June 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
One would think by now that every pleading seeking child custody would include a UCCJEA affidavit as required by MCA 93-27-209(1). Yet, every now and then an affidavit-less petition or counterclaim wends its way to court and before we commence the hearing there is a motion to dismiss for failure to comply with the statute.
That’s apparently what happened in the custody case between Elle Adams and John Leon Rice. After the chancellor ruled that Mississippi properly had jurisdiction and the case proceeded to its conclusion in which the court awarded custody to John, Elle appealed.
In Adams v. Rice, decided by the COA on June 12, 2018, Elle raised a number of issues, among them the claimed failure to file the UCCJEA affidavit. Judge Barnes penned the opinion for the unanimous court:
¶28. Elle also argues that certain “required disclosures” pertaining to jurisdiction were not filed; therefore, the chancellor should have dismissed the action. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-27-209(1) (Rev. 2013) provides that, in child-custody proceedings, each party in its first pleading or in an attached affidavit must provide certain information under oath as to the child’s present address and other matters. Elle cites White v. White, 26 So. 3d 342 (Miss. 2010), a child-custody modification case, as support. In White, even though the petitioner failed to provide this information, the Mississippi Supreme Court found it was not fatal to jurisdiction for two reasons: the chancery court’s jurisdiction is set by the Mississippi Constitution and cannot be diminished by statute; and under the plain language of section 93-27-209(2), the court is not required to stay the proceedings. [Fn 12] Id. at 347 (¶13).
[Fn 12] The statute states: “If the information required by subsection (1) is not furnished, the court, upon motion of a party or its own motion, may stay the proceeding until the information is furnished.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-27-209(2) (emphasis added).
¶29. John provided this information in his initial petition. In his petition to modify custody, he could not provide the information because, as he explained, he was unaware of where Elle and Aaron were residing at that time. Elle, in response, claimed that she did not reveal her address and other information in her initial answer or in this action due to the Alabama protection orders. Since any failure to provide this information is not fatal to jurisdiction, and it is within the discretion of the chancellor to go forward with the proceeding, this argument is without merit.
That word may in the statute means that it is discretionary with the judge. Most judges are pretty level-headed and can be trusted to do the rational thing. There are a few, though, who might give you a funny (not funny ha-ha) bounce that might be somewhat unpleasant. My suggestion is that you always include a UCCJEA affidavit in a pleading where there is a custody issue, even when your client can not provide all the required information. Just aver that after diligent inquiry he or she has been unable to discover the information.
June 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Timothy Pryer, a state prisoner, filed a public records request. When he received a response he deemed inadequate, he filed suit against several individuals for damages per MCA § 25-61-15. One of the defendants was a circuit judge whose responses to his request Pryer considered to be insufficient.
In response, the judge filed a R12(b)(6) motion to dismiss either on the basis of judicial immunity or for statute of limitations. The chancellor granted the motion, and Pryer appealed.
The MSSC affirmed in Pryer v. Gardner, decided May 17, 2018. Since the case includes a lucid discussion of when and how judicial immunity applies, I thought I would excerpt it here. Justice Kitchens wrote for the unanimous court:
¶8. The doctrine of judicial immunity long has been recognized in Mississippi. Newsome v. Shoemake, 234 So. 3d 1215, 1223 (Miss. 2017). “[T]he best interests of the people and public order require that judges be immune from civil liability.” Loyacano v. Ellis, 571 So. 2d 237, 238 (Miss. 1990). It is the sound public policy of this state that judges are empowered to make decisions in the absence of fear that they will be held liable for their actions. Id. A person who believes a judge has acted contrary to or in excess of his or her authority may, however, file a complaint with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance. Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1225.
¶9. In Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 355-56, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978), the United States Supreme Court held that “judges of courts of superior or general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly.” In Loyacano, this Court recognized that, in the prior case of DeWitt v. Thompson, 192 Miss. 615, 7 So. 2d 529, 532 (1942), the Court seemingly left for another day the question of whether judicial immunity applies to malicious or corrupt acts. But Loyacano ultimately held that “[t]he doctrine of judicial immunity is fully recognized in Mississippi.” Loyacano, 571 So. 2d at 238. In Newsome, the Court held that, notwithstanding the plaintiff’s allegation that a judge was corrupt in his handling of a conservatorship, the judge was immune from civil liability. Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1225. So judicial immunity in Mississippi extends even to acts of malice or corruption. The reason is that it is “a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, [should] be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself.” Id.(quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 355-56, 98 S. Ct. 1099). Further:
It is a judge’s duty to decide all cases within his jurisdiction that are brought before him, including controversial cases that arouse the most intense feelings in the litigants. His errors may be corrected on appeal, but he should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation charging malice or corruption. Imposing such a burden on judges would contribute not to principled and fearless decision- making but to intimidation. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554, 87 S. Ct. 1213, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288 (1967).
¶10. Judicial immunity does not extend to acts taken in the clear absence of jurisdiction. Weill v. Bailey, 227 So. 3d 931, 936 (Miss. 2017). However, judicial acts in excess of jurisdiction are subject to judicial immunity. Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1223. In Newsome, the Court provided the following explanation of this distinction:
In Bradley, the Court illustrated the distinction between lack of jurisdiction and excess of jurisdiction with the following examples: if a probate judge, with jurisdiction over only wills and estates, should try a criminal case, he would be acting in the clear absence of jurisdiction and would not be immune from liability for his action; on the other hand, if a judge of a criminal court should convict a defendant of a nonexistent crime, he would merely be acting in excess of his jurisdiction and would be immune.
Newsome, 234 So. 3d at 1224 (quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 357 n.7, 98 S. Ct. 1099 (citing Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 352, 20 L. Ed. 646 (1871)). We have said that “[i]n order to determine the existence of judicial immunity one must look to whether at the time [the judge] took the challenged action he had jurisdiction over the subject matter before him.” Loyacano, 571 So. 2d at 238 (quoting Stump, 435 U.S. at 356, 98 S. Ct. 1099).
June 25, 2018 § 1 Comment
Adam and Karen Lewis were divorced in 2002, ending a 13-year marriage. Their PSA, incorporated into the judgment, provided that Adam would pay Karen $15,000 a month in permanent, periodic alimony.
In 2015, Adam filed a petition to terminate alimony because Karen was in a de facto marriage. Following a trial, the chancellor dismissed his case under MRCP 41(b) for failure to meet his burden of proof. The chancellor also awarded Karen one-half of her attorney’s fees, or $13,935.50, for being required to defend herself in the case. The proof in the record was that Karen had substantial assets. Adam appealed.
In Lewis v. Lewis, handed down March 20, 2018, the COA affirmed the dismissal, but reversed and rendered on the award of attorney’s fees. Judge Wilson wrote for the majority in this 6-4 case:
¶31. As discussed above, the chancellor found that Karen “is of a financial standing in the court system that is not often seen and is capable of providing some of her own defense costs,” so she denied Karen’s request for attorney’s fees in part. However, the chancellor awarded Karen half of her fees ($13,935.50) because she found that Karen was “entitled to receive compensation for the requirement that she come in and defend herself.” Adam argues that this award was an abuse of discretion and should be reversed and rendered, and we are compelled to agree.
¶32. Adam’s complaint to terminate alimony was not frivolous or subject to sanctions under the Litigation Accountability Act or Rule 11, nor was he found to be in contempt of court. Therefore, the only possible basis for an award was Karen’s own inability to pay the fees. Karen is not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees just because Adam “is more capable of paying her attorney’s fees.” Rhodes v. Rhodes, 52 So. 3d 430, 449 (¶79) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). Rather, Karen must “show that she is unable to pay [her fees]” as “a prerequisite to an award of attorney’s fees.” Id.; accord, e.g., Watson v. Watson, 724 So. 2d 350, 357 (¶30) (Miss. 1998) (holding that a chancellor may not award attorney’s fees to a spouse who “is
financially able to pay for her own attorney’s fees”).
¶33. Karen failed to show that she is unable to pay her attorney’s fees. Karen continues to receive alimony of $15,000 per month from Adam, and she has substantial assets. At the time of trial, Karen already had paid more than half of the fees that she requested, and she only testified vaguely that she thought her mother “might have helped” her make one payment because “that particular month” she could not pay the entire bill. It is clear that Karen is financially able to pay her own attorney’s fees. Therefore, we hold that the chancellor abused her discretion by ordering Adam to pay Karen’s attorney for her.
This is a pretty predictable outcome. The law is fairly clear as it applies in this case.
Only thing is, anyone who has done much domestic work will recognize the leverage that this gives to an ex-spouse who can vindictively take the other ex back to court repeatedly, carefully avoiding frivolous and vexatious actions, the result being that the ex is wiped out financially. I have seen it in custody cases, where there are repeated charges of material change and adverse effect. So long as there is an arguable basis in fact, no judge is going to deny a parent access to the courts to determine the best interest of children.
So I get the logic behind the rule. It just seems like it opens the door for some abuse.
June 22, 2018 § 4 Comments
TWO PRAYERS FOR LAWYERS
September 16, 2011 § 3 Comments
Practicing law can be a treacherous proposition, what with its snares and traps awaiting your every misstep. Sometimes the stress can be overwhelming, and the isolation you feel — that no one can understand the magnitude of the pressure cooker you’re in — makes it worse. Lawyers who have grown past cynicism to reach a deeper place come to know that you have to search somewhere outside yourself for strength and endurance. Here are two prayers for harried lawyers.
This prayer of the remarkable Thomas Merton, author and Trappist Monk, is reassuring and comforting for those who have to brave swamps full of dragons and unexpected perils every day.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
This next prayer comes from Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began. He recorded it at a black Baptist state convention in Clarksdale in 1942. The sentiment, especially with its reference to a “war coat,” could not be more appropriate for the litigation gladiator.
You know I can’t help from loving You.
Because You loved me myself,
Long before I knew what love is.
And when my time have come
I’ve got the king’s crown in coming glory.
And when I come down to the river,
Help me to pull off my war coat and enter.
I’ll enter in the name of the Lord,
Make my enemies out a liar,
Make us able to bear our burdens.
June 20, 2018 § Leave a comment
It happens sometimes that the witness simply can not recall something that you need to have in the record. Before you give up and move on to something else, consider MRE 612, which is entitled, “Writing Used to Refresh a Witness’s Memory.”
Actually, the title is a misnomer, because under MRE 612(a) you can use a “writing, recording, or object” to refresh the witness’s memory.
Here are the steps:
- Establish that the witness is unable to recall something;
- Counsel is unable to jog the witness’s memory through questioning. The court may allow leading questions;
- Counsel shows the writing, recording, or object to the witness and asks whether looking at it will help refresh her memory. If yes, she is allowed to read or look over it silently;
- If the witness after looking at it can then say she now recalls the matter independent of the writing, recording, or object, she may then testify to that independent recollection;
- If the witness can not recall the matter after that procedure, counsel may lay a foundation for admitting the writing’s, recording’s, or object’s contents under MRE 803(5), past recollection recorded exception to the hearsay rule (that’s for another day).
What is an “object?” The advisory committee note mentions a photograph as an example. But there is no requirement in the rule that the object have content or substance, as would a photograph, a map, or a hand-drawn sketch. In law school our evidence professor said that a pencil or a comb could be used, so long as they would help refresh the witness’s memory.
When I practiced, I liked to do step 3 a little differently. I would ask the witness whether there was something that would help jog his memory. Most times the answer was something like, “Yes, if I could look over the inventory I made,” or something to that effect, I would then hand the witness what he identified.
Remember that under the MRE the writing, recording, or object used in R612 need not meet the requirements of past recollection recorded unless and until the witness has no independent recollection after looking at it and must use it to testify (e.g., “I don’t remember well enough to testify without referring back to this list …”).
June 19, 2018 § 3 Comments
Daren Froemel filed a will contest claiming that his mother, Mary Lou, lacked mental testamentary capacity when she made her will. The beneficiaries of the will filed a motion for summary judgment with affidavits of the subscribing witnesses and others attesting to her mental capacity. Daren responded in an answer that the discovery revealed Mary Lou had been hospitalized at the time for “altered mental status,” and that she had been prescribed and was taking 22 different medications, including morphine. He argued that those facts established a basis to deny summary judgment, but he did not file counter-affidavits. The chancellor granted summary judgment in favor of the beneficiaries, and Daren appealed.
In Estate of Froemel: Froemel v. Williams, et al., handed down May 8, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee penned the unanimous opinion:
¶13. Here, the beneficiaries offered the will, and it was admitted to probate. Thus, they established a prima facie case regarding Mary Lou’s testamentary capacity. Additionally, when the beneficiaries moved for summary judgment in response to Daren’s contest, they attached four affidavits of individuals that testified as to MaryLou’s mental capacity. At this point, Daren was required to respond to the summary judgment motion with some evidence to rebut the beneficiaries’ prima facie case to show a genuine issue for trial. Daren, however, filed an answer in response—and nothing more—in which he reiterated that Mary Lou had been hospitalized for altered mental status and had prescriptions for twenty-two medications. Following the reiteration of these two facts, Daren stated in his response, “Clearly, a genuine issue of material fact exists in regards to the decedent’s mental state.”
¶14. It is well settled that “[t]he existence of a genuine issue of material fact will preclude summary judgment.” Calvert v. Griggs, 992 So. 2d 627, 632 (¶11) (Miss. 2008). However, we note that “[a] fact is neither material nor genuinely contested . . . merely because one party proclaims it so.” Suddith v. Univ. of S. Miss., 977 So. 2d 1158, 1167 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). “The mere allegation or denial of material fact is insufficient to generate a triable issue of fact and avoid an adverse rendering of summary judgment.” Kaigler v. City of Bay St. Louis, 12 So. 3d 577, 583 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Palmer v. Biloxi Reg’l Med. Ctr. Inc., 564 So. 2d 1346, 1356 (Miss. 1990)). “More specifically, the plaintiff may not rely solely upon the unsworn allegations in the pleadings, or arguments and assertions in briefs or legal memoranda.” Id.
¶15. In the instant case, Daren rested upon the mere allegations in his pleadings and summarily concluded there was a genuine issue of material fact. While Mary Lou’s hospitalization and prescriptions the month prior to the execution of her will may have been important facts in this case, there was no evidence of a genuine issue of material fact—namely, that Mary Lou lacked testamentary capacity as determined by the three relevant factors at the time she executed her will. Daren offered no testimony by affidavit, deposition, or otherwise regarding Mary Lou’s testamentary capacity. Our supreme court has offered the following in response to a nonmovant’s failure to appropriately respond to a summary judgment motion:
[W]e wish to make it clear that this Court intends to enforce Rule 56(e), which requires affidavits or other evidence establishing “a genuine issue for trial.” Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Those who practice before our trial courts are well advised to respond to summary judgment motions with affidavits, deposition testimony, responses to discovery, and other evidence approved by Rule 56, allowing our trial judges a fair look at whether triable issues of material fact exist. As the rule specifically provides, parties may not simply rely on their pleadings . . . .
Franklin Collection Serv. Inc. v. Kyle, 955 So. 2d 284, 291 (¶24) (Miss. 2007).
¶16. Because the beneficiaries established a prima facie case that the will was valid—and specifically that Mary Lou possessed testamentary capacity at the time of its execution—and Daren failed to rebut the prima facie case with any summary-judgment evidence that there
was a genuine issue for trial, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment.
Daren’s shortcoming in this case was to respond to the affidavits with mere assertions. Had he offered an affidavit with interrogatory answers and deposition excerpts attached, the outcome might have been different.
Still, were the requirements of Franklin actually satisfied here? Daren did cite to “discovery,” which we will assume here to include interrogatory responses and depositions, both of which must be sworn, and possibly responses to requests for admission. But are they a part of the record? Well, nowadays nobody files that stuff in the record. Merely referring to it without attaching excerpts supporting your position is like saying, “You’ll have to take my word for it, Judge.” Again, an affidavit with excerpts attached would likely have made a difference.
Another cause for pause is the language of R56 itself. R56(c) specifies that “The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” If any … I wonder what that means amidst all that other material the court is supposed to consider?
The moral of this story is to file one or more affidavits, even if all you are relying on is discovery material.
June 18, 2018 § Leave a comment
You won’t see many appellate cases in which the best evidence rule (MRE 1002, 1003, and 1004) comes into play. That’s because the appellate courts give great deference to the trial judge’s rulings on evidence.
But a recent case shows how the rule can come up at trial, how the trial judge deals with it, and how the appellate courts address it.
A contract dispute arose between Clifford Frisby and Ferrell Warden over sale of a home. Warden claimed that the parties had an agreement that he would perform certain work on the property and be given credit for the value of the work against the sale price. At trial he offered three documents into evidence to support his claim. Frisby objected to their authenticity. The chancellor ruled that they were admissible, and ultimately ruled in favor of Warden. Frisby appealed on several grounds, one of which was that the chancellor erred in admitting the three documents contrary to the best evidence rule.
In Frisby, et al. v. Warden, decided May 8, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote the opinion for a unanimous court:
¶7. Frisby asserts that the chancellor improperly admitted the disputed handwritten contracts into evidence. According to Frisby, these documents were duplicates of original handwritten documents that he never signed. Therefore, he argues that pursuant to Mississippi Rules of Evidence 1002 and 1003, the duplicates were inadmissible because there was a genuine question as to their authenticity. In response, Warden asserts Frisby has
offered nothing to show that the chancellor abused her discretion nor that any substantial right has been affected. A review of the record indicates that the chancellor, in denying Frisby’s motion for reconsideration, explained the handwritten contracts were admitted into evidence pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Evidence 1004(c). We find this determination was not manifest error.
¶8. Frisby correctly asserts that pursuant to Rule 1002, known as the best-evidence rule, an original writing is generally required to prove its contents. Further, pursuant to Rule 1003, Frisby correctly asserts that a duplicate cannot be admitted when a genuine issue has been raised about the original’s authenticity. However, an exception to the best-evidence rule exists when the party against whom the original would be offered had control of the original, received notice that the original would be subject to proof at trial, and failed to produce the original at trial. M.R.E. 1004(c).
¶9. In the present case, Warden introduced duplicates of three handwritten documents into evidence in support of his complaint for specific performance. Frisby initially objected to their introduction, but allowed them to be introduced “for the purpose of this hearing,” while still contesting their authenticity. Thus, the hearing proceeded to determine the authenticity of the alleged contracts, with both parties presenting multiple witnesses.
¶10. During the hearing, Frisby testified as an adverse witness and explained that he had never seen the three alleged contracts before and that Warden had never been to his office. However, Warden testified that he drafted all three of the handwritten documents “so that [he] could have some kind of documentation on a deal [they] had on the house.” Further, Warden testified that while he originally had the original documents, he met Frisby at Frisby’s office, where Frisby made copies of the documents and retained the originals, and gave Warden copies. Michael Neill, the previous owner of the property, also testified for Warden. He testified that he deeded the property to Frisby in 2010, and that when he spoke with Warden in 2011 or early 2012, Warden said he was buying the house from Frisby and “doing odd jobs” to pay off the house. Further, Neill testified that he saw Frisby sign a document in 2014, but that he did not know the document’s purpose. Neill later testified that he had overheard Frisby and Warden discussing ownership of the house for labor.
¶11. As previously mentioned, the admission or suppression of evidence is within the discretion of the trial judge and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Tunica Cty. [v. Matthews], 926 So. 2d  at 212 (¶5) [(Miss. 2006)]. Further, “the chancellor sits as the fact finder and is the sole judge of the credibility of a witness when resolving factual disputes.” Stokes v. Campbell, 794 So. 2d 1045, 1048 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001). As such, it was the chancellor’s job as trier of fact to determine which version she found more credible. LeBlanc v. Andrews, 931 So. 2d 683, 689 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). The chancellor, after hearing all the evidence, accepted Warden’s testimony as the most credible, admitting the duplicates pursuant to Rule 1004(c). Because there was substantial credible evidence in the record to support the chancellor’s finding, this Court must accept them. Accordingly, this issue is without merit.
Not much to add. The chancellor found the documents to be what they purported to be — that’s authenticity — and her decision was supported by evidence in the record. It’s her call to make, she made it, and the COA affirmed it.
The testimony that Frisby copied the documents and kept the originals was enough to shoot down his demand to produce the originals, per MRE 1004(c).
June 15, 2018 § 10 Comments
The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain last week are a reminder that the pain and agony that torment some to death often lie hidden beneath layers of camouflage that give the appearance of happiness, health, and well-being. We see celebrity and fame, and we imagine joy. We see success and wealth, and we infer inner peace. We see physical beauty and we assume health and healthy lifestyle. Appearances, as they say, do deceive.
It’s no secret that the law is a corrosive profession. The pressures and stress imposed by duty to client and court are enormous. Deadlines carry grievous consequences. Add to that the heavy responsibilities of family, overhead, and finances, and you have a toxic stew that can eat away at and destroy happiness.
Members of the legal profession (lawyers and judges) have a suicide rate 1.36 times greater than the general population.
When the stresses of the profession become overwhelming, it’s easy to feel isolated, to be haunted by the thoughts of failure, and to want an easy out before your weakness is exposed.
But here are three thoughts:
- Everyone is struggling; we just don’t see all that is beneath the surface. You are not the only one.
- Just because you are struggling does not make you a failure. And even if you do fail, that does not make you worthless.
- Silence, secrecy, and shame are seductive, but are destructive over time. Talk about what you are feeling with someone who cares and who will listen. Empathy is a powerful, healing balm. A kind word may enable you to take a first step toward the light.
Depression is a widespread phenomenon. No one is immune. There is effective treatment available for it.
And, finally, let me state the obvious: Suicide is never a tidy exit; it leaves in its wake a tidal wave of hurt, pain, sorrow, regret, and questions that can never be answered. I speak from experience.
Yes, the law is a corrosive profession. But it is not one to die for. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, seek help. Get help. Step back from the brink.
June 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
Tomorrow this blog will be 8 years old.
I don’t think when I started out that I thought it would still be around that much later, but here we are, and with 950+ followers to boot. This is the 2,019th post.
I hope you are getting something worthwhile out of this. I am still enjoying it, so you will have to put up with me a while longer.