Preserving the Unexpected as an Issue for Appeal

December 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Andrea and Thomas Taylor went to chancery court in a dispute over college-education language in the PSA that accompanied their 2003 divorce. Andrea took the position that it did not address college education tuition and expenses for their son, Austin. Thomas claimed that the agreement did address the issue, and he sued Andrea for contempt, demanding that she contribute to the more than $70,000 that Austin had incurred as student loans pursuing a commercial aviation degree at Delta State.

The chancellor did find that the PSA obligated both parents to contribute equally to their son’s college education expenses, and he found that those expenses totalled $61,136. He then ordered each party to pay $30,568 toward the judgment.

Here is where things get a little weird. The chancellor rendered the judgment not in favor of Thomas, and certainly not in favor of Andrea. The chancellor awarded the judgment to Austin, who was not a party; no one had requested that relief.

Andrea appealed.

In Taylor v. Taylor, handed down October 6, 2016, the MSSC affirmed. Here is the entire discussion from Justice Maxwell’s opinion:

¶6. “It is a long-established rule in this state that a question not raised in the trial court will not be considered on appeal.” Adams v. Bd. of Supervisors of Union Cty., 177 Miss. 403, 170 So. 684, 685 (1936) (citations omitted); see also Pierce v. Pierce, 132 So. 3d 553, 567 (¶ 37) (Miss. 2014) (citing McNeese v. McNeese 119 So. 3d 264, 267 (Miss. 2013)); In re Adoption of Minor Child, 931 So. 2d 566, 579 (¶ 36) (Miss. 2006) (citing Chantey Music Pub., Inc. v. Malaco, Inc., 915 So. 2d 1052, 1060 (Miss. 2005)); and Burnham v. Burnham, 185 So. 3d 358, 361 (¶ 10) (Miss. 2015) (citing Mills v. Nichols, 467 So. 2d 924, 931 (Miss. 1985)). Here, neither party challenged or objected to proceeding on Austin’s tuition and school expenses, or to the chancellor’s interpreting the underlying property settlement agreement from the couple’s 2003 divorce. Furthermore, after confronting the tuition and expenses issue, Andrea’s attorney asked several questions about the chancellor’s decision and allocation of the judgment. He even offered to prepare the order from which Andrea appeals. So both parties acquiesced in the manner in which the chancellor decided this matter. Because Andrea neither challenged nor objected to the chancellor’s authority to grant an award to her son at trial or in post-trial motions, this issue is forfeited and barred from our appellate review. [My emphasis]

Justice King dissented, joined by Randolph, on the basis that Austin was a necessary and indispensable party who should have been joined. That argument, though, presents a kind of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. The majority obviously went with the chicken (or is that the egg?).

In the course of a chancery bench trial, every issue presented and heard by the court serves as a basis for appeal, with or without a post-trial motion, assuming you timely object to unfavorable rulings. You do not even need to file a post-trial motion when the judge rules against you on the merits within the bounds of the relief prayed for.

BUT … when the chancellor reaches out beyond the scope of the pleadings and proof at trial and acts as the chancellor did here, you must preserve the issue for appeal by making a timely objection. So, how doe you do that?

You file a timely R59 motion not later than ten days after the date of entry of the judgment. Andrea could have done that, pointing out to the judge that it was error to award the judgment in favor of Austin, since he was not a party, and that the judge’s action was beyond the scope of relief sought by either party. By not giving the chancellor an opportunity to address her objections she waived them and lost her right of appellate review.

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