The Flawed Tax Sale
February 27, 2019 § Leave a comment
It can only take a minimal flub in the steps leading up to a tax sale for the whole thing to be thrown out.
That’s the lesson you can take from the COA decision in Rebuild America, Inc. v. Drew, handed down January 22, 2019. In that case the chancellor had ruled that Jane Drew never got actual notice of the three tax sales that resulted in forfeiture of her property in Diamondhead, and the failure to notify her in compliance with the statutes rendered the sales — all three — completely ineffective and void. Here is how the COA concluded its unanimous ruling (Tindell not participating):
¶31. Drew was never given proper statutory notice that her property had been sold for taxes or of her right to redeem the property. As our Supreme Court recently reiterated, Mississippi law takes “a hard-line approach” to this issue: “the redemption-notice statute must be followed strictly.” Campbell Props., 2018 WL 6381141, at *4 (¶15). When the statute is not followed strictly, the tax sale is void ab initio—it has no legal effect whatsoever, and it is as if the sale never happened. City of Horn Lake, 2018 WL 2731592, at *3 (¶13). Because each successive tax sale in this case was void ab initio, Drew remains the rightful owner of the property. Accordingly, the judgment of the chancery court is AFFIRMED.
The two important principles are: (1) Mississippi tax sale notice laws must be strictly complied with; and (2) failure to follow the statutes strictly renders the sale void ab initio, meaning it is as if it never happened.
When you are considering whether to take a tax sale case, look at every single stage of the proceedings, and look carefully. It is not enough that there was substantial compliance with the statutes; the cases, of which there are many, demand a strict compliance with the notice and redemption provisions.
The Retirement Trigger
February 26, 2019 § Leave a comment
In a case last month the COA affirmed a chancellor’s dismissal of a an ex-wife’s petition filed 21 years after the divorce to “allocate and disburse retirement funds.” In the divorce case she had been granted only the divorce, custody, and child support; she had not sought any division of retirement or other funds, and the court did not order it. The case is Stubbs v. Stubbs, decided January 29, 2019.
That case is pretty straightforward and not particularly noteworthy, but it set me thinking about cases in which there is an agreement that, for instance, the husband will pay a percentage of his retirement benefits when he begins drawing them. I have seen those in military and railroad retirement, which is not otherwise divisible. PERS benefits would fit into that category.
If the court orders that an act be done beyond what would ordinarily be the statute of limitations (SOL) applicable to the order, does that stay the running of the statute?
Can one seek modification of that part of the order that has not yet taken effect? For example, could the ex-wife after 5 years, but before the retirement, ask the court to increase the percentage previously ordered, or does she have to wait until the retirement benefits begin?
We all know that a mere order of the chancery court is not adequate to protect the ex-wife’s interest in these scenarios. Either a QDRO or a court order in the form dictated by the military or Railroad Retirement Board is necessary to do so. Can SOL be pled to bar entry of a QDRO or similar order sought years after the original judgment on which it is based?
Just a few idle thoughts to ponder as we slog in our snowshoes toward another glorious Spring.
Judicial Estoppel or Not?
February 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
Judicial estoppel is the principal that prevents you from taking inconsistent positions in the course of litigation. An example might be where one admits adultery in a pleading, but then tries to deny it at trial.
A question of judicial estoppel arose in the adverse possession trial between the Winters and the Billings. The Winters claimed ownership of some land by adverse possession. In answering interrogatories, Mr. Billings stated seven times that he had not spoken with Mr. Winters about the land, but at trial he tried to testify that he had given Mr. Winters permission to use the land. Winters objected on the ground of judicial estoppel, and the chancellor overruled the objection. After the chancellor entered judgment in favor of the Billings, the Winters appealed on several grounds, one of which was that the judge erred in not ruling that the inconsistent statements were barred by judicial estoppel.
In Winters v. Billings, a COA decided January 15, 2019, the court affirmed the judge’s ruling on judicial estoppel. Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:
¶24. The Winterses assert that because Mr. Billings made seven statements in sworn interrogatories that he never spoke with Mr. Winters about the land, the chancellor should have judicially estopped Mr. Billings from asserting that he gave Mr. Winters permission to use the land.
¶25. “Judicial estoppel is designed to protect the judicial system and applies where intentional self-contradiction is being used as a means of obtaining unfair advantage in a forum provided for suitors seeking justice.” Kirk v. Pope, 973 So. 2d 981, 991 (¶31) (Miss. 2007) (internal quotation mark omitted). Our supreme court has held that there are three elements of judicial estoppel: “A party will be judicially estopped from taking a subsequent position if (1) the position is inconsistent with one previously taken during litigation, (2) a court accepted the previous position, and (3) the party did not inadvertently take the inconsistent positions.” Clark v. Neese, 131 So. 3d 556, 560 (¶16) (Miss. 2013).
¶26. The chancellor found that the jointly-submitted pretrial order indicated that “Mr. Billings gave Mr. Winters and his family ‘permission’ to use the disputed strip of property” and that the pleadings were amended to conform to that pretrial order. Furthermore, the chancellor noted that Mr. Winters indicated in his own testimony that he spoke with Mr. Billings about the land, and only the contents of that conversation were disputed. We also note that the interrogatories were vague as to their actual subject, but they meant to elicit general responses and do not focus on permission or lack thereof. “A chancellor sits as a fact-finder and in resolving factual disputes, is the sole judge of the credibility of witnesses.” Tice v. Shamrock GMS Corp., 735 So. 2d 443, 444 (¶3) (Miss. 1999). In this position, the chancellor may assess the materiality and relevance of answers to interrogatories, along with any inconsistent testimony thereto at trial and decide on its credibility. Mr. Billings’s assertion was not inconsistent with a prior position taken during litigation, the chancellor had not accepted the previous position, and the chancellor’s holdings indicated that at most Mr. Billings inadvertently may have taken the inconsistent positions.
¶27. Under our limited standard of review, we hold that the chancellor’s holding was not manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, nor did the chancellor apply an incorrect legal standard. Thus, we affirm.
- It’s not too far a stretch for the chancellor to suppose that Mr. Billings’s inconsistencies might have been inadvertent. The case took around 3 years to make it to trial, and lots of words get thrown around in a three-year span, some of which may be spoken or written based on misunderstanding. That pre-trial order was likely the nail in the coffin, so to speak, for the judicial estoppel argument.
- Just because your claim of judicial estoppel is shot down by the trial judge, it does not mean that you can’t cash in on the inconsistencies. As the COA said, ” … the chancellor may assess the materiality and relevance of answers to interrogatories, along with any inconsistent testimony thereto at trial and decide on its credibility.” In other words, you can hammer away at the witness about his credibility and apparent inability to get his story straight. That sort of thing can be loads of fun, particularly on cross-examination.
Reprise: The Case for General Relief
February 22, 2019 § Leave a comment
Reprise replays posts from the past that you may find useful today.
Demoting General Relief
July 28, 2015 § 4 Comments
One of the chief distinctions between chancery and the law courts is that chancery is often called upon to be a problem-solving venue, as opposed to a place where one goes to obtain a money judgment against another.
And the chancellor’s authority to fix the situation can extend beyond the specific relief spelled out in the pleadings.
Many, many cases can come to mind to illustrate what I am talking about, but here are a couple:
- A case in which there is an acrimonious battle over child custody. In the course of the trial, the proof develops that both of the parties are using the children as pawns and spies, and are downgrading the other parent to the children. The pleadings filed by each party asked only for custody. Is the chancellor precluded from addressing the deleterious conduct in her final judgment? Of course not. Chancellors often add an injunction against conduct like that, whether asked for in pleadings or not. That has been the practice in chancery as long as I have been around, and it should be.
- Another example could arise in a land-line case. That type case is often characterized by property damage and atrocities, threats, and breaches of the peace (as, for instance in this COA case). Faced with evidence of such misconduct, can the chancellor deal with it even in the absence of an express prayer for relief? I think she should.
The principle embodied in those cases is why pleadings in chancery court typically include the ending phrase ” … and (s)he prays for general relief.” General relief flows out of the reservoir of equitable power that a chancellor can draw on to solve the problem, not just award money judgments. That is, after all, what equity was created for in the first place.
In the case of Redmond v. Cooper, 151 Miss. 771, 119 So. 592 (1928), the court had this to say about general relief:
“A prayer for general relief is as broad as the equitable powers of the court. Under it, the court will shape its decree according to the equities of the case, and, broadly speaking, will grant any relief warranted by the allegations of the bill, whether it is the only prayer in the bill, or whether there is a special prayer for particular and different relief; and defects in the special prayer are usually cured by a general prayer. If the facts alleged are broad enough to warrant relief, it matters not how narrow the specific prayer may be, if the bill contains a prayer for general relief. The prayer for general relief serves to aid and supplement the special prayer by expanding the special relief sought, so as to authorize further relief of the same nature. It may also serve as a substitute for the prayer for special relief, and authorize relief of a different nature when that specially prayed is denied.”
No doubt the above was what the chancellor had in mind in the course of legal proceedings between Denise Pratt and Darlene Nelson. Pratt had been making threatening phone calls to Nelson, and had been driving by her home at night. On one day, over the course of a few hours, Pratt sent Nelson 78 text messages, 38 telephone messages, 38 phone calls, and numerous voicemail messages, both via landline and cell phones. Nelson testified that Pratt used profanity and threatened that she and members of her household “would burn alive.” Nelson’s daughter was awakened by one of the calls, became frightened by what she heard, and fell while running to her mother, suffering an injury that required stitches in an emergency room.
Nelson filed a petition for an ex parte emergency domestic relations order in municipal court. Later, she filed a petition for a domestic abuse protection order in chancery court. In both instances, she used the forms provided by the Mississippi Attorney General, pursuant to MCA 93-21-1 through 33.
Trial before the chancellor commenced, but could not be completed within the time allotted. The case had to be continued to another day. The chancellor found the evidence to that point sufficient to support an injunction against Pratt prohibiting her from going within 1,000 feet of any party to or witness in the proceeding until the hearing could be concluded. After the hearing had been reconvened and the proof was concluded, the chancellor ruled from the bench, in part [quoting from Fn 6 of the COA’s opinion cited below]:
“… people are entitled to be left alone. . . . I’m going to keep the restraining order that I set in place at the close of the plaintiff’s case. But I am going to up [the penalty] to $10,000 upon a . . . valid showing of violation of the restraining order that I entered against you, Mrs. Pratt. . . . I think that’s reasonable. . . . I see a pattern of how this has taken place. . . . It’s [been an] ongoing controversy . . . for quite some time.” When Pratt’s counsel asked if the order was granted under the Domestic Abuse Protection Act or under Rule 65, the chancellor responded that he was granting it under the “Chancery Court Rules, . . . a temporary restraining order [under Rule] 65(b), whether it is asked for or not, because that would be general relief.”
Pratt appealed, complaining that the chancellor had erred in issuing an injunction per MRCP 65 when a protective order under the statute should have been issued instead. The COA agreed with her and reversed and rendered in Pratt v. Nelson, decided July 21, 2015.
I can’t disagree with the COA’s conclusion that the chancellor in this particular case went beyond the scope of the domestic-violence statute and the limits of the relief that it allows. What gives me pause, though is that the underlying problem here remains unresolved. The chancellor was there to solve or at least address the problem, which appears from the record to have been serious. He tried to do that via general relief, and, from my reading of the case law, he was within the scope of that authority. The cases on general relief and its parameters are, for the most part, old cases, dating as far back as the 1880’s and into the 1970’s. But that does not indicate that the concept is dead. In Bluewater Logistics, LLC v. Williford, 55 So.3d 148 (Miss. 2011), the MSSC upheld a chancellor’s award of equitable relief against defendants where it had not been expressly pled, but the relief was justified and supported by the evidence.
It seems to me that, ever since the MRCP for the most part did away with entirely different procedures in chancery and the law courts, the appellate courts have been viewing equity in a more limited way, rather than in the expansive view that cases like Redmond employed. It seems that the appellate courts want equity to operate within rigid, prescribed parameters like the law courts, rather than in a more fluid, problem-solving fashion.
When we restrict a chancellor’s power to craft an adequate solution to a human situation in which lives, property, money, and relationships are involved, we can put all of those at risk in the name of proper procedure. Surely no reasonable person wants that kind of result. That’s why we have “general relief” and chancery courts in the first place.
That Which Must be Pled
February 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
Ever since the dawn of the MRCP, Mississippi has been at least nominally a notice pleading state. As R8 describes it, all that is required is a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief” and a demand stating the relief requested. Contrast that with the arcane rules that demanded prolix and convoluted pleadings.
So, the result is that pleading for plaintiffs is much more streamlined since the MRCP, right? Well, yes, compared with the situation pre-rules. BUT there are requirements of which one must be aware lest one lapse into error. Here are the Advisory Committee Notes to R8, which succinctly state what is required:
Rule 8 allows claims and defenses to be stated in general terms so that the rights of the client are not lost by poor drafting skills of counsel. Under Rule 8(a), “it is only necessary that the pleadings provide sufficient notice to the defendant of the claims and grounds upon which relief is sought.” See DynaSteel Corp. v. Aztec Industries, Inc., 611 So. 2d 977 (Miss. 1992). A plaintiff must set forth direct or inferential fact allegations concerning all elements of a claim. See Penn. Nat’l Gaming, Inc. v. Ratliff, 954 So. 2d 427, 432 (Miss. 2005). Motions or pleadings seeking modification of child custody must include an allegation that a material change has occurred which adversely affects the child or children. It is not sufficient to allege that an adverse change will occur if the modification is not granted. See, e.g., McMurry v. Sadler, 846 So. 2d. 240, 244 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). In cases involving the joinder of multiple plaintiffs, the complaint must contain the allegations identifying by name the defendant or defendants against whom each plaintiff asserts a claim, the alleged harm caused by specific defendants as to each plaintiff, and the location at which and time period during which the harm was caused. See 3M Co. v. Glass, 917 So. 2d 90, 92 (Miss. 2005); Harold’s Auto Parts, Inc. v. Mangialardi, 889 So. 2d 493, 495 (Miss. 2004). Failure to provide this “core information” is a violation of Rules 8 and 11. Plaintiffs in such cases must also plead sufficient facts to support joinder. Glass, 917 So. 2d at 93; Mangialardi, 889 So. 2d at 495. [My emphasis]
Often the inadequacy of the pleading is brought up via a R12(b)(6) motion which, when granted, allows leave to amend and correct the deficiency. In McMurry, supra, however, the defendant sprang the trap at trial, and when the plaintiff failed to move to amend the judge dismissed the pleading.
McMurry requires that all three elements of modification of custody be pled (i.e., material change, adverse effect, best interest). But there are custody modifications that involve detrimental or dangerous situation for the child a la Riley v. Doerner, 677 So.2d 740, 744 (Miss. 1996), with no adverse effect. In those cases you should spell out in your petition or complaint that there has been a material change creating a detrimental or dangerous situation for the child, and it is in the child’s best interest to change custody.
A Way to Improve Your Orders Via MEC
February 19, 2019 § 1 Comment
Former Chancery Clerk and now US District Court Clerk Arthur Johnston, sent me the following suggestion:
Another tip for lawyers, esp in chancery, would be to list in proposed orders the motions to be terminated if the proposed order is entered. That helps the clerk and the judge keep a clean docket and makes the motions and other reports true.
You filed a motion to compel and opposing counsel filed another motion about discovery. You reach an agreement with her to resolve both motions. In the agreed order you include the statement that “This order disposes of MEC nos. 18 and 24.”
Or, in the temporary order you could include the sentence, “This order disposes of plaintiff’s Motion for Temporary Relief, MEC no. 5, and defendant’s Motion to Grant Temporary Relief, MEC no. 9.”
One advantage of MEC is that everyone involved has access to the docket so you have a ready-made tool online, without having to drop everything and go to the courthouse to drag out the old General Docket Books. The more accurate and informative we make our electronic docket, the better and more useful tool it will be.
February 18, 2019 § Leave a comment
Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization
February 15, 2019 § 1 Comment
Supervised Visitation or Not
February 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
In most cases, it’s the COA telling a chancellor that he should not have ordered supervised visitation. The default setting for visitation is that it should be unsupervised and free of any unwarranted restrictions.
But in the final judgment of divorce between Christina and William Leblanc the chancellor refused to impose supervision or other restrictions on William’s visitation and Christina appealed, complaining that William had a history of drug problems that made supervision necessary.
In Leblanc v. Leblanc, decided October 23, 2018, by the COA, reversed on other grounds, the court remanded the visitation issue to the trial court to determine whether supervised visitation was required for the children’s best interest. Judge J. Wilson wrote the opinion for a unanimous court (Irving not participating):
¶66. “The chancellor has broad discretion when determining appropriate visitation and the limitations thereon.” Harrington v. Harrington, 648 So. 2d 543, 545 (Miss. 1994). “When the chancellor determines visitation, he must keep the best interest of the child as his paramount concern while always being attentive to the rights of the non-custodial parent, recognizing the need to maintain a healthy, loving relationship between the non-custodial parent and his child.” Id. “[T]here must be evidence presented that a particular restriction on visitation is necessary to avoid harm to the child before a chancellor may properly impose the restriction.” Id. “Otherwise, the chancellor’s imposition of a restriction on a non-custodial parent’s visitation is manifest error and an abuse of discretion.” Id. However, a chancellor may require visitation to be supervised based evidence of continued drug abuse by the non-custodial parent. See Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 12.08, at 378-79. A court may also order parents to continue to submit to drug testing. See McLemore v. McLemore, 762 So. 2d 316, 322 (¶19) (Miss. 2000).
¶ 67. Prior to trial in this case, the chancery court entered two orders requiring supervision of Billy’s visitation. The orders were based on concerns about Billy’s continued drug use. During the same time period, Billy failed both of his court-ordered drug tests, testing positive for methamphetamine and amphetamines in August 2016 and again in November 2016. A few months later at trial, the court heard additional testimony and evidence regarding Billy’s drug use and history of drug addiction. Billy admitted at trial that he had used drugs at home and “had some issues with drugs.” Billy did not testify that those issues had been addressed, nor is there any evidence that they were. There is no evidence in the record that Billy ever passed a drug test during the course of this case, and the results of his November 2016 drug test suggested that his drug use had actually increased. Despite these issues, the court’s final judgment awarded Billy substantial unsupervised visitation, including alternating weekends, holidays, and four weeks in the summer. The court’s opinion discussed Billy’s drug use and failed drug tests, but the court did not explain why supervision of his visitation was no longer necessary. Nor did the court require Billy to take any additional drug tests. Christina argues that the chancery court abused its discretion by permitting unsupervised visitation.
¶68. As stated above, in setting the terms of visitation, the chancery court “must keep the best interest of the child as [the court’s] paramount concern.” Harrington, 648 So. 2d at 545. Here, the chancery court initially restricted Billy’s visitation because of concerns about his drug use, and Billy continued to test positive for methamphetamine—and never passed a single drug test. Nonetheless, in its final judgment, the chancery court awarded Billy unsupervised visitation. Moreover, the court did so without providing any explanation as to why supervision was no longer necessary. For the reasons discussed above, it is necessary for us to reverse and remand the case on other grounds. We further hold that on remand the chancery court must determine whether unsupervised visitation is consistent with the children’s best interests and whether supervision is necessary to avoid harm to the children. It has been more than a year and a half since the final judgment was entered, so the chancery court should consider evidence regarding Billy’s exercise of unsupervised visitation during that time and the “circumstances at the time of the remand hearing.” Vaughn v. Davis, 36 So. 3d 1261, 1267 (¶18) (Miss. 2010). The court may also consider whether Billy should be required to submit to additional drug tests. See McLemore, 762 So. 2d at 322 (¶19).
Most of the heavy lifting in these cases is done by the side looking to impose restrictions on visitation. This case gives you a blueprint for the type evidence that the COA is looking for in the record to justify restrictions.
On the other hand, if you’re fighting restrictions and you feel that the chancellor has not sufficiently justified the non-imposition, file a R59 motion and make a request per R52(b) for the court to amend its ruling to make additional findings that support it.
Late Filing Requirements in MEC
February 12, 2019 § Leave a comment
It’s a nettlesome thing when all are assembled in the courtroom for hearing at the appointed time, and there is an announcement that one party filed a sheaf of papers at 5 pm the evening before. The filing may have been a pleading, or affidavits in a R56 case, or a counterclaim, or a defense, or supplemental discovery, or whatever. But the bottom line is that the judge, who conscientiously prepares for hearing by reviewing pleadings and other matter scheduled to come before her, has not seen any of it.
This situation is actually addressed in the MEC rules (officially named the Electronic Courts Administrative Procedures) at Section 3.A.10, which reads:
All motions, pleadings, and other papers filed electronically during or within twenty-four hours prior to a trial, hearing, or other proceeding relating to the case in which the filing occurs shall be accompanied by a paper copy of the filing to be distributed to the appropriate chambers by the clerk.
Clearly one can not comply with the letter of the rule if the filing is after the clerk’s office is closed for the day. My advice is to get a copy to the clerk’s office immediately when it opens for business with the request that the clerk deliver it to the judge right away. There will still be chagrin, but the bruise will not be as deep.
Oh, and you will make your judge and staff attorney happy if you will include in your notices of hearing and orders setting hearings the MEC document numbers for all pleadings and motions that will be presented. That goes, too, for respondents and defendants. Notify the court of the document numbers that the court is required to review before taking the bench. It’s more than a simple courtesy; it’s what the judge needs to be prepared. In this district we will not sign an order setting a matter for hearing, and you can not get a setting for a hearing until you provide the MEC document number(s).