Demoting General Relief

July 28, 2015 § 4 Comments

One of the chief distinctions between chancery and the law courts is that chancery is often called upon to be a problem-solving venue, as opposed to a place where one goes to obtain a money judgment against another.

And the chancellor’s authority to fix the situation can extend beyond the specific relief spelled out in the pleadings.

Many, many cases can come to mind to illustrate what I am talking about, but here are a couple:

  • A case in which there is an acrimonious battle over child custody. In the course of the trial, the proof develops that both of the parties are using the children as pawns and spies, and are downgrading the other parent to the children. The pleadings filed by each party asked only for custody. Is the chancellor precluded from addressing the deleterious conduct in her final judgment? Of course not. Chancellors often add an injunction against conduct like that, whether asked for in pleadings or not. That has been the practice in chancery as long as I have been around, and it should be.
  • Another example could arise in a land-line case. That type case is often characterized by property damage and atrocities, threats, and breaches of the peace (as, for instance in this COA case). Faced with evidence of such misconduct, can the chancellor deal with it even in the absence of an express prayer for relief? I think she should.

The principle embodied in those cases is why pleadings in chancery court typically include the ending phrase ” … and (s)he prays for general relief.” General relief flows out of the reservoir of equitable power that a chancellor can draw on to solve the problem, not just award money judgments. That is, after all, what equity was created for in the first place.

In the case of Redmond v. Cooper, 151 Miss. 771, 119 So. 592 (1928), the court had this to say about general relief:

“A prayer for general relief is as broad as the equitable powers of the court. Under it, the court will shape its decree according to the equities of the case, and, broadly speaking, will grant any relief warranted by the allegations of the bill, whether it is the only prayer in the bill, or whether there is a special prayer for particular and different relief; and defects in the special prayer are usually cured by a general prayer. If the facts alleged are broad enough to warrant relief, it matters not how narrow the specific prayer may be, if the bill contains a prayer for general relief. The prayer for general relief serves to aid and supplement the special prayer by expanding the special relief sought, so as to authorize further relief of the same nature. It may also serve as a substitute for the prayer for special relief, and authorize relief of a different nature when that specially prayed is denied.”

No doubt the above was what the chancellor had in mind in the course of legal proceedings between Denise Pratt and Darlene Nelson. Pratt had been making threatening phone calls to Nelson, and had been driving by her home at night. On one day, over the course of a few hours, Pratt sent Nelson 78 text messages, 38 telephone messages, 38 phone calls, and numerous voicemail messages, both via landline and cell phones. Nelson testified that Pratt used profanity and threatened that she and members of her household “would burn alive.” Nelson’s daughter was awakened by one of the calls, became frightened by what she heard, and fell while running to her mother, suffering an injury that required stitches in an emergency room.

Nelson filed a petition for an ex parte emergency domestic relations order in municipal court. Later, she filed a petition for a domestic abuse protection order in chancery court. In both instances, she used the forms provided by the Mississippi Attorney General, pursuant to MCA 93-21-1 through 33.

Trial before the chancellor commenced, but could not be completed within the time allotted. The case had to be continued to another day. The chancellor found the evidence to that point sufficient to support an injunction against Pratt prohibiting her from going within 1,000 feet of any party to or witness in the proceeding until the hearing could be concluded. After the hearing had been reconvened and the proof was concluded, the chancellor ruled from the bench, in part [quoting from Fn 6 of the COA’s opinion cited below]:

“… people are entitled to be left alone. . . . I’m going to keep the restraining order that I set in place at the close of the plaintiff’s case. But I am going to up [the penalty] to $10,000 upon a . . . valid showing of violation of the restraining order that I entered against you, Mrs. Pratt. . . . I think that’s reasonable. . . . I see a pattern of how this has taken place. . . . It’s [been an] ongoing controversy . . . for quite some time.” When Pratt’s counsel asked if the order was granted under the Domestic Abuse Protection Act or under Rule 65, the chancellor responded that he was granting it under the “Chancery Court Rules, . . . a temporary restraining order [under Rule] 65(b), whether it is asked for or not, because that would be general relief.”

Pratt appealed, complaining that the chancellor had erred in issuing an injunction per MRCP 65 when a protective order under the statute should have been issued instead. The COA agreed with her and reversed and rendered in Pratt v. Nelson, decided July 21, 2015.

I can’t disagree with the COA’s conclusion that the chancellor in this particular case went beyond the scope of the domestic-violence statute and the limits of the relief that it allows. What gives me pause, though is that the underlying problem here remains unresolved. The chancellor was there to solve or at least address the problem, which appears from the record to have been serious. He tried to do that via general relief, and, from my reading of the case law, he was within the scope of that authority. The cases on general relief and its parameters are, for the most part, old cases, dating as far back as the 1880’s and into the 1970’s. But that does not indicate that the concept is dead. In Bluewater Logistics, LLC v. Williford, 55 So.3d 148 (Miss. 2011), the MSSC upheld a chancellor’s award of equitable relief against defendants where it had not been expressly pled, but the relief was justified and supported by the evidence.

It seems to me that, ever since the MRCP for the most part did away with entirely different procedures in chancery and the law courts, the appellate courts have been viewing equity in a more limited way, rather than in the expansive view that cases like Redmond employed. It seems that the appellate courts want equity to operate within rigid, prescribed parameters like the law courts, rather than in a more fluid, problem-solving fashion.

When we restrict a chancellor’s power to craft an adequate solution to a human situation in which lives, property, money, and relationships are involved, we can put all of those at risk in the name of proper procedure. Surely no reasonable person wants that kind of result. That’s why we have “general relief” and chancery courts in the first place.

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