November 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

State Holiday

Next post November 27, 2017

Speak Up and Be Heard

November 22, 2017 § 3 Comments

You older lawyers can take a break from the blog with this post. You, for the most part, don’t suffer from the particular malady I am about to describe. You younger lawyers need to pay heed.

Simply put: if you want the judge to grant your client some kind of relief, you must make sure that the judge hears what both you and your client are saying. I hope I said that loud enough.

Too often I have to urge younger lawyers and their clients to speak up. Projecting your voice so as to be heard in all corners of a courtroom is vastly different from talking on your cellphone. Many courthouses, particularly the older ones, provide no amplification equipment, and acoustic efficiency was not a consideration when designing courtrooms back in days of yore. That’s because lawyers and orators in general knew, understood, and practiced the simple art of projecting their voices.

I met Dean Duncan of the OM Law School recently, and was tempted to ask whether some unamplified speech class could be introduced into the curriculum to impress on lawyers-to-be the importance of making themselves heard. I let it pass and decided to grumble about it here.

One consideration you need to bear in mind is that hearing often does not improve with age. If you look up to the bench and see a chancellor with gray hair, you should assume that he or she spent too much time in college listening to the Rolling Stones through headphones with full volume. Oops, I may be getting too autobiographical here.

Another consideration is that even if you learn to project, it does little good if the judge can’t hear your client. When you prepare your client and key witnesses for trial (and a few of you do that), impress on them the vital importance of speaking up. In the courtroom encourage your witnesses to speak up.

Speak up and be heard.

Parental Actions Against the Best Interest of the Child and Remand

November 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

In Darnell v. Darnell, 167 So.3d 195, 198 (Miss. 2014) (Darnell I), the MSSC remanded the case to the chancellor with directions to consider two statements of a minor child that he had excluded in the trial.

The chancellor had awarded the father, Duff Darnell, custody of the child based largely on conduct of the mother, Carla Darnell. After remand, the judge addressed the statements of the child and made a detailed Albright analysis, after which he again awarded custody to Duff. Carla appealed, and the MSSC affirmed in Darnell v. Darnell, decided October 26, 2017.

The court’s opinion addresses two important issues: parental misconduct toward the other parent; and what the judge is required to consider on remand.

On parental misconduct, the chancellor spelled out what he found to be Carla’s misconduct:

… the actions of the mother, Carla Darnell, taking visitation away from the father, filing charges with the military against the father, accusing the father of being a child molester, and disparaging the father in the small community where the family resided, coupled with her telling the child that the child should tell everybody that he wants to stay with her and not the father adversely impacts the minor child. Darnell II, at ¶7.

The MSSC, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Randolph, rejected Carla’s argument that the chancellor had failed to consider the child’s statements in making his findings:

¶7. That argument is without merit, for the chancellor entered a detailed, twenty-nine page amended final judgment. He addressed the statements made by C.D. to his teacher, Dana Walker, and principal, Machelle Dyess, and Dyess’s testimony regarding those statements. He also considered those statements in conjunction with Dr. Scott Benton’s testimony. He found that no witness who had knowledge of C.D. making the two specific statements testified that C.D. actually had been abused. No evidence was presented that any sexual abuse occurred. The chancellor stated in his order that he considered the three reports of the GAL, the exhibits, and testimony of the parties and witnesses at trial. He found [the conduct set out above].

¶8. Based on the record, the chancellor considered the statements and found that those statements did not change the outcome of his award of custody to Duff. “[T]he chancellor is the finder of fact, and the assessment of witness credibility lies within his sole province.” Carambat v. Carambat, 72 So. 3d 505, 510 (Miss. 2011). The chancellor’s findings are supported by substantial evidence; thus he did not manifestly err in that regard.

The takeaway here on this issue is twofold:

(1)  The kind of conduct found by the chancellor is a combination lethal to your client’s claim for custody. You should not come to court with a similar set of facts in the expectation that the judge will not see your client in an unfavorable light.

(2)  The chancellor is the finder of fact and assessor of credibility, and, if there is substantial evidence in the record to support his or her findings, those findings will stand on appeal.

As for how the chancellor handled the remand, the record shows that he simply revised his original findings, addressing the excluded evidence as the MSSC directed him to do. No hearing was held, and no further evidence was taken. Carla argued on appeal that by not holding a new hearing the chancellor had erred by failing to take into account the new developments and facts pertaining to custody at the time of the remand. The MSSC rejected Carla’s claim:

¶12. On remand, this Court specifically instructed the chancellor to make:

new findings of fact and conclusions of law in which the first two statements made by C.D. to Dyess and Walker are considered as admissible evidence. Because of the additional evidence, the chancellor also should conduct a new Albright analysis showing the reasons for his ruling, and it would be helpful if he specifically stated why he disagreed with the guardian ad litem’s recommendations.

Id. at 210. This Court did not instruct the chancellor to hold a new hearing, change his findings and conclusions, or consider new evidence of C.D.’s current condition.

¶13. Carla, citing Vaughn v. Davis, 36 So. 3d 1261 (Miss. 2010), argues that the general rule for remanded child custody cases requires a chancellor to consider the child’s circumstances at the time of remand, rather than at the time of the previous hearing. However, this Court has never made such a pronouncement. This Court specifically instructed the chancellor in Vaughn to consider the minor’s present circumstances, if the chancellor made a determination of desertion. Id. at 1267. No such instruction was given to today’s chancellor. This issue is without merit.

In other words, the remanding opinion of the appellate court is the law of the case from that point forward. The chancellor is obligated to do only what the appellate court directs him or her to do. In this case, the chancellor simply took the two statements into account in his amended findings of fact and conclusions of law. No further hearing; no new evidence. The Darnell I remand had not directed the chancellor to conduct an new hearing or to consider evidence arising after the initial trial date.

More on Moving the Ward

November 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

In a previous post I talked about the measures you need to take when you are moving a ward in a guardianship or conservatorship from Mississippi to another state. That earlier post is at this link.

The statute I cited in that earlier post is still on the books, but now there is a uniform law that provides a modern procedure recognized in many other jurisdictions.

In 2014, Mississippi adopted the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act (MCA § 93-14-101, et seq.), which establishes procedures recognized among the participating states for transfer of guardianships, protective proceedings, registration of orders from other states, and communication between courts. There is even a provision for emergency, temporary jurisdiction over a respondent from another state who is in this state at the time of the emergency.

Situations involving conservatorships and adult guardianships are becoming more frequent, and the need to move wards to the state where the children are now located is more and more prevalent. This chapter will help you do that.

_______________________

Thanks to Attorney Mark Scarborough

 

 

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

November 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Joint Custody Outside of Divorce, Part Deux

November 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

Yesterday we visited the situation where the natural parents in a paternity suit were awarded joint custody of their child. It was deemed okay by the COA.

Today we consider whether the chancellor may award joint custody between paternal and maternal grandparents in a case where both are claiming custody due to unfitness of the natural parents. That’s what happened between Monica Darby (paternal) and Harold and Karron Combs (maternal).

The chancellor awarded the grandparents joint custody, and Monica appealed. The COA affirmed in Darby v. Combs on October 25, 2016. Monica filed a petition for cert, and the MSSC granted it.

On November 9, 2017, the MSSC affirmed the COA in Darby v. Combs. Justice Maxwell wrote for a 6-2 court, with Ishee not participating:

¶23. Chancellors have jurisdiction to make custody decisions. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159; see also Davis v. Davis, 194 Miss. 343, 12 So. 2d 435, 436 (1943). And their decisions must be made with an eye on the best interests and welfare of the child. Albright, 437 So. 2d at 1005; Carr v. Carr, 480 So. 2d 1120 (Miss. 1985) (extending the coverage of the Albright decision to all original custody decisions)). Here, the Court of Appeals correctly recognized this notion, explaining “[i]n a custody contest between third parties,where neither party has a superior right to custody of the child, the child’s best interests and welfare are the polestar consideration.” Darby, 2016 WL 6276610, at *7.

¶24. With Addie’s best interests in mind, and in light of his finding that Crystal and Andrew were unfit parents, the chancellor consulted Section 93-5-24(1)(e). This statute clearly permits third-party custody arrangements. Under Section 93-5-24(1)(e):

Upon a finding by the court that both of the parents of the child have abandoned or deserted such child or that both such parents are mentally, morally or otherwise unfit to rear and train the child the court may award physical and legal custody to:

(i) The person in whose home the child has been living in a wholesome and stable environment; or

(ii) Physical and legal custody to any other person deemed by the court to be suitable and able to provide adequate and proper care and
guidance for the child.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-24. So, based on his finding of parental unfitness, the chancellor was statutorily empowered to fashion a third-party-custody award. Monica does not seriously contest the chancellor’s authority to grant third-party custody. What she argues is that the chancellor lacked authority to craft a third-party joint custody award.

¶25. As support, Monica latches on to the use of the word “person” and the phrase “any other person” in Section 93-5-24(1)(e)(i) and (ii). She insists this singular language makes clear that only one person or party may receive custody. So as she sees it, joint custody awards are not allowed between third parties under Section 93-5-24(1)(e)(i) and (ii). She suggests the definition of joint physical custody in Section 93-5-24(5)(c) supports her interpretation. [Fn omitted] We disagree.

¶26. First, it is obvious Subsection 93-5-24(5)(c) contemplates joint physical custody between “parents.” And here, the chancellor deemed Addie’s parents unfit for custody.

¶27. Second, Monica overlooks—and our statutory law instructs—that “[w]ords used in the singular number only, either as descriptive of persons or things, shall extend to and embrace the plural number . . . except where a contrary intention is manifest.” Miss. Code Ann. § 1-3-33 (Rev. 2014). And we see no contrary intention manifested within the statute.

¶28. Indeed, Section 93-5-24(5) concludes by explaining that “[a]n award of joint physical and legal custody obligates the parties to exchange information concerning the health, education and welfare of the minor child and . . . the parents or parties shall confer with one another in the exercise of decision making rights, responsibilities, and authority.” So, Section 93-5-24(5) suggests that joint physical and legal custody may be awarded to either parents or parties. Thus, we find no legal error in the chancellor’s statutory application.

¶29. As we recognized in Crider, the overarching consideration in Section 93-5-24 is that “[c]ustody shall be awarded as follows according to the best interests of the child.” Crider v. Crider, 904 So. 2d 142, 144 (Miss. 2005). And here, we cannot say the chancellor’s custody award was against Addie’s best interest.

II. Cooperation for Joint Custody

¶30. Monica next suggests the chancellor erred by awarding joint custody without making an express finding that the parties could cooperate as Addie’s joint custodians. We disagree. As discussed, the chancellor carefully walked through the Albright factors [Fn omitted] and crafted a
workable third-party custody arrangement.

¶31. Though joint custody between third parties may not typically be preferable, this is a difficult and, as the chancellor put it, “unusual” case. Facing the realities of obviously unfit parents and a neglected child, the chancellor did what he was duty bound to do—he consulted Section 95-5-24 and keyed in on the child’s best interest and welfare. [Fn omitted] The severity of Andrew’s drug problems, mental-health issues, and violent tendencies and Crystal’s extensive drug and alcohol abuse required the chancellor look elsewhere for custody arrangements.

¶32. When parents cannot agree on who should have primary custody of the children, this Court has suggested “it is probably the better course for the chancellor to make that decision for them reserving joint custody for parents who are willing to work together to make joint custody feasible.” Waller v. Waller, 754 So. 2d 1181, 1184 (Miss. 2000) (emphasis added). [Fn omitted] The dissent basically stretches this language into a new affirmative requirement, essentially grafting a non-Albright factor onto the Albright test. And it concludes remand is necessary because the chancellor did not make an “express determination of whether the parties can cooperate in exercising joint custody.” We agree this consideration is certainly relevant. But by no means did Waller create a new mandate that chancellors make this “express determination,” or else a joint-custody award and Albright analysis will be legally lacking and require remand for additional findings. Rather, the Waller court, citing an American Law Report on joint-custody awards, suggests in a footnote that chancellors make joint custody awards where the parties are able to cooperate. Id. at 1184 n.1 (citations omitted).

¶33. Here, the chancellor rejected the GAL’s recommendations and carefully weighed the Albright factors and statutory law, deciding a joint-custody award was “the safest route” to protect Addie from potential violence. He had no qualms that Monica and the Combses could carry out this arrangement. If he had felt a joint-custody arrangement was unworkable, he would not have fashioned one. After review, we find no error in the chancellor’s joint custody award.

Afterthoughts:

  • Joint custody keeps embracing more and more relationships. It goes well beyond the marital relationship based on yesterday’s and today’s reported decisions.
  • I included the discussion about ability to cooperate because I think there’s been some confusion over whether it is a threshold requirement. To me it has been more of a disqualifying factor; i.e., where the evidence is clear that there can be no cooperation, I rule joint custody out. I do not require affirmative proof of cooperation, however, before awarding joint custody.
  • One form of joint custody I am seeing — and strongly resisting — is joint custody (50-50) in PSA’s with no child support. I think joint custody is being used that way in many cases as a “business decision” with non-payment of child support as a bargaining chip. Joint custody, however, should be about providing the safest, most secure, most nurturing environment in the best interest of the child rather than a justification for no child support. When you link money with the joint custody arrangement, the sweet aroma changes to a foul odor.  I don’t like it a bit. And, for you lawyers who push this idea, you are creating a new, potent avenue for “divorce blackmail” that can blow up in your face when you are on the opposite side of the issue.

Joint Custody Outside of Divorce

November 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

We all know that the chancellor may award joint physical custody in an irreconcilable-differences divorce, but what about when the natural parents have never been married to each other and they are before the court in a custody dispute? May the chancellor award joint custody?

That was one of the issues before the COA in the case of Roberts v. Eads, handed down October 10, 2017. In that case, Lauren Roberts sued Tyler Eads for custody and support of their son, Thomas. Tyler counterclaimed for custody, sole or joint. The chancellor granted them joint physical and legal custody, and Lauren appealed. The COA affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote for a unanimous court:

¶22. In addition to challenging the chancellor’s application of the Albright factors, Lauren claims that the chancellor’s award of joint physical custody violates Easley v. Easley, 91 So. 3d 639 (Miss. Ct. App. 2012), and Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(2) (Rev. 2013).

¶23. In Easley, the chancellor granted the parties an irreconcilable-differences divorce. Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). Section 93-5-24(2) provides that joint custody may be awarded in an irreconcilable-differences divorce “in the discretion of the court, upon application of both parents.” Following a trial in Easley, “the chancellor determined that joint physical custody was in the children’s best interest, but he erroneously concluded that the statute did not allow it to be awarded unless both parties expressly presented joint custody for consideration.” Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). The chancellor therefore awarded sole custody of the parties’ children to the father while granting the mother visitation. Id. On appeal, this Court concluded that, “after finding joint custody to be in the children’s best interest, the chancellor’s award of custody to one parent was an error of law.” Id. at (¶2). We therefore reversed the chancellor’s judgment and remanded the case so the chancellor could apply the proper legal standard. Id.

¶24. Upon review of the present case, we find no merit to Lauren’s claim that the chancellor’s award of joint physical custody violated either section 93-5-24(2) or our holding in Easley. As stated, section 93-5-24(2) provides a chancellor with the discretion to grant joint custody in an irreconcilable-differences divorce. However, the present case involves no such divorce since the parties were never married. We further note that section 93-5-24(3) provides a chancellor with the discretion to award joint custody “[i]n other cases . . . upon application of one or both parents.” As the record here reflects, in responding to Lauren’s custody petition, Tyler requested sole custody or, in the alternative, joint custody.  Furthermore, after considering the Albright factors, the chancellor determined that joint legal and physical custody served Thomas’s best interest. [Fn omitted] As Easley recognized, a chancellor may grant joint custody, even where both parties do not present the issue, if such an arrangement
is in the child’s best interest. See Easley, 91 So. 3d at 640 (¶1). We therefore find no merit to Lauren’s assertion that the chancellor’s judgment violated Mississippi statutory law and caselaw.

¶25. The chancellor’s judgment is affirmed.

That’s something you might be able to put to good use.

Partition and Survivorship

November 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Does the filing of a partition suit convert a joint tenancy with right of survivorship into a tenancy in common?

Richard Turner and Brenda Seymour purchased a home together in 1995. The deed recited that they held the property as “joint tenants with express right of survivorship, and not as tenants in common.”

In early 2011, Brenda filed a complaint to partite the property per MCA 11-21-3, which allows partition between joint tenants. Brenda died in November, 2012, and her estate was substituted as plaintiff. The chancellor ruled at a hearing in February, 2016, that the filing of the partition suit did not terminate the joint tenancy with right of survivorship, and that, therefore, Richard became sole owner of the property by survivorship after Brenda’s death. The Administrator of Brenda’s estate appealed.

In Seymour v. Turner, decided October 3, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Irving’s opinion is informative on joint tenancy and tenancy in common, and the effect a partition action has on them:

¶6. Joshua points out that four unities—time, title, interest, and possession—must be present in a joint tenancy, and if one of the four unities is eliminated or terminated, the joint tenancy defaults into a tenancy in common. He argues that when Brenda filed the lawsuit on February 3, 2011, the filing terminated the joint tenancy existing between the parties and rendered it a tenancy in common, because the unity of possession had been severed. “Unity of possession” means that each joint tenant must have an undivided share in the property. See Wilder v. Currie, 231 Miss. 461, 474, 95 So. 2d 563, 566 (1957). He contends that that was no longer the case upon the filing of the petition to partite, as once the partition suit was filed, Brenda was requesting either a division in kind or a division by sale. Consequently, he argues that the joint tenancy was transformed into a tenancy in common, which is not accompanied by a right of survivorship. Therefore, according to him, Brenda’s death did
nothing to deprive her estate of its ownership interest in the property.

¶7. We do not disagree with Joshua’s contention that “[t]here must be unity of title, time, interest[,] and possession in a joint tenancy.” Thornhill v. Chapman, 748 So. 2d 819, 828 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). The question here is, did the joint tenancy convert to a tenancy in common at the time that Brenda filed her suit to partite the property, vesting her interest in the property and eliminating the right-of-survivorship provision? We find that it did not. This Court has held:

[T]he distinguishing characteristic of a joint tenancy is the right of survivorship. By virtue of survivorship, the property descends outside of
probate from the deceased joint tenant to the surviving joint tenant. The requirements for the creation of a joint tenancy with right of survivorship in land are governed by statute. Ownership of the whole and then taking the whole by survivorship are the outstanding features of owning property as joint tenants. The decedent’s share does not have to pass to the survivor because the survivor already owns the whole. The usefulness of the joint tenancy as one property-law expert explained is that it serves as a “poor man’s probate.” With the above said about joint tenancy and its feature of survivorship, one point becomes clear about this case: [Carolyn] Jones owned the whole along
with [Anthony] Graphia while they were joint owners. However, when Graphia filed to partite the property, as joint tenants are allowed to do, then Jones’s interest was subject to division by the chancellor. Prior to the chancery proceeding, Jones enjoyed the ownership of the whole. Jones lost this enjoyment when Graphia, her joint tenant, filed for partition. Had Graphia died, Jones, as the only other joint owner, would have owned the whole by herself. But since there was no death, the joint tenants had to give testimony during the partition hearing concerning their contributions to buying the house.

Jones [v. Graphia], 95 So. 3d at 753-54 (¶¶7-8) [(Miss. App. 2012)] (emphasis added) (footnote and citations omitted). Appropriately, the court in Jones ruled that upon the death of one joint tenant, the right of survivorship automatically transfers the whole property to the surviving joint tenant.

¶8. Joshua, in an attempt to distinguish Jones, argues that “[i]f Jones enjoyed ownership of the whole prior to the proceeding and lost this enjoyment when Graphia filed, then her death afterward would be at a time after she lost this enjoyment.” We disagree. The filing of Brenda’s complaint had no effect on the status of the property as a joint tenancy. At that point, no rights had been lost, but became merely subject to loss depending on the trial and the chancellor’s ultimate ruling. If Joshua’s analysis were the rule of law, all a party would have to do is file a complaint to partite to convert the property from a joint tenancy to a tenancy in common and defeat the right of survivorship, effectively rendering the court’s ultimate disposition of the case futile.

¶9. Although merely persuasive, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed this very issue in Jackson v. Estate of Green, 771 N.W.2d 675, 677 (Mich. 2009), as follows:

A party can sever a joint tenancy by compelling a partition. Until an order of partition has been entered, however, a partition has not been compelled and, thus, the joint tenancy has not been severed. See Anno: What acts by one or more of joint tenants will sever or terminate the tenancy . . . (explaining that “[i]t is not the filing of the partition action which terminates the joint tenancy, but only the judgment in such action which has that effect”).

Indeed, the universal rule in the United States is that a pending suit for partition does not survive the death of one of the joint tenants. See Heintz v. Hudkins, 824 S.W.2d 139, 142-143 (Mo. [Ct.] App. 1992), and cases cited therein. This rule is based on two related concepts: First, the theory of survivorship—that at the moment of death, ownership vests exclusively in the surviving joint tenant or tenants—and second, the doctrine that severance of the joint tenancy does not occur until the partition suit reaches final judgment.

For clarity, at the time that Brenda filed her complaint, the joint tenancy was still intact, and when she died, the property automatically transferred to Richard through the right of survivorship. There had been no final order issued at the time of her death, so the tenancy was never severed.

Nothing earth-shaking here. Filing a partition suit will not convert joint tenancy to tenancy in common, but a partition judgment will.

November 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

State Holiday

Courthouse closed

Report on the Contest

November 8, 2017 § 13 Comments

Some weeks ago I enlisted your participation in The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog contest.

In doing so I expected a few hundred favorable votes, taking into account that I have a few more than 860 followers. Imagine my surprise, then when it was called to my attention that the blog finished first in its category on the closing day, November 3, with 2187 votes, besting the Lawyers Rock blog by some 83 votes.

In fact, TBCPB finished second overall among all blogs in every category, second only to the Workplace, Data Management & Security Report, which received 2371 votes. You can see the vote totals at this link.

Thanks to each and every one who voted, and thanks to all of you who read this. I hope you continue to benefit from it. By the way, last year your votes added this blog to the ABA’s Best Legal Blogs list. So we are on a roll.

The Expert Institute says it is tallying votes and will notify the winners. I presume they are examining hanging chads and will make a definitive ruling soon.

In the meantime, I appreciate the vote of confidence. It helps keep me motivated.