YEAH, BUT THEY’RE APPOINTED FOR LIFE
August 31, 2011 § 8 Comments
Federal judges have it made.
They can say what’s really on their minds without fear of an inflamed bar, or elective repercussions, or the judicial performance commission.
As Exhibit A, I offer this court order from a Texas federal district court in a discovery dispute:
As I’ve said here before, some judges have no patience for discovery disputes.
Thanks to Attorney Marcus Evans
NEW DISCIPLINARY AND LJA RULES FOR COMMENT
August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment
The MSB is asking for comments on some fairly sweeping proposed changes to the disciplinary rules. You can click on this link to comment.
Unfortunately, you will need to read paragraph by paragraph, comparing your current rules, because there is no redline/italicized version. For that reason, I haven’t had the time to go through the changes and digest them for us here.
The Bar is also asking for your comments on a proposed rule setting up a separate Lawyers and Judges Assistance (LJA) committee. You can click on this link to get to it. This change is part of an ongoing effort to differentiate and separate the LJA function from the disciplinary function. Historically, some lawyers have been reluctant to submit to LJA intervention because it was linked to the disciplinary process, and they were concerned that they were placing their license in jeopardy. The new arrangement focuses on help to resolve self-destructive behaviors.
As always, I encourage you to offer your constructive comments. It’s your profession.
MISSISSIPPI’S DIVORCE RATE AND THE CURRENT STATUTORY SCHEME
August 29, 2011 § 4 Comments
The Clarion Ledger reported on August 25, 2011, that Mississippi’s divorce rates are among the highest in the nation. You can read the article here. The findings come from the Census Bureau’s “Marital Events of Americans: 2009,” which was released this week. The article did not explain why the conclusions are based on data two years old.
Key points of the report:
- Mississippi’s divorce rates for men and women are among the highest in the nation, while its marriage rates rank in the bottom half.
- Mississippi had the sixth highest divorce rate among women and the 11th highest for men.
- Even in the South, which recorded the highest divorce rates (the Northeast had the lowest), Mississippi’s numbers exceeded at least seven other Southern states’.
- Calculating “marital events” per 1,000 men or women ages 15 and older, the rates for Mississippi were 12.5 for women, compared to 9.7 for the nation; and 11.1 for men, also above the national average of 9.2.
- The marriage rate for Mississippi women was slightly less than the national average: 17.3, compared to 17.6, for a No. 32 ranking.
- The marriage rate for Mississippi men edged out the national average: 19.3, compared to 19.1, but was only the 29th highest.
- Although the South had the second-highest marriage rates of any region, Mississippi’s numbers were some of the lowest among its neighbors.
- The study explains the variations in rates between men and women this way: Men remarry more than women do, so their marriage rates are higher.
- Women tend to live longer than men and tend to marry older men, so widowhood rates are higher for them than rates men.
No doubt the economy is exacerbating these numbers. Anyone who has done much domestic legal work can tell you that financial issues play a predominant role in marital dissolutions.
It’s not easy to get a divorce in Mississippi unless both parties agree on how to settle every issue, including the knotty issues of custody, support, division of property and alimony. Our current system gives rise to and even encourages a strategy in which one party holds the divorce hostage until the other comes to terms, a phenomenon that some lawyers refer to as “divorce blackmail” or “economic blackmail.” I have heard for years that there are legislators who have blocked reform of our archaic divorce statutes because they don’t want divorce to be “too easy.” This data is evidence that the existing statutory constraints on divorce have been singularly ineffective in accomplishing that goal.
I think it’s time for us to consider a change in our statutory scheme for divorce. Deborah Bell’s suggestion is that we amend our statutes to provide that when parties have lived separate and apart for a year or more either may obtain a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences, with some temporary relief. That seems sensible to me. It would avoid precipitous and impetuous actions, and would recognize that there is no sense in perpetuating dead relationships. It would also reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the economic coercion that so often intrudes into the divorce process under our current law.
August 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
“I am sorry to say that there is too much point to the wisecrack that life is extinct on other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours.” — John F. Kennedy
“Technology is a sprinter; the Law is a marathon runner.” — A.K.T. Rex
“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.” — Alice Kahn
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS
August 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
It’s the end of a grueling three-day custody trial. The judge has recessed and will render a bench opinion at the end of the recess. You and opposing counsel are tired of the case, of fussing with each other, of the judge, of being out of the office, and of dealing with the clients. The judge gave the attorneys the option of a bench opinion or a written opinion later, and you and counsel opposite elected to end it right then and there.
Did you make the right choice? Maybe not.
The New York Times published a fascinating article on August 17, with the title, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?”
I encourage you to follow the link and print a copy. It is worth a read for every lawyer and judge to help understand how decison-making ability degrades with accumulation of decision-making, and how scheduling and trying matters may affect their outcome.
The study shows how the act of making decisions actually drains the brain of energy through the course of a day. Initially, the brain, full of energy and fresh, tackles decision-making with ease. The more decisions the brain is called on to make, however, the less energy it has available to devote to the task, and performance degrades. It’s like starting off on that jog through the park full of vigor and energy, and winding up panting and walking on jellyish legs to your car three miles later.
The study also says that blood glucose levels have an effect on decision making. The lower the blood sugar level of the decision maker, the more the decision maker suffers from decision fatigue. Decisions made after meals and snacks are, as a result, better reasoned and more true to the facts and law.
So what are the implications as you plod your way to the end of that stressful trial? Consider:
- It’s the judge’s job to make tough decisions every day, and quite often many times through the course of a day. Decison-making is not confined to the final outcome of the case. Decisions must be made objection-by-objection, and often in rapid-fire fashion. To top it off, good lawyers making strong legal arguments intensify the process.
- It’s true that judges are professionals, and that decision-making is part of the job, but judges are human, and are subject the to same fatigue factors as others.
- Keep in mind that the judge is not only depleting energy with decision-making while on the bench. The judge is paying attention, evaluating evidence and testimony and making notes, all of which in combination takes its own, separate toll.
- As an attorney, you can reduce wear and tear on your judge’s psyche by reducing the number of objections and preliminary matters you call on the judge to decide.
- If you anticipate that a witness will generate contentious argument and require rulings on admissibility, it’s probably best to tackle those early in the day before the judge has begun to wear down.
- You might want the judge to take the final decision under advisement, which allows the court to delay the decision to a time when the judge is more refreshed and capable of producing a better result.
I can tell you from experience that patience and insight both wane over the course of a taxing trial. I’ve remarked more than a few times to my wife after a trial that I was as worn out as if I had been one of the trial lawyers. You need to take that into consideration when you plan out your day in court.
EQUITABLE DIVISION AND MARITAL FAULT
August 24, 2011 § 5 Comments
It is almost a platitude of Mississippi law that, “Courts may divide marital assets between divorcing spouses in a fair and equitable manner — equal division is not required.” Bell, Mississippi Family Law, § 6.01.
The sticking point is where to draw the line between “fair and equitable” and “equal.” The appellate decisions come in all sizes, colors and flavors.
Bond v. Bond, decided by the COA August 16, 2011, is the latest iteration on the point. In that case, Jimmie Lee proved that his wife, Donna, had committed adultery during their four-year marriage. The chancellor awarded Jimmie Lee 90% of the equitable division, and gave Donna the remaining 10%. Jimmie Lee appealed, aggrieved that Donna got such a generous share, and charged that the chancellor erred in failing to make sufficient findings of Donna’s adultery.
Judge Maxwell’s opinion sets out the applicable law about as clearly as can be done:
In ordering an equitable distribution of property, chancellors must apply the Ferguson factors, which include:
(1) contribution to the accumulation of property, (2) dissipation of assets, (3) the market or emotional value of assets subject to distribution, (4) the value of assets not subject to distribution, (5) the tax and economic consequences of the distribution, (6) the extent to which property division may eliminate the need for alimony, (7) the financial security needs of the parties, and (8) any other factor that in equity should be considered.
Hults v. Hults, 11 So. 3d 1273, 1281 (¶36) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (citing Ferguson v. Ferguson, 639 So. 2d 921, 928-29 (Miss. 1994)). Chancellors should also consider each party’s marital fault. Singley v. Singley, 846 So. 2d 1004, 1013-14 (¶26) (Miss. 2002). There is a presumption that “the contributions and efforts of the marital partners, whether economic, domestic or otherwise are of equal value.” Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 915 (Miss. 1994). In reviewing a chancellor’s findings, we do not conduct a Ferguson analysis anew. Goellner v. Goellner, 11 So. 3d 1251, 1264 (¶45) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Rather, we examine the chancellor’s judgment and the record to ensure the chancellor applied the correct legal standard and did not commit an abuse of discretion. Id. at 1266 (¶52).
In Carrow v. Carrow, 642 So. 2d 901, 905 (Miss. 1994), the Mississippi Supreme Court held that a chancellor erred in finding a wife’s “adulterous conduct precluded her from being entitled to any form of equitable distribution of the property upon divorce.” The Carrow court instructed that chancellors should not view equitable distribution as a means to punish the offending spouse for marital misconduct. See id. at 904 (citing Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 863 (Miss. 1994)). Rather, “marital misconduct is a viable factor entitled to be given weight by the chancellor when the misconduct places a burden on the stability and harmony of the marital and family relationship.” Id. at 904-05 (citing Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 927).
The court found that the chancellor had, indeed, taken into consideration Donna’s fault when he considered the Ferguson factor dealing with the parties’ relative contributions to the stability and harmony of the marriage. The chancellor had found under that factor that:
“Neither Jimmie nor Donna did all they could to provide stability and harmony to the family. Donna became infatuated with another man and her romantic relationship with this third party caused the dissolution of the marriage.”
So here are a few points to ponder about this decision:
- The rule that equitable division does not require an equal division, but only a fair division, is alive and well.
- A 90-10 split in equitable distribution will be found fair if the judge addresses all of the Ferguson factors and justifies the decision.
- The judge is only required to address all of the Ferguson factors, not to analyze them in excruciating, lengthy detail. In this case, the chancellor’s two-sentence recitation was found adequate to support the award.
This case reminded me of the student who got a 90 on a test and wanted the teacher to re-grade it in hopes of an even better grade. Jimmie Lee’s “grade” stayed the same after the appeal, but it’s somewhat of a head-scratcher why he appealed in the first place, given the pretty clear holding in the Carrow case.
AUTOMATIC MODIFICATION OF CHILD CUSTODY
August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments
You are representing your client in an irreconcilable differences divorce, and the long-awaited PSA has arrived in the mail from counsel opposite. Here are the provisions dealing with custody:
(g) So as to insure a fit and proper environment for the rearing of the minor children, the parties agree that in the event there is a scintilla of evidence of unmarried sexual activity by wife where the minor children are residing or in the vicinity of the minor children, wife shall immediately forfeit and be divested of all custody rights with respect to the minor children, custody of the minor children thereupon automatically vesting in husband, subject only the right of wife to have reasonable visitation with the minor children at reasonable times and places.
(h) In furtherance of the concept of a “home base” hereinabove discussed, the parties agree that the children shall reside in the Columbus, Mississippi area. Wife agrees to give husband sixty (60) days advance written notice of any intended relocation. Unless both parties agree that the children may be removed from the Columbus, Mississippi area to this new location, wife shall be divested of custody of the minor children upon such relocation and custody shall thereupon be vested in husband subject to further orders of the Court. Wife shall have the right to reasonable visitation with the minor children at all reasonable times and places during this period until the matter is finally determined by the Court.
(i) During the portion of the year in which the children reside with wife, wife agrees to give husband advance notice of any trips she plans out of the town of Columbus, Mississippi and further agrees to limit any out of Columbus, Mississippi trips to not more than three nights and to provide husband with information regarding her destination and location so as to afford him a basis to communicate with her if necessary. Furthermore, during such out of town trips, husband, at his option, shall have the right to have custody of the minor children.
It looks pretty much like what your client has told you was her agreement. She and her soon-to-be ex want the children to have some stability, and she wants this divorce over so she can get on with her life. If that’s what her husband wants, she is willing to agree to it just to get this over with.
Subparagraph (g) would effect an immediate change in custody in the event that your client engaged in unmarried sexual activity “where the children are residing” or in their vicinity, and the burden of proof would be a “scintilla of evidence,” a humble standard by any measure.
Subparagraph (h) would create an automatic modification of custody if your client relocates from the Columbus, Mississippi, area.
Subparagraph (i) essentially provides that unless the father gives your client permission to take the children out of town for longer than tree nights, she must give him custody for the duration of such trips.
What is your advice to her?
Check out the case of McManus v. Howard, 569 So.2d 1213 (Miss. 1990). There, the parties had agreed to the very terms cited above, which were approved by the chancellor. Later, the mother sought either a modification or an MRCP 57 declaratory judgment that the agreement was unenforceable as to subparagraphs (h) and (i). It appears that neither party injected subparagraph (g) into the litigation, but one can speculate that it was a tactical decision by counsel to avoid an appearance of wanting to promote or condone inappropriate activity. The MSSC did not explain why it referenced the provision in its opinion.
The chancellor denied modification for the reason that the material change-adverse effect-best interest test had not been met. He denied declaratory judgment on the ground that the parties had contracted for the custodial arrangement, and their contractual agreement should be enforced.
In the MSSC opinion, Justice Blass wrote (at page 1216):
“Being given jurisdiction by Miss.Code Ann. 93-5-24(6) (Supp.1990) and the children being wards of the state, Tighe v. Moore, 246 Miss. 649, 666, 151 So.2d 910, 917 (1963) and there being an ample body of the case law for the guidance of the court, Arnold v. Conwill, 562 So.2d 97, 99 (Miss.1990); Rutledge v. Rutledge, 487 So.2d 218, 219 (Miss.1986), the court simply cannot surrender or subordinate its jurisdiction and authority as to the circumstances and conditions which will cause a change in custody. We hold such an Agreement to be void and contrary to public policy. We have recently considered a similar problem and have reached the same conclusion. Bell v. Bell, No. 89-1108 (Miss. Oct. 3, 1990). Accordingly, we reverse, and grant judgment here for the declaratory judgment as to later sub-paragraphs 2(h) and 2(i). No other matters were submitted to this Court by the appeal.
The Bell case cited by the court found unenforceable an agreement between the parties under which the children were required to live in Tupelo until majority, and the relocation of the custodial parent would trigger an automatic modification of custody. Bell v. Bell, 572 So.2d 841, 845 (Miss. 1990).
The MSSC in McManus held that subparagraphs (h) and (i) above were unenforceable and reversed the chancellor’s ruling. There was no mention of subparagraph (g), because it was not a part of the underlying suit and was not raised on appeal, but the court’s rationale would apply to it as well, in my opinion.
It was my experience as a practitioner that parties occasionally wanted to include similar provisions in their PSA’s. Our chancellors would not approve an agreement that included the language, and I so advised my clients.
August 22, 2011 § 9 Comments
Emancipation occurs when a child has attained a status in which he or she is no longer entitled to parental support and control. The law of emancipation has undergone many changes in the last few decades.
MCA § 93-11-65 (8) now sets out the statutory bases for an adjudication of emancipation. There are two categories of emancipation. Category One requires a finding of emancipation upon the occurrence of any of the enumerated facts. Category Two cases allow the court in its discretion to find emancipation on proof of any of the enumerated facts.
Category One. Unless otherwise provided for in the underlying child support judgment, emancipation shall occur when the child:
- Attains 21 years of age, or
- Marries, or
- Joins the military and serves full-time, or
- Is convicted of a felony and sentenced to two years or more.
Category Two. The court may determine that emancipation has occurred, unless otherwise provided in the underlying child support judgment, if the court finds that the child:
- Has attained the age of 18 years and has discontinued full-time enrollment in school, unless the child is disabled, or
- Voluntarily moved from the home of the custodial parent or guardian, establishes independent living arrangements, obtains full-time employment and discontinues educational endeavors before reaching the age of 21, or
- Cohabits with another person without approval of the parent obligated to pay child support.
The statute also provides that child support for an unemancipated child who is incarcerated is suspended during the period of incarceration.
In Caldwell v. Caldwell, 579 So.2d 543, 549 (Miss. 1991), the court stated:
Emancipation, as employed in the law of parent and child, means the freeing of a child for all the period of its minority from the care, custody, control, and service of its parents; the relinquishment of parental control, conferring on the child the right to its own earnings and terminating the parent’s legal obligation to support it.
In the case of Rennie v. Rennie, 718 So.2d 1091, 1094 (Miss. 1998), the MSSC stated that the statute enlarges, but does not diminish, the Caldwell definition. In other words, the courts are not limited to the statutory language in determining emancipation. Putting the Caldwell definition together with the statute, it appears that the court has discretion to find that proof of emancipation facts under Category Two will not necessarily emancipate the child if the court determines that the child’s situation does not satisfy the Caldwell definition of emancipation. On the other hand, the trial court has no discretion under the Category One facts.
The Rennie court also announced the rule that the child gets “one bite of the apple,” and that a child once emancipated may not be unemancipated once the conditions that gave rise to the emancipation no longer exist. See also, Crow v. Crow, 662 So.2d 1226, 1228-30 (Miss. 1993).
It is the child support payor’s duty to bring the issue of emancipation to the attention of the court. Strack v. Sticklin, 959 So.2d 1, 6 (Miss. App. 2006). When the payor fails or delays in seeking relief from the court, as opposed to self-help, the decision whether to make the emancipation retroactive is left to the judge’s discretion. Houck v. Houck, 812 So.2d 1139, 1143 (Miss. App. 2002). But note that emancipation of one or more children does not necessarily reduce child support where the child support obligation is “global” rather than a sum per child. Wiles v. Williams, 845 So.2d 709, 711-12 (Miss. App. 2003).
The language of the statute “Unless otherwise provided in the underlying child support judgment” is recognition of case law that provides that the parties may extend emancipation or provide other emancipation triggers by agreement. A typical example is where they agree that “college and child support shall continue until the child attains a bachelor’s degree or age 23, whichever occurs first.” The statutory language raises the question whether the court, without an agreement of the parties, could extend the Category One emancipation triggers in an adjudication of child support. I think not, given the shall language of Category One. But what about where the parties agree, in a consent for example, that the court will adjudicate the extent and duration of child support? An intriguing question, and I am not aware of any case law one way or the other.
August 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
— Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
Mississippi chancery courts have jurisdiction pursuant to MCA § 93-17-1 ” … upon the petition of any person to alter the name of such person … ”
As you can probably imagine, most name changes are prosaic affairs involving restoration of a maiden name, or conforming a child’s surname to that of a parental figure, or even correcting spelling.
Some are not so mundane, though. I was presented with a name change that also sought to change the petitioner’s ethnicity. I did change the name, but drew the line at the ethnicity-change until the petitioner could present me with authority allowing me to do so. I’m still waiting.
A post in Futility Closet informs that in 1944, a San Francisco judge refused to let Tharnmidsbe L. Praghustspondgifcem change his name.
He’d asked to change it to Miswaldpornghuestficset Balstemdrigneshofwintpluasjof Wrandvaistplondqeskycrufemgeish.
The man, whose given name was Edward L. Hayes, had requested the first change in order “to do better in my business and economic affairs.” Evidently he felt he hadn’t gone far enough.
But the judge did.
I haven’t been presented with anything that outré — yet — but every day is a new day with new and unexpected challenges and exhilarations. Who knows what Monday will bring.
Have an interesting weekend.
NO UCCJEA ALLEGATIONS = NO JURISDICTION? NO.
August 18, 2011 § 3 Comments
Lawyers are all over the ballpark when it comes to the UCCJEA allegations required by MCA § 93-27-209. Some still use the old and now-repealed UCCJA provisions that have apparently fossilized in their computers. Some omit them entirely. Some use a hybrid. And some even plead the proper provisions.
What happens when you fail to plead the UCCJEA provisions either completely or inadequately? Does the court have jurisdiction?
The MSSC answered the question in White v. White, 26 So.3d 342, 346 (Miss. 2010), where the court said:
First, the chancery court’s jurisdiction is set by the Mississippi Constitution, and cannot be diminished by statute. See Miss. Const. art. VI, § 159. Second, the plain language of Section 93-27-209(2) provides that, in the event the required disclosures are not filed, the court may stay the proceeding.
This issue is not jurisdictional, was within the sound discretion of the chancellor, and this argument is without merit.
The court rejected the appellant’s reliance on Marr v. Adair, 841 So.2d 1195, 1202 (Miss. App. 2003), because that case was decided under the repealed UCCJA.
Remember that under White, although the recitation of the jurisdictional language is not mandatory for the court to exercise jurisdiction, you still have to prove that the court has jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. When the MSSC said that “This issue is not jurisdictional,” it was referring to the matter at hand, which was the sufficiency of the pleadings, and not to the substance of jurisdiction in the case. It’s an important distinction. See, Miller v. Mills, decided by the COA May 3, 2011; you can read a post about the case here.
I have had lawyers move to dismiss at the outset of trial for incomplete or missing UCCJEA affidavit. I always overrule that motion and offer a continuance for the purpose of filing one, but I’ve never had anyone take me up on it.