MRCP 41(b) in Operation
September 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
The COA’s September 9, 2014, decision in In the Matter of Will of Bowling: Hicks v. Bowling, addresses a dismissal by the trial court of a will contestant’s complaint after she had rested in a bench trial.
The dismissal was per MRCP 41(b), which states, in pertinent part:
… After the plaintiff, in an action tried by the court without a jury, has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant, without waiving his right to offer evidence in the event the motion is not granted, may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. The court may then render judgment against the plaintiff or may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence …
The defendant, Mark Bowling, moved to dismiss at the conclusion of Paula Hicks’s case in chief, and the chancellor granted the motion. Paula appealed.
Judge Maxwell set out the applicable law:
¶18. In contrast to a motion for a directed verdict under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), which applies to jury trials and requires the trial judge to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss differs somewhat. It applies to cases tried by a judge sitting without a jury and requires the judge to view the evidence fairly. Gulfport-Biloxi Reg’l Airport Auth. v. Montclair Travel Agency, Inc., 937 So. 2d 1000, 1004 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (contrasting Rule 41(b) with Rule 50(a)). When considering a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss, the judge must deny the motion to dismiss “only if the judge would be obliged to find for the plaintiff if the plaintiff’s evidence were all the evidence offered in the case.” Id. at 1004-05 (¶13) (quoting Stewart v. Merchs. Nat’l Bank, 700 So. 2d 255, 259 (Miss. 1997)).
The standard, then, is for the court to consider the plaintiff’s evidence fairly, and to overrule the motion only if the judge would be compelled to rule in the plaintiff’s favor if her case in chief were all the evidence in the record. The court is not obliged to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, as in jury trials, but only fairly.
The COA went on to find that the chancellor had considered Paula’s evidence fairly, and agreed with the chancellor’s analysis of why she had not met her burden of proof in the case.
The distinction between viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff and viewing it fairly can be major. In the former, the judge must tilt the perspective, so to speak, in the plaintiff’s favor. In the latter, the view is more even-handed. Knowing the distinction and being able to apply it to the facts in your case could mean the difference between winning and losing your case on a R41(b) motion. Keep in mind, though, that nothing can save your case if you have not met your burden of proof. That means using those checklists and proving every applicable factor.