No Fraud, No Foul

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

A couple of days ago we discussed a case in which a natural mother falsely and fraudulently claimed not to know who was the father of her child, which led a chancellor to enter an adoption judgment that later had to be set aside for fraud on the court.

Fraud on the court was the issue in a recent COA case, but the result was different than that in the adoption case.

Ronald and Belinda Betts were divorced in 2011. Belinda later sued Ronald for contempt several times. In one of those proceedings, Ronald had omitted a debt on his financial statement, and the chancellor noted that such an omission “can amount to a fraud perpetrated on the court and contempt.

When Belinda filed a third contempt action against Ronald, he borrowed a page from the chancellor’s earlier admonition and claimed in defense that the divorce judgment entered the previous year should be set aside per R60(b)(6) because Belinda made a false representation to the court in her divorce-action financial statement by omitting her interest in some property she inherited jointly with her sister. Belinda countered that she did not know or believe the land to be her property at the time.

The chancellor overruled Ronald’s motion and found him in contempt for non-payment of amounts he was ordered to pay under the divorce judgment. Ronald appealed.

In Betts v. Betts, handed down September 13, 2006, the COA affirmed. Judge Griffis wrote for a unanimous court:

¶11. Ronald argues that Belinda’s failure to list the property on her Rule 8.05 financial statement constituted an intentional filing of a substantially false statement and fraud upon the court. Belinda contends that Ronald’s unclean hands bar him from relief.

¶12. Rule 60 provides in part:

(b) Mistakes; Inadvertence; Newly Discovered Evidence; Fraud, etc. On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or his legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the
following reasons:
. . . .

(6) any other reason justifying relief from the judgment.

“Rule 60(b)(6) provides a ‘catch-all’ provision under which relief may be granted in
exceptional and compelling circumstances, such as for fraud upon the court.” Trim v. Trim, 33 So. 3d 471, 475 (¶7) (Miss. 2010).

¶13. “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.’” Id. at 477 (¶15). “[S]imply failing to disclose essential facts to the proceedings to the adverse party or the court does not rise to the level of fraud. There must be a finding that the disclosure was intentional.” Finch, 137 So. 3d at 235 (¶23).

¶14. “[A] party’s intentional filing of a substantially false Rule 8.05 financial statement constitutes a fraud on the court.” Trim, 33 So. 3d at 478 (¶17). And “no time limit constrain[s] the chancellor’s ability to modify the divorce judgment to remedy the fraud on the court.” Id.

¶15. The following elements constituting intentional or fraudulent representation must be proven by clear and convincing evidence:

(1) a representation, (2) its falsity, (3) its materiality, (4) the speaker’s knowledge of its falsity or ignorance of its truth, (5) his intent that it should be acted on by the hearer and in the manner reasonably contemplated, (6) the hearer’s ignorance of its falsity, (7) his reliance on its truth, (8) his right to rely thereon, and (9) his consequent and proximate injury.

Id. at (¶19) (citing McCord v. Healthcare Recoveries Inc., 960 So. 2d 399, 406 (¶17) (Miss. 2007)).

¶16. The chancellor declined to set aside or modify the divorce decree after finding that Belinda did not intentionally mislead the court and that Ronald came to court with unclean hands after failing to disclose certain property rights on his Rule 8.05 financial statement. “[T]he trial court is best able to determine whether a fraud has been perpetrated upon it. As a result, the chancellor’s determination of the issue is entitled to great weight.” Tirouda v. State, 919 So. 2d 211, 216 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). “The credibility of the witnesses and the weight of their testimony, as well as the interpretation of evidence where it is capable of more than one reasonable interpretation, are primarily for the chancellor as the trier of fact.” Trim, 33 So. 3d at 479 (¶20).

¶17. The testimony from Belinda supports the chancellor’s conclusion that she did not know of her false representation to the court. She simply did not consider the property her own. She had not paid for the property, and she was not using the property for any purpose. The testimony showed that her mother currently or previously lived on the property, and Belinda considered it her parents’ land. Intentional or fraudulent representation requires that a representation be made, which the speaker knows to be false, with the intent that it should be acted on by the hearer. Fitch, 137 So. 3d at 235 (¶23).

¶18. Belinda’s conduct was not shown to be “the most egregious misconduct, . . . ‘an unconscionable plan or scheme which is designed to improperly influence the court in its decision.’” Trim, 33 So. 3d at 477 (¶15). And even though she failed to list the property in her Rule 8.05 financial statement, “simply failing to disclose essential facts to the proceedings to the adverse party or to the court does not rise to the level of fraud.” Finch, 137 So. 3d at 235 (¶23). “[A] party is not entitled to relief [under Rule 60(b)] simply because he is unhappy with a judgment.” McNeese v. McNeese, 119 So. 3d 264, 272 (¶20) (Miss. 2013).

¶19. Furthermore, Ronald himself failed to list mineral rights in his possession on his Rule 8.05 financial statement, leading the chancellor to find that Ronald came to court with unclean hands. “Mississippi’s chancery courts are courts of equity, and under the clean[-]hands doctrine, anyone that comes before ‘a court of equity . . . must do equity as a condition of recovery.’” Dill v. Dill, 908 So. 2d 198, 202 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). “This doctrine, in effect, prevents a complainant from petitioning the court to modify an original decree absent proof that said complainant has fully performed under the terms of the original decree or, in the alternative, that full performance thereunder has been wholly impossible.” Id. The chancellor noted: “Just as Belinda failed to disclose an asset at the time of their divorce, so did Ronald.”

¶20. This Court finds that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in denying Ronald relief under Rule 60(b). As such, the substantial evidence supports the chancellor’s discretionary ruling as the fact-finder.

Before you wade off into the shark-infested waters of R60 on a raft of fraud, make sure it is stout enough to support your case.

Not every omission of evidence amounts to a fraud on the court. This case is a good recitation of the law on the point. You should file it away for future reference.

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