DEVIOUS SEARCH AND INQUIRY
July 26, 2012 § 3 Comments
It avails one naught to get a judgment when all the proper parties have not been given notice and an opportunity to defend.
In 2007, Lottie Woods brought an action for adverse possession of family property. She claimed in her complaint that she was the sole and only heir of her uncle Cornelius, and she published process for him, his unknown heirs, and any other person claiming an interest in the property.
It should have been a clue of problems to come when Corenelius, Jr. showed up at the appointed time and produced a birth certificate showing he was Cornelius’s son. But it all seemed to work out because Lottie and Jr. settled the dispute between them, dividing the property.
The only problem with all of the foregoing is that Lottie neglected to make it known that she had four other siblings who could claim an interest in the property. In other words, as Jr.’s appearance foretold, she could hardly be said to be the “sole and only” heir. Her brother Samson and the other siblings filed an objection and separate litigation to correct the matter.
The COA case of Byrd v. Woods, et al., decided June 19, 2012, is where this particular drama was played out. The case goes off on several other points of law, but the one that I want to focus on here is what happens when a party does not comply with MRCP 4’s requirement that there be diligent search and inquiry before process by publication. Here is what Judge Fair had to say about it, commencing at ¶14:
Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(4) states that if a defendant cannot be found after diligent search and inquiry, shown by sworn complaint or filed affidavit, he may be made a party by publication. In the 2007 adverse possession action, Lottie filed an affidavit of diligent search and inquiry to obtain a publication summons. However, she must have known that her brother (and her other siblings) would have an interest in the “family land” she sought to adversely possess. They were both potential heirs of Cornelius and believed the property belonged to their family. Further, Lottie and Samson were not estranged, so it is unlikely she could not find him after diligent search and inquiry. But Lottie did not serve Samson personally, nor did she mention or serve her other three siblings.
“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. Ct. App. 2002). In Caldwell v. Caldwell, 533 So. 2d 413 (Miss. 1988), the supreme court stated “if at any stage of the proceedings it appears that . . . the affidavit was not made in good faith after diligent inquiry, under the facts of the particular case, the process should be quashed by the court . . . .” Id. at 416.
Therefore, Lottie did not obtain service of process on Samson by publication because her affidavit was not made in good faith after diligent inquiry. Neither he nor Lottie’s other siblings are bound by the 2007 judgment.
The lesson here is that when your client avers that he or she has made “diligent inquiry,” or, using the traditional phrase still used by many lawyers, “diligent search and inquiry,” you had better make darned sure that there was indeed a search and inquiry, and that it was in fact diligent. It’s a subject we’ve talked about here before.
Expect the chancellor to inquire behind the affidavit before granting any relief. I always do, and I do not accept a shrug of the shoulders or a couple of half-hearted attempts. In one case before me the woman claimed that the last she knew of her husband he was hanging out at a bar in Wayne County. I asked whether she had gone there to inquire about him. When she said “no,” I ordered her to go to the bar and ask the bartender and some of the habitués whether they knew his whereabouts. Wonder of wonders, she found him and he was personally served.
In the case of Lottie Woods, based solely on what I read in the COA opinion, I would have found that her claim in a pleading intended to influence a judge that she was the sole and only heir when she had living siblings in the area and Cornelius’s son was still alive to have been a fraud on the court. As it was, her “oversight” has cost all of these parties more than five years of wasted time in litigation, and they are returning to the starting line, probably poorer for the trial and appeal attorney fees, and surely not thrilled with the legal process. If only Lottie had sworn truthfully …