Bluewater Again in the COA

February 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Only last week I posted about a COA decision in which the court cited the Bluewater Logistics case for the proposition that the trial judge’s verbatim adoption of a party’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law no longer triggers either heightened scrutiny nor less deference on the part of the appellate court.

That mention, in Carlson v. Brabham, was merely a comment by the court.

Then, last Tuesday, the COA actually had occasion to address the same principle raised in an appellant’s assignment of error.

In Stallings v. Allen, handed down February 9, 2016, Kenneth Stallings appeared pro se in response to a R81 pleading filed by Meeka Allen charging him with contempt and requesting an upward modification of child support. The chancellor rejected his request for a continuance and let the hearing go forward. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge ordered both sides to present proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which they did.

The chancellor adopted Meeka’s proposed findings, and, as a result, Kenneth was: found in contempt; ordered to provide dental insurance for his child; ordered to pay medical expenses; had judgments in excess of $6,500 assessed against him; and was ordered to pay attorney’s fees; and had his child support increased. All in all, it was not a particularly good day for Kenneth in court that day.

Kenneth appealed — again pro se — raising several issues, one of which was that it was error for the chancellor to adopt the other side’s proposed findings. Judge Barnes addressed Kenneth’s homemade argument:

¶11. Kenneth cites in support of his argument Rice Researchers Inc. v. Hiter, 512 So. 2d 1259 (Miss. 1987); [Fn 1] however, this case held, and the Mississippi Supreme Court has repeatedly reiterated, that “a trial court may adopt verbatim, in whole or part, the findings of fact and conclusions of law of a party.” Id. at 1266; Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 858 (Miss. 1994); Omnibank v. United S. Bank, 607 So. 2d 76, 82-83 (Miss. 1992). Such action is within the trial court’s discretion and is not “reversible error in and of itself.” Hiter, 512 So. 2d at 1265 (citations omitted). The usual standard of review applies: “This Court will not disturb the findings of the chancellor when supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor has abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or an erroneous legal standard was applied.” Thomas v. Scarborough, 977 So. 2d 393, 397 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (quoting Sanderson v. Sanderson, 824 So. 2d 623, 625-26 (¶18) (Miss. 2002)). Further, the “heightened scrutiny” standard cited by Meeka no longer applies. The supreme court has held “our duty requires us in every case to be as careful and as sensitive to error as we can be, and we cannot condone a standard that allows us to be less sensitive to error in one case than another.” Bluewater Logistics LLC v. Williford, 55 So. 3d 148, 156 (¶27) (Miss. 2011). The trial court’s reliance on the party’s findings will not be deemed error if substantial evidence exists to support those findings. Thomas, 977 So. 2d at 396 (¶10) (citing Sanderson, 824 So. 2d at 625-26 (¶8)).

[Fn 1] Kenneth also cites in support Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-7-87 concerning “circuit court” practice, but that code section was repealed in 1991.

¶12. Here, there was no procedural error for the chancery court to adopt verbatim Meeka’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. As stated in the past, “[t]his Court recognizes the complexities and nuances of individual cases, which in addition to crushing trial court caseloads necessitate substantial reliance upon the on submissions of trial counsel. Id. (citing Hiter, 512 So. 2d at 1266).

Aside from the fact that proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law are more work, I wonder why more lawyers don’t offer to do them. As I have posted here before, it can be an unequalled opportunity to write the final judgment in the case.

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