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.