstances.” Id. The chancellor, in considering whether derivative Social Security benefits could be credited against alimony, relied on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in Mooneyham v. Mooneyham, 420 So. 2d 1072, 1073-74 (Miss. 1982), wherein the court held that Social Security payments derivative from the child-support payor should be credited against the payor’s child-support obligation. Spalding, 691 So. 2d at 438 (citing Mooneyham, 420 So. 2d at 1073-74). The Mississippi Supreme Court in Spalding affirmed the chancellor’s application of Mooneyham, finding that, in light of Mooneyham’s holding that “Social Security payments derivative from the child[-]support payor should be credited against the child support,” it could not “fathom any valid reason or reasonable logic” as to why the rule of law would be any different with respect to periodic alimony rather than child support. Spalding, 691 So. 2d at 439 (citations omitted).

¶10. We agree with Leon that Spalding is dispositive of the issue presented. Therefore, we affirm the decision of the chancellor. The Agreement between Leon and Susan did not specify or qualify the source of income for payment of the alimony obligation. It simply required that Leon pay the amount to Susan. Crediting Social Security payments derivative from Leon against his alimony obligation, as set forth in the Agreement, is not a breach of the terms of that Agreement. As Leon points out, Susan is receiving the same amount of alimony that she is entitled to under the Agreement, and she would not be receiving the Social Security payments unhinged from Leon’s Social Security earnings record. Thus, we find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in failing to require Leon to show a material change in circumstances because Leon’s obligation to pay alimony in the amount set forth in the Agreement remains the same.

I agree that Spalding is dispositive for the reasons stated.

I wonder, though, at the statement in ¶8 that Leon argued that he “was not attempting to modify his alimony payment; rather, he maintains that he was only seeking clarification from the court as to how to make his alimony payment, because the Agreement is devoid of language specifying from which source those payments may be derived.” That does not seem to square with the very first sentence of Judge Irving’s opinion that “Thomas L. Harris (Leon) — alleging that a material change in circumstances had occurred since the judgment of divorce from his former spouse, Susan Harris — filed a complaint …” That sounds like modification language, not clarification language.

At any rate, I think both the chancellor and the COA were on the right track in this case. Spalding controls.

Pointer: It seems that older couples are getting divorced at a greater frequency. You would do well to explore the effect Social Security will have on the parties’ post-divorce standard of living. If Susan wants her retirement benefit excluded or to allow only partial credit, the agreement should say so.

Arbitration Clause: Appellate Review of the Award on the Merits

June 20, 2017 § 3 Comments

Yesterday we talked about Paige Electric Company’s unsuccessful challenge on appeal to an arbitration clause. The company had asked the circuit court to vacate the award because Davis & Feder were negligent as a matter of law, and that the arbitrator had disregarded the evidence and exceeded his authority. When the circuit judge denied their motion and dismissed their case, they appealed.

In Paige Electric Company v. Davis & Feder, P.A., decided on April 11, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Barnes wrote the opinion:

¶19. Paige Electric argues that the award should be vacated as Davis & Feder were negligent as a matter of law, and therefore, the arbitrator disregarded the evidence and exceeded the scope of his authority. The United States Supreme Court has held that in reviewing whether an issue is arbitrable, “considerable leeway [should be given] to the arbitrator” and his or her decision should be set aside “only in certain narrow circumstances.” First Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 943 (1995). Errors of law or fact, or an erroneous decision of matters submitted to the judgment of the arbitrators, are insufficient to invalidate an award fairly and honestly made. Nothing in the award relative to the merits of the controversy as submitted, however wrongly decided, is ground for setting aside an award in the absence of fraud, misconduct or other valid objections. Wilson, 830 So. 2d at 1156 (¶12) (quoting Hutto v. Jordan, 204 Miss. 30, 36, 36 So. 2d 809, 811 (1948)).

¶20. “[J]udicial review of arbitration award is narrowly limited, and a motion to vacate, modify, or correct an arbitration award is not an opportunity to relitigate issues decided in the arbitration.” City of Hattiesburg v. Precision Constr. LLC, 192 So. 3d 1089, 1096 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-15-23 (Rev. 2004) provides the four grounds upon which an arbitrator’s decision may be vacated:

(a) That such award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means;

(b) That there was evident partiality or corruption on the part of the arbitrators, or any one of them;

(c) That the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent or material to the controversy, or other misbehavior by which the rights of the party shall have been prejudiced;

(d) That the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or that they so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award on the subject matter was not made.

“In Mississippi, we have always considered ‘undue means’ to constitute some nefarious conduct on the part of the arbitrator – not simply an incorrect or sloppy conclusion of law.” Robinson v. Henne, 115 So. 3d 797, 802 (¶17) (Miss. 2013) (citing McClendon v. Stewart, 133 Miss. 253, 258, 97 So. 547 (1923)). The Mississippi Supreme Court has held: “[A] mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a decision lacking an evidentiary basis is insufficient to constitute a violation of any of the four statutory categories that permit the vacatur of an arbitrator’s decision.” Id. at 803 (¶19).

¶21. The circuit judge found that the arbitrator did not exceed his powers in this instance. She further concluded there was “nothing in this record to indicate that Mr. Latham refused or failed to review the case law, nothing to indicate he had any preconceived notions or opinions and certainly nothing to indicate what evidence he focused on or didn’t focus on.” We find no error in the circuit court’s holding. Giving a reasonable presumption “in favor of the validity of arbitration proceedings,” we affirm the circuit court’s judgment.

Between yesterday’s post and today’s, you can deduce the breathtaking sweep of rights that you cede when you agree to an arbitration clause in a contract. Not only do you give up your right to a jury trial, but you also surrender the right to appellate review except on quite narrow, difficult-to-prove grounds.

Arbitration Clause: Challenge after Arbitration

June 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Paige Electric Company retained the law firm of Davis & Feder, the retainer agreement included a clause requiring any dispute arising out of the agreement, including claims of legal malpractice, to be submitted to arbitration. Paige did sue the law firm, which invoked the arbitration clause, and the case was heard by Arbitrator Larry Latham, who ruled entirely in the law firm’s favor and denied Paige any relief.

Paige filed motions in Circuit Court to declare the arbitration clause void and to vacate the award. The circuit judge denied the motions, dismissed the suit with prejudice, and Paige appealed.

In Paige Electric Company v. Davis & Feder, P.A., decided April 11, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Barnes wrote for a unanimous court:

¶10. “In arbitration cases, . . . the scope of review is extremely limited.” Wilson v. Greyhound Bus Lines Inc., 830 So. 2d 1151, 1155 (¶9) (Miss. 2002). “The scope of judicial review of an arbitration award is quite narrow, and every reasonable presumption will be indulged in favor of the validity of arbitration proceedings.” Id. (quoting Craig v. Barber, 524 So. 2d 974, 977 (Miss. 1988)).

*****

¶11. Addressing Paige Electric’s claim that the arbitration clause in the retainer agreement was unconscionable, and its alternative claim the malpractice claims involving the lien should be severed from the arbitration award and set for trial, the circuit court concluded that the company had waived any objection, as it had voluntarily consented to the arbitration.

¶12. Mississippi has not addressed the precise issue of whether a challenge to the validity of an arbitration clause may be brought post-arbitration. But other jurisdictions have held that participation in arbitration proceedings waives the right to object to an arbitrator’s authority. “A party cannot ‘sit silent, wait until an adverse award is issued, and then first argue that the arbitrator did not have the authority even to hear the claim.’” Advocate Fin. Grp. v. Poulos, 8 N.E.3d 598, 609 (¶53) (Ill. App. Ct. 2014) (quoting First Health Grp. v. Ruddick, 911 N.E.2d 1201, 1213 (Ill. App. Ct. 2009)); see also Ahluwalia v. QFA Royalties LLC, 226 P.3d 1093, 1098 (Colo. App. 2009) (“If a party willingly allows an issue to be submitted to arbitration, it cannot await the outcome and later argue that the arbitrator lacked authority to decide the matter.”). “[W]illing participation is consent to the arbitrator’s power to resolve the dispute.” Unite Here Local 23 v. I.L. Creations of Maryland Inc., 148 F. Supp. 3d 12, 19 (D.D.C. 2015). “Given that arbitration is an optional alternative to judicial resolution of disputes[,] . . . when the parties have agreed to arbitration, the law discourages the loser from seeking a second de novo (or even quasi-de novo) shot at obtaining its desired result[.]” Id. at 18-19.

¶13. Paige Electric argues that because there was a “separate contract prepared for lien claims against the hotel” produced on February 25, 2015, during discovery, “Paige Electric cannot be considered to have consented to arbitration,” and it “cannot be bound to any agreement to arbitrate the dispute over the lien claims[.]” [Fn 3] The circuit court judge declined to make any findings “whether there was a second contract or not,” because the lien claims were submitted for arbitration and had been decided by the arbitrator. But the court did observe that the “second contract . . . was known to Paige Electric in February by [its] own pleadings, and at that time [it] had fully the ability to say. . . these liens aren’t included.” The judge concluded:

[It] didn’t do that. What [it] did do, however, was go through the entire arbitration process, two and a half days of arbitration hearings, and then submit a post-hearing memorandum . . . [that] very clearly indicates the lien claims were considered and are part of the arbitration.
. . . .
And, therefore, the court finds [Paige Electric] waived any objection [it] may have had with regard to the arbitration of the lien claims. Whether the court agrees they would have been included or not, the parties agreed to include them, the arbitrator was presented those.

[Fn 3] The second “contract” was merely handwritten notes made by Brisolara on a legal pad, dated March 16, 2007, three days prior to the parties’ signing the retainer agreement. The note has Jerry Paige’s name at the top, and simply states “Hourly pay for lien. [One third]
for suit” and that Jerry Paige “wants to sign contract against [SCS and] Studio Inn and file suit.” There is no evidence that Paige Electric signed a second contract for the lien work at an hourly rate; nor is there evidence Davis & Feder billed Paige Electric for this work.

¶14. At no point prior to or during the arbitration hearing did Paige Electric object to arbitrating the lien claims. Paige Electric was represented by counsel throughout this process, and the parties agreed to arbitration; it was not court-ordered. In a letter to Davis & Feder, dated June 12, 2013, counsel for Paige Electric stated that “[t]here is no objection to this [arbitration] procedure,” and he requested that “appropriate steps be taken at this time to arrange for arbitration of this claim[.]” Thus, we find no error in the circuit court’s determination that Paige Electric waived its right to object to the validity of the arbitration clause and to the arbitration of the lien claims.

¶15. Notwithstanding the waiver of the claims, we find no merit to Paige Electric’s claim that the arbitration clause was procedurally unconscionable because the arbitration clause was not properly explained to Jerry Paige, and because the clause is “inconspicuous” and used “overly broad verbiage.” Whether an arbitration clause is procedurally unconscionable can be shown by: “(1) lack of knowledge; (2) lack of voluntariness; (3) inconspicuous print; (4) the use of complex, legalistic language; (5) disparity in sophistication or bargaining power of the parties; and/or (6) lack of opportunity to study the contract and inquire about the terms.” See Caplin Enters. Inc. v. Arrington, 145 So. 3d 608, 614 (¶12) (Miss. 2014) (citing MS Credit Ctr. Inc. v. Horton, 926 So. 2d 167, 177 (¶29) (Miss. 2006)).

¶16. The retainer agreement was a simply-worded five-page agreement, and the arbitration clause took up an entire page of the contract, in an easy-to-read font. Compare E. Ford Inc. v. Taylor, 826 So. 2d 709, 716-17 (¶21) (Miss. 2002) (finding an arbitration provision “procedurally unconscionable,” as the “preprinted” arbitration clause “appears less than one third the size of many other terms in the document, [and] appears in very fine print and regular type font”). Moreover, in the June 12, 2013 letter from Paige Electric’s counsel to Davis & Feder, the attorney stated that “[Jerry] Paige advises me that his contract with Davis [&] Feder requires all disputes with clients be arbitrated,” indicating an understanding by Jerry Paige of the agreement’s terms and conditions.

¶17. We also reject, on the merits, Paige Electric’s alternative claim that the arbitration clause only applied to the representation for the claim against SCS for payment, not the claims related to the “prosecution of any liens or related claims against Hancock Hotels,” and that “the malpractice claims related to the hotel owner should be severed and set for trial before a jury.” Paige Electric cites Complaint of Hornbeck Offshore (1984) Corp., 981 F. 2d 752, 754-55 (5th Cir. 1993), to support its claim. However, the retainer agreement states that the provision regarding the arbitration of disputes “shall apply to any dispute between the parties which arises from, or is related to, a claimed breach of this agreement[.]” (Emphasis added). In Hornbeck, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit specifically held that “arbitration clauses containing the ‘any dispute’ language . . . are of the broad type.” Id. at 755. “[I]t is difficult to imagine broader general language than that
contained in the arbitration clause, ‘any dispute.’” Id. (citation omitted). The Mississippi Supreme Court has also held:

Broad arbitration language governs disputes “related to” or “connected with” a contract, and narrow arbitration language requires arbitration of disputes that directly “arise out of” a contract. . . . Because broad arbitration language is capable of expansive reach, courts have held that “it is only necessary that the dispute touch matters covered by the contract to be arbitrable.” Horton, 926 So. 2d at 176 (¶¶24-25) (quoting Pennzoil Exploration & Prod. Co. v. Ramco Energy Ltd., 139 F.3d 1061, 1067-68 (5th Cir.1998)). We find the lien claim against the hotel owner was directly “related to” Paige Electric’s claims against SCS; the lien against the hotel owner was necessary only in the event that Paige Electric could not collect a judgment from SCS.

¶18. Accordingly, we find the circuit court did not err in denying Paige Electric’s motion to declare the arbitration clause invalid, or alternatively, to sever Paige Electric’s lien claims from the arbitration award and set those claims for trial.

A few observations:

  • Unless you can build a convincing case based on those factors in ¶15 up there, you will find it mighty hard to get around an arbitration provision in a freely-negotiated contract.
  • If you’re planning to include an arbitration clause in your retainer agreements, be sure it’s as broad as possible.
  • When you wait until after the arbitration is concluded to raise the issue of the validity of the arbitration clause, you’ve waited too late.

We’ll talk in another post about Paige’s claim that the arbitration clause should have been vacated by the circuit court.

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

June 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Better, I Hope

June 14, 2017 § 9 Comments

It was seven years ago today that I started my quest via this blog to influence as many lawyers as I could to be better chancery practitioners, to reach higher, to be more professional, and to be the best lawyers they could be.

It has been gratifying to run into lawyers and judges who tell me that they do draw inspiration and useful information, and even humor, from this blog. Mission accomplished as to them.

When it comes time to hang up my robe and turn this office over to my successor, I will have been a successful chancellor if I inspired the lawyers with whom I came in contact to improve their practices and become better … better lawyers, better people, better at all they do. If, on the other hand, those who crossed my path are no better or are worse, then I failed.

That’s why I’ll continue this for the time being. It’s a quest to influence people, particularly lawyers. Oh, and along the way it’s even helped me make some friends.

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Hybrid Alimony With a Bite

June 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Brian and Ruth’e Korelitz were in negotiations to settle their divorce case in 2006. When it came time to address the alimony issue, one of them produced a proposed provision that required Brian to pay Ruth’e periodic alimony in reducing amounts in three-year increments until Brian’s retirement. In the course of negotiations, however, the parties agreed to some handwritten deletions and insertions so that the alimony provision ended up looking like this:

A. Periodic Alimony. [Brian] agrees to pay unto [Ruth’e] as periodic alimony  the monthly sum of $2,850.00 per month, beginning the first day of the month immediately following execution of this Agreement for a period of thirty-six (36) months, reducing to $2,600.00 for a period of thirty-six (36) months, [and] reducing to $2,100.00 for a period of thirty-six (36) months. Periodic [A]limony shall then reduce to $1,750.00 until September 1, 2019, or [Brian’s] retirement, whichever occurs later, whereupon periodic alimony shall cease. Said periodic alimony shall be payable one-half on the 1st and one-half on the 15th of each month. In addition, such periodic alimony shall cease upon the remarriage of [Ruth’e] or upon the death of either party[,] whichever occurs first. The payments shall be deductible by [Brian] and includable as income by [Ruth’e], both for state and federal income tax purposes. [Handwritten addition as follows:] Said payments are further non-modifiable, except as set forth herein above.

All of the strikeouts and handwritten language were initialed by the parties. The agreement was approved by the court, and the parties were divorced.

In 2014, after Ruth’e had taken up with another man, Brian filed for modification to terminate based on the relationship. He also contended that he had suffered a reduction in income.

It should not surprise you that the chancellor denied his request, concluding that the agreement not only prohibited modification on its face, but also that it created a form of lump-sum alimony, which is unmodifiable anyway, so that neither Ruth’e’s relationship nor Brian’s income were relevant.

Brian appealed, and it should not surprise you that the COA affirmed. You can read Judge Ishee’s opinion in the case of Korelitz v. Korelitz at the link.

This case highlights several points:

  • Hybrid alimony can be a tricky thing. The language above, with its edits, clearly shows the parties’ intent that these payments were not intended as periodic alimony, even though they were to cease on remarriage or death, and were deductible to Brian and income to Ruth’e. Often, though, the intent is not so clear, and if you leave it murky you are putting it into the hands of a judge who might not see it the same way you and your client did. A case in point is at this link.
  • Keep in mind that the default setting for alimony is periodic. In other words, if the court can’t make out what kind of creature was intended, it must consider it to be periodic.
  • I wonder whether Brian understood, when he initialed that handwritten language, that he was signing away his right to ask the court to do the very thing he took Ruth’e back to court to do? I’m sure the lawyer has a letter from Brian in her file documenting that she explained it thoroughly to him before he signed, and that she advised him not to agree to it.
  • I guess Brian’s argument at trial was that the agreement does say that the alimony was terminable on Ruth’e’s remarriage, so if the relationship is tantamount to marriage, then that clause should be invoked. Once the judge determined that it was lump-sum alimony, however, that boat sank.

What, Me Jury?

June 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

We all know that the chancellor is required to impanel a jury when requested to do so in a will contest, and that the jury’s verdict in such a case is binding unless the court directs a verdict otherwise or grants a new trial. At one time the same was true in paternity suits, but that was changed.

Not long ago a lawyer jokingly told me that he was going to request a jury trial in a divorce case. That got us wondering whether the old “advisory jury” that predated the MRCP was still available in cases other than will contests.

Well, actually, it is. MCA § 11-5-3 says that “The chancery court, in a controversy pending before it, and necessary and proper to be tried by a jury, shall cause the issue to be thus tried and made up in writing.” In modern parlance, that translates into “the chancery court may impanel a jury in a case pending before it.” The cases have broadly interpreted that “necessary and proper to be tried to a jury” language to extend to a wrongful death action in chancery via pendant jurisdiction, an action for accounting by a bankruptcy trustee, partition, and “conflicting claims to realty.”

The catch is that the chancellor is not bound by the jury’s verdict, and the verdict is purely advisory. As Griffith explained, “Because … (1) of the delay, (2) of the additional public expense, and (3) because the verdict of a jury in chancery is purely advisory and the chancellor may disregard it, such a submission in an equity case is seldom allowed or desired.” Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, 2d Ed., 1950, § 597. Griffith goes on to point out that, if the chancellor accepts the verdict and incorporates it into a decree, on review the decree is regarded by the appellate court as if it were the findings of the chancellor, just as if there had been no jury.

An interesting wrinkle is MCA § 11-5-5, which states that, if the request for a jury trial is granted and afterward there is a change of venue, then the receiving court is required to impanel a jury to try the case.

Now, I am not advocating for or encouraging anyone to make routine demands for jury trials in chancery, particularly since they are advisory only. I just thought that all the law nerds out there would enjoy this tidbit of really trivial trivia.

The Thai Monks DUI Defense

June 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

From the USA Today, June 5, 2017:

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — An embattled City Court judge was escorted Monday from judicial chambers in handcuffs.

Rochester court deputies and city police officers executed a bench warrant issued for Judge Leticia Astacio’s arrest last week after she missed a Tuesday court appearance related to an August drunken-driving conviction.

Astacio, a Rochester City Court judge, smiled and said hello to the gaggle of reporters waiting for her at the fifth floor elevator bank of the Monroe County Hall of Justice where officers marched her off to be processed at the nearby Rochester Public Safety Building. She returned later to the courthouse for an arraignment before Judge Stephen Aronson of Canandaigua City Court, who issued the warrant and is overseeing her drunken-driving case.

He ordered her held without bail in Monroe County Jail until a Thursday hearing. The reason she missed her court appearance last week was because she had been living in a temple with monks in the mountains of Thailand since May 3, she had texted to her lawyer.

“You’re doing everything to show you don’t care what happens to your public trust,” Aronson said.

In court Monday, Aronson offered Astacio a deal: Plead guilty to violating her initial drunk-driving sentence and receive 45 days in jail, two years of probation and six months on an ankle monitor. She declined and was ordered to jail.

“You’re doing everything to show you don’t care what happens to your public trust.”

On Feb. 13, 2016, Astacio was arrested around 8 a.m. ET on her way to City Court after New York state troopers were summoned to what appeared to be a one-car crash Interstate 490. She refused to take a Breathalyzer test

On Aug. 22, she was sentenced to a one-year conditional discharge that was extended to February 2018 after she admitted violating two conditions: abstaining from alcohol and not driving under the influence.

Astacio, a Democrat who was elected to a 10-year term in 2014, also was in court in March when she beat four allegations that she violated the conditions of her sentence. One alleged that she twice drank alcohol, and three others were related to the use and maintenance of her ignition interlock device, which prevents a vehicle from starting if a driver has had too much to drink.

In May, Astacio was summoned to court after her interlock device on April 29 registered a blood-alcohol-content reading of 0.0651%. A vehicle will start only if a person’s blood-alcohol content is below 0.03%.

Astacio, who worked as a prosecutor for a time in 2009 in the Driving While Intoxicated Bureau of the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, denied consuming alcohol and contended that her daughter had registered the reading, said her lawyer, Ed Fiandach. It is not illegal for another person to drive a car outfitted with an interlock device meant for someone else.

After the reading, which Fiandach said occurred near the beginning of May, Aronson asked that Astacio take a urine test that detects ethyl glucuronide, a byproduct of alcohol, and submit the results to the court. She did not, so she was summoned to court Tuesday and did not appear because she was in Thailand.

Why Astacio had not been arrested when she returned to the United States over the weekend was not immediately clear. She had told Fiandach that she had bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and would be there until some time in August.

She returned to Rochester because her supervising judge, Justice Craig Doran of the New York State Supreme Court, had directed she attend a 9 a.m. Monday meeting in his office at the Monroe County Hall of Justice, expressing concern in a letter that her behavior constituted a “voluntary abandonment of public office” that would be deemed a breach of her judicial responsibilities if she failed to show up.

“You are self-sabotaging any chance you have to return to the bench,” Aronson said in court, telling Astacio that her attitude appeared to be contemptuous.

Though she still receives her paycheck, Astacio has been prohibited from presiding over cases since before her drunken driving conviction in August and has been barred from entering non-public areas of the courthouse since November. She has continued to receive her $173,700 salary because she remains an elected judge.

Astacio will again be working for her pay upon her release from jail — whenever that may be.

Her supervisors, state Supreme Court Judge Craig Doran and City Court Judge Teresa Johnson, told Astacio Monday that she will required to conduct research in the courthouse law library Monday through Friday, whenever court is in session.

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A few thoughts:

  • Salary of $173,700 for a municipal judge. Wow. She’s definitely not in Mississippi.
  • A one-way ticket to Thailand?
  • Let me know if that “living in a temple with monks in the mountains of Thailand” defense works in any Mississippi court, will you?

When Spanking Becomes More

June 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

In the course of the divorce trial between Bridget and Scott Holman, Bridget was testifying about Scott’s treatment of one of their children:

“I mean it wasn’t just a spanking on the butt. We’re talking about up and down the back, red marks, and had I been smart enough, I would have taken a picture of that.”

The chancellor, construing her testimony to be an allegation of child abuse, stopped the trial and appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL). After an investigation, the GAL found that the allegations were without foundation. The chancellor ordered Bridget to pay Scott’s attorney’s fees related to the child-abuse allegation.

Bridget appealed, contending among other claims that the chancellor erred in deciding to appoint a GAL, and in his award of attorney’s fees. The COA affirmed as to the appointment of the GAL, but reversed and remanded for a recalculation of the fees awarded. The unanimous decision in Holman v. Holman, handed down April 4, 2017, was penned by Judge Griffis:

¶23. Bridget claims she did not make an abuse allegation “but merely talked about Scott’s bad parenting” and “an incident of excessive spanking.” Pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-21-105(m) (Rev. 2016), “physical discipline, including spanking, performed on a child by a parent, guardian or custodian in a reasonable manner shall not be deemed abuse under this section.”

¶24. Bridget asks that we find the chancellor erred in construing Bridget’s allegation of excessive spanking and her testimony that Scott spanked the child up and down his back, leaving red marks, as an allegation of child abuse. We disagree. Based on Bridget’s testimony, it was not manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous for the chancellor to have concerns since, under Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-21-105(m) (Rev. 2015), spanking must be reasonable.

¶25. Moreover, neither Bridget nor her former trial counsel objected to the chancellor’s interpretation of Bridget’s testimony, or attempted to clarify Bridget’s statements. Bridget had the opportunity to advise the chancellor at that time what she now asserts to this Court on appeal—that she did not intend to allege child abuse, but was simply discussing Scott’s bad parenting.

On the issue of attorney’s fees, Judge Griffis wrote:

¶26. Bridget next argues “the chancellor had no legal authority to award attorney’s fees.” Bridget further argues that even if it was proper for the chancellor to award Scott attorney’s fees, the attorney’s fees should have been limited to those fees actually incurred in defending the abuse allegation.

¶27. “An award of attorney’s fees will not be disturbed unless the chancellor abused his discretion or committed manifest error.” Stuart v. Stuart, 956 So. 2d 295, 299 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). Attorney’s fees may be properly awarded “where one party’s actions have caused the opposing party to incur additional legal fees.” Id.

¶28. The chancellor ordered Scott’s counsel to present an accounting of attorney’s fees incurred in the defense of the abuse allegation. However, Scott’s counsel submitted an affidavit and an attached itemization, which included charges for all work performed since June 2015, when the allegation of abuse was made by Bridget.

¶29. The chancellor awarded Scott $15,135 in attorney’s fees, which represented all work performed by Scott’s counsel since the child-abuse allegation was made. The chancellor explained his decision as follows:

This matter was tried almost to its conclusion as [Scott’s counsel] correctly stated, in day one, and then a revelation by [Bridget] comes about alleging abuse by [Scott]. The [chancery court], pursuant to the appropriate statute, halted the proceedings and appointed a guardian ad litem. In doing so, that not only increased the attorney[’s] fees for both parties, but also, of course, incurred the fees of the guardian ad litem. We tried the matter then on yet another day, again to its conclusion . . . . I think in all fairness and in all equity, because of the additional attorney[’s] fees incurred because of the revelation from the stand and not anywhere prior . . . in any deposition, discovery, or otherwise, it’s only proper that the party who causes another party to incur those fees should be assessed.

¶30. As the chancellor noted, at no point prior to the June 2015 trial had Bridget alleged child abuse. Indeed, the abuse allegation was made for the first time after approximately two and one-half years of litigation. Such an allegation caused additional delay and costs. Thus, we do not find the chancellor abused his discretion or committed manifest error in awarding attorney’s fees.

¶31. However, we do find the chancellor erred in failing to determine what portion of the submitted fees was actually incurred by Scott in responding to the abuse allegation. “The fees ‘should be fair and should only compensate for services actually rendered after it has been determined that the legal work charged for was reasonably required and necessary.’” Martin v. Stevenson, 139 So. 3d 740, 752 (¶40) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Dunn v. Dunn, 609 So. 2d 1277, 1286 (Miss. 1992)). Accordingly, we reverse and remand in order for the chancellor to determine the amount of attorney’s fees associated with Scott’s defense of the abuse allegation.

It seems sometimes that witnesses get carried away hearing their own voices on the witness stand, not really paying much attention to the import of what they are saying until they get hit in the face with it. It’s beyond question that the chancellor in this case was under a duty to stop the proceedings and appoint a GAL based on what Bridget said. Red marks up and down the back from a spanking are not reasonable.

As for the amount of attorney’s fees awarded, I am willing to bet that the chancellor had no proof in the record to support a finding as to how to allocate the attorney’s fees incurred in resisting the child-abuse claim.