It’s Alive!

January 17, 2017 § 5 Comments

“It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!”  — Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Only last year I posed the question whether the venerable and seldom-used Bill of Discovery (BOD) in chancery were dead. That post dealt with the COA’s decision in Kuljis v. Winn-Dixie, Montgomery, LLC, in which the court affirmed a chancellor’s dismissal of a BOD filed by a plaintiff seeking information to determine whether a viable cause of action existed against the grocery-store chain. The judge ruled that the matter should be brought in circuit court and pursued via discovery there.

At the time I questioned whether the decision portended the death of the BOD, and I pointed to (former chancellor) Judge Fair’s dissent in its defense.

The issue arose again in a recent case decided January 10, 2017, Graham v. Franks, et al., and Judge Fair, writing this time for the majority, held that the BOD is, indeed a viable procedure in chancery. Here’s how he addressed it:

¶9. This appeal hinges on Franks’s assumption in his Rule 12(b)(6) motion that complaints for discovery and accounting do not state a cause of action in and of themselves, as Franks has never challenged any particular element of either claim. The dispositive question therefore appears to be whether a complaint that seeks only discovery or an accounting states a cause of action under Mississippi law.

¶10. It is beyond dispute that a complaint for an accounting is a valid cause of action under Mississippi law: “A Mississippi chancery court holds the authority to hear a case for an accounting.” Univ. Nursing Assocs. PLLC v. Phillips, 842 So. 2d 1270, 1275 (¶14) (Miss. 2003); Crowe v. Smith, 603 So. 2d 301, 307-08 (Miss. 1992). The remedy sought by an accounting is the accounting itself “and a judgment for the amount found due upon the accounting.” 1A C.J.S. Accounting § 54 (2005). And “the jurisdiction of a court of equity over matters of account rests upon three grounds[:] the need of a discovery, the complicated character of the accounts, and the existence of a fiduciary or trust relation.” Phillips, 842 So.2d at 1275 (¶14) (quoting Henry v. Donovan, 148 Miss. 278, 114 So. 482, 484 (1927)). All of those appear to have been alleged in the Grahams’ complaint.

¶11. Next, we address the complaint for discovery in chancery, for the second time this year. [Fn 1] We are now presented with the issue of whether the pure discovery action – formerly a “bill of discovery” and now called a “complaint for discovery” – remains a viable and independent cause of action within chancery court jurisdiction. We hold that it does.

[Fn 1] See Kuljis v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery LLC, 2015-CA-00256-COA, 2016 WL 1203823 (Miss. Ct. App Mar. 29, 2016), reh’g denied (Aug. 23, 2016), cert. granted (Nov. 17, 2016).

¶12. In March of 1981 the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure were adopted by the Supreme Court of Mississippi, to become effective on January 1, 1982. Seven years later, in State Oil & Gas Board v. McGowan, 542 So. 2d 244 (Miss. 1989), the supreme court was presented with the question of whether the new rules had abolished the common law right to a “Bill of Discovery in Chancery.” It found that they had not:

The bill of discovery is one of the ancient bills used in equity practice. Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, 1925, § 427 p. 422. The Board argues that the bill is no longer available as a discovery devise in Mississippi practice as it was abolished or rendered obsolete by the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure effective January 1, 1982. This Court disagrees with this premise.

Griffith, supra, addresses the Bill of Discovery:

But there is a distinct bill in chancery known, strictly speaking, as the bill of discovery, by the use of which disclosure may be required of material facts exclusively within the knowledge or possession of the defendant and which without such discovery no full and adequate proof of them could be made. It had its origin out of the common law rule that no party in interest was a competent witness in any case; and it began at an early date to be allowed in the court of chancery in order to relieve against what otherwise would have resulted in a denial of justice when it happened that the facts or the documents establishing a right or materially aiding therein rested in the exclusive possession or control of the opposite party; and, originally its office was simply to aid a pending suit at law or one about to be brought, and the chancery part of the proceedings were usually deemed as concluded upon the coming in of the full answer making the
disclosures or producing the documents sought. In other words, the obtaining of the discovery was the sole object and end of the bill, no relief other than the discovery being prayed. It was therefore purely ancillary to a trial in some other case and ordinarily in some other forum.

Id. at pp. 422, 423.

Rule 82(a), M.R.C.P. makes clear that nothing in the rules alters the jurisdiction of any court, nor is the power of any court to grant substantive relief changed from what it was before the rules.

It is true that the nomenclature of the legal practice was changed by the abolition of the names of the old writs and procedural names. M.R.C.P. Rule 2. See Dye v. State Ex Rel. Hale, 507 So. 2d 332, 337 n.4 (Miss. 1987). As such, the terminology of a “Bill of Discovery” has been rendered obsolete, and procedurally it is referred to as a “complaint.” However, the adoption of the rules affected procedure, not substance. The power and authority of the Chancery Court to grant the substantive relief of “discovery” remains viable and available although it has been broadened and simplified by M.R.C.P. 26-37. The need for this substantive remedy is evident by this lawsuit.

McGowan, 542 So. 2d at 248-49.

¶13. In addition to McGowan, only two Mississippi Supreme Court cases have addressed historical chancery court “bills” for relief in the context of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. In Leaf River Forest Products Inc. v. Deakle, 661 So. 2d 188 (Miss. 1995), the court relied heavily on McGowan, including the quotations above, in holding that the jurisdiction of a chancery court to grant a “bill of peace,” like a “bill of discovery,” had also survived enactment of the Rules of Civil Procedure. The more recent case of Moore v. Bell Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick-GMC LLC, 864 So. 2d 939 (Miss. 2004), also relied on and quoted McGowan with approval.

¶14. While it is true that the complaint for discovery requires a meritorious underlying cause of action if it is to be the sole basis for equitable jurisdiction, [Fn 2] the chancellor observed that there were numerous ones here; the complaint was dismissed not because there was no underlying cause of action but because the complaint did not seek relief for one. The Supreme Court of Mississippi has recognized, however, that a complaint for discovery has discovery itself as the substantive relief sought – “the sole object and end of the bill, no relief other than the discovery being prayed.” McGowan, 542 So. 2d at 248. “Rule 82(a) [of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure] makes clear that nothing in the rules alters the jurisdiction of any court, nor is the power of any court to grant substantive relief changed from what it was before the rules.” Id. at 249.

[Fn 2] See Davis v. Lowry, 221 Miss. 283, 292, 72 So. 2d 679, 681 (1954); see also James W. Shelson, Mississippi Chancery Practice § 18:2 (2016).

¶15. As both discovery and accounting remain independent causes of action under Mississippi law, and Franks has never argued the insufficiency of the Grahams’ allegations on any specific element of either, we conclude that the trial court erred in granting the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

In the right case, you might find that the Complaint for Discovery (formerly BOD) is just what you need to get the job done, and the issue is now settled (unless and until the MSSC sees it differently) that it is a viable procedure. Remember: it requires that you have a “meritorious underlying cause of action” that sounds in equity. It’s not enough to file a PI case in chancery seeking damages and add some incidental accounting claim so as to get your discovery relief via BOD. That will most likely simply get you bounced over to circuit court.

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§ 5 Responses to It’s Alive!

  • randywallace says:

    Kuljis was a 4-4 split on whether the bill of discovery remained viable vs. the case being a negligence claim that should have been brought in the circuit court instead of the chancery court.

    The MSSC on a 5-4 vote granted a petition for writ of cert in Kuljis prior to the COA’s decision in Graham.

  • carter says:

    The Kuljis case, I think, should be limited, as it was in the original opinion. Bills of Discovery are available where there is no other means of discovery, such as certain administrative procedures wherein discovery is not allowed.

  • hale1090 says:

    And with only an underlying action of law your case transferred to circuit court, your action would then be dismissed, right?.

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