Appealing from a Special Master’s Ruling

January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in In the Matter of J.W., decided January 3, 2017, is not likely to go down as a leading case in Mississippi jurisprudence, but for chancery practitioners in particular, it’s one you need to bear in mind.

To make a short story even shorter (the opinion is only three pages long), J.W. appealed from a finding made by a special master that he should be involuntarily committed to the custody of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. The special master followed his findings with an “Order of Admittance after Hearing.” J.W. filed a R59 motion, but the COA does not tell us what the outcome of that was.

No matter. The COA dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction because no chancellor ever adopted the special master’s findings in a court order. As the COA’s opinion by Judge Fair concludes:

¶5. “The court may appoint one or more persons in each county to be masters of the court, and the court in which any action is pending may appoint a special master therein.” M.R.C.P. 53. “[A] master’s report has no effect until it is either accepted or rejected by the chancellor.” Davison v. Miss. Dep’t of Human Servs., 938 So. 2d 912, 915 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citing Evans v. Davis, 401 So. 2d 1096, 1099 (Miss. 1981)). Here, there is no order by the chancellor accepting the special master’s report, and there has been no ruling on J.W.’s motion to reconsider. Because there is no final, appealable judgment, we lack jurisdiction and must dismiss. See Newson [v. Newson], 138 So. 3d [275], at 278 (¶11) [(Miss. Ct. App. 2014)].

The big deal here is that many districts around the state employ special masters routinely to handle child support and contempt cases per MCA 9-5-255. It’s an effective tool to free up courtroom time for more complex litigation, and to reduce waiting time for all kinds of hearings. When you get your findings and even a so-called “order” from your special master, however, it’s my opinion that you do not have either an enforceable judgment or a final, appealable judgment unless and until the chancellor has accepted the master’s report. That’s because of the language of MCA 9-5-255(8), which essentially tracks R53.

Another thing you need to keep in mind is that R53(g)(2) specifically directs that:

“The court shall accept the master’s findings of fact unless manifestly wrong. Within ten days after being served with notice of the filing of the report any party may serve written objections thereto on the other parties. Application to the court for action upon the report and upon objections thereto shall be by motion and upon notice as provided by Rule 6(d). The court after hearing may adopt the report or modify it or may adopt the report in whole or in part or may receive further evidence or may recommit it with instructions.”

In Sims, et al. v. Mathis, handed down May 24, 2016, the COA held that it is the duty of the objecting party under R53 not only to file timely, specific objections, but also to set them for hearing and bring them before the court. In those special-master child-support cases, then, any objection needs to be filed within ten days of notice of the master’s findings, and the lawyer or party filing the objections needs to set the objections for hearing and bring the matter on for hearing. If that is not done, the court “shall accept the master’s findings of fact unless manifestly wrong.”

All of the foregoing applies not only to mental commitments and child-support proceedings, but also in every case in which a special master is appointed by the court. Mathis was a partition suit. Special masters are appointed in a wide range of chancery matters.

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