A Tragic Fraud on the Court
October 3, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s hard to imagine a legal proceeding more tragic and heart-wrenching than the setting aside of an adoption. Most chancellors go to extremes to ensure that there are no flaws in the proceeding that might jeopardize the finality of an adoption judgment.
In the recent MSSC case, Doe v. Smith, decided September 22, 2016, the chancellor entered an adoption judgment based on the natural mother’s statement in the Consent and in her sworn testimony that she was unaware of the natural father of her child, Matthew. Stan, the natural father, however, learned of the adoption and filed a R60(b)(6) motion to set the judgment aside for fraud. At the hearing on that motion, the natural mother, Katy, admitted on the witness stand that she had lied, the chancellor set aside the adoption judgment.The adoptive mother appealed. One of her grounds was that the chancellor erred in setting aside the judgment. Justice Maxwell, writing for a unanimous court, addressed the argument this way:
¶14. A fraud upon the court is an intentional misdeed that “vitiates a judgment” because “the court is misled and deceived” about the facts it relies upon when administering the law. Trim [v. Trim], 33 So. 3d [471,]at 477 (¶ 15) [(Miss. 2010)] (quoting Brown v. Wesson, 74 So. 831, 834 (Miss. 1917)). Rule 60(b)(6) gives judges broad authority to set aside judgments entered, resulting from such fraud. Trim, 33 So. 3d at 475 (¶ 7) (citing M.R.C.P. 60(b)(6) and Tirouda v. State, 919 So. 2d 211, 214 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)). However, to qualify as “fraud upon the court,” there must be exceptional and compelling circumstances and the deceptive act(s) must be material and extreme. Not just any falsity or misstep, even if intentional, is enough for relief.
¶15. “Relief based on ‘fraud upon the court’ is reserved for only the most egregious misconduct, and requires a showing of ‘an unconscionable plan or scheme which is designed to improperly influence the court in its decision.’” [Fn13] Wilson v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 873 F. 2d 869, 872 (5th Cir. 1989) (quoting Rozier v. Ford Motor Co., 573 F. 2d 1332, 1338 (5th Cir. 1978)). Mere nondisclosure of pertinent facts to the court “does not add up to ‘fraud upon the court’ for purposes of vacating a judgment under Rule 60(b).” Trim, 33 So. 3d at 477-78 (¶ 16) (quoting Kerwit Med. Prods., Inc. v. N & H Instruments, Inc., 616 F.2d 833, 836 n.8 (5th Cir. 1980)). Furthermore, the fraud must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Moore v. Jacobs, 752 So. 2d 1013, 1017 (Miss. 1999) (citing Stringfellow v. Stringfellow, 451 So. 2d 219, 221 (Miss. 1984)).
[Fn 13] See also In re Guardianship of McClinton, 157 So. 3d 862, 870 (¶ 17) (Miss.
2015) (Rule 60(b)(6) is a “catch all” provision for exceptional and compelling
circumstances) and Roberts v. Lopez, 148 So. 3d 393, 399 (¶ 12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (the substantial misrepresentation of facts on which a judgment is based constitutes a fraud on the court).
¶16. Here, the chancellor found Katy’s deceptive acts and omissions—which she admitted she knowingly made—met these high marks. Katy had filed a voluntary, sworn joinder and consent to Matthew’s adoption.[Fn 14] And in it, she represented she was unaware of Matthew’s biological father’s name, identity, or address. But under oath at the April 21, 2015, hearing, Katy admitted to lying about Matthew’s father’s identity in her consent. She also admitted she lied when testifying at Matthew’s adoption proceeding. She said she did so because she knew Stan would be a poor parent and caregiver.
[Fn 14] Under Mississippi Code Section 93-17-5, Katy was required to either provide her consent to the adoption or appear and contest it. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-17-5(1), (4) (Rev. 2013).
¶17. We have held that the effective administration of justice requires our chancellors have accurate financial information to distribute marital assets during divorce. See Trim, 33 So.3d at 477-78 (¶¶ 16, 17) (finding a party who filed a substantially false, statutorily required Rule 8.05 statement committed a fraud upon the court). So certainly, an intentional fraud aimed solely to circumvent a natural parent’s statutorily mandated consent [Fn 15] to an adoption undermines the effective administration of justice.
[Fn 15] See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-17-5(1), (4) (Rev, 2013).
¶18. The chancellor found that Katy knew who Matthew’s father was after the first
paternity test excluded her husband. And she withheld this information from the court and all parties involved. He held that Katy knowingly had misled the court and all parties through her testimony, affidavit, and nondisclosures regarding Matthew’s paternity.
¶19. And because the heart of Katy’s actions was designed to deceive the court, by lying about and omitting material facts to trick the court into granting a supposed uncontested adoption, the chancellor properly found that a fraud was committed upon his court. [Fn 16]
[Fn 16] The requirement that fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct be proved by clear and convincing evidence is moot here, since Katy admitted her fraud. See Moore v. Jacobs, 752 So.2d 1013, 1017 (¶ 18) (Miss. 1999).
There was nothing in the record to show that either the adoptive parents or their attorney knew of Katy’s false statements.
A few observations:
- Adoption proceedings underwent a change effective April 16, 2016. You need to familiarize yourself with those changes if you are going to handle any adoptions. This decision is under the old adoption procedure.
- The main thing to take away here is how easy it is for parties who are unencumbered by ethical considerations to lie when it suits them. As a lawyer you should be especially diligent and inquisitive when a natural mother claims not to know who was the father.
- This case underscores how ruinous a fraud on the court can be. Imagine the joy of the adoptive parents when they walked out of the courthouse with their new baby; and imagine their devastation when the child was taken away from them some nine moths later. That’s why lawyers should take extra care, as much as they can, to make sure that something like this does not happen.
A similar thing happened in my court. The mother signed a Consent stating that she did not know who was the natural father, and the adoption agency gave the child to the adoptive parents pending the adoption. Before the adoption could be presented, however, the natural father intervened and objected to the adoption. The adoptive parents conceded the inevitable and surrendered the child to the father.
Another issue raised on appeal was whether the natural father had standing to file a R60 motion in the case, since he was not a party. That’s a subject for another post.