It Ain’t Over ’til it’s Over
February 6, 2018 § 1 Comment
It’s a hoary. ancient maxim of the law that “There must be an end to litigation,” a principle that was called into question in the case of Sandrock v. Sandrock, handed down from the COA on January 16, 2018.
The Sandrock saga began on August 1, 2005, when Jason Sandrock and his father Fred purported to enter into an agreement via a one-page, notarized document styled “Mortgage Agreement.” The agreement was for a 3,300 square-foot home in Bay St. Louis in exchange for 300 consecutive payments of $1,000 each. Neither Jason’s wife Cassie nor Fred’s wife Joellen were parties to the agreement. Jason and Cassie had been building the structure on Fred’s and Joellen’s property since November, 2004.
Before Jason and Cassie could move into their new digs, however, Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the house on August 29, 2005. The insurance company issued a check for $148, 601, to Jason, Fred, and Joellen. Jason was listed as the insured, and Fred and Joellen were listed as Mortgagees. An MDA grant check was issued to Jason, with no lienholder listed, in the amount of $149,327. Cassie was not named on either check. Jason turned over most of the money to Fred and Joellen.
On January 15, 2009, Jason and Cassie were divorced. In the divorce judgment, the chancellor found no credible evidence that Jason owed any debt to his parents for the property, and that the funds used to build the house were a gift to Jason and Cassie from Fred and Joellen. He also found that both Jason and Cassie had devoted significant time to building the house. In making equitable distribution, the chancellor ordered that the insurance and grant funds by divided equally, and for Cassie to execute a quitclaim deed to the property in favor of Jason.
In March, 2009, Cassie filed for contempt because Jason had not paid her the sums due. Jason counterclaimed asking the court to “correct” its divorce judgment to show that Fred and Joellen were owners of the property, and, therefore, that the insurance proceeds were properly theirs. The counterclaim was denied.
In May, 2009, Fred and Joellen filed a pleading seeking to intervene in the divorce action that had been adjudicated four months previously. Their motion was denied.
At this point, none of the court’s rulings or judgments had been appealed.
After the court denied their motion to intervene, Fred and Joellen filed a petition for judicial foreclosure on the property against Jason and Cassie.
On May 9, 2011, Jason filed an MRCP 60(b) motion asking for relief from the judgment to pay Cassie.
On February 23, 2012, a different chancellor from the one handling the divorce issues entered a judgment allowing the foreclosure in favor of Fred and Joellen against Jason. Cassie was not a record title holder. The court’s decision specifically did not adjudicate what effect its decision had on either the previous divorce judgment or Cassie’s interest in the money or equitable interest in the property.
On November 7, 2013, the chancellor denied Jason’s pending R60 motion.
On December 26, 2013, Jason filed a complaint for declaratory relief and injunction again seeking relief from the judgment. Following a hearing, the court denied Jason any relief on March 23, 2015. The chancellor — yet another different from the two previous — found that the relief sought by Jason was “nearly identical” to that he had sought earlier in his R60 motion. The chancellor found that, since Jason had not appealed the 2009 judgment, it was final.
Jason filed a timely R59 motion. After hearing the matter on April 7, 22016, the court denied the motion except to amend a prior order to state that Joellen had been a witness in the divorce proceeding.
Jason appealed from the denial of his R57 claim for declaratory judgment. Predictably, the COA affirmed. Judge Barnes wrote for a unanimous court:
¶18. As to the denial of Jason’s claims, under Rule 57(a) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, “[c]ourts of record within their respective jurisdictions may declare rights, status, and other legal relations regardless of whether further relief is or could be claimed.” M.R.C.P. 57(a). On the other hand, a trial court may deny a complaint for declaratory judgment “where such judgment, if entered, would not terminate the uncertainty or controversy giving rise to the proceeding.” Id. Noting that Jason failed to appeal the 2009 divorce judgment, and Fred and Joellen did not appeal the denial of their motion to intervene, Chancellor Persons held:
Once a judgment becomes final, it is dispositive as to all issues arising from a claim that were, or could have been, asserted by the parties to the litigation. Trilogy Communications, Inc. v. Thomas Truck Lease, Inc., 790 So. 2d 881[, 885 (¶12)] (Miss. Ct. App. 2001).
With the exception of Jason’s additional claims that the divorce judgment was not properly enrolled, the relief requested by Jason in his Complaint for Declaratory Relief is nearly identical to the relief that he sought in his [c]ounter[c]laim to [c]orrect [the] judgment, and similar to the claim that he made in his Rule 60 motion, both of which were denied by the [c]ourt. In the absence of any timelyfiled notice of appeal or any pending appeal action filed on behalf of Jason Sandrock or Fred and Joellen Sandrock seeking relief from either the Judgment of Divorce or from the Order which denied intervention in the divorce action, the Final Judgment of Divorce, including the [s]tipulation executed by the parties, is a valid [j]udgment upon which this [c]ourt relies and upon which the parties are bound.
Subsequently, in his bench ruling denying the Appellants’ motions for reconsideration, the chancellor concluded:
The [c]ourt and the law seek finality. We have two judgments, both of which are final. To the extent they’re in conflict, no one appealed. In essence, you can’t do what should have been an appeal now in a declaratory judgment action, which, in essence, we have the issues [of] res judicata, law of the case, all sorts of the legal doctrines here that prohibit us – or me from reopening these things.
¶19. We find no abuse of discretion in the chancery court’s findings. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “[a] final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties and their privies from relitigating claims that were or could have been raised in that action.” Walton v. Bourgeois, 512 So. 2d 698, 701 (Miss. 1987). “A final judgment has been defined by this Court as a judgment adjudicating the merits of the controversy [that] settles all the issues as to all the parties.” Sanford v. Bd. of Supervisors, 421 So. 2d 488, 490-91 (Miss. 1982) (citations omitted). “[A]n order is considered final if it ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.” LaFontaine v. Holliday, 110 So. 3d 785, 787 (¶8) (Miss. 2013). Jason’s complaint is, quite simply, a collateral attack on the 2009 divorce judgment, which awarded one-half of the insurance and grant proceeds to Cassie. The 2009 judgment, despite the Appellants’ argument to the contrary, is a final judgment. While not contained in the record, the chancery court noted that Jason had filed a counterclaim to correct the judgment, which was denied by the court. His Rule 60 motion was also denied. He did not appeal either decision. Thus, his request for declaratory relief is barred. The supreme court has held: “Res judicata bars all issues that might have been (or could have been) raised and decided in the initial suit, plus all issues that were actually decided in the first cause of action.” Little v. V & G Welding Supply Inc., 704 So. 2d 1336, 1337 (¶8) (Miss. 1997) (citation omitted). Additionally,
[r]es judicata is fundamental to the equitable and efficient operation of the judiciary and “reflects the refusal of the law to tolerate a multiplicity of litigation.” Little . . ., 704 So. 2d [at] 1337 [(¶8)]. . . . The courts cannot revisit adjudicated claims and “all grounds for, or defenses to recovery that were available to the parties in the first action, regardless of whether they were asserted or determined in the prior proceeding, are barred from relitigation in a subsequent suit under the doctrine of res judicata.” Alexander v. Elzie, 621 So. 2d 909, 910 (Miss. 1992).
Harrison v. Chandler-Sampson Ins., 891 So. 2d 224, 232 (¶23) (Miss. 2005) (emphasis added).
¶20. For res judicata to apply, four identities must be present: “(1) identity of the subject matter of the action; (2) identity of the cause of/civil action; (3) identity of the parties to the cause of/civil action; and (4) identity of the quality or character of a person for or against whom the claim is made.” Miller v. Miller, 838 So. 2d 295, 297 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002) (citations omitted). Here, the first two identities – the subject matter and the cause of action, namely the underlying facts and circumstances – are the same. In both the 2009 divorce judgment and the complaint for declaratory relief, Jason and Cassie are parties. The only difference between the two causes of action is that Jason added Fred and Joellen as defendants to the second cause. But since Jason made no claims against them, and they never acted as adverse parties to Jason (as evidenced by the fact they are now joined with him as appellants), we find the third identity requirement is met. As to the fourth identity, Cassie was named as a defendant in both causes of action. Therefore, we find all four identities are present.
¶21. Accordingly, we affirm the chancery court’s denial of Jason’s complaint for declaratory relief.
In case you hadn’t counted, 88 months — seven years and four months — after the divorce action, we finally have achieved finality. That is, we have unless Jason files something else along the lines of his earlier attempts. Stay tuned.