RULE 81 CLAIMS ANOTHER VICTIM

August 14, 2012 § 5 Comments

There are judges and lawyers who absolutely hate MRCP 81. I don’t know of anyone who really loves it. Most who don’t hate it just try to operate within its bounds, as they understand it, and go about their business.

There is a vast graveyard of legal shipwrecks on the shoals of Rule 81. The latest took a not unfamiliar, if long-delayed, route to disaster.

To make a long story short, the plaintiff filed a petition for partition in 2005, and issued MRCP 81 summons for the defendants. Some kind of proceeding took place in July after the defendants had been served, but no order was entered and no other action taken of record.

Five years later, with a different chancellor on the bench, the plaintiff awoke to the fact that the case was sitting idle. Realizing that one necessary defendant had never been served with process, the plaintiff issued process for her. She appeared in response, and the case was continued to a later date. When neither she nor any of the other defendants appeared on the later date the chancellor entered a judgment granting the plaintiff the relief he requested, a partition by sale.

The defendants filed an MRCP 59 motion arguing against the partition by sale, and complaining that they were not properly served with process. The chancellor overruled the motion, and the defendants appealed.

In Brown, et al. v. Tate, rendered August 7, 2012, the COA reversed and remanded the case because no order had been entered continuing the hearing on the the 2005 summons.

Here are a few learning points from the case you might want to consider:

  • If you continue your hearing, for whatever reason, from the date set in the MRCP 81 summons, be sure that you obtain an order of the court dated the day set for hearing in the summons, continuing it to another day certain. If you fail to do this, your process is dead, and you will have to start over.
  • If one or more defendants show up on the day set in the summons, make sure they sign off on your order of continuance, and make sure you give them a copy of the order.
  • Instead of just reciting that the case is continued to another day, include the following information in your order: (1) that all defendants were called in the courtroom and in the corridors of the court house; (2) name the defendants who did appear; (3) name the defendants who did not appear; (4) describe what actions were taken in court, if any; (5) the date, time, and place of the next hearing; (6) a statement that each defendant who appeared was provided with a copy of the order and that each understands that a judgment may be entered against them if thhey fail to appear at the next hearing; and (7) the signature of each defendant who appeared.
  • Ask the judge to add, in the continuation order, a requirement that each defendant file an answer before the date set for the continuation hearing. An answer to a Rule 81 matter is not required by the rules, but MRCP 81(d)(4) permits the court to require an answer ” … if it deems it necessary to properly develop the issues.” And “A party who fails to file an answer after being required to do so shall not be permitted to present evidence on his behalf.” By including the requirement for an answer in your continuance order, you are effectively setting up a default situation for those who do not answer.

This particular case is one that fell through the cracks and should have been scuttled by an MRCP 41(d) notice years before it resurrected itself. The doltish chancellor should have made that plaintiff’s lawyer start over when he came before the court with that old file. Oh, and lest you think I am being too harsh in referring to that judge as doltish, that judge was I.

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