A QUESTION OF ATTORNEY’S FEES ON APPEAL

August 17, 2011 § 5 Comments

Ed McDonald filed for divorce from his wife, Cindy. Cindy counterclaimed for separate maintenance. The ultimate result was that the chancellor denied Ed a divorce and granted Cindy separate maintenance.

Ed did not pay as the court ordered, and he filed a motion to terminate the obligation. Cindy responded with a petition to hold Ed in contempt for non-payment of six months of separate maintenance. The chancellor rejected Ed’s plea to terminate the payments, found him in contempt, awarded Cindy a judgment for the arrearage, and ordered Ed to pay Cindy $1,000 in attorney’s fees based on the finding of contempt.  In making the attorney fee award, the trial judge stated:

“The finding of contempt in this matter as to the separate maintenance payments permits the Court to require the party in contempt to pay reasonable attorney’s fees to the innocent party. The award is based on the contempt and not the inability to pay. Therefore, the Court orders [Ed] to pay $1,000 to [Cindy] as attorney’s fees for his failure to pay the monthly separate maintenance as ordered by this Court.”

Ed appealed both from the denial of termination of separate maintenance, and from the adjudication of contempt. In the case of McDonald v. McDonald, decided August 16, 2011, the COA affirmed the chancellor on the refusal to terminate separate maintenance and the adjudication of contempt.

Cindy, then, was the prevailing party in the appeal, and she asked the COA to award her an attorney’s fee for having to defend the appeal. Indeed, there is a long line of cases holding that the appellate court will award the prevailing party an appeal attorney’s fee in an amount equal to one-half that awarded by the trial judge. See, e.g., Quin v. Quin, 215 So.2d 414, 415 (Miss. 1968); Smith v. Smith, 293 So.2d 466, 469 (Miss. 1974); and Poole vs. Poole, 701 So.2d 813, 819 (Miss. 1997).

Based on the chancellor’s ruling on the attorney’s fee, Cindy would reasonably expect the COA to award her an attorney’s fee in the sum of $500 for prevailing in the appeal.

In this case, though, the COA brushed aside Cindy’s request with this language (at ¶17): “The chancellor specifically held that the attorney’s fees awarded to Cindy are based on the fact that Ed was in contempt ‘and not on the inability to pay.’ Because precedent dictates that attorney’s fees are based on ‘necessity and not entitlement,’ and the chancellor did not find that attorney’s fees awarded to Cindy were based on an inability to pay her attorney, we decline to award Cindy any attorney’s fees on appeal.”

The opinion cites Monroe v. Monroe, 745 So.2d 249, 253 (Miss. 1999) at ¶ 17, as authority for its statement that “attorney’s fees are based on necessity rather than entitlement.” Monroe is the only case cited by the court. Monroe was a divorce case in which the MSSC reversed and rendered on a finding that Mrs. Monroe had been denied alimony improperly. It was not a contempt case. The court found that Mrs. Monroe was not entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal because she did not prove inability to pay. I’ve posted here before about the necessity to prove inability to pay to support an award of attorney’s fees in non-contempt actions.

The rule is different in contempt actions, however. A finding of inability to pay is not necessary to an award of attorney’s fees in a contempt action.  Bounds v. Bounds, 935 So.2d 407, 411 (Miss. App. 2006). It is not even necessary for the McKee factors to be proven in a contempt case. Mixon v. Mixon, 724 So.2d 956, 964 (Miss. App. 1998). Attorney’s fees are properly assessed against a party found to be in contempt, Mount v. Mount, 624 So.2d 1001, 1005 (Miss. 1993), to compensate the party wronged for having to retain counsel.

In Bounds, the COA spelled out the distinction:

Sam’s argument fails to differentiate awarding attorney’s fees in a divorce action as compared to a contempt action. In Mabus v. Mabus, 910 So.2d 486 (Miss.2005), the court addressed this issue. The trial court held a mother in contempt for failure to return the children to the father’s custody. Like Sam, the mother contended that the attorney’s fees the court awarded to the father for the contempt action were unreasonable because the court did not use the McKee factors. The general rule in divorce and child custody actions is that appropriate attorney’s fees should be awarded in an amount to secure a competent attorney. Id. at 490(13). However, in contempt actions, attorney’s fees are awarded “to make the plaintiff whole.” Id. (citing Rogers v. Rogers, 662 So.2d 1111, 1116 (Miss.1995)). “When a party is held in contempt for violating a valid judgment of the court, then attorney’s fees should be awarded to the party that has been forced to seek the court’s enforcement of its own judgment.” Elliott, 775 So.2d at 1290(25).

It looks to me like the chancellor in McDonald properly assessed attorney’s fees based on the sanction for contempt, as he was permitted to do under the great weight of authority. The chancellor was not required to find inability to pay. Why, then, was the customary appellate fee disallowed under a standard different than that which applied in the trial court? Ed appealed from the contempt finding and Cindy prevailed on the appeal. Should she not have been entitled to the customary one-half attorney fee award to the prevailing party?

I hope this decision does not mean that in contempt actions parties will have to put on proof of inability to pay purely in anticipation of an appeal, since that finding is not necessary for the trial judge to assess a fee on a finding of contempt. It’s irrational to me for one standard to apply at trial and another on appeal.

Cindy is only out $500 in this case, but what if the fees had been $12,500? Something else to think about as you go about making your trial court record in a contempt case.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SATISFY THE DILIGENT INQUIRY REQUIREMENT OF MRCP 4?

August 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

We’ve talked here, here and here about MRCP 4 and its requirements for obtaining process by publication. The prerequisite to any process by publication is “diligent inquiry” to discover whether the party is to be found in Mississippi, and, if not, her post office address.

No process by publication can issue until there is an affidavit filed stating that diligent inquiry has been made. The one who claims to have made the inquiry is required to testify to the efforts involved. It is in the court’s discretion to determine whether the inquiry was indeed diligent.

So what exactly is diligent inquiry? To what extent is a party required to search out the whereabouts of the opposing party? I will confess to a certain degree of inconsistency on this issue on my part, due primarily to the fact that in Mississippi we do not have a template of authority or guidelines to go by. I do always question the witness about measures taken, and I am usually satisfied that he or she has done all that can be done.

Recently, it came to my attention that Florida has a form certificate of diligent inquiry that is required in all such cases. The affiant must check all of the categories of effort that apply. Here are the guts of the Florida certificate:

  • United States Post Office inquiry through Freedom of Information Act for current address or any relocations.
  • Last known employment of respondent, including name and address of employer. You should also ask for any addresses to which W-2 Forms were mailed, and, if a pension or profit-sharing plan exists, then for any addresses to which any pension or plan payment is and/or has been mailed.
  • Unions from which respondent may have worked or that governed particular trade or craft.
  • Regulatory agencies, including professional or occupational licensing.
  • Names and addresses of relatives and contacts with those relatives, and inquiry as to respondent’s last known address. You are to follow up any leads of any addresses where respondent may have moved. Relatives include, but are not limited to: parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, great-grandparents, former in-laws, stepparents, stepchildren.
  • Information about the respondent’s possible death and, if dead, the date and location of the death.
  • Telephone listings in the last known locations of respondent’s residence.
  • Internet at http://www.switchboard.com or other internet people finder.
  • Law enforcement arrest and/or criminal records in the last known residential area of respondent.
  • Highway Patrol records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Department of Motor Vehicle records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Department of Corrections records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Title IV-D (child support enforcement) agency records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Hospitals in the last known area of respondent’s residence.
  • Utility companies, which include water, sewer, cable TV, and electric, in the last known area of respondent’s residence.
  • Letters to the Armed Forces of the U.S. and their response as to whether or not there is any information about respondent.

Some of these measures seem somewhat extravagant to me; a Freedom of Information Act request, for example, seems a bit much. Certain other listed measures would be futile due to privacy and HIPAA concerns, in my opinion.

The list, though, does have much to commend it in that it illustrates the extent of information available to find someone. In the era of internet, with Google and the like, the old “I asked his momma and she doesn’t know where he is” just doesn’t cut it anymore. The more extensive the search, the more different measures employed, the more likely it is that the court will find the effort to have been diligent.

I heard an uncontested divorce a while back in which the plaintiff had published process based on a claim that she did not know where the defendant was, and was not to be found in Mississippi. She testified about all the relatives she had talked to who claimed not to know where he was, either. In the course of her testimony, she let slip that the last she had known he was in prison in Texas. I interrupted and asked how long his prison term was, and she responded that he should still be there because he had been sentenced to something like 20 years. I pointed out to the attorney that of all people on the planet a prisoner should be among the easiest to locate, and I continued the hearing to a later date for that purpose. The attorney easily located the man on the internet, and she and her client returned to court a couple of months later and proceeded on personal process. 

My suggestion is that you don’t file that diligent inquiry affidavit unless and until you are satisfied that your client has, indeed, made a bona fide effort to locate the other party. You may wind up doing some of the work yourself.

PROCESS F*A*I*L

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.

DICTA

August 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

  • A very tongue-in-cheek take on Twelve things you should never say to your child.
  • Politics from the grave … partisan epitaphs.
  • Ants have transparent abdomens, which makes for some fascinating photographs when they are dining on brightly colored candy.
  • All of Kemper County is in a desert. And so are parts of Meridian. A Food Desert, that is. Or so says the USDA, which has taken upon itself the task of designating areas of the USA where poor people do not have near access to a supermarket as “Food Deserts,” which you can pinpoint on their locator. Their thinking is that lack of nearby supermarkets means that the denizens eat only fattening food at convenience stores and fast food outlets.
  • Which dietary supplements are proven to work and which are not? This graphic shows the evidence. Good: folic acid, green tea, probiotics. Not so good: akai, beta carotene, flaxseed oil.
  • If you yearn for the “good old days,” remember that a huge chunk of that imaginary era did not include air conditioning, as this article in Slate on the history of air conditioning will tell you.

WHAT DOES IT DO TO YOUR APPEAL WHEN THE TRIAL JUDGE DOES A DOUBLE-TAKE?

August 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

Here’s a little nightmare scenario for you …

Chancellor renders a judgment of divorce. Among other provisions, the judge ordered that the homestead and certain personalty be sold by the Chancery Clerk, the administrative costs be paid, and then the remaining proceeds be divided between the parties. Your client is unhappy enough to pay you to file an appeal from the judge’s adjudication of equitable distribution. It takes him a couple of weeks to scrape together your fee, but the appeal clock still has plenty of ticks. Client comes in at last and pays the freight. You start work on the notice of appeal, and while you’re at it …

Twenty days after the judgment is entered, here comes a sua sponte order from the court clarifying the instructions to the clerk as to the specific items of personalty that were to be sold, and how the homestead proceeds were to be divided. You have other pressing matters on your plate, so you are relieved that the judge reset the appeal clock for you. Finally, 29 days after the clarifying order, your file your notice of appeal.

Is there a problem?

The above facts happened in Penton v. Penton, decided by the COA on April 13, 2010. Judge Barnes’ opinion points out that the appellate rules and our case law are silent as to the effect of a sua sponte order of the trial court such as that in this case. This second order was not a reconsideration with a substantive change of the original judgment. Reconsideration was limited to within ten days of the original judgment under MRCP 59. Nor did it involve correction of a clerical error under MRCP 60. The second order did not substantively change the award in the original judgment; it merely made the instructions clearer for the clerk.

Looking to federal case law, Judge Barnes concluded that ” … only when the lower court changes matters of substance, or resolves a genuine ambiguity, in a judgment previously rendered should the period within which an appeal must be taken … begin to run anew.” She found that the provisions of the second order were not substantive, so it did not have the effect of extending the appeal time from the original judgment.

The opinion noted that entry of the second order still left time for appeal from the original judgment, and that counsel could have filed a motion with the trial court to extend the time for appeal, if that were needed to evaluate the sua sponte order, but no such motion was filed.

The result was that the appeal was dismissed as untimely filed.

As a matter of practice, this case illustrates that it’s better under the current state of the appellate rules to file a premature notice of appeal than to file too late. Once the deadline passes without a motion to extend having been filed, the appeal is dead.

I’ve held off commenting on this case because it’s an unpublished opinion and obviously addresses a matter of first impression of Mississippi. I have surmised that publication is being held pending evaluation by the Supreme Court, since that court has jurisdiction to adjudicate first impression cases.

UCCR 8.05 TWEAKED AGAIN

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Supreme Court’s Rules Committee is soliciting your comments on proposed changes to UCCR 8.05. The change would add this language:

The disclosures shall include any and all assets and liabilities, whether marital or non-marital. A party is under a duty to supplement prior disclosures if that party knows that the disclosure, though correct when made, no longer accurately reflects any and all actual income and expenses and assets and liabilities, as required by this Rule.

The change addresses both the Trim case non-disclosure of assets problem and the duty to supplement.

As I’ve said before, many cases are plagued by incomplete and woefully inadequate 8.05 statements. Often, the statement offered is months old. Maybe this rule change will be a cure. But then again, I am an eternal optimist, even when reality does not justify it.

If you’re looking for ideas about how to improve your own 8.05’s and financial testimony, you can find some here, here and here.

You can find the proposed new rule here. Deadline for comments is September 6.

BULLETPROOFING YOUR WITNESSES

August 9, 2011 § 5 Comments

If you have never had a witness implode on the stand, this post is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you have struggled inwardly to maintain your composure as your witness apparently has forgotten everything he ever knew about the case, or he has abandoned all common sense, or she blurts out all manner of facts she never revealed to you before and is laying waste to her own case as effectively as if she were her own opposing counsel, then this post may help.

An important part of trial preparation — you do prepare for trial, I hope — is preparing your witnesses. Uh — you do prepare your witnesses, I hope.

It’s pretty clear when a witness is prepared. The witness and the lawyer work almost in tandem. The witness seems to understand where the lawyer is going with the questions and goes along easily, without a lot of leading and prodding. The witness’s testimony is clear.  The witness knows how to say what needs to be said, and handles himself well on cross examination.

In other words, the witness is coated in teflon and swathed in kevlar. Non-stick and bullet-proof.

It doesn’t take a lot of time and effort to prep your witness if you focus in on what needs to be addressed. Here are a few helpful tips. Take them as a starting point and fill in with as many others as you can come up with.

  • Take a few mintues to explain to your client what it is you have to prove to have a successful day in court. For instance, if modification of child custody is in issue, explain material change, adverse effect and best interest.
  • Go over some questions and elicit your client’s answers. Suggest more effective ways to say what the witness is going to testify to. It is entirely ethical to suggest more effective ways to state the facts; of course it is unethical to change the facts or tell the witness to testify to something the witness did not perceive. You can tell the witness how to say it, but you can not tell the witness what to say.
  • Remind the witness to testify about facts, and not impressions. Tell what you saw with your own two eyes without using labels. “The windows were all broken out of the car, the side mirrors were broken off and hanging down, the headlights were smashed, and the tires were all flat” is a lot more powerful than “The car was busted up.”
  • Tell the witness about courtroom etiquette. Don’t chew gum or chewing tobacco, speak up loud and clear, be respectful of the court and other attorney, wait until the question is finished before answering, don’t interrupt any other speaker, dress conservatively, and avoid confrontation with the other party. If you want to bring something to your lawyer’s attention, write it down and pass a note; the lawyer has enough on her plate without having to deal with interruptions.
  • If an 8.05 statement will be used, go over it with the witness. Test memory about figures and identify any trouble spots. Tips for more effective financial statements and financial testimony are here and here.
  • Prepare the witness for cross examination. Explain how it works and confront the witness with the most obvious weak points. Suggest ways for the witness to deal with it. Caution the witness about the other lawyer’s typical bag of tricks on cross and offer some strategies to deal with them.
  • Explain to the witness that he will be nervous when he takes the stand, but so is everyone else who has to get up there.
  • Explain how hearsay works, and that just about every answer that begins, “He said …,” or “I heard her say …” or “The teacher told me that …”, etc. will elicit a reflexive objection. Recommend ways around hearsay.

A few pointers for more effective chancery trials are here.

There are two kinds of witnesses: the kinds who help your case; and the kinds who hurt it. You want every witness called by you to be in the former category. Witness prep will go a long way toward that end.

TAKING THE FIFTH IN A CIVIL CASE

August 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

It is possible for parties and witnesses to invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in a civil suit.

You may have experienced some scenarios, or you can imagine them: A party is asked questions about a possibly fraudulent tax return; there are questions that some of the property accumulated in the course of a business subject to equitable distribution may have been criminally acquired; questions about adulterous misconduct could, conceivably, subject the interrogatee to criminal prosecution.

In the case of Morgan v. U.S.F.& G., 222 So.2d 820 (Miss. 1969), the MSSC set out the ground rules at page 828:

  1. The witness must take the witness stand;
  2. The witness must invoke the privilege on a question-by-question basis;
  3. The claim of privilege is determined by the court, and not by the witness;
  4. An inference may be drawn against the witness.

“The yardstick to be used by the courts in ruling upon privilege in a civil case is whether there is a real and substantial hazard of incrimination resulting from a witness’s answer to a [pleading] or from his testimony in open court … [citations omitted] … The central standard for the privilege’s application has been whether the claimant is confronted by substantial and “real,” and not merely trifling or imaginary, hazards of incrimination … ” (at 830).

The privilege is waivable (at 829). See also, Moore v. Moore, 558 So.2d 834 (Miss. 1990); and Wallace v. Jones, 572 So.2d 371 (Miss. 1990).

Although the attorney may assist and advise the witness, it is the duty of the witness himself to make an affirmative indication to the court that he himself is invoking the privilege. Harrell v. Duncan, 593 So.2d 1, 6 (Miss. 1991).

It is up to the witness to provide the court with enough information for the court to make a determination whether the answer would, in fact, incriminate the witness.  Hinds County Board of Supervisors v. Common Cause, 551 So.2d 107, 112 (Miss. 1989). If the court decides that the answer could not be incriminatory, then the witness must answer the question.  In re Knapp, 536 So.2d 1330, 1334-5 (Miss. 1988).

There is an anomalous case in Gibson v. Wright, 870 So.2d 1250 (Miss. App. 2004), in which the COA essentially held that a non-party witness could invoke a blanket Fifth Amendment privilege against testifying in a civil trial. You will have to read the decision yourself and draw your own conclusions as to what effect that decision has on the status of Fifth Amendment protections in civil proceedings.

“PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN”

August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Decision-making is a Gestalt phenomenon, a three-dimensional agitated blob of factual, impressionistic, inferential, prejudicial miscellany from which a decision spins forth,  trailing behind it sufficient selective supportive  material to assuage  the conscience and justify its genesis as a product of the rational mind.”

Thanks to attorney Jak Smith

THE “INABILITY TO PAY” DEFENSE

August 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

We talked about the US Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Rogers here. In essence, the case mandates in a contempt proceeding that the defendant or respondent be advised that ability to pay is a critical issue in the case, that he or she may use a form (e.g., 8.05 financial statement) to submit the proof, that he or she be afforded the opportunity to offer testimony and responses about ability to pay, and a finding by the court of ability to pay as a prerequisite to finding contempt.

So what exactly is it that a defendant has to show to establish inability to pay?

In Seghini v. Seghini, 42 So.3d 635, 643 (Miss. App. 2010), the court state the outline of the rule:

The court’s power to imprison a person until he complies with the terms of a decree depends on that person’s present ability to comply with the decree. Wilborn v. Wilborn, 258 So.2d 804, 805 (Miss.1972). “Where the contemnor is unable to pay, even if that present inability is due to his misconduct, imprisonment cannot accomplish the purpose of a civil contempt decree, which is to compel obedience.” Jones v. Hargrove, 516 So.2d 1354, 1358 (Miss.1987) (citing Miss. Const. art. 3, § 30). But the defendant has the burden of proving his inability to pay and must make such showing with particularity and not in general terms. Clements v. Young, 481 So.2d 263, 271 (Miss.1985).

In Seghini, the court rejected the claim of inability to pay on the basis that there was no independent corroboration. The defendant had prepared both the business ledger and the tax return upon which he based his defense (Note: I have posted here previously about the ineffectiveness of self-corroboration). Moreover, the proof showed that the defendant was often paid in cash, and that he had successfully paid a significant sum under the temporary judgment, his alleged inability having arisen only after the divorce judgment.

In Clements v. Young, cited above, the defendant offered no proof at all of inability to pay. In fact, his lawyer conceded on the record that his client had an ability to pay.

In Woodfin v. Woodfin, 26 So.3d 389, 393 (Miss. App. 2010), the court upheld a chancellor’s rejection of the defense on the basis that the defendant had failed to provide “particular evidence” of inability to pay. The decision states that it was his burden to prove inability to pay by clear and convincing evidence. The court went on to find affirmatively that he did have the ability to pay, based on his Rule 8.05 financial statement.

Inability to pay must be shown in particular terms. McIntosh v. DHS, 886 So.2d 721, 725 (Miss. 2004), Howard v. Howard, 913 So.2d 1030, 1036 (Miss. App. 2005)

In Howard, the court pointed out that when the defendant discovers his inability to comply with the court order, he must file a petition to modify immediately, and it is not appropriate to find him in contempt after he does so. See also, Setser v. Piazza, 644 So.2d 1211, 1216 (Miss. 1994). The prompt filing of a modification action, however, only precludes a finding of contempt, and does not excuse any arrearage. Thurman v. Thurman, 559 So.2d 1014, 1016-71 (Miss. 1990); Cumberland v. Cumberland, 564 So.2d 839, 847 (Miss. 1990).

What constitutes particular proof of inability to pay will obviously depend on the facts of the case at hand. Assets available for liquidation should be taken in consideration. See, Doyle v. Doyle, 55 So.3d 1097, 1111-1112 (Miss. App. 2010). The fact that another resident of the household, such as a new spouse, is helping pay household expenses, would be a factor. And evidence that the defendant enjoys a standard of living inconsistent with inability to pay is persuasive.

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