JUDICIAL NOTICE

January 31, 2013 § 4 Comments

The COA’s decision in Riverview Development v. Golding Development, decided January 22, 2013, deals with an adverse possession controversy, but I want to focus on a minor aspect of the case that is widely misunderstood: Judicial notice.

Beginning at ¶12, Judge Fair’s opinion turns to an issue of judicial notice:

Remaining at issue is Riverview’s contention that the chancellor erred in finding that Golding held record title to the disputed property, because Golding’s deraignment of title was never entered into evidence during the trial. This record title formed the basis of the chancellor’s decision to quiet title in Golding. “It is an elementary proposition of law that in a cloud suit the complainant has the burden of proving his title and may not rely on the weakness of [his] adversary’s title.” Culbertson v. Dixie Oil Co., 467 So. 2d 952, 954-55 (Miss. 1985).

¶13. It is true that the supporting deeds were not entered into evidence during the trial, but they were submitted with Golding’s pleadings and are public records. Given that the deeds were duly recorded, we find no abuse of discretion in the trial court taking judicial notice of their existence under Rule 201(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Evidence. Under Rule 201, “[a] court may look to any source it deems helpful and appropriate, including official public documents, records and publications.” Enroth v. Mem’l Hosp. at Gulfport, 566 So. 2d 202, 205 (Miss. 1990).

In Enroth, the court stated:

The question then becomes, how the Court should go about the business of judicially noting these facts?

It is a cliche of judicial notice that a fact is not judicially noticeable by virtue of being known to the judge; conversely, the mere fact that the judge happens to be unacquainted with the fact of common knowledge should not bar him from taking judicial notice of it. This situation is likely to arise when a judge sits in another district and the fact to be noticed is a matter known only within the territorial jurisdiction of that court or where some local fact is to be noticed on appeal. But even where the judge thinks that he knows the fact to be a matter of common knowledge, it would be a salutary practice to check his understanding against other sources of information when this can be conveniently done…. 21 C. Wright & K. Graham, Federal Practice & Procedure: Evidence § 5108 at 513-14 (1977).

A court may look to any source it deems helpful and appropriate, including official public documents, records and publications. The Court is not limited by rules of evidence otherwise enforceable in judicial proceedings. Witherspoon v. State ex rel. West, 138 Miss. 310, 320, 103 So. 134, 136-37 (1925) said:

He may resort to … government publications, dictionaries, encyclopedias, geographies, or other books, periodicals and public addresses. ( citing, inter alia, Puckett v. State, 71 Miss. 192, 195, 14 So. 452, 453 (1893)). Nothing in Rule 201 casts doubt on Witherspoon.

In the case at bar, the Court recited and listed the sources it had considered and included among those (1) numerous newspaper articles discussing the nature, operation and funding of Memorial Hospital, (2) conversations with physicians, (3) conversations with the Chancery Judge’s own niece who was an employee at the hospital, (4) conversations with a lawyer not involved with this particular case but who was familiar with the matter, and (5) the fact that, before becoming Chancery Judge and in his prior capacity as a lawyer, he had been involved in a lawsuit regarding the hospital in which its legal status had been an issue. We hold these bases adequate that the Court may judicially know the factual components of the Hospital’s status.

The scope of the extra-judicial inquiry in the now nearly 23-year-old Enroth case seems somewhat breathtaking to these twenty-first-century eyes, but there it is, and I believe it is still good law in Mississippi.

Remember, of course, that the judge is required to allow any party to present evidence or otherwise answer the evidence created by judicial notice, but that is another issue.    

In Riverside, the chancellor took notice of the contents of the court file and relied on exhibits to the pleadings because, apparently, the lawyers had overlooked getting those crucial documents into evidence. Clearly, the best practice is to do it yourself, but Riverside and Enroth point another way to a solution.

THE RIGHT OF AN ADOPTED CHILD TO INHERIT FROM THE NATURAL PARENTS

January 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Consider this scenario:

Father and Mother One have a daughter together, whom we will call Daughter One. Mother One dies and Father is remarried to Mother Two. Father and Mother Two have a daughter together, whom we will call Daughter Two. Soon after Daughter Two’s birth, Father and Mother Two are divorced. Mother Two remarries, and her new husband, with Father’s consent, adopts Daughter Two. Father never remarries, has no more children, and dies intestate. Who are his heirs?

If you answered both Daughter One and Daughter Two, you are correct.

MCA 93-17-13 specifies that ” … the natural parents and natural kindred of the child shall not inherit by or through the child, except as to a natural parent who is the spouse of the adopting parent, and all parental rights of the natural parent, or parents, shall be terminated except as to a natural parent who is the spouse of the adopting parent.” Nothing in the statute precludes the adopted child from inheriting from the natural parents.

In Alack v. Phelps, 230 So.2d 789, 793 (Miss. 1970), the Mississippi Supreme Court held:

While the effect of a final decree of adoption is that the natural parent or parents will not inherit by or through the child, and all parental rights are terminated, Mississippi’s adoption law does not state in any shape, form or fashion that the right of the child to inherit from its natural parents is terminated. We think the intent of the legislature is clear; they intended for the child to continue to inherit from his or her natural parents.

2 C.J.S. Adoption of Children s 63(c) page 454 (1936) succinctly states the applicable law in this way:

‘In the absence of a statute to the contrary, although the child inherits from the adoptive parent, he still inherits from or through his blood relatives, or his natural parents. In view of the tendency of the courts to construe adoption statutes so as to benefit the child, as pointed out above in s 6 of this Title, and also, in in view of the fact that a statute severing the relation between parent and child is in derogation of common law and should for that reason be strictly construed, it has been held that an adoption statute providing that the natural parents shall be divested of all legal rights and obligations with respect to such child should not be construed so as to deprive the child of its right to inherit from or through its natural parents. Under such a statute it cannot be assumed that the adopted child cannot inherit from its natural parent unless there is an express legislative declaration to that effect.’

There is no express legislative declaration to that effect in Mississippi’s adoption law.

This issue was presented to me recently when a lawyer inquired whether an adoption decree that included the express language that the minor child ” … shall inherit from the natural father” would comport with the law. And, if so, would it then mean in the fact scenario set out above that Daughter Two would be included as an heir. Based on my research, I believe it does, whether the express language is included in the adoption decree or not. Don’t you agree that there are some implications here for intestate estates?

NAMING NAMES

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in Powell v. Crawley, handed down January 22, 2013, presents an opportunity to remind you of several aspects of name changes about which you need to be aware.

Christina Crawley gave birth to a baby daughter on January 29, 2010. The following day, Chase Powell, who was not married to Christina, signed two forms provided by the Mississippi Department of  Health. The first form was an acknowledgment of paternity. The second was a “Name of Child Verification Form,” which included the following language:

By my signature[,] I verify and agree that the [c]hild’s name as it appears in Item 1 of the birth certificate and Item 1 of [the verification form] is the name to be given to the child by the mother and I, and the name is spelled in accordance with our wishes.

The verification form also included the following statement:

The name given a child on the Certification of Live Birth establishes the legal identity of that child, and as such attention to the spelling of the name must be exercised. Traditionally, the [c]hild’s last name is the same as the [f]ather’s last name as listed on the Certificate of Live Birth, or, in cases where the mother is not married at any time from conception through birth and there is no “Acknowledgment of Paternity,” the [c]hild’s name is the legal last name of the mother at the time of birth. However, parents are not required to follow tradition and may name the child any name of their choosing.

Chase verified the child’s name as Carsyn Michelle Crawley.

Nine months later, Chase filed a complaint in chancery court seeking an adjudication of paternity, child support, and visitation. He also asked to change Carsyn’s surname to Powell. At hearing, the matter was presented solely by argument of counsel, who offered the forms described above for the court’s inspection.

The chancellor ruled that Chase had waived his right to have the child’s surname changed when he signed the verification form.

The COA affirmed the chancellor’s decision, but not for the reason assigned by the trial judge. Judge Irving, writing for the majority, said:

“We need not decide whether the chancery court abused it[s] discretion in refusing to grant the requested relief because, as stated, Powell failed to make the State Board of Health a respondent. Therefore, the chancery court could not have granted the relief even if it had wanted to. See Tillman v. Tillman, 791 So. 2d 285, 289 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (stating that it is the standard practice to affirm the trial court’s decision when the right result has been reached even if for the wrong reason).”

So here are a few nuggets to take away from this decision:

  • If you are seeking to change a person’s name only, then you proceed under MCA 93-17-1(1), which would obviously require in a case such as Chad Powell’s that the mother and father would be parties.
  • Another frequent cause of name changes is post-divorce, when the name change was not included in the divorce judgment and the petitioner wants a court order to get Social Security, driver’s license, retirement and other records straight. That kind of name change is also governed by MCA 93-17-1(1). It would be an ex parte action, since there is no other interested party.
  • If you wish to change the name on the birth certificate, then you proceed under MCA 41-57-23, which requires that you make the State Registrar of Vital Records a party. Typically, lawyers simply mail a copy of the complaint to the State Board of Health with a request for a response, and the agency will file an answer, most often either admitting the relief sought or leaving it up to the court. If you fail to make the agency a party, you can expect a result strikingly similar to Chad Powell’s.
  • MCA 93-17-1(2) allows the court to “legitimize” a child when the natural father marries the natural mother. Since that relief would include adding the father to the birth certificate, you should comply with MCA 43-57-23 and make the State Registrar of Vital Records a party.
  • There is a dearth of case law as to how the statutes authorizing establishment of paternity via acknowledgment interact with the statutes for parentage (paternity), child support, custody and visitation. If I were in practice, I think I would have advised Chase to file the parentage action as he did so as to open up all of the other relief incidental to being the father. Acknowledgment of paternity is only that; it does not confer visitation or custodial rights, does not set child support, and may even be set aside in certain conditions.
  • This decision sidestepped the question of the chancellor’s authority and scope of discretion in changing the child’s name. Since it is not res judicata as to the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, I would guess that Chase could file his suit again, this time making the agency a party. Maybe then we’ll get an answer.

DRINKING YOUR OWN TOXIC COCKTAIL

January 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

When you pursue litigation that you know is not meritorious, and you learn in discovery that you have no possible hope of prevailing, and you file an improper motion for recusal with false allegations against the court, you have concocted a toxic cocktail that, when consumed, will burn a deep hole in your pocketbook by way of sanctions. Need proof?

Consider the case of Sullivan and Stubbs v. Maddox, decided by the COA on January 22, 2013.

Sullivan, represented by his attorney, Stubbs (both collectively referred to as “Sullivan” in the COA opinion), filed suit in 2005 to confirm and quiet title to some property, based on a claim of adverse possession. His suit was prompted by the Maddoxes’ claim to the same property. When he initiated the suit, he obtained an injunction to keep the Maddoxes off of the property.

The suit apparently languished for years.

In April, 2011, the Maddoxes filed a motion for summary judgment taking the position that title to the property was vested in the United States, and that neither Sullivan nor Maddox had any claim to it by adverse possession because federal law prohibits adverse possession against the federal government.

Five days later Sullivan filed a motion asking the chancellor to recuse himself. The Maddoxes responded that the motion was untimely filed and was fatally defective for failure to include an affidavit setting forth the factual basis, both as set out in UCCR 1.11.

On May 3, 2011, the parties appeared before the court for a hearing on both motions, and the recusal motion was taken up first. Sullivan took the position that the chancellor should recuse because one of the Maddoxes’ attorneys had represented the judge’s court administrator’s husband in a criminal matter. The judge acknowledged the fact, as well as that Stubbs had represented the court administrator in a divorce action. He rejected both bases as causes to recuse, because neither would cause a reasonable person, knowing the pertinent facts, to doubt the court’s impartiality. The judge also found that the recusal motion failed to comply with UCCR 1.11 for the reasons assigned by the Maddoxes. 

In the course of presenting the motion, Stubbs attempted to make a proffer alleging an unreported campaign contribution to the chancellor. The charge had not been included in the motion to recuse, and there was no affidavit to support it.

The court went on to hear the motion for summary judgment. In his ruling, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of the Maddoxes. He stated in his opinion that Stubbs had disclosed to the court that he had warned Sullivan before he filed the suit that it was a weak case, that there was no government survey or patent out of the US to support his claim, and that there was no color of title. The judge also found that the unsubstantiated accusation against him was made as a threat by counsel, and he set a hearing date for possible sanctions.

The Maddoxes filed a motion for sanctions under MRCP 11 and the Litigation Accountability Act. Based on all of the proceedings to that point, as well as the record made on the motion, the chancellor assessed sanctions against Sullivan and Stubbs jointly, in the amount of $42,922.91. As the COA opinion, by Judge Carlton, stated at ¶11:

In sanctioning Sullivan and Stubbs, the chancellor specifically found that the following actions demonstrated frivolous pleadings had been filed and frivolous arguments had been made for the purposes of harassment and delay, without substantial justification, and with disrespect for the integrity of the court: (1) Stubbs’s admission that before commencement of the action he had advised Sullivan of the weakness of his claim to confirm and quiet title; (2) Sullivan and Stubbs’s failure to abandon the claim after their expert witness testified in his deposition that the United States had issued no patent for the subject property; (3) Sullivan and Stubbs’s failure to make any effort to determine the validity of the claim before raising it; and (4) the filing of an improper motion for recusal and false allegations against the court. The chancellor held that these various actions constituted a willful violation of Rule 11 and the Litigation Accountability Act, as well as Rule 8.2(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct (prohibiting a lawyer from making a statement that he knows to be false or making a statement with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge).

The COA affirmed the chancellor on all points.

The serious lesson to take from this case is that Rule 11 and the Litigation Accountability Act have bite. So do the Rules of Professional Conduct. MRCP 11 specifically states that an attorney’s signature on a pleading (and that includes not only initial complaints, but also all motions) “” … constitutes a certificate that … to the best of the attorney’s knowledge, information and belief there is good ground to support it, and it is not interposed for delay,” and goes on to provide for sanctions for its enforcement.

When in the course of a hearing you recklessly throw out unsubstantiated charges against the court, you are giving the judge no alterntive but to sanction you. To do otherwise the chancellor would be derelict in her duty to preserve the dignity and respect of the court, as provided in UCCR 1.01.

When you learn in the course of a lawsuit that it is not meritorious, and that there is no hope of prevailing, counsel your client to dismiss it. If your client will not cooperate, file a motion to withdraw, and do not put it off, because the judge can deny your motion if it would delay the trial, and you would then be at risk for sharing your client’s sanctions, if the court assesses them.

Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to drink that toxic cocktail that you yourself concocted.

APOCALYPSE NOW

January 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

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THE GREAT RESERVOIR OF EQUITABLE POWER

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

We talked here about the COA decision in Brown v. Weatherspoon, handed down November 6, 2012. That earlier post dealt with attorney’s fees.

There is another aspect of the case that warrants your attention. It has to do with MRCP 60(b)(6).

In the case at the trial level, Kenyader Weatherspoon had agreed to a court order, entered in 2002, adjudicating him to be the father of a child born to Serhonda Brown. In 2008, the opinion tells us, Weatherspoon agreed to DNA testing to determine parentage (the opinion is silent as to who prompted the testing, and why he agreed to it). The test results came in showing zero probability that he was the father, and five months later he filed a pleading seeking to set aside the prior judgment under MRCP 60(b)(6), which allows a court to relieve a party from a judgment for “any other reason justifying relief from judgment.” The chancellor set aside the judgment, and Brown appealed.

Judge Roberts’ opinion succinctly states the law that applies in this instance:

¶12. The chancellor granted Weatherspoon’s motion under Rule 60(b)(6). “Relief under Rule 60(b)(6) is reserved for extraordinary and compelling circumstances.” [MAS v. Miss. DHS, 842 So.2d 527.] at 530 (¶12). Rule 60(b)(6) has also been described as “grand reservoir of equitable power to do justice in a particular case.” Id. But it “is not an escape hatch for litigants who had procedural opportunities afforded under other rules and who without cause failed to pursue those procedural remedies.” Id.

¶13. In M.A.S., a man had consented to paternity of a child, but through DNA testing he later learned that he was not the child’s biological father. M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 528 (¶1). M.A.S. successfully moved to set aside the prior order of filiation. Id. at 529 (¶5). The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the decision to set aside an order of filiation and stated that M.A.S. was “the archetype for the application of Rule 60(b)(6).” Id. at (¶18). Despite the fact that the movant in M.A.S. had paid child support for ten years, the supreme court held that he had filed his Rule 60(b) motion within a reasonable time after he learned that he was not the child’s father. Id. at 530 (¶15). Brown notes that the movant in M.A.S. was seventeen years old when he signed a stipulated paternity agreement. Id. at 528 (¶3). Brown argues that this case is distinguished from M.A.S. because Weatherspoon was twenty-four when he signed the stipulated paternity agreement. But the M.A.S. court did not base any part of its rationale on the movant’s age.

¶14. Brown also claims Weatherspoon’s motion was untimely. A Rule 60(b)(6) motion is timely if it is filed “within a reasonable time.” M.R.C.P. 60(b)(6). “What constitutes reasonable time must of necessity depend upon the facts in each individual case.” M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 530 (¶14) (citation omitted). Relevant factors include whether the movant’s delay prejudiced the nonmoving party and whether there is a good reason for the movant’s delay. Id. According to Brown, Weatherspoon’s Rule 60(b)(6) motion was untimely because he filed it more than six years after he signed the stipulated paternity order. But the supreme court has held that the movant in M.A.S. timely filed his Rule 60(b)(6) motion even though he did so approximately nine years after he signed a stipulated paternity order. Id. at (¶13).

¶15. Weatherspoon did not definitively learn that M.B. was not his child until shortly after DNA testing was completed on March 19, 2008. The record does not indicate that Weatherspoon had earlier opportunities to seek DNA testing. He filed his Rule 60(b)(6) motion approximately five months later. Under the circumstances, the chancellor did not abuse her discretion when she implicitly found good cause for Weatherspoon’s delay. Moreover, Brown was not prejudiced by Weatherspoon’s delay. Although he had accrued unpaid child support, Weatherspoon paid Brown a significant amount of child support for a child who was not his.

¶16. “Consideration of a Rule 60(b) motion does require that a balance be struck between granting a litigant a hearing on the merits with the need and desire to achieve finality.” M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 531 (¶17) (citation and internal quotation omitted). Weatherspoon has been obligated to pay and has paid child support for someone else’s child. As the supreme court stated in M.A.S., “finality should yield to fairness here.” Id. Following M.A.S., we find that the chancellor did not abuse her discretion when she granted Weatherspoon’s Rule 60(b) motion. There is no merit to this issue.

“Finality should yield to fairness here.” Indeed.

When no other avenue for relief appears viable, consider Rule 60. There might just be a way to get what your client wants by using that rule, particularly (b)(6).

Remember, though, that the motion must be filed within a reasonable time, and it will not work where your client esszentially slept on his or her rights. You can read a dramatic example at this previous post, which did not involve Rule 60 per se, but which illustrates the ruinous effect of slumbering on one’s rights.

A COMPASS HEADING FOR DIVISION OF THE MARITAL ESTATE

January 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

In an equitable distribution case where there was a temporary order that provided for no support, is the date of that temporary order the demarcation line for purposes of classifying and valuing marital property?

Before we talk about how to answer the question, let me remind you that the the so-called demarcation line is important to delineate in an equitable distribution case. Depending on where the line is drawn, assets can increase or decrease by tens of thousands of dollars, or even lose value altogether, and your client who purchased a new pickup after the separation may be terribly chagrined to learn that his philandering estranged wife owns a part of it.

The line of demarcation is something we’ve talked about before here and here.

The general rule, in essence, is that marriage is deemed over for the purpose of classifying or valuing assets on entry of the final judgment, and any property or value acquired before that date is marital, unless there was a temporary order, in which event the date of the temporary order becomes the demarcation line. There are some exceptions in case law, but this is the general rule.

So, to get back to the original question, the COA confronted this very issue in the case of Mauldin v. Mauldin, decided January 15, 2013.  In this case, Jim and Donna Mauldin found themselves in equitable distribution. Jim had bought some assets after a temporary order was entered, and the judge nonetheless included them among the marital assets subject to division. The COA opinion, by Judge Irving, stated:

¶13. Although the divorce decree did not specifically state the date that the marriage ended for purposes of classifying marital and separate property, it is clear that the chancery court used the date of divorce rather than the date of the temporary order. As previously stated, absent the entry of a separate-maintenance or temporary-support order, marital property continues to accumulate until the date of divorce. Although the chancery court entered a temporary order in this case, the order did not provide for temporary support. Therefore, Jim and Donna’s marital assets continued to accumulate until the date of their divorce. Accordingly, even though Jim purchased his motorcycle and his truck after his separation from Donna, the chancery court properly classified these assets as marital property. Additionally, the increase in Jim’s retirement account since his separation from Donna is marital property because the increase occurred during the marriage. This issue is without merit. [Emphasis added]

This case underscores what I have pointed out before, that it can be a two-edged sword when you don’t get a temporary support order entered. Yes, your client gets to dodge the bullet of any temporary support, but the asset values, as well as the inventory of marital assets, continue to change, often not in your client’s favor.

Put some thought in the strategy and tactics you should best employ for the benefit of your client in these cases. What is best for one client will not be the same for another. Knowing the rule, you will be in a position to plot the best course. 

 

 

HOW WOULD YOU OVERHAUL MRCP 81?

January 22, 2013 § 6 Comments

Everyone who has had some experience with MRCP 81 has an opinion about it.

Most chancery lawyers and judges have come to grips with it over the years and have found ways to make it work. Some, however, have grown to hate it. Changing or eliminating the rule is a topic touched on and even seriously discussed at judges’ meetings.

If you could change Rule 81, would you? And, if so, how would you change it?

Every time I ask an opponent of the rule to catalog the objections and outline how it should be changed, I get fulmination, not recommendation. What I want to know is:

  • what do you perceive to be the problems with the rule?
  • what about it has caused you problems?
  • if it is not working in a particular district, why do you think that is?
  • if we were to eliminate the rule, how should we deal with short-notice matters like temporary hearings and the like?
  • does chancery court need its own, unique procedural rules?

There are other questions, I am sure, but those are a start.

I invite any lawyers or judges to comment on this, or, if you prefer, email me at primeauxl@yahoo.com.

This is not an idle exercise. I am on the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Rules, and I am hearing rumblings that this is a matter that will come up for discussion soon. I would appreciate as much input as I can get. Many of you tell me you read but don’t comment. This is a time for you to have your say.

January 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

State Holiday.

Court House closed.

 

“QUOTE UNQUOTE”

January 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.”  —  Sydney Smith

“Our salvation is in striving to achieve what we know we’ll never achieve.”  —  Ryszard Kapuscinski

“You can’t leave footprints in the sands of time if you’re sitting on your butt — and who wants to leave butt prints in the sands of time?”  —  Bob Moawad

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Where Am I?

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