No Directed Verdict in Chancery Unless it is a Jury Trial
March 26, 2018 § 1 Comment
Sheila Jones George filed a contempt action against her ex, Mike Jones, charging that he had failed to comply with their divorce judgment. After Sheila rested, Mike’s attorney addressed the court: “Your honor, we would make a motion for a directed verdict, this case be dismissed as not meeting the burden of proof of contempt.” The chancellor did dismiss Sheila’s contempt claim, and she appealed.
In the case of George v. Jones, decided March 6, 2018, the COA reversed and remanded. Judge Griffis explained the difference between a motion for an involuntary dismissal and a motion for a directed verdict, and how invoking the wrong procedure produces error:
¶15. … [W]e note that when Sheila rested her case-in-chief, Mike’s attorney made a motion for “directed verdict.” In a bench trial, the proper motion to be made at this time is a motion for involuntary dismissal under Rule 41(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 41(b) is the authority for an involuntary dismissal, and it provides:
After the plaintiff, in an action tried by the court without a jury, has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant, without waiving his right to offer evidence in the event the motion is not granted, may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. The court may then render judgment against the plaintiff or may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence.
Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) is the authority for a directed verdict; it is properly made at a jury trial.
¶16. In Crowell v. Butts, 153 So. 3d 684, 687 (¶6) (Miss. 2014), the supreme court ruled:
A motion for directed verdict granted by the court, sitting without a jury, is procedurally a dismissal on the merits under [Rule] 41(b). This Court reviews a grant or denial of a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss under the substantial evidence/manifest error standard. In considering a motion to dismiss, the trial judge should consider the evidence fairly, as distinguished from in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, and should dismiss the case if it would find for the movant. The court must deny a motion to dismiss only if the judge would be obliged to find for the plaintiff if the plaintiff’s evidence were all the evidence offered in the case. (Internal citations and quotation marks omitted). [Emphasis in this paragraph added]
When you move to dismiss per R41(b), the judge must “consider the evidence fairly” and dismiss if it would rule for the party moving to dismiss based on the proof presented to that point, even without hearing the other side’s proof.
In a jury trial, the court has to consider the evidence “in the light most favorable to the nonmovant” and dismiss if it would find for the movant.
The standard for the court to apply in ruling on either motion is different in a bench trial than it is in a jury trial. Thus, invoking the wrong procedure can lead the judge to apply the wrong standard, and thus lead to error.
If you are confused over the difference, just remember that judges ruling from the bench render judgments; juries render verdicts. A chancellor cannot direct a verdict unless there is a jury; a chancellor can, in a bench trial, dismiss a party’s pleading and render judgment in favor of the other party.