Deference to the Chancellor’s Findings of Fact
January 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
Language along the following lines opens the great majority of appeals from chancery court rulings:
“We employ a limited standard of review on appeals from chancery court. Miller v. Pannell, 815 So. 2d 1117, 1119 (¶9) (Miss. 2002). We will not disturb the factual findings of a chancellor so long as the chancellor’s findings were supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, or applied an erroneous legal standard. Biglane v. Under The Hill Corp., 949 So. 2d 9, 13-14 (¶17) (Miss. 2007). ‘We use a de novo standard when analyzing questions of law.’ Id.”
Indeed, that is the very language of the COA’s decision in the case of Legacy Hall of Fame, Inc., et al. v. Transport Trailer Service, et al., decided January 21, 2014. In that case, Judge Fair’s opinion for the majority affirmed the chancellor’s ruling denying Legacy’s claim that its officer was non compos mentis when he executed a contract for the corporation. Judge Fair stated in response to the appellant’s argument that the chancellor had failed to give proper weight to the testimony of its witness, Dr. White, on the issue of competence:
¶21. This Court’s “standard of review is indeed deferential, as we recognize that a chancellor, being the only one to hear the testimony of witnesses and observe their demeanor, is in the best position to judge their credibility.” In re Estate of Carter, 912 So. 2d 138, 143 (¶18) (Miss. 2005) (citing Culbreath v. Johnson, 427 So. 2d 705, 708 (Miss. 1983)).
¶22. The chancellor made it clear in his bench opinion that he was considering Dr. White’s testimony. We find that the chancellor was not clearly erroneous in finding that Legacy Hall did not overcome the presumption of competency. Therefore, we affirm the chancellor’s decision.
That same day the COA handed down its decision in the case of Borden v. Borden, affirming a chancellor’s award of custody to Mr. Borden based on an Albright analysis. The appellant argued that the chancellor was in error in how he analyzed the Albright factors, and in how he reached his conclusions based on the proof. Judge Roberts, for the majority, explained:
¶16. The record clearly shows that the chancellor carefully weighed each Albright factor, and he acted within his discretion when he held that six of those factors favored Shannon, as opposed to only one that favored Mary Jane. Although reasonable minds could weigh the evidence and reach different conclusions, the chancellor did not abuse his discretion when he applied the Albright factors. The dissent would reverse the chancellor’s judgment and award Mary Jane custody of the children, thus rendering a judgment in Mary Jane’s favor. With utmost respect for the dissent, our standard of review does not include reweighing the evidence or substituting our opinion for the chancellor’s. It is the chancellor’s responsibility to “hear the evidence, assess the credibility of the witnesses, and determine ultimately what weight and worth to afford any particular aspect of the proof.” Tritle v. Tritle, 956 So. 2d 369, 373 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). “Even if we would have given greater weight to different testimony, so long as substantial credible evidence supports the chancellor’s decision, we will not substitute our opinion for the chancellor’s.” Id. The chancellor could have certainly found that Mary Jane was evasive during her testimony as an adverse witness. We find no merit to Mary Jane’s claim that the chancellor awarded Shannon primary custody of the children as a means to punish her for her inappropriate conduct with other men or her false allegations of child abuse. Thus, we affirm the chancellor’s award of primary custody to Shannon.
That is the way it is supposed to work: as long as the chancellor’s findings are based on substantial credible evidence in the record, they should be undisturbed on appeal if they are based on a correct application of the law.
The MSSC requires the COA to review the chancellor’s findings and to make a determination whether the chancellors’decision was supported by substantial credible evidence. That necessitates an examination of the record and scrutiny of the trial judge’s findings. But it does not mean that the appellate court becomes a second-line chancellor making its own conclusions on the facts. That is the chancellor’s job. You might keep that in mind the next time you’re confronted with the decision whether to take an appeal from a chancellor’s findings of fact.