August 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

What difference does it make whether the other party has the right form of process if he had actual notice?

Consider the case of Clark v. Clark, 43 So.3d 496 (Miss. App. 2010). The facts are pretty straightforward:

Aileen filed for divorce from her husband Willie. She filed and had issued a Rule 81 summons for a temporary hearing and another Rule 81 summons on her complaint for divorce. Willie did not appear for the temporary hearing, and the chancellor entered a temporary order favorable to Aileen. On the date set in the summons on the complaint, Willie was again called and did not appear. The chancellor entered a judgment of divorce on July 25, 2008, awarding Aileen a divorce, custody, child support, alimony, a vehicle and a name change.

On September 23, 2008, Willie filed a motion under MRCP 60(b) to set aside the judgment, which the chancellor refused. Willie appealed.

On appeal, Willie’s sole assignment of error was that since he was not served with a Rule 4 summons on the divorce, the court lacked jurisdiction.

The COA reversed, and here are the important points:

  • MRCP 4 “provides for the means of service of the original complaint and the form of the accompanying summons.” Sanghi v. Sanghi, 759 So.2d 1250, 1253(¶ 11) (Miss. App. 2000); see also Carlisle v. Carlisle, 11 So.3d 142, 144(¶ 9) (Miss. App. 2009). “The rules on service of process are to be strictly construed. If they have not been complied with, the court is without jurisdiction unless the defendant appears of his own volition.” Kolikas v. Kolikas, 821 So.2d 874, 878(¶ 16) (Miss. App. 2002).
  • Because Rule 81(d) embodies “special rules of procedure” that only apply to the matters listed in Rules 81(d)(1)-(2), and divorce is not one of these enumerated matters, service of the complaint for divorce fall outside the scope of Rule 81. See M.R.C.P. 81(d). Thus, the general rules govern, see Sanghi, 759 So.2d at 1256(¶ 27), and Rule 4 contains the proper procedure for serving the complaint.
  • In Rule 81 matters, a Rule 81 summons must be issued; otherwise, service is defective. See, e.g., Powell v. Powell, 644 So.2d 269, 274 (Miss. 1994); Saddler v. Saddler, 556 So.2d 344, 346 (Miss. 1990); Serton v. Serton, 819 So.2d 15, 21(¶ 24) (Miss. App. 2002).
  • Actual notice does not cure defective process. See, e.g., Mosby v. Gandy, 375 So.2d 1024, 1027 (Miss. 1979). “Even if a defendant is aware of a suit, the failure to comply with rules for the service of process, coupled with the failure of the defendant voluntarily to appear, prevents a judgment from being entered against him.” Sanghi, 759.
  • Rule 4 lists the requirements for a valid summons issued under Rule 4, and provides in pertinent part: “The summons shall be dated and signed by the clerk, be under the seal of the court, contain the name of the court and the names of the parties, be directed to the defendant, state the name and address of the plaintiff’s attorney, if any, otherwise the plaintiff’s address, and the time within which these rules require the defendant to appear and defend, and shall notify him that in case of his failure to do so judgment by default will be rendered against him for the relief demanded in the complaint…. Summons served by process server shall substantially conform to Form 1A.” M.R.C.P. 4(b) (emphasis added). The summons in Form 1A informs the defendant that he or she is “required to mail or hand deliver a copy of a written response to the Complaint” to the plaintiff’s attorney within thirty days or a default judgment will be entered against the defendant. M.R.C.P.App. A. Form 1A. The form further provides that the defendant “must also file the original of [his/her] response with the [appropriate trial court clerk] within a reasonable time[.]” Id. As we have noted before, use of the sample forms is not required, but their use is good practice because it “removes any question of sufficiency [of process] under the Rules.” Sanghi, 759 So.2d at 1256(¶ 28) (citing M.R.C.P. 84).

In his opinion overruling Willie’s Rule 60(b) motion, the chancellor acknowledged that Rule 4 is the proper form of summons in a divorce case, but found that the Rule 81 summons used by Aileen for the complaint substantially conformed to Form 1A.  The summons did inform Willie that a judgment would be entered against him if he failed to appear and defend, as is required by Rule 4(b). However, the summons at issue contained substantial deviations from Rule 4. First, the Rule 81 summons stated: “You are not required to file an answer or other pleading but you may do so if you desire.” Second, the Rule 81 summons did not specify any deadline-specifically, that Willie was required to answer with a response to his wife’s attorney within thirty days. Third, the Rule 81 summons did not inform Willie that he was required to also file his answer with the chancery clerk within a reasonable time.

The COA, citing Sanghi, disagreed, finding substantial differences between Rule 4 and 81 summons, and held that failure to use the proper form of Rule 4 summons deprived the trial court of jurisdiction in the case, requiring reversal.

The COA also considered whether the resulting reversal of the trial judge’s denial of Rule 60(b) relief required setting aside the divorce, and found that it did. The court said: although “[t]he grant or denial of a 60(b) motion is generally within the discretion of the trial court, … [i]f the judgment is void, the trial court has no discretion. The court must set the void judgment aside.” Soriano v. Gillespie, 857 So.2d 64, 69-70(¶ 22) (Miss. App. 2003). A judgment is deemed void if the court rendering it lacked jurisdiction. Morrison v. DHS, 863 So.2d 948, 952(¶ 13) (Miss. 2004). A judgment is void “if the court that rendered it lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter, or of the parties, or if it acted in a manner inconsistent with due process of law.” Id. (citation omitted).

The court also cited Kolikas at 879 for the proposition that the defendant is under no duty to notice what is filed in court against him unless he is properly served according to the rules, and the rules are to be strictly construed and applied as to process. It does not matter that the defendant knew that there was a lawsuit pending against him if he was not effectively served with process and notice.

Oddly — at least I find it odd — the court left standing the judge’s temporary judgment on the basis that Aileen had properly gotten process under Rule 81, and that the trial court did have personal jurisdiction over Willie. I say this is an oddity because in this district we have followed the principle that temporary relief is proper only in the context of a fault-based divorce action. I have never heard of a temporary action proceeding on its own, unattached, so to speak, to an underlying divorce action in which the trial court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant. But that is what resulted here. The COA opinion stated:

Finally, Willie claims that Aileen’s motion for temporary support was “nothing more than a derivative action” of the divorce complaint, and, therefore, the court’s lack of jurisdiction over the divorce complaint extends to the motion for temporary relief.

Although Mississippi appellate courts are generally without jurisdiction to hear direct appeals from temporary orders, Michael v. Michael, 650 So.2d 469, 471 (Miss. 1995) (citing Miss.Code Ann. § 11-51-3 (Supp.1993)), the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion is a final judgment that is reviewable. Sanghi, 759 So.2d at 1255(¶ 22).

As Rule 81 makes clear, an action for temporary relief in divorce and an action for divorce are two separate matters. Each requires the issuance of a different form of summons-the former requiring a Rule 81 summons and the latter requiring a Rule 4 summons. We simply do not see how improper service in the divorce action affects the chancery court’s jurisdiction to hear temporary matters. We, therefore, reject the notion that failure to achieve proper service in the divorce action renders the action for temporary relief void. Furthermore, we note that a separate Rule 81 summons was properly issued in Aileen’s action for temporary support, thus giving the chancellor jurisdiction to award temporary relief. This issue is without merit.

Another interesting wrinkle in this case is Judge Griffis’s specially concurring opinion where he says that ” … Rule 81 is a treacherous and often misunderstood rule.” He points out that parties on appeal have ” … fallen prey to the hidden tentacles …” of the rule and urges the Supreme Court to revise it.

I have heard other chancellors at judges’ meetings complain about Rule 81, but we really have not had any problems in this district understanding and following it (knock on wood) to this point. I would not be against eliminating Rule 81 if we could modify Rule 4 to create a short-notice procedure in certain actions unique to chancery such as temporary matters, contempts and certain probate proceedings where notice is required.

The moral of the Clark story is to comply strictly with the rules governing process or be prepared to clean up the mess that will follow.

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