Making the Judge’s Job Easier: The Asset Table

July 19, 2017 § 4 Comments

The easier you make it for the judge to rule in your favor, the more likely it is that she will. That’s a thought I have expressed here many times.

When it comes to equitable distribution, think about how it’s usually done. On day one at 9:46, you ask your client about the living room furniture: its value, age, condition, whether it’s marital or not. Then, at 10:18, you return to the assets after a foray into some HCIT testimony. Ten minutes is devoted to an IRA and the couple’s vehicles. Then some custody testimony. At 11:38, you start questioning about a PERS account. Lunch break. After lunch, more PERS followed by a venture into more HCIT. At 2:09, more testimony about the furniture. Then back to HCIT. Day two is pretty much the same. After everyone has rested, the judge then has to dig through notes to ferret out the evidence on assets so as to make a ruling on equitable distribution. Don’t be surprised if the judge misses something. Oh, and if you happen to interrupt her while she is working on that opinion, don’t be surprised if she is in a foul humor.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Before you go to trial, why not make an asset table? It should have six columns: (1) a number assigned serially to each item to facilitate questioning; (2) a description of the asset (e.g., “Red couch – Living room” or “Apache Industries 401(k) account no. AFP0875-401-CX” or “2015 blue Ford F-150 pickup”; (3) Designation as marital or non-marital; (4) fair market value; (5) Debt associated with the item; (6) Whether Husband (H) or Wife (W) should receive the item. Some people use a spreadsheet to do this; others use a table in a word processing program. When you come up with a template for it, you can use it time and again.

Once you have had the asset list properly identified and introduced, you can question your client from the table. It eases the work of the chancellor considerably, and will go a long way toward giving the judge the impression that you know what you’re doing.

In this district, we require counsel for both parties to come up with a consolidated asset table. You can’t get a trial date in my court until you do, when equitable distribution or alimony is an issue. This requires the parties to agree to what the assets are, but they can disagree as to values, whether the asset is marital or not, and who should receive the item. The obvious virtue of this approach is that the judge does not have to figure out whether the wife’s testimony about the “green chair” was referring to the “chair in the living room” testified to by husband.

We have had few problems getting counsel to cooperate to come up with the list. When a client drag his feet, the judge’s suggestion that he will simply use the more diligent party’s list usually gets cooperation.

Don’t forget to provide your asset list in discovery if that information is requested. You don’t want to be stopped at trial by failure to provide it in discovery.

Remember, too, that although a client may give his or her opinion as to values, some values are best proven otherwise. A residence, for example, should have an appraisal, unless the parties agree to the value. The value of financial assets should reflect the most recent statements. If you want the judge’s ruling to be as accurate as possible, you should provide as accurate as possible information.

The asset table may be appended to an 8.05, or it may be referenced in the appropriate place in the financial statement.

This may seem like extra work, but you will be gratified at how much easier it makes your trial work, and how much clearer and effective your case for equitable distribution will be.

Life Insurance to Secure the Award

July 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

In 2015, Ronnie and Amy Ali were divorced in an acrimonious proceeding that featured over 200 docket entries. Amy was granted the divorce on HCIT, and was awarded custody, child support, equitable distribution, alimony, and attorney’s fees. To secure the financial award, the chancellor ordered Ronnie to maintain a $2 million life insurance policy. Ronnie appealed on several issues, including the life insurance.

In Ali v. Ali, handed down June 13, 2017, the COA reversed and remanded on the life insurance issue. Since the opinion is a concise statement of the law on the point, I am including that portion. Judge Fair wrote for a 6-4 court:

¶22. The chancellor ordered Ronnie to maintain a life insurance policy valued at $2 million, with Amy to receive $1.5 million and the minor daughter to receive $500,000 in the event of Ronnie’s death. On appeal, Ronnie argues that the policy amounts required for Amy are excessive in light of the permissible purposes of such awards. We agree.

¶23. In Coggins v. Coggins, 132 So. 3d 636, 644-45 (¶¶35-37) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014), this Court explained:

An alimony payor “may be required to maintain life insurance in an amount sufficient to satisfy payment of alimony obligations that survive the payor’s death.” [Deborah H.] Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 9.08[4][c] [(2005)] (citing In re Estate of Hodges, 807 So. 2d 438, 442-44 (¶¶14-23) (Miss. 2002)). The key phrase is “alimony obligations that survive the payor’s death.”

Periodic alimony is an obligation that “terminates automatically” upon the payor’s death and cannot be imposed upon the payor’s estate, absent an express agreement. Armstrong [v. Armstrong, 618 So. 2d 1278, 1281 (Miss. 1993)]; see In re Hodges, 807 So. 2d at 443 (¶19). While lump-sum alimony fully vests at the time of the divorce judgment, periodic alimony only vests on the date each payment becomes due. In re Hodges, 807 So. 2d at 442 (¶17). So when the payor dies, the only alimony obligations that survive—and the only obligations that may be insured—are unpaid lump-sum alimony and unpaid periodic-alimony payments that have already vested.

Recognizing the possibility that an alimony payor may fall behind in periodic-alimony payments and then die leaving those vested payments unsatisfied, this court has acknowledged the chancellor’s authority to require the alimony payor to maintain a life-insurance policy to protect the recipient spouse against such a contingency. [Johnson v. Pogue, 716 So. 2d 1123, 1134 (¶41) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)]; see also Beezley v. Beezley, 917 So. 2d 803, 808 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). But in Pogue, this court found that requiring the payor to maintain a $75,000 life-insurance policy to protect against the potential failure to make $500-per-month alimony payments was “excessive.” Pogue, 716 So. 2d at 1134 (¶41).

¶24. Given the standard we have just recited, it is impossible to say that a life insurance policy of $1.5 million is necessary to guard against the potential failure to make $5,500 monthly alimony payments and to repay approximately $376,500 in marital debt. On remand, the chancery court should determine an appropriate award in light of the authorities we have just discussed.

I posted about Coggins at this link.

Several points:

  • I think most attorneys have thought about life insurance as a replacement for future years of alimony that will not be paid in the event of the payer’s untimely death. Coggins, however, makes it clear that what is insured is any unpaid arrearage existing at the time of death, since periodic alimony payments cease at the death of the payer.
  • Does the same rule apply to child support? In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the child support obligation ceases at the death of the payer, and the estate of the decedent is not liable for future support. It would appear, then, that child support would be subject to the same considerations as alimony.
  • One failing of most attorneys is to offer any proof of the cost of life insurance. I refuse to award it without some testimony of the projected cost.

You Don’t Play — You Pay

July 17, 2017 § 3 Comments

Robert A. Johnson filed a contest to his father’s will, which left everything to Robert’s stepmother, Myra Henderson, and bequeathed nothing to Robert and his brother.

Henderson gave notice of a deposition to be taken in her attorney’s office in Mississippi. Johnson, who lived in California, filed a motion to quash and for a protective order on the basis that it was unduly burdensome on short notice, and that Henderson should either have to pay his travel expenses, or should do the deposition by remote video, or should travel to California to depose him. The chancellor ruled that Johnson would have to travel to Mississippi to give the deposition, but did allow him thirty days’ notice.

Based on the court’s ruling, Henderson re-noticed the deposition for thirty-two days later at her attorney’s Mississippi office. Three days before the scheduled time, however, Johnson’s lawyer called Henderson’s lawyer and told him that Johnson would not appear. Johnson did not appear at the appointed time and date.

Henderson filed for sanctions. At the hearing on the motion, Johnson’s attorney argued that Johnson had been to busy to attend. The chancellor inquired why Johnson had not filed anything to stay the date to a less busy period, and the attorney replied that he wanted to, but was unable to coordinate documentation with Johnson’s California lawyer. Henderson argued for financial sanctions. The chancellor, however, had other ideas: “I can not allow somebody to file an action in a will contest or otherwise in my Court and not make themselves available to the Court for necessary discovery. I can’t allow it. It’s frankly, contemptuous. And also, if it’s not done, all it does is slow down the wheels of justice.” He dismissed Johnson’s complaint with prejudice, and Johnson appealed.

The case was taken by the MSSC, which affirmed in In the Matter of the Estate of Johnson: Johnson v. Henderson, decided June 1, 2017. Justice Maxwell wrote for the 5-4 majority:

¶11. The rule governing a party’s failure to attend a properly noticed deposition is very clear. “If a party . . . fails . . . to appear before the officer who is to take his deposition, after being served with a proper notice, . . . the court in which the action is pending on motion . . . may take any action authorized under subsections (A), (B), and (C) of subsection (b)(2) of this rule.” M.R.C.P. 37(d) (emphasis added). One of the actions authorized by subsection (b)(2) is the issuing of an order “dismissing the action or proceeding or any part thereof, or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party[.]” M.R.C.P. 37(b)(2)(C). So under Rule 37, dismissal is an authorized sanction.

¶12. Johnson does not claim he lacked proper notice of the December 11, 2015 deposition. So under Rule 37(d)’s plain language, his failure to appear triggered the chancellor’s discretionary authority to dismiss his will contest with prejudice. Johnson recognizes this authority but tries to temper his nonappearance by arguing it was not willful. As his lawyer later pitched it to the chancellor, he was just too busy to be there.

¶13. Johnson insists this Court’s precedent cuts against his being hit with the ultimate sanction of dismissal. See, e.g., Pierce v. Heritage Props., Inc., 688 So. 2d 1385, 1388 (Miss. 1997) (finding the plaintiff’s willful discovery violation supported the trial judge’s sanction of dismissal). But the record shows his nonattendance was willful. Opting against seeking court permission or intervention, he gambled on forgiveness, and intentionally skipped out on his properly noticed deposition. Johnson made no prior mention of work obligations or serious conflicting business duties. It was only afterward, when looking down the barrel of dismissal, that his attorney suggested to the chancellor that Johnson’s California business would have been disrupted had he attended the deposition. Johnson had not mentioned this excuse to the court before ditching his deposition. Nor did he seek court intervention or direct his counsel to work with Henderson’s lawyer to find a more suitable date to be deposed.

¶14. In fact, Johnson apparently never intended to inform Henderson he was not coming. Our review shows it was Henderson’s lawyer who contacted Johnson’s attorney three days before the scheduled deposition to verify Johnson would be there. And only then, according to Henderson’s attorney, did Johnson’s lawyer tell him his client was not coming.

¶15. In addition to willfulness, we also consider “whether the failure to comply is attributable to the party itself, or their attorney,” and “whether the failure to comply was a consequence of simple confusion or a misunderstanding of the trial court’s order.” Beck v. Sapet, 937 So. 2d 945, 949 (Miss. 2006) (citing Pierce, 688 So. 2d at 1389). Here, the record supports the chancellor’s finding that it was in fact Johnson—not his attorney—who decided to skip the deposition. And his absence was not based on confusion over the judge’s November 9 ruling that he come to Mississippi to be deposed. It was willful.

¶16. Based on this willful, unexcused failure to attend the December 11 deposition, we find the chancellor was within his discretion under Rule 37(d) to sanction Johnson by dismissing his action. See Salts, 872 So. 2d at 674 (affirming the trial judge’s dismissal under Rule 37(b)(2)(C) for failure to attend a deposition as within the judge’s discretion); Gilbert v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 749 So. 2d 361, 364 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (affirming trial judge’s sanction of dismissal because “the record reveals that it was more wilfulness or bad faith on the part of Gilbert that prevented his appearance” at the scheduled deposition).

¶17. The dissent and Johnson try to distinguish Salts and Gilbert by arguing, in those cases, the plaintiffs had been ordered to attend the depositions. And in his case, Johnson was never ordered by the chancellor to show up on December 11. But the fact the parties in Salts and Gilbert were under court order—and Johnson was not—is immaterial to our analysis. It simply makes their failures to appear not only violations of Rule 37(d) but also Rule 37(b), which specifically governs the failure to comply with discovery-related court orders. See Salts, 872 So. 2d at 674; Gilbert, 749 So. 2d at 364. There is nothing in Rule 37(d)—the subsection that specifically governs a party’s failure to attend his own properly noticed deposition—that limits the trial court’s discretionary authority to dismiss to only those case where a party has been expressly ordered by the court to attend a deposition. Compare M.R.C.P. 37(d) (governing “Failure of Party to Attend at Own Deposition or Serve Answers to Interrogatories or Respond to Request for Inspection”) with M.R.C.P. 37(b) (governing “Failure to Comply With Order”). Again, Rule 37(d) makes clear a party cannot ignore a properly served notice of deposition with impunity. Instead, he must appear or, if appearance is not feasible, seek the other side’s cooperation and, if necessary, the court’s intervention. In this case, Johnson did nothing. He simply rolled the dice and decided not to come to Mississippi to be deposed, despite the judge’s ruling.

¶18. The dissent also suggests the chancellor did not consider lesser sanctions—another factor we weigh when reviewing the sanction of dismissal. See Beck, 937 So. 2d at 949 (citing Pierce, 688 So. 2d at 1389). But we find he did. At the motion-for-sanctions hearing, Johnson’s counsel specifically argued that, “if sanctions are imposed, they should be financial sanctions.” This, he insisted, would “allow [Johnson] to compensate the opposing party but still have his day in court here.” The chancellor considered but rejected this suggestion.

¶19. It is obvious the chancellor felt lesser sanctions would not suffice. In meting out the appropriate sanction, he found he could not allow practitioners to file lawsuits then thwart necessary discovery through their nonavailability. He deemed such a course as “frankly, contemptuous.” In his view, this sort of willful behavior “slow[s] down the wheels of justice.” From this exchange, it is evident the judge acknowledged and considered Johnson’s argument but found dismissal the only viable sanction for Johnson’s willful conduct. See Pierce, 688 So. 2d at 1390-91 (affirming the sanction of dismissal, in part, because the trial court had considered less-drastic sanctions but found none would have the same deterrent value). While this court may have crafted a different sanction, we cannot say the chancellor lacked discretion to dismiss with prejudice under Rule 37(d).

¶20. As a final matter, Johnson argues the chancellor wrongly denied his motion for a protective order. This was the motion he filed in response to the first notice of the October 22, 2015 deposition. The record contains no transcript from the November 9, 2015 hearing on Johnson’s motion. But during the January 5, 2016 sanctions hearing, Johnson’s attorney recapped the judge’s prior ruling, acknowledging “[p]reviously . . . the court ruled that it was better to have in person depositions and we agreed.” (Emphasis added.) But even if Johnson disagreed with the judge’s ruling that he had to come to Mississippi to be deposed, he could not simply ignore the properly noticed December 11 deposition. Johnson could have filed a second motion for protective order based on the timing of the deposition, but he did not. [Fn omitted] Instead, he deliberately chose not to attend. Based on this unexcused absence, we find the chancellor was within his discretionary authority under Rule 37(d) to sanction Johnson with dismissal.

There is a rigorous dissent, which you might want to read for authority in case you find yourself on the uphill side in a similar case.

What you need to take notice of here is that R37(d) has got some serious teeth that can inflict fatal damage on your case. You can’t always control a recalcitrant client such as Johnson apparently was in this case, but you may be able to file a timely motion for a protective order that might insulate him from the most extreme sanction.

In any event, this case is anecdotal evidence that judges are becoming less patient with people who file lawsuits and then gum up the works. If you come to play, you need to play. If you don’t, the ultimate price is what you may have to pay.

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

July 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

Family Law Ne Plus Ultra

July 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Reminder that the Bell Family Law Seminars are coming up. They have been known to sell out, so you need to go ahead and register.

Dates are: July 21, Jackson; July 28, Oxford; and August 4, Biloxi.

Here is the link to more info and a registration form.

 

July 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

At Summer  School for Lawyers

Next post July 13

“Quote Unquote”

July 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”  —  Benjamin N. Cardozo, Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 327, (1937)

“I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven. I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect, which recognises in all human beings the image of God and the rights of his children, which delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering wherever they are seen, which conquers pride, anger, and sloth, and offers itself up a willing victim to the cause of mankind.”  —  William Ellery Channing

“Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom.”  —  Friedrich Hayek

The New HCIT

July 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

In case you hadn’t noticed, habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, the seventh ground for divorce in Mississippi, has undergone a change, effective July 1, 2017.

Here is how the language of § 93-5-1, MCA, now reads:

Seventh. Habitual Cruel and inhuman treatment, including spousal domestic abuse.

Spousal domestic abuse may be established through the reliable testimony of a single credible witness, who may be the injured party, and includes, but is not limited to:

That the injured party’s spouse attempted to cause, or purposely, knowingly or recklessly caused bodily injury to the injured party, or that the injured party’s spouse attempted by physical menace to put the injured party in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; or

That the injured party’s spouse engaged in a pattern of behavior against the injured party of threats or intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse, forced isolation, sexual extortion or sexual abuse, or stalking or aggravated stalking as defined in Section 97-3-107, if the pattern of behavior rises above the level of unkindness or rudeness or incompatibility or want of affection.

How will this play out? We’ll have to see how the appellate courts interpret it, of course. But several thoughts come to mind:

  • By removing the corroboration requirement and replacing it with the testimony of a single “reliable” witness, the statute essentially leaves it up to the chancellor to make a credibility determination as to that individual. Since determining the credibility of and the weight to be given a witness’s testimony is exclusively the province of the chancellor, it should be practically impossible to get the chancellor’s decision reversed on appeal.
  • Some judges, I am sure, will be quite ready to give credibility to any person claiming to be the injured party. In those courts, the parties will be back to where we were up to the early 1980’s when chancellors had the latitude to conclude even where the proof was weak that the parties clearly needed a divorce, so it was granted.
  • The statute went into effect July 1, 2017. I don’t know whether the new language can be amended into already-filed pleadings, or whether it applies only to complaints filed after July 1, or whether it applies only to conduct arising on or after July 1.
  • I personally like the addition of “forced isolation” and emotional and sexual abuse rising above unkindness, rudeness, or incompatibility. That specific language opens up some areas that perhaps have been murky in our case law. Still, I wonder whether the courts will require proof of adverse effect on the injured party. Stay tuned.

Beyond the Scope of the Pleadings

July 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

It’s fundamental that, if you want relief, you have to ask for it (or pray for it, in chancery parlance). There are scads of cases on the point. The only two exceptions that I am certain of are: (1) where an issue is tried without objection and a motion to amend the pleadings to conform to the proof is timely made per MRCP 15; and (2) where the chancellor fashions ancillary relief in order to afford the relief requested.

In the recent COA case In the Matter of C.T.; Taylor v. Timmons, decided June 6, 2017, the chancellor modified visitation even though no one asked for that relief. The appellant argued that the modification was beyond the court’s authority, since no one had pled for it. The COA affirmed, with Judge Lee writing for the unanimous court:

¶16. Taylor argues that the chancellor’s modification was an abuse of discretion because neither party requested the modification or presented evidence that the visitation schedule was not working. However, the record is replete with evidence that the visitation schedule was not working. Though neither party petitioned the chancery court for modification of visitation, Taylor did file a petition for contempt, asserting that he was not getting visitation with the child. Taylor also testified extensively that he was unable to visit with the child. Timmons testified that she had not denied Taylor visitation, but that she had begged Taylor to visit with the child. The chancellor also noted that there was some confusion between the parties regarding the details of visitation under the agreed order. As such, there was a clear showing that the prior visitation order was not working, and the chancellor’s finding that a modification was necessary was supported by substantial evidence. Given the chancellor’s “broad discretion to determine the specific times for visitation,” the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in modifying the visitation schedule. Moreland v. Spears, 187 So. 3d 661, 666 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (citation omitted). This issue is without merit.

No doubt the chancellor was being practical and was attempting to solve as many of these people’s conflicts as he could in one stab.

I don’t think one could argue convincingly, though, that the visitation modification was directly related to the relief sought. Take this case as support for the proposition that the appellate courts will generally defer to a chancellor acting as problem-solver. But be forewarned: there are cases going the other way.

July 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

State Holiday

Courthouse closed