How Far Can a Chancellor Go in a R59 Ruling?

October 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

Dallas Pevey sued his ex-wife, Marie Black, to modify child custody. The chancellor ruled for Marie but expressed reservations. Dallas filed a motion that the court considered under MRCP 59, and took additional testimony. Following that hearing, the chancellor reversed his prior ruling and found that Marie had testified falsely at the previous hearing. The court awarded custody to Dallas and Marie appealed. She contended that Dallas’s claimed newly discovered evidence was lacking, and that the trial court erred in essentially giving him a “do-over” trial.

In Black v. Pevey, decided August 28, 2018, the COA affirmed. The opinion speaks to the nature of a R59 motion (commonly called a “motion for reconsideration, although it is really a motion for rehearing according to its express terms) and what is the extent of authority that a chancellor may exercise in ruling on it. Judge Fair wrote the opinion for a unanimous court:

¶3. Marie contends that the chancery court erred in granting Dallas’s “motion to reconsider” because the claimed newly discovered evidence was lacking and could have been presented at the original hearing. Marie argues, essentially, that the chancery court gave Dallas a “do over” rather than holding him to the stricter standard that Rule 59 requires. But she is wrong about that legal standard.

¶4. It is true that, under the “new” Rules of Civil Procedure, the motion for reconsideration technically no longer exists. See Maness v. K &A Enters. of Miss. LLC, No. 2017-CA-00173, 2018 WL 3791250, at *12 (¶68) (Miss. Aug. 9, 2018) (Maxwell, J., specially concurring and joined by four other justices). But the motion at issue here was properly made, and considered, under Rule 59. See id.

¶5. The chancery court’s authority to modify the final judgment is “limited” by Rule 59, and it is a “higher” standard than under Rule 54(b), which allows a trial court to set aside interlocutory decisions for any reason it sees just. Id. at *13 (¶¶69, 71). Still, Rule 59 permits a chancery court substantial discretion to reconsider its decisions—either on the motion of a party, or sua sponte “for any reason for which it might have granted a new trial on motion of a party.” See M.R.C.P. 59(d). When a case has been tried to the court, Rule 59(a) expressly provides that a new trial may be granted “for any of the reasons for which rehearings have heretofore been granted in suits in equity in the courts of Mississippi.” “The ground rules [for a Rule 59 motion in chancery court] include those that preexisted the Civil Rules regarding the grant or denial of trial court rehearings.” Mayoza v. Mayoza, 526 So. 2d 547, 549-50 (Miss. 1988). In In re Enlargement of Corporate Limits of Hattiesburg, 588 So. 2d 814, 828  (Miss.1991), the supreme court explained that “[i]n equity, the chancellor has always had entire control of his orders and decrees and authority to modify or vacate any of them on motion of any party, or on his own, prior to final judgment.” While the chancellor’s order may have been styled a final judgment, it was rendered non-final by Dallas’s filing of the motion to reconsider. See Wilson v. Mallett, 28 So. 3d 669, 670 (¶3) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). “It is long-settled that when a final judgment is reopened [under Rule 59,] the judgment remains subject to the control of the court until the motion is disposed of and, until that time, does not become final.” E.E.O.C. v. United Ass’n of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipefitting Indus. of the U.S. & Canada, Local No. 120, 235 F.3d 244, 250 (6th Cir. 2000).

¶6. To grant the motion under Rule 59, the chancery court need only be “convinced that a mistake of law or fact has been made, or that injustice would attend allowing the judgment to stand.” See Maness, 2018 WL 379125, at *13 (¶69) (Maxwell, J., specially concurring) (quoting McNeese v. McNeese, 119 So. 3d 264, 272 (¶20) (Miss. 2013)). This is an independent basis for granting the motion, distinct from the court’s authority to order a new trial on the presentation of newly discovered evidence. Id. “When hearing a motion under Rule 59(e), a trial court proceeds de novo, if not ab initio. Recognizing that to err is human, Rule 59(e) provides the trial court the proverbial chance to correct its own error to the end that we may pretermit the occasion for a less than divine appellate reaction.” Bruce v. Bruce, 587 So. 2d 898, 904 (Miss. 1991). A Rule 59 motion is the “functional equivalent” of a motion for rehearing on appeal. King v. King, 556 So. 2d 716, 722 (Miss. 1990).

¶7. Although Rule 59(a) refers to a “new trial,” when a case was tried to the court, the formality of a full retrial is not required. Under Rule 59(a), the chancellor “may open the judgment if one has been entered, take additional testimony, amend findings of fact and conclusions of law or make new findings and conclusions, and direct the entry of a new judgment.” Id.

¶8. Motions under Rule 59 should be distinguished from motions under Rule 60(b), which seek “extraordinary relief” from a judgment that is truly final. Rule 60(b) motions are for “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” and “should be denied when they are merely an attempt to relitigate the case.” S. Healthcare Servs. Inc. v. Lloyd’s of London, 110 So. 3d 735, 742 (¶14) (Miss. 2013). “[T]he trial court has considerably broader discretionary authority under Rule 59(e) to grant relief than it does under Rule 60(b).” King, 556 So. 2d at 722.

¶9. In Adams v. Green, 474 So. 2d 577, 582 (Miss. 1985), the supreme court quoted its 1854 decision in Dorr v. Watson, 28 Miss. 383 (1854), which has been “consistently applied in case after case” ever since:

The granting of a new trial rests in a great measure upon the sound discretion of the court below, to be exercised under all the circumstances of the case with reference to several legal rules as well as the justice of a particular case. If a new trial be refused, a strong case must be shown to authorize the appellate court to say that it was error; and so, if it be granted, it must be manifest that it was improperly granted.
“[G]iven the important corrective role of new-trial motions, the discretion granted to the court is exceedingly broad.” Barriffe v. Estate of Nelson, 153 So. 3d 613, 618 (¶22) (Miss. 2014).

¶10. Sitting as an appellate court, we are in no position to second guess the chancellor on whether he made an error in his initial credibility determinations. We therefore can find no abuse of discretion in granting the Rule 59 motion.

That’s a helpful elucidation not only of the scope of R59, but also how it functions, what authority the court may exercise under it, and how far the court may go to use it to avoid an unjust decision.

I have to add for all of us now-older lawyers who were practicing when the MRCP went into effect: You have to love Judge Fair’s reference to the “new” rules of civil procedure in ¶4.

Oh, and that business about the so-called Motion for Reconsideration … more about that from the MSSC later.

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