MANIFESTLY NOT IN ERROR
November 30, 2011 § 3 Comments
In several recent cases the COA affirmed chancellors where the trial court’s conclusions were supported by substantial evidence and were in line with the applicable law.
In Love v. Love, decided November 15, 2011, the court upheld the chancellor’s award of custody to the mother, Jennifer, over the father, Aaron, in spite of Jennifer’s less-then-stellar behavior. Judge Maxwell’s opinion stated at ¶36:
“The cold record, Aaron argues, is fraught with examples of Jennifer’s alleged misconduct and neglect. But the chancellor had an important hands-on benefit that we lack—her personal assessments of Jennifer’s and Aaron’s credibility—both at the custody hearing and post-trial hearing. Based on these interactions, the chancellor discounted some of the negative testimony about Jennifer, accepted much of it, and evaluated all of the testimony against the evidence of Jennifer’s care for Tommy. The chancellor ultimately found Jennifer had slightly better parenting skills and that it was in Tommy’s best interest that Jennifer be awarded custody and Aaron liberal visitation. Admittedly, this is a close case. But because the chancellor supported her decision with substantial evidence, we find our deferential standard requires us to affirm.”
Love highlights an important consideration in chancery cases: that the trial judge is in the best position to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. The cold record simply does not convey the way a witness presents himself or herself, the tone of voice, the hesitations, the body language, the facial expressions. In a close case credibility can hinge on how the witness presents himself or herself. A defensive, hostile witness who snaps answers off in a sarcastic tone will come across as less worthy of weight and credibility than one who presents herself as open, honest and matter-of-fact with nothing to hide. And yet the trial transcript will present both witnesses in the same light.
In Nichols v. Nichols, also decided November 15, 2011, the COA affirmed the chancellor’s award of custody to the father, stating at ¶11 that “We find that there was substantial evidence in the record to support the chancellor’s decision to award custody of the children to [the father].”
Only the week before, in Powell v. Powell, the COA had upheld the chancellor’s decision in equitable distribution, again finding that the chancellor had applied the law properly, and that his findings were supported by substantial evidence.
In Smullins v. Smullins, decided November 29, 2011, the COA upheld the chancellor’s Albright analysis based on a finding that it was supported by substantial evidence. The opinion was rendered on rehearing, and replaced an earlier opinion that had reversed the chancellor.
There have been other decisions along these lines dating back into 2010.
In my opinion, these cases are among a growing number of COA decisions where the court is refusing to second-guess chancellors and is limiting its scrutiny to a determination whether the chancellor’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, was clearly erroneous, or an erroneous legal standard was applied, as the familiar introductory paragraph to every chancery court appellate decision recites.
If this continues, the bonus for lawyers and judges alike will be that there will be fewer anomalous decisions, and the proliferation of case law with which we have to deal will grow at a more manageable rate. Two trends that we all can applaud.
WHAT SETS YOU APART?
November 29, 2011 § 3 Comments
Many years ago, when I had been practicing law only a few years, my father-in-law posed this question to me: “What sets you apart from the other lawyers in your town?”
His question was actually “What is it about you that makes people want to hire you instead of any of the other lawyers in your town?”
Now I will confess that I had not really given that sort of thing much thought at the time. With all the demands of a law practice, a family and the myriad other things that make up the life of a young lawyer, I hadn’t taken time to sit down and ponder that sort of thing.
But I have in the many years since. And I learned to become aware of the things that I could do as a lawyer that would add value for my clients. I learned that not all lawyers take time to listen to their clients, to really hear what their concerns are — so I tried to listen better. I learned that most lawyers do not take the time to explain to their clients what is happening and will happen in their cases — so I tried to explain. I learned that many lawyers are impatient with their clients and try to cut them short — so I tried to be patient and give them some attention. I learned that there are lawyers who file sloppy pleadings and discovery — so I tried to make sure that everything I filed looked professional and like it was done with care. I learned that some lawyers do not prepare their clients and key witnesses for trial — so I did, and did a better job than many in litigation.
Sometimes I fell short. But I like to think that most times I succeeded. Simply because I took care to give some thought and attention to what I could do to do a little better job.
My father-in-law also told me that only 10% of people in any profession are superlative, and it takes only a little extra effort and attention to rise above the other 90%. It takes continued attention and effort to stay in that special 10%.
Clients like to think they are getting the best when they spend their hard-earned money to hire a lawyer.
What sets you apart? What is it about the way you practice law that makes people want to hire you instead of the other 90% of lawyers?
November 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
In these unsettled economic times, it’s a fairly common phenomenon that the party who will be ordered to pay child support is working a reduced schedule, or has taken a job with a significant pay cut, or has lost employment. The paying parent wants child support set at the low rate, and the recipient parent wants the court to consider earning capacity.
The law is that “income will be imputed to a child support payor who, in bad faith, voluntarily worsens his financial position.” Howard v. Howard, 968 So.2d 961, 972 (Miss. App. 2007). “[A]n obligor’s financial position cannot be voluntarily worsened in an attempt to lessen his [or her] child support obligation.” Swiderski v. Swiderski, 18 So.3d 280, 286 (Miss. App. 2009). Where a chancellor is not convinced of the honesty or veracity of the parent concerning the parent’s ability to abide by his or her financial obligations, the chancellor is not precluded from factoring this skepticism in the equation when determining the amount of the child support award. Dunn v. Dunn, 695 So.2d 1152, 1156-57 (Miss.1997); see also Grogan v. Grogan, 641 So.2d 734, 741 (Miss.1994). Furthermore, “[t]he chancellor can base child support on the parent’s potential earning capacity.” Suber v. Suber, 936 So.2d 945, 949 (Miss. App. 2006); White v. White, 722 So.2d 731, 734 (Miss. App. 1998).
The key elements are bad faith and voluntariness. Bad faith involves an intent to evade one’s obligation, whether voluntarily or not. For example, it is unquestionably bad faith to ask for a job assignment that will reduce pay; that is voluntary. It is also bad faith to take a job assignment that one knows will lead to a reduction in hours or pay, even though someone else will make the pay-cut decision; that may not appear voluntary, but the intent is to place oneself in a position to evade the obligation via someone else’s decision. Voluntariness, of course, is evident from the facts.
In the case of Wells v. Wells, 35 So.3d 1250, 1260 (Miss. App. 2010), the COA rejected the custodial father’s argument that income should be imputed to the mother, finding no evidence that the mother had reduced her work hours in bad faith to reduce her child-support obligation. The chancellor had found that the mother’s intent in reducing her work hours was to spend more time with the children. The COA also pointed out that the chancellor’s decision whether or not to impute income is discretionary.
November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
November 23, 2011 § 1 Comment
Lawyer 1: “You know, you really shouldn’t smoke; it’s bad for you.”
Lawyer 2: “My grandmother lived to the age of 97.”
Lawyer 1: “Did she smoke?”
Lawyer 2: “No. She minded her own business.”
REVISITING TRIAL CHECKLISTS
November 22, 2011 § 2 Comments
Every few months I try to remind lawyers about the importance of putting on proof of the factors spelled out by the appellate courts that are required to make your case. This may also come in handy for any newcomers who haven’t stumbled on prior posts on the subject.
I’ve referred to it as trial by checklist. If you’re not putting on proof of the factors when they apply in your case, you are wasting your and the court’s time, as well as your client’s money, and you are committing malpractice to boot.
Many lawyers have told me that they print out these checklists and use them at trial. I encourage you to copy these checklists and use them in your trial notebooks. And while you’re at it, you’re free to copy any post for your own personal use, but not for commercial use. Lawyers have told me that they are building notebooks tabbed with various subjects and inserting copies of my posts (along with other useful material, I imagine). Good. If it improves practice and makes your (and my) job easier and more effective, I’m all for it.
Here is a list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:
Doing an accounting in a probate matter.
Income tax dependency exemption.
Modification of child support.
Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.
To make it easier to find checklists, I’ve added a category that you can search by using the category search tool on the right side of the page.
Next time the court denies your claim for attorney’s fees or for your client to claim the tax exemption for the children, ask yourself whether you put on the necessary proof. Not only is it crucial to your case at trial to prove all of the applicable factors, but you can’t expect to have a prayer on appeal without the requisite proof in the record.
ANOTHER WRINKLE IN WITHDRAWING FROM REPRESENTATION
November 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
We’ve talked here before about the proper procedure to withdraw from representing a client.
It often happens that the judge signs an order letting the attorney out, and in the same order sets the case for trial. That can cause problems for the remaining attorney and client, as was the case in Turner v. Turner, decided by the COA on November 1, 2011.
The Turner litigation spanned 4 years of conflict between Jane and Michael over a divorce and custody. There were trial dates set and continued, and intervening pleadings, culminating in a trial date on November 12, 2009.
On the last date set for trial, Michael appeared and saw his attorney talking first with counsel opposite and then the chancellor. He learned that his attorney had made a motion ore tenus to withdraw, even though UCCR 1.08 requires a written motion and notice. There also was not five days’ notice to opposing counsel or Michael, as required in MRCP 6. The judge signed an order on November 12, entered the next day, allowing Michael’s attorney to withdraw over counsel opposite’s objection and continuing the divorce trial to December 8. That order is the only record of what transpired that day. According to Michael, his attorney took him to a conference room where his attorney told him of the withdrawal and offered assistance in finding new cocunsel; however, Michael said that the attorney did not advise him of the reset trial date, and the attorney later testified that he had no recollection whether he had advised Michael of the trial date.
On December 8, 2009, court convened for the divorce and Michael was not present. The record showed that he had never missed any prior scheduled proceedings. The chancellor granted Jane a divorce on the ground of habitual drunkenness, and awarded her custody, marital property and attorney’s fees.
Michael timely filed a motion under MRCP 59 and 60 to set the divorce aside for lack of proper notice of the trial setting. The chancellor refused, citing MRCP 5. Michael appealed.
The majority COA opinion rejected the rationale that MRCP 5, which essentially provides that notice to an attorney is imputed to the client, was applicable here. Citing Fairchild v. GMAC, 254 Miss. 261, 265, 179 So.2d 185, 187 (1965), the opinion held that an attorney who has moved to withdraw cannot at the same time continue to exercise authority on behalf of the client with respect to other matters. “While ‘withdrawal is prospective [and] does not erase those steps in the proceeding already taken,’ withdrawal likewise prevents an attorney from taking future steps on behald of his client.” Id. The Turner opinion stated at ¶21 that “We find [Michael’s attorney] could not simultaneously withdraw as Michael’s representative and be ‘counsel for the defendant’ for purposes of notice of the December 8 hearing.”
The COA admonished trial judges to follow UCCR 1.08 and MRCP 6 in entertaining motions to withdraw, and found that due process was lacking in this case. At ¶25, the court prescribed the solution for future cases:
” … [I]n cases where permission to withdraw is granted outside of the presence of the requesting attorney’s client, to avoid future notice problems, it is certainly permissible for a chancellor to enter a written order scheduling a future hearing, which expressly conditions the requesting attorney’s withdrawal only upon submission of proof to the court that he or she has given notice of the subsequent hearing to the client. Another suitable method, under this circumstance, would be to allow withdrawal of counsel subject to the condition that subsequent papers may continue to be served upon counsel for forwarding purposes as the judge may direct, unless and until the client appears by other counsel or pro se.”
In my opinion, the problem in this case could have been avoided if the defendant had been required to sign off on the order that let his attorney out of the case and set the trial date. He would have been hard-pressed to argue later that he did not have notice of the trial date. That’s the practice we try to follow in this district. Of course, we also try to follow UCCR 1.08 and MRCP 6 in these situations, but sometimes things come up at the last minute, and, in those cases we try to document as best we can.
The majority opinion in Turner provoked staunch dissents from Judges Russell and Griffis. Russell attacked the chancellor’s grant of a divorce, denial of visitation and other relief. Griffis took issue with the majority’s due process rationale.
SIGNS OF THE IMPENDING APOCALYPSE
November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment
THE VALUE OF VALUATION
November 17, 2011 § 3 Comments
Some lawyers like to play a cat-and-mouse game in which they go light on some proof, expecting the chancellor to fill in the blanks in their client’s favor. Sometimes that strategy fails calamitously.
The latest case in point is Powell v. Powell, decided by the COA on November 8, 2011, an equitable distribution case. Sherida Powell and her husband James were locked in a battle over the marital estate, the major components of which were the marital residence, some future payments from the sale of a business, and James’s retirement account. The chancellor decided the values based on the proof, and sherida hit the appeal button, complaining that the judge’s adjudication of values was incorrect.
The COA, via Judge Irving, disagreed with Sherida. The opinion is instructive about what works and does not work as proof of values, so I am quoting it here:
¶20. Sherida first attacks the value that the chancery court assigned to the marital home, which James testified was worth $80,000 before he renovated it prior to his marriage to Sherida. Sherida complains that numerous documents could have been provided to prove the value of the home. While such documents could have been provided, they were not–not by James, and not by Sherida. Sherida was entitled to provide whatever documentation she could obtain regarding the value of the home; in the absence of such, we decline to find error with the chancery court’s valuation of the home. * * *
¶21. Sherida next complains that the chancellor erred in “failing to calculate the value” of the future payments on the promissory note from ASAP’s sale. We note that Sherida made no effort to provide a calculation of the future value of the payments. In the absence of any valuation of the ASAP promissory note payments, we decline to hold the chancery court in error in its valuation of the payments.
¶22. Sherida also complains that James’s retirement account should have been considered a marital asset. In her brief, Sherida concedes that the only evidence as to the value of the account came from her trial exhibit 31. That exhibit was simply a summary of Sherida’s valuation of certain assets, including James’s retirement account. It appears that Sherida’s “value” for the account is simply the percentage that she believes she should receive of each of his monthly disability checks. This did not provide the chancery court with an adequate valuation of the retirement account. No other evidence was presented by either party that conclusively established the account’s value. Under these circumstances, the chancery court did not err in declining to evaluate the account as a marital asset.
A few nuggets from this case:
- The chancellor has no duty to go out and develop your proof for you. It’s up to you to put adequate proof in the record to support your client’s position. If you don’t do so, the appellate courts are not going to entertain your complaint that the judge should have found a different way.
- The chancellor can pick and choose what to believe from equivalent proof. In other words, if each party simply lobs up a guess as to a value, the judge can pick which one to swing at and hit. It’s up to you to come up with weightier proof, like an appraisal from a qualified appraiser, or some other weightier source, if you want to have the upper hand as to values.
- If you want the judge to calculate future values or some such, then offer an expert, or a stipulated table, or something of the like. Don’t expect the trial judge to perform actuarial and trigonometric calculations when you have not provided the template to do so.
- If you fail to provide adequate proof of the valuation of a retirement account and the parties’ relative contributions to it, you do so at your client’s peril. Here, the fallout was a finding by the trial court that the account was not marital. In Pierce v. Pierce, 42 So.3d 658 (Miss.App. 2010), the fallout was a remand for further findings of fact.
- If you don’t put evidence into the record, don’t expect to be able to argue about it on appeal. And don’t expect the trial judge to rule in your favor, either.
- Once again … the more difficult you make it for the trial judge to figure out, the less likely you will prevail, as I have often said here before.
- When you have a valuation case, jump on it early. Get your client to bring you as many documents as possible, such as account balances, valuations, appraisals and financial statements. Get tax returns with depreciation info. Collect closing statements and property tax data. Use discovery to get admissions as to admissibility and authenticity of documents, and to admit values. Discover the existence of any other documents. If valuation will be contested, line up your experts. And remember that experts must be designated no later than 60 days before trial, per UCCR 1.10, if you were requested to disclose them in discovery.
There’s another interesting aspect to this case, and you can read about it here.
WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER?
November 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
In a couple of weeks, the population of the world will pass seven billion. That’s 7,000,000,000 people on the third rock from the sun.
BBC has a site where you can go, click in your birth date, and find out what number person you were on this planet.
The site tells me, based on my birth date, location and gender that:
- I am the 2,513,525,838th person born among the 7 billion pop.
- My life expectancy is 75.4 years (that will be in 2025 or so, for you “planners” out there).
- I was the 75,616,463,538th person to have lived since history began.
A UN site with even more detailed info is here.
If you enjoy stats, this is a thought-provoking and entertaining way to see how you fit into this rapidly changing — and growing — world.
So how will this help you practice law? I have no idea. I just found it interesting.