SCENE IN MISSISSIPPI

September 28, 2012 § 7 Comments

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ADOPTION IS FOREVER

September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Most attorneys who have been in practice any appreciable length of time have been confronted with this scenario: maternal grandma and grandpa want to adopt junior because momma and daddy are only 19 years old, prefer meth and weekend partying to raising the tad and are willing to “sign the papers,” and everyone agrees it would be best for junior, all things considered.

That’s pretty much what happened in the case of D.M. v. D.R., 62 So.3d 920 (Miss. 2011). The young parents relinquished their parental rights, and the maternal grandparents adopted the child by decree entered December 25, 2005. Unfortunately, the adoptive father (maternal grandfather) died four months to the day after the adoption, and the adoptive mother (maternal grandmother) died eight months to the day after the adoption. The adoptive mother had named her son as testamentary guardian of the child, but he renounced the appointment.

The court appointed a guardian ad litem, who recommended that the child be placed in the custody of the paternal grandparents. The natural mother attempted through various pleadings and proceedings to get custody of the child, but the chancellor ruled that she had abandoned the child by virtue of her consent to the adoption, and that she no longer was entitled to the natural parent presumption.

In upholding the chancellor’s ruling, the court quoted from its decision in Griffith v. Pell, 881 So.2d 184, 187-188 (Miss. 2004):

A parent has a constitutionally protected liberty interest in the “companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children.” Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed.2d 551 (1972). However, parental status that rises to the level of a constitutionally protected liberty interest does not rest solely on biological factors, but rather, is dependent upon an actual relationship with the child where the parent assumes responsibility for the child’s emotional and financial needs. As Justice Stewart observed in Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380, 99 S.Ct. 1760, 60 L.Ed.2d 297 (1979) [Stewart, J., dissenting]: “Parental rights do not spring full-blown from the biological connection between parent and child. They require relationships more enduring.”

The court went on to hold that the mother had voluntarily relinquished her parental rightt when she consented to the adoption, and that act surrendered the natural parent presumption. Grant v. Martin, 744 So.2d 817, 820 (Miss.App. 1999). The court rejected the mother’s argument that she was entitled to reinstatement of the natural parent presumption on death of the adoptive parents. In conclusion, the court stated:

An adoption, once entered, acts as an irrevocable surrender of all rights, obligations and privileges of the natural parent with and to the child. This surrender is not invalidated upon the deaths of the adoptive parents, and the natural parent is not entitled to resume the parent-child relationship, including the right to assert the natural parent presumption, upon the occurrence of that event.

You would do well to explain to all the parties at the table, including the natural parents, what they are giving up and what they are getting in such an arrangement. If I were doing it, I would get the natural parents to sign a paper for my file indicating that they understand they are giving up all rights, including the natural parent presumption and the right to regain custody in the future.

THE INS AND OUTS OF CONTEMPT

September 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

Last week’s Corr v. State decision from the MSSC is a reminder that there are some intricacies to contempt that we should all be aware of as we go about our business in chancery court.

Contempt can be either civil, or criminal, or a combination of both.

  • Civil contempt is for the benefit of the complaining party, and its purpose is remedial. An example is where the respondent owes child support and is jailed until he can come up with what he owes. The remedy is coercive and is intended to produce compliance. The burden of proof is by a preponderance of evidence.
  • Criminal contempt is intended to vindicate the authority of the court. The sentence is punitive.
  • The two types of contempt may be used in combination, as where the court orders the respondent jailed until he pays the amount due, and the court sentences him to thirty days as a punishment for non-compliance.

Civil contempt may be tried on seven days’ notice by Rule 81 summons.

Criminal contempt under Mississippi law may be either direct or indirect. The distinction determines what kind of due process notice is required.

  • Direct criminal contempt involves words or actions in the presence of the court that are an affront to the authority or dignity of the court. Conduct such as insulting language or behavior, resistance to the court’s authority, disruption of the proceedings and the like may be treated as direct contempt.  The court may act instantly to punish the contemnor because no evidence other than the judge’s own perception is necessary to sustain sanctions. In the alternative, the court may wait until later in the proceedings, at a break or at the end of a hearing, to address the misconduct.
  • Indirect, or constructive, criminal contempt is contemptuous conduct that takes place outside the presence of the court which resists the court’s authority and tends to obstruct, interrupt or embarrass the administration of justice.

Direct contempt may be dealt with immediately, summarily, and without further notice to the contemnor. Some authorities suggest that, if the court delays action, the judge should recuse herself if the contempt is based on personal attacks.  

In cases of indirect, or constructive, criminal contempt, the defendant: (1) is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) is entitled to resonable notice of the nature and cause of the accusation; (3) has a right to be heard; (4) has a right to retain counsel; (5) has the right to call and cross-examine witnesses; (6) has the right to an unbiased judge; (7) has the right to a jury trial; and (8) has the right against self-incrimination. Dennis v. Dennis, 824 So.2d 604, 609 (Miss. 2002). If the judge, as in Corr, is substantially involved in the prosecution, as where he is instrumental in initiating the proceeding, or where he acts as prosecutor and judge, he should recuse himself and have the actual contempt hearing conducted by another judge. 

When you draft contempt pleadings, give some thought to what it is you are trying to accomplish. If all you are trying to do is to get the ex-husband to pay his child support, civil contempt may do the job for you. It only requires a preponderance of evidence, as opposed to the heavier burden for criminal contempt. If you insist on criminal contempt, look carefully at Dennis and its requirements. Do you really want to strap them on? Are they really in your client’s best interest? When you insist on criminal contempt, you are affording the defendant Fifth Amendment self-incrimination protection, the higher burden of proof, and even right to a jury trial (this applies in cases where the aggregation of penalties would result in a sentence that would require Sixth Amendment protection. McGowan v. State, 258 So.2d 810, 802 (Miss. 1972); Purvis v. Purvis, 657 So.2d 794, 798 (Miss. 1995); Walls v. Spell, 722 so.2d 566, 574 (Miss. 1998)).  

If you simply can not resist the urge to rattle the incarceration saber, be sure to acquaint yourself with the US Supreme Court decision in Turner v. Rogers.

WINNING THE EXPERT BATTLE AND LOSING THE WAR

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

You fight like the devil to get the trial judge to rule that your experts are qualified, and that they meet the criteria of MRCP 702 and Miss. Transportation Commission v. McLemore, 863 So.2d 31, 38 (Miss. 2003). The judge has done her job as gatekeeper, has found all to be well, and has let you get that expert testimony into the record. So you’re home free, right? Smooth sailing from here on out, right?

Not so fast, my friend (apologies, if any due, to Lee Corso).

Your little lawsuit sloop may still run aground.

That’s what happened in Ballard Realty, et al. v. Ohazurike, et al., decided by the MSSC on September 6, 2012. There, the court reversed the trial court’s ruling that allowed three different experts to offer testimony that quantified damages. The appellate court’s ruling found that one expert based her testimony on ” … insufficient and faux  facts and data, not the product of reliable principles and methods, properly applied … ” and found that the trial judge had abused his discretion in admitting her testimony. Another expert was found by the MSSC not to be qualified, and his testimony was improper and irrelevant to damages. The third expert’s testimony was found to be unreliable. While they were at it, the MSSC also threw out the unqualified lay opinion testimony of another witness, characterizing his testimony as ” … not a fact, but an inadmisssible opinion based on wishful thinking.”

The ouch factor in this case, as we have posted about it before, is that it reversed a jury verdict in excess of $3.5 million.

The lesson here is to keep in mind that as much as you want to win your case, you have to make sure that the experts you use are qualified, that their testimony is, indeed, relevant, that it is based on sufficient facts and data, that it is based on reliably certain principles and methods, and that the experts have applied the methods and principles reliably to the facts in your case. It’s your job to make sure that all of these factors are established without fail in the record. The mere fact that you convince the trial judge to let you proceed without satisfying all the criteria may win you the (trial) battle, but it will more than likely lose you the (appeal) war.

TRIAL BY CHECKLIST: UPDATED ALIMONY FACTORS

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

The 12 Armstrong factors have long been the decisive authority to be applied by the court in making its determination as to the type, amount, and reasonability of alimony. In the recent COA case of Pecanty v. Pecanty, decided September 18, 2012, however, Judge Fair’s opinion cited (at ¶25) to the 2002 Davis v. Davis case, 832 So.2d 492, 497, where the MSSC laid out 17 factors. Here’s the pertinent language from Davis:

In determining whether to make an award of periodic alimony, the following factors must be considered: (1) the health of the husband and his earning capacity; (2) the health of the wife and her earning capacity; (3) the entire sources of income and expenses of both parties; (4) the reasonable needs of the wife; (5) the reasonable needs of the child; (6) the necessary living expenses of the husband; (7) the estimated amount of income taxes the respective parties must pay on their incomes; (8) the fact that the wife has the free use of the home, furnishings and automobile; (9) the length of the marriage; (10) the presence or absence of minor children in the home; (11) the standard of living of the parties, both during the marriage and at the time of the support determination; (12) fault or misconduct; (13) wasteful dissipation of assets; (14) the obligations and assets of each party; (15) the age of the parties; (16) the tax consequences of the spousal support order; and (17) such other facts and circumstances bearing on the subject that might be shown by the evidence. Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So.2d 909, 912 (Miss.1994); Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278, 1280 (Miss.1993); Hammonds v. Hammonds, 597 So.2d 653, 655 (Miss.1992); Brabham v. Brabham, 226 Miss. 165, 84 So.2d 147, 153 (1955). In determining the amount of support payable to the wife, a chancellor must consider “not only reasonable needs of wife but also right of husband to lead as normal a life as reasonably possible with a decent standard of living.” Massey v. Massey, 475 So.2d 802, 803 (Miss.1985); Hopton v. Hopton, 342 So.2d 1298, 1300 (Miss.1977) (quoting Nichols v. Nichols, 254 So.2d 726, 727 (Miss.1971)).

The Davis factors expand on the Armstrong factors in several significant ways:

  • In addition to “the reasonable needs of the parties,” the court is to consider the reasonable needs of the child. This is significant because it opens the door to evidence about the impact that a child has not only on the expense and availability of child care, as set out in Armstrong, but also to the other needs of the child above and beyond child support, and how those needs impact the alimony recipient’s living expenses.
  • In addition to the Armstrong “tax consequences of the spousal support order,” Davis directs the court to consider the amount of income taxes the respective parties must pay on their incomes. Under Davis, the trial court must address not only the tax consequences, such as deductability, but also the availability of refunds, deductions, exemptions and other factors that influence income taxes upward or downward.
  • The fact that “the wife” (read “payee”) has free use of the home, furnishings and automobile is included as a factor. Granted, it has long been the law in Mississippi that those items are considered as part of the spousal support package, but the inclusion as a factor to be considered promotes it to a higher level of consideration.

It can be argued that Davis does not really add anything new to Armstrong. That may be so, and most attorneys, in presenting their Armstrong proof cover the same bases (except for income tax proof, which lawyers rarely touch on) for the most part. Still, I think it’s worth adding these to your portfolio of useful checklists. After all, in affirming the chancellor in Pecanty, Judge Fair noted with favor that she ” … addressed the seventeen factors set out in Davis … ” If he (and the rest of the COA) considered them noteworthy, we would be wise to do the same.

“QUOTE UNQUOTE”

September 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” – Patrick Henry

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Liberty cannot be caged into a charter or handed on ready-made to the next generation. Each generation must recreate liberty for its own times. Whether or not we establish freedom rests with ourselves.” – Florence Ellinwood Allen

THE PRICE OF FAILING TO GIVE A COMPLETE ANSWER TO THE EXPERT INTERROGATORY: $3,603,712

September 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

What is the price of numerous discovery violations, including failure to make timely disclosure of the substance of the expert’s expected testimony and failure to supplement seasonably?

In Ballard Realty, et al. v. Ohazurike, et al., decided September 6, 2012, the MSSC reversed a jury verdict of $3,602,712 for those very failures on the part of the plaintiffs to designate their expert properly and give a complete answer to the expert witness interrogatory.

The Ohazurikes had designated a witness, Dr. Glover, and answered the rest of the usual expert interrogatory that their expert was …

 expected . . . to testify to all things in her evaluations and opinions regarding the valuation of the lost income of the Plaintiffs and as to other things regarding the present value calculations and potential economic value and profitability of Plaintiffs company Upstart Games and the lost value of Plaintiff’s damages intellectual property board games.

The Ohazurikes attached a copy of the expert’s curriculum vitae (CV) as an exhibit to their designation of experts and added that “[a] copy of Dr. Glover’s report will be forwarded once it is received.” It was not until only five days before trial, on morning of the day that the expert was to be deposed that the report was received by opposing counsel. That report for the first time disclosed that the expert expected to project damages in excess of $15 million.

The defendants did file various motions with the court to try to get the expert testimony excluded, and they did object at trial based on the discovery violations, all to no avail. There was no other evidentiary basis in the record other than this particular expert’s testimony to support the $3 million-plus verdict, which the supreme court reversed.

Justice Randolph’s opinion explained:

¶14. We find that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Glover to testify despite numerous discovery violations, including failure to timely disclose the substance of Glover’s expected testimony and to seasonably supplement discovery responses, and allowing the witness to give previously undisclosed testimony at trial. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(4) provides that “[a] party may through interrogatories require any other party to [1] identify each person whom the other party expects to call as an expert witness at trial, [2] to state the subject matter on which the expert is expected to testify, and [3] to state the substance of the facts and opinions to which the expert is expected to testify and [4] a summary of the grounds for each opinion.” Miss. R. Civ. Proc. 26(b)(4)(A)(i). Additionally, Rule 26(f) provides that “a party who has responded to a request for discovery with a response that was complete when made . . . is under a duty  seasonably to supplement that party’s response with respect to any question addressed to . . . the subject matter on which [a person expected to be called as an expert witness] is expected to testify, and the substance of the testimony.” Miss. R. Civ. Proc. 26(f). We have provided that “[t]he failure seasonably to supplement or amend a response is a discovery violation that may warrant sanctions, including exclusion of evidence.” Hyundai Motor Am. v. Applewhite, 53 So. 3d 749 (Miss. 2011) (citation omitted)

¶15. The Ohazurikes failed to comply with Rule 26. In their original designation of experts, they named Glover as an expert witness and identified the subject matter of her opinions, but failed to state the substance of the facts and opinions to which she was expected to testify or to provide a summary of the grounds for her opinions. Ohazurikes did not provide the Defendants with the substance of Glover’s opinion until the morning of her deposition, five days prior to trial. The Ohazurikes’ disregard for the rules of discovery continued to trial, when they violated Rule 26(f) by introducing for the first time a new opinion without having amended or supplemented their discovery responses. In Hyundai Motor America v. Applewhite, 53 So. 3d 749 (Miss. 2011), we provided that, where a party had failed to amend or supplement its discovery responses with material changes to an expert’s opinion, the trial court’s refusal to grant any relief was an abuse of discretion warranting reversal, because “[w]e do not condone trial by ambush. [The defendant] was entitled to full and complete disclosure of the plaintiffs’ expert testimony. . . .” Hyundai, 53 So. 3d at 759. The introduction of an entirely new lost-profits estimate clearly was a material change to Glover’s opinion, of which the Defendants were entitled to full and complete disclosure seasonably before trial. We refuse to condone the Ohazurikes’ failure to comply with discovery requirements. Accordingly, we find that the trial court’s refusal to grant the Defendants any relief for the Ohazurikes’ failure to comply with the mandates of Rule 26 was an abuse of discretion and, combined with other errors to be discussed infra, warrants reversal.

Those “other errors” will find their way into another post.

Experts appear often in chancery. They testify to the matters like the best interest of children, parties’ and children’s mental and physical health, land lines, valuations, damages, surveys, handwriting, water flow, investments, and on and on. Usually, when an expert is involved, there is a lot at stake, either emotionally or financially, or both.

I have not seen many disputes over the adequacy and/or timing of the expert disclosures. When they happen, though, the results can be cataclysmic. And when they are not cataclysmic at trial, they can turn out to be up the line, as the Ohazurikes learned.

I have refused to allow an expert to testify who was not timely designated 60 days before trial per UCCR 1.10. I even refused to allow an expert to testify where there was no answer at all to the expert interrogatory (the actual answer was to the effect that “None at this time. Timely supplementation will be made.” It wasn’t). But I have not yet had to weigh the adequacy of the substantive questions.

Read this case closely for what it can teach you about what won’t cut it as an expert-witness response, as well as what it can teach you about how to make a record of objections that will do the job on appeal.

BREAKING NEWS ON MEDICAID CLAIMS

September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

In a recent estate in this district, the Medicaid Commission took the position that if the decedent claimed homestead on a parcel of property, and was survived  by a spouse, one or more children or one or more grandchildren, then Medicaid would release its entire claim, regardless whether the property is worth more than the $75,000 statutory exemption.

In this particular case, the estate’s only asset was the homestead property. The lawyer representing the administrator called the Medicaid Commission to try to negotiate a reduction of its $110,000 claim and advised the commission’s staff attorney that the value of the homestead exceeded $75,000. The staff attorney replied that if the decedent was survived as set out above then Medicaid would release its claim, regardless of the value of the homestead.

Up to now, I had understood that Medicaid would release its claim only to the first $75,000, and would pursue its claim above that amount. In the situation cited above, I would have thought that Medicaid would try to pursue its claim to the $35,000 above the homestead exemption.

If this case does, indeed, indicate a shift in policy, you can be in a position to save your clients in estate matters considerable money simply by making a telephone call to the Medicaid Commission.

CAVEAT: Don’t take this post as authority to do anything. Call the Medicaid Commission yourself and get it from them what their position is with respect to your client’s situation.

If you handle any probate matters at all, you need to be familiar with the exemption statutes and understand how they affect the matters you handle. A helpful post on the topic is here. Not claiming exemptions can cost your clients thousands. Clients love lawyers who can save them thousands.

CONSTITUTION WEEK

September 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

It was 225 years ago this week, on September 17, 1787, that the Constitution of the United States was adopted and sent to the various states for ratification. It would take three years after that to achieve ratification by the requisite nine states.

The convention, which met in secret in the Pennsylvania State House, took 100 days to produce what is the organic law of our nation. That three and a half months was filled with drama, rancor, conflict, backroom negotiations and masterful compromise.

Of the fifty-five delegates who were elected to the convention 34 were lawyers, 8 had signed the Declaration of Independence, and almost half were Revolutionary War veterans. The remaining members were planters, educators, ministers, physicians, financiers, judges and merchants. About a quarter of them were large land owners and all of them held some type of public office (39 were former Congressmen and 8 were present or past governors).

Of the 55 elected delegates, only forty-two attended most of the meetings, and of those thirty-nine actually signed the Constitution. Nineteen of the members who were chosen to represent their state never attended a meeting, some because their state would not or could not pay their expenses, some due to health, and some for political reasons. Patrick Henry, although elected, refused to attend because he “smelt a rat.”  Three members, Edmond Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts refused to sign, primarily due to the lack of a bill of rights.

The durability of the Constitution is itself a marvel. It has been effect for more than 220 years, longer than any other instrument of its kind. And its original form has proven durable as well. Although more than 11,000 amendments have been introduced in Congress, only thirty three have gone to the states to be ratified and only twenty seven have received the necessary approval from the states to actually become amendments to the Constitution.

The genius of the Constitution’s balance of powers and protection of individual rights has long been recognized. Many states and foreign governments emulate the Constitution in their own organic law.

To me, though, the genius of the Constitution lies in how it came about. It was the product of intensive negotiation and clever compromise. No one who came into the convention left with all he wanted to achieve, and everyone had to give some ground. The crafting of this greatest article of law is a model for the way that all law coming in its wake should be crafted.

If you’re looking for an entertaining read on the subject, I recommend David O. Stewart’s The Summer of 1787, a brilliant account of the proceedings and the personalities of the participants.

REASONABLENESS AND ATTORNEY’S FEES IN CONTEMPT

September 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

In the COA case of Bowen v. Bowen, decided September 11, 2012, the court reversed and remanded the chancellor’s award of $10,000 fees in a case where the judge found the defendant in contempt. It was not the award of fees that the COA questioned, but rather the amount and reasonableness.

As we have mentioned here before, inability to pay is not a threshhold issue to an award of attorney’s fees based on contempt. In a contempt case, attorney’s fees may be awarded where a party’s intentional conduct causes the opposing party to spend time and money needlessly. 

Judge Ishee’s opinion in Bowen points out that the determination whether a fee is reasonable depends on consideration of Mississippi Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(a) and the McKee factors. He said:

” … even in contempt actions, “[t]he reasonableness of attorney’s fees [is] controlled by the applicable [Rule] 1.5 factors and the McKee factors.”   … 

¶25. When awarding Patricia attorney’s fees, the chancery court stated:

‘Although [John] has attempted to purge himself of his contempt by bringing the child support and medical insurance payments current, . . . the [c]ourt is going to assess [John] with attorney’s fees incurred by [Patricia]. If not for [John’s] repeated, willful refusal to abide by the orders of this court, [Patricia] would not have incurred the attorney’s fees, which the court finds to be reasonable and [to] meet all of the McKee factors.

There is no indication the chancery court adequately considered the McKee factors when assessing the reasonableness of the attorney’s fees. There was no consideration regarding the parties financial abilities, the novelty and difficulty of the question at issue, or the assessment of the charges.

¶26. The case at hand appears to be a routine contempt action. While large awards for attorney’s fees may still be awarded in contempt actions, they are not typical for a routine contempt action. … Here, an award of $10,000 appears excessive for a routine contempt action in which only $135 in child support remains unpaid. Furthermore, upon a review of the fees incurred, some charges relate to matters outside of the contempt action, such as modification of child support. Because the attorney’s fees were awarded based on John’s ‘repeated, willful refusal to abide by the orders of [the chancery court],’ fees not related to the contempt action should not have been included in the award amount awarded.”

I’ve made the point here before that …

Notwithstanding the more relaxed standard for contempt and misconduct cases, I encourage you to put on proof of the McKee factors and documentation of your time in the case, so that it is in the record if you need it. A post on what you need to prove attorneys fees is here.

Most attorneys in my opinion do not devote much attention or care to making a record on attorney’s fees. That’s ironic, because you would think it would be a subject of sublime importance to the trial attorney.

Here’s a post about how to prove attorney’s fees in a divorce case. It’s more elaborate than the minimum required in a contempt, but it will give you an idea of what is involved in making a record that won’t spring a fatal leak.

 

 

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