The Limits of In Terrorem

May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Back in 2014, the MSSC tacked on a good faith exception to in terrorem clauses in wills and trusts. The case was Parker v. Benoist, and you can read a post about it at this link.

Fast forward to 2019, and the in terrorem issue was once again before the appellate courts, this time the COA, and this time with a peculiar set of facts.

Joan Roosa, widow of Colonel Stuart Roosa, an astronaut on the Apollo 14 moon mission, executed her will in 2002. She followed with two codicils in 2004 and 2007. The 2002 will bequeathed her estate among all of her children and grand children. The 2007 codicil left everything to her daughter Rosemary. The 2002 will included an in terrorem clause.

The original will was admitted to probate, and shortly after Rosemary submitted the two codicils. The other children and grandchildren (led by Joan’s son Christopher) contested the validity of the second codicil charging that Rosemary had exercised undue influence. They also contended that Rosemary had triggered the forfeiture provision of the in terrorem clause.

A jury was empaneled to consider the issue of devisavit vel non as to the second codicil. It returned a verdict finding it not to be valid.

On the issue of forfeiture, the chancellor ruled that Rosemary had acted in good faith and denied the request that she be deemed to have forfeited her bequest under the will.

Christopher appealed on several issues, but for our purposes we will focus on the chancellor’s ruling on the forfeiture.

The COA affirmed in Estate of Roosa: Roosa v. Roosa, decided April 23, 2019. Judge McCarty wrote the opinion for the court:

¶8. The chancery court found that Rosemary should not forfeit her share of her mother’s estate due to attempting to probate the second codicil. Christopher argues that the forfeiture provision should be enforced against Rosemary because she did not act in good faith when submitting the second codicil for probate. In response, Rosemary argues that submitting a codicil for probate is not contesting the will, so the forfeiture provision is not triggered at all. Alternatively, Rosemary contends that the forfeiture provision is not applicable since she submitted the second codicil in good faith.

¶9. An in terrorem clause in a will acts to frighten a beneficiary that any benefit they might receive will be forfeited if they contest or otherwise dispute the validity of the will. See Taylor v. Rapp, 124 S.E.2d 271, 272 (Ga. 1962). Joan’s will contained just such a forfeiture provision. It read in relevant part:

If any beneficiary hereunder shall contest the probate or validity of this Will or any provision thereof, or shall institute or join in (except as a party defendant) any proceeding to contest the validity of this Will or to prevent any provision thereof from being carried out in accordance with its terms (regardless of whether or not such proceedings are instituted in good faith and with probable cause), than all benefits provided for such beneficiary are revoked and such benefits shall pass to the residuary beneficiaries of this Will (other than such beneficiary) in the proportion that the share of each such residuary beneficiary bears to the aggregate of the effective shares of the residuary.

¶10. The forfeiture clause explicitly states that “regardless” of whether a beneficiary starts proceedings “in good faith and with probable cause” that they will be forfeited from benefitting under the estate. During the life of the litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court declared forfeiture provisions like this unenforceable as a matter of law. See Parker v. Benoist, 160 So. 3d 198, 205 (¶15) (Miss. 2015). The Court held that “[a] strict interpretation of no-contest provisions in wills would hamper courts’ goal of determining what is, once and for all, the will of the testator,” and that “[a] bona fide inquiry into the validity of the will should not be defeated by language contained in the will itself.” Id. at 206. As a result, if a will contained a forfeiture provision, it also had to have a requirement that it would only be enforced if it had a good faith exception. Id.

¶11. Rosemary’s will contained the exact same forfeiture provision that the Supreme Court held unenforceable in Parker. Id. at 203 (¶9). As a result, the chancery court found that “as a matter of law the [forfeiture] clause in this case is unenforceable because it fails to contain a good faith exception.” This does not delete the forfeiture provision but instead reforms it to include an exception for good faith actions by beneficiaries. Id. at 205-06 (¶¶12-15).

¶12. The first question we must resolve is whether the forfeiture clause even applies to Rosemary. Her argument on appeal is that it cannot be applied since she did not contest the will per se but instead only submitted the second codicil for probate. However, the plain language of Joan’s will captures more conduct than simply contesting the will. The forfeiture clause applies when any beneficiary tries to “prevent any provision [of the will] from being carried out in accordance with its terms . . . .” The second codicil Rosemary submitted to probate dramatically changed the amounts her siblings would take under their mother’s will (among other significant changes). Under the express language of the forfeiture provision in Joan’s will and the specific nature of the second codicil, we find that the forfeiture provision is applicable to Rosemary.

¶13. This does not end the inquiry, as we must determine whether Rosemary acted in good faith in submitting the second codicil for probate. In Parker, our Supreme Court noted that the evidence was sufficient for it to determine good faith and probable cause, rather than remand for the chancery court to conduct an inquiry. Id. at 206-07 (¶16). Likewise, we will determine if sufficient evidence supports Rosemary’s claim that she submitted the second codicil in good faith and based on probable cause. In the context of a will contest, “[p]robable cause exists when, at the time of instituting the proceeding, there was evidence that would lead a reasonable person, properly informed and advised, to conclude that there was a substantial likelihood that the challenge would be successful.” Id. at 206 (¶15) (quoting Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 8.5 cmt. c. (2003)). “The determination of good faith and probable cause should be inferred from the totality of the circumstances.” Id.

The court went on to analyze the facts and concluded that Rosemary had acted in good faith, affirming the chancellor.

This case is a reminder of two points: (1) that an in terrorem clause is enforceable if it includes a good faith provision; and (2) that if an in terrorem clause does not include good faith language the court will reform it to include a good-faith exception.

Prerequisites to Grandparent Visitation

May 20, 2019 § Leave a comment

After the chancellor dismissed her petition for grandparent visitation, Angela Vermillion appealed, arguing that the chancellor had applied a wrong legal standard. In Vermillion v. Vermillion, handed down March 19, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Carlton’s opinion is informative on the question of what a grandparent must prove in order to be entitled to visitation:

¶20. Angela next argues that the chancellor applied the wrong legal standard with respect to grandparent visitation; specifically, by refusing to consider section 93-16-5, which addresses the best interest of the child. Angela asserts that she began her relationship and bonding with her grandchild before Chella Rose’s birth and that the chancellor erred by failing to consider “Angela’s effort prior to the live birth.” Angela maintains that “[t]he proof has shown that through the second and third trimester of pregnancy, everyone was happy.” Angela asserts that the chancellor is required to consider section 93-16-5 prior to sustaining a motion for a directed verdict and dismissing Angela’s claim with prejudice.

¶21. Our careful review of relevant precedent shows that grandparents seeking visitation rights must first satisfy the requirements of section 93-16-3 before the chancellor is required to address the best interests of the child. In Aydelott [v. Quartaro], 124 So. 3d [97] at 100 (¶10) [(Miss. Ct. App. 2013)] (internal quotation marks omitted), this Court outlined the factors that the grandparents in that case had to prove in order “to have the statutory right to petition for visitation . . . .” This Court explained that the grandparents “first had to show they had established a viable relationship with each granddaughter.” Id. The grandparents “next had to show that ‘the parent or custodian of the child unreasonably denied the grandparent visitation rights with the child.’” Id. at 101 (¶10) (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 93-16-3(2)(a)). This Court then expressed that “[o]nly by the [grandparents’] establishment of a viable relationship and unreasonable denial of visitation could [they] reach the polestar consideration for statutory grandparent visitation—whether visitation rights of the grandparent with the child would be in the best interests of the child.” Id. at (¶11) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 93-16-3(2)(b)). This Court explained that “[g]randparent visitation is different than child custody, as there are other evidentiary considerations besides the child’s best interest that must be considered—namely, whether the grandparent has produced sufficient evidence to show he or she is authorized under the statute to be awarded visitation.” Id. at 103 (¶19).

¶22. Similarly, in Hillman v. Vance, 910 So. 2d 43, 47 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005), this Court held that because the chancellor found that the grandparent seeking visitation failed to meet one of the requirements of section 93-16-3(2), the chancellor could have disposed of the visitation request without conducting a best-interest analysis under Martin [v. Coop, 693 So.2d 912 (Miss. 1997)]. See also Smith [v. Martin], 222 So. 3d [255] at 258 (¶2) [(Miss.2017)] (affirming the chancellor’s judgment granting visitation rights to the grandparents when the chancellor considered the Martin factors only “[a]fter determining that the [grandparents] were entitled to visitation under both section 93-16-3(1) and section 93-16-3(2) . . .”).

¶23. Since the record reflects that Angela failed to meet her burden of proving that she had established a viable relationship with Chella Rose, we find that the chancellor was not required to consider section 93-16-5 before granting the motion for directed verdict. This issue lacks merit.

There are, as we know, two types of grandparent visitation. The first, which Professor Bell refers to as “Type 1” is available to grandparents whose child has lost visitation rights and the court finds that visitation is in the child’s best interest.

The court was dealing here with what Bell calls “Type 2” grandparent visitation, which applies to all grandparents who can establish (1) that they have enjoyed a viable relationship with the child(ren) and (2) that the parents are unreasonably denying visitation. Only after those prerequisites are established does the court then analyze the child’s best interest.

Best interest and whether visitation is in the child’s best interest are, under either type visitation, analyzed via the Martin v. Coop factors.

Reprise: Child Support that Isn’t

May 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

Reprise replays posts from the past that you may find useful today.

CHILD SUPPORT AS A MIRAGE

August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Any agreement that provides for child support must be found by the judge to be adequate and sufficient, and it must be definite and specific enough to be enforceable.

Most agreements meet those requirements. You won’t go far astray if the child support is within the statutory guidelines and the language awarding it is clear and unambiguous as to how it was calculated, the exact amount to be paid, the due dates, and its duration (e.g., “until further order of a court of competent jurisdiction,” or “until the minor child is emancipated by operation of law or order of this court,” etc.).

These requirements don’t stop lawyers from presenting some pretty fanciful child support arrangements that sometimes make chancellors scratch their heads. Here are some that have been proven not to be allowable under Mississippi law, that you should avoid:

  • An unspecified amount. In Lowrey v. Lowrey, 919 So.2d 1111, 1112 (Miss.App. 2005), the court rejected a provision that the mother would pay child support in the form of buying clothes for her children “in an amount that she can afford.” The provision is so indefinite as to be unenforceable. It also violates the fundamental principle that a person can not be held in contempt for failure to comply with a court order that is too vague or ambiguous to be understood. The court in Lowrey said at ¶33, “As it stands, a finding of adequacy and sufficiency depends upon enforceability of the child support provisions contained in a property settlement agreement.”
  • Percentage child support. A provision that “husband shall pay 14% of his adjusted gross income as child support” is unacceptable. In Hunt v. Asanov, 975 So.2d 899, 902 (Miss.App. 2008), the court stated, “Before a party may be held in contempt for failure to comply with a judgment, ‘the judgment must be complete within itself … leaving open no matter or description or designation out of which contention may arise as to meaning’”  [Citations omitted]. In order to determine what the father’s obligation might be or might have been, the court must look beyond the four corners of the judgment to extraneous earnings data and other information that in all likelhood is in controversy. The argument may be made that the case of Rogers v. Rogers, 919 So.2d 184, 188-89 (Miss.App. 2005) is contra. In that case, the COA held as unambiguous a provision that the husband would pay “14% of his adjusted gross income or $600 a month.” The argument raised by appellant there was that the apparent dichotomy betweeen 14% and $600 created an unresolvable ambiguity. The court rejected that argument and found the language clear, as did the chancellor. Rogers, however, did not directly address the problem of enforceability created by the need of the trial court to consider extraneous evidence to make a complete judgment, and the court pointed out that the $600 amount specified was clear enough to give the appellant an idea of his obligation. I do not see Rogers as an endorsement of percentage child support.
  • Amount tied to unspecified return. In Rudder v. Rudder, 675, 678 (Miss. 1985), the court found a provision that the husband would pay any income or divident received from “any investments in the name of the child” was too “indefinite in amount, type, whereabouts, and the name of the holder.” The court held that the award was worthless, as a practical matter, to the custodial parent for enforcement. This type of support order is a subspecie of percentage child support. It requires the court to look to material extraneous from the four corners of the judgment in order to enforce it.
  • Lump sum. In Pittman v. Pittman, 909 So.2d 148, 153 (Miss.App. 2005), the court reversed a chancellor’s award of $26,000 in residential equity as additional child support that he said was more ” … in the nature of child support than accumulated assets.” The COA held that the chancellor has no authority to make an award of lump sum child support. If the chancellor lacks such authority, then I am certain that a chancellor lacks authority to approve such an agreement between the parties. Note: Professor Bell says that the statute authorizing guardians to settle claims on behalf of wards has been held to allow lump sum settlements in paternity actions. Bell on Mississippi Family Law, 2d Ed., §11.06[2][b], p. 321.

The kinds of alternative child support provisions that lawyers come up with is only limited by the imagination. It is the court’s duty, however, to make sure that the provisions are adequate and sufficient for the support and maintenance of the child. The further you stray from statutory guideline child support the more likely it is that you will be sent back to the drawing board.

When you draft an agreement you want it to produce tangible benefits for your client. The last thing you should want is for a court to find that language you threw together heedlessly is no more than an illusory mirage or an insubstantial chimera.

Factors for Sanctions

May 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

Dana and Kevin Wilson obtained a TRO against Kevin’s ex-wife, Becky, following a series of unfriendly encounters and confrontations. On the issue of whether to grant a permanent injunction, however, the court granted Becky’s motion for summary judgment. Becky then filed an application for attorney’s fees under MRCP 11 and 54(d), which the chancellor granted in part. Dana and Kevin appealed.

in Wilson v. Wilson, decided March 12, 2019, the COA affirmed and addressed the court’s awarding of sanctions and the factors that trial courts are supposed to consider in their award. Chief Judge Barnes wrote the opinion:

¶14. Becky filed an application for attorney’s fees under Rule 11 and Rule 54(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Whether to award monetary sanctions under the Litigation Accountability Act is left to the trial court’s discretion. In re Spencer, 985 So. 2d 330, 336-37 (¶19) (Miss. 2008) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 11-55-7) (Rev. 2002)). This is also true for sanctions awarded under Rule 11. Id. at 337 (¶19) (citing M.R.C.P. 11(b)). In addressing whether to award monetary sanctions, the chancery court examined each of the following factors:

(a) The extent to which any effort was made to determine the validity of any action, claim or defense before it was asserted, and the time remaining within which the claim or defense could be filed;

(b) The extent of any effort made after the commencement of an action to reduce the number of claims being asserted or to dismiss claims that have been found not to be valid;

(c) The availability of facts to assist in determining the validity of an action, claim or defense;

(d) Whether or not the action was prosecuted or defended, in whole or in part, in bad faith or for improper purpose;

(e) Whether or not issues of fact, determinative of the validity of a party’s claim or defense, were reasonably in conflict;

(f) The extent to which the party prevailed with respect to the amount of and number of claims or defenses in controversy;

(g) The extent to which any action, claim or defense was asserted by an attorney or party in a good faith attempt to establish a new theory of law in the state, which purpose was made known to the court at the time of filing;

(h) The amount or conditions of any offer of judgment or settlement in relation to the amount or conditions of the ultimate relief granted by the court;

(i) The extent to which a reasonable effort was made to determine prior to the time of filing of an action or claim that all parties sued or joined were proper parties owing a legally defined duty to any party or parties asserting the claim or action;

(j) The extent of any effort made after the commencement of an action to reduce the number of parties in the action; and

(k) The period of time available to the attorney for the party asserting any defense before such defense was interposed.

Miss. Code Ann. § 11-55-7. The chancery court addressed every relevant factor set forth in section 11-55-7 and found: (1) the Wilsons failed to investigate the validity of their claims; (2) the Wilsons failed to make an effort to reduce the number of claims against Becky; (3) all facts were “readily available to the Wilsons”; (4) “the Wilsons prosecuted the actions for an improper purpose”; (5) there were no issues of fact reasonably in conflict; (6) the Wilsons did not prevail with respect to any claim, and they were not granted any relief or offer any settlement; (7) Becky did not owe a duty to the Wilsons to explain why she was on a public street; and (8) although the Wilsons dismissed Martha from the case, they did not make an effort to dismiss Becky. [Fn omitted] Therefore, finding that Becky had incurred expenses of $715.50 and attorney’s fees of $8,287.50 since January 4, 2018, the Wilsons were ordered to pay Becky $9,003, plus interest.

Dana and Kevin argued that the chancellor’s findings were not supported by evidence in the record, but the COA analyzed the proof and affirmed the trial court.

This is a pretty useful template for proof if you find yourself having to present a case for sanctions. But I have to add that most judges in my experience do not look favorably on sanctions. There has to be a strong reason to discourage people from pursuing their legal remedies.

No Longer Competing Jurisdiction over TPR

May 14, 2019 § 3 Comments

You might recall that in the case of MDHS v. Watts, 116 So.3d 1056 (Miss. 2012), the MSSC held that a chancery court was not required to hold its exclusive jurisdiction over adoption in abeyance to allow a youth court to proceed to termination of parental rights (TPR) of the parents.

When Watts was decided, there were two TPR statutes: one was a stand-alone statute that allowed for TPR without adoption (although that was proven not true in Chism v. Bright), and the other was part of the adoption statute.

Some four years after Watts the legislature amended the TPR and adoption statutes and made important changes that had the effect of eviscerating Watts. It added MCA § 93-17-7(1) to the adoption statutes. That section states: “No infant shall be adopted to any person if a parent whose parental rights have not been terminated under the Mississippi Termination of Parental Rights Law (MTPRL), after having been summoned, shall appear and object thereto before the making of a decree of adoption.” Simply put, now all TPRs proceed under the MTPRL.

Another change was to MCA § 93-15-105. Added is subsection (1), which says that if the youth court has taken jurisdiction over an abused or neglected child, it has original exclusive jurisdiction over any TPR proceeding as to the parents of that child. In the case of M.A.S. v. MDHS, 245 So.3d 410, 415 (Miss. 2018), the MSSC held that:

¶ 17. There is also no longer competing jurisdiction between youth court and chancery court over parental-rights terminations involving abused or neglected children. House Bill 1240 added a new Section 93–15–105, which covers jurisdiction and venue of termination-of-parental-rights proceedings. Miss. Code Ann. § 93–15–105(1) (Supp. 2017). Under Section 93–15–105(1), “[t]he chancery court has original exclusive jurisdiction over all termination of parental rights proceedings” with one important exception. In direct contradiction to Watts, Section 95–15–105(1) unequivocally provides that a “county court, when sitting as a youth court with jurisdiction of a child in an abuse or neglect proceeding, has original exclusive jurisdiction to hear a petition for termination of parental rights against a parent of that child.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93–15–105(1) (Supp. 2017) (emphasis added).

¶ 18. This means that when a petition for adoption is filed in chancery court— as it must be [Fn omitted] — and the parents of that child contest the adoption, amended Section 93–17–7(1) now requires that the parents’ rights be terminated under the MTPRL before the contested adoption can be granted. The MTPRL provides that the chancery court also has jurisdiction over the termination proceeding unless the youth court already has jurisdiction over the child in an abuse or neglect proceeding. Miss. Code Ann. § 93–15–105(1) (Supp. 2017). If the youth court already has jurisdiction over the child in an abuse and neglect proceeding, then the youth court has exclusive original jurisdiction to hear a petition to terminate parental rights. So a person seeking to adopt the abused or neglected child no longer can simply seek the termination of the parents’ rights as part of her adoption petition. Instead, the MTPRL makes clear she must first petition for the termination of parental rights in youth court, before she can seek an adoption in chancery court.

Watts on Westlaw now flies a red flag.

It’s not all that uncommon for foster parents who have gotten a child by youth court action to want to adopt their child. As long as youth court retains jurisdiction, however, the prerequisite TPR must be in that court, and keep in mind that the goal in youth court is reunification, which is not necessarily the goal of chancery court.

 

Proving Inability to Pay

May 13, 2019 § Leave a comment

When we think of the award of attorney’s fees in a divorce the first principle that comes to mind is “inability to pay.” We know and focus on the concept that the party with inability to pay will be entitled to attorney’s fees.

But inability to pay is only part of the formula. “The party seeking attorney’s fees is charged with the burden of proving inability to pay; usually where the party is able to pay his or her own attorney’s fees, an award of such fees is inappropriate.” Duncan v. Duncan, 915 So.2d 1124, 1128 (¶16)(Miss. Ct. App. 2005). [Emphasis added]

It’s that burden of proving that often is overlooked. The party’s mere assertion that he has the inability to pay, or a nodded affirmative to the question whether she can pay her own fees simply will not do the job. You have to put proof in the record that will support a finding by the judge that your client does not have the resources to pay.

In the COA case of Vandenbrook v. Vandenbrook, decided March 26, 2019, the court by Judge Carlton found the evidence lacking:

¶49. Based on our perusal of the record, the chancellor made no explicit findings addressing all of the McKee factors, either in her order, or on the record, but it can be surmised from the chancellor’s statement that she had considered them. [Fn 9] The more perplexing question is not the reasonableness of the amount awarded, but the basis for finding that Emma was not able to pay it. As noted, the chancellor stated: “But according to the McKee factors, you know, Emma has an inability to pay.” On the question of whether Emma had the ability to pay her own attorney’s fees, the chancellor offered no analysis of Emma’s financial condition that would support the conclusion that Emma was unable to pay them. During the chancellor’s discussion of the custody issue, she stated the following: “[Emma] has just entered the work force again, but it sounds like she’s got a stable job at this point. And it sounds like she has a stable home at this point.” We note that Emma testified that she could not pay her attorney’s fees. As stated, the burden was on Emma to prove that she could not pay her attorney’s fees. Although the decision to award attorney’s fees in a
divorce proceeding is left to the sound discretion of the chancellor, there must be evidence undergirding the chancellor’s decision that a party is unable to pay her attorney’s fees before an award can be made. Here, we find the record lacks such evidence. Therefore, we find that the chancellor erred in awarding attorney’s fees to Emma for the divorce proceeding, which ultimately resulted in Emma’s complaint for the divorce being dismissed. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the chancellor’s award of attorney’s fees for the chancellor to determine whether Emma has the inability to pay and to apply the McKee factors with supporting findings.

Fn 9 This Court in Evans v. Evans, 75 So. 3d 1083, 1090 (¶25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011),stated the following: “While this [C]ourt has held that a chancellor’s failure to apply the McKee factors is not necessarily itself reversible error, see Miley v. Daniel, 37 So. 3d 84, 87(¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009), the proof must at least support an accurate assessment of fees under the McKee criteria.”

I seriously doubt that this is a case where the chancellor overlooked the evidence in the record or failed to recite what evidence it was she relied on. My guess is that she had no evidence other than Emma’s assertion in her testimony upon which to base her finding. Why do I say that? Because I see it time and again. As I have posted here many times, lawyers for the most part devote little attention to making an adequate record to support an award of attorney’s fees.

My suggestion is that you spend a little less time on the more flamboyant issues like proof of adultery, and more time on the 8.05. Questions like “What money do you have to pay your attorney’s fees? How much have you had to borrow to pay? Why did you have to borrow? What effect will it have on your ability to buy the children’s school clothes if you have to pay your own attorney’s fees?” And so on. Oh, and while you’re at it, be sure to quiz the adverse party on his ability to pay, because his inability to pay may negate your claim.

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

May 10, 2019 § Leave a comment

Directed Verdict or Involuntary Dismissal?

May 8, 2019 § Leave a comment

“Juries render verdicts; judges render judgments.” — Lawrence Primeaux

You can quote me on that.

It happens every now and then that someone moves for a directed verdict in a chancery court bench trial. That can create a problem because the standard for directing a verdict is considerably different from that for an involuntary dismissal.

The distinction was at issue in the COA’s case of Vermillion v. Vermillion, decided March 19, 2019. In that case, the chancellor granted the defendants’ (Robyn’s and Douglas’s) motion for a directed verdict and dismissed the plaintiff’s (Angela’s) pleading seeking grandparent visitation rights. Judge Carlton wrote for the court:

¶10. Angela argues that the chancellor erred in granting Robyn and Douglas’s motion for a directed verdict. Angela asserts that because the case was tried without a jury, Robyn and Douglas should have filed a motion for involuntary dismissal, rather than a motion for a directed verdict. Angela also argues that the chancellor applied an erroneous interpretation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-16-3(2)–(3) (Rev. 2013); specifically, whether Angela established a viable relationship with Chella Rose.

¶11. We first address Angela’s procedural issue. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), which governs involuntary dismissals, “applies in actions tried by the court without a jury, where the judge is also the fact-finder.” All Types Truck Sales Inc. v. Carter & Mullings Inc., 178 So. 3d 755, 758 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), which governs directed verdicts, applies to jury trials, where the judge is not the fact-finder.” Id. at (¶12) (emphasis omitted). We recognize that “the appropriate motion in a case tried without a jury is not a motion for directed verdict, but for involuntary dismissal . . . .” Gulfport-Biloxi Reg’l Airport Auth. v. Montclair Travel Agency Inc., 937 So. 2d 1000, 1004 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). In similar cases, rather than reversing a trial court’s judgment granting a directed verdict due to a procedural error, this Court has considered such appeals under the standard of review for a motion for involuntary dismissal. Id. at 1006 (¶18); Ladner v. Stone County, 938 So. 2d 270, 273 (¶¶9-10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). We will therefore review the judgment at issue before us under the standard of review for Rule 41(b) involuntary dismissals.

¶12. In applying this standard, we recognize that “[a]ppellate courts . . . employ a more deferential standard of review when considering involuntary dismissals [at a bench trial] than when reviewing grants of directed verdicts” at a jury trial. All Types Truck Sales, 178 So. 3d at 758 (¶13). Rule 41(b) involuntary dismissals are reviewed under a “substantial evidence/manifest-error standard,” rather than the de novo standard applied when reviewing directed verdicts. Id. “A judge should grant a motion for involuntary dismissal if, after viewing the evidence fairly, rather than in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the judge would find for the defendant.” Id. (quoting Gulfport-Biloxi Reg’l Airport Auth., 937 So. 2d at 1004 (¶13)). “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.” Id.

The court went on to analyze the evidence and the judge’s ruling and found no error in the dismissal despite the wrong standard.

This case illustrates how you can hand your opponent a ground for appeal simply by using incorrect terminology. Save your directed verdicts for jury trials. That’s where they belong. Bench trials call for a motion for involuntary dismissal per MRCP 41(b) at the conclusion of the plaintiff’s case.

A previous post on this topic is here.

Asking for a Change of Mind

May 7, 2019 § 1 Comment

After the trial court denied her petition for modification of custody, Joni Warner filed something she called a Motion for Reconsideration. As I have posted here before, there is no such thing as a motion for reconsideration under the MRCP, and the use of that term poses a challenge not only to the trial court that is called upon to rule on it, but also to the reviewing court that is called upon to figure out the legal standard by which to assess the trial court’s ruling.

In Warner v. Thomas, decided March 19, 2019, the COA affirmed the trial court and fleshed out the confusion that is reconsideration. Judge McDonald wrote for a unanimous court:

A. Motion for Reconsideration

¶27. After the trial court denied the petition for modification, Warner filed a motion for reconsideration, making substantially the same arguments she made in her Petition but adding that the evidence merited a finding under section 93-5-24(9) that Thomas had a “history of perpetuating family violence” and should not enjoy joint custody. Under the Rules of Civil Procedure, the motion for reconsideration technically no longer exists. See Maness v. K&A Enters. of Miss. LLC, 250 So. 3d 402, 419 (¶68) (Miss. 2018) (Maxwell, J., specially concurring and joined by four other justices). Warner’s motion to reconsider could be construed as a Rule 60(b)(3) motion because Warner claimed in her motion for a new trial under Rule 59 that she had located a witness who could provide testimony about the basketball incident. However, under Rule 60(b)(3), it must also be alleged and shown that the newly discovered evidence could not have been discovered by due diligence. “[N]ew evidence is ‘evidence in existence of which a party was excusably ignorant, discovered after trial.’” Dean v. Slade, 164 So. 3d 468, 473 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (quoting Page v. Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., 728 So. 2d 1075, 1079 (¶12) (Miss. 1998)). Warner’s motion was silent about the identity of the witness and the content of that witness’s testimony. More importantly, the motion is silent about why Warner could not have found the witness earlier. She acknowledges in her brief that she only sought an impartial witness to the basketball incident after the trial court had ruled that no such witness had testified. Warner should have anticipated the need for such a witness and only acted when the trial court noted her lack of evidence. Without a showing that the new evidence was substantive and a good reason why Warner was ignorant of it prior to the August hearing, the trial court properly denied Warner’s post-trial motions under Rule 60(b)(3).

B. Motion for New Trial

¶28. With respect to the trial court’s ruling under Rule 59, we have stated that 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. Dissolution of Pevey v. Pevey, 2017-CA-01144-COA, 2018 WL 4089685, at *1 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. Aug. 28, 2018); Maness, 250 So. 3d at 419 (¶¶69, 71). A party may only obtain relief on a motion for new trial upon showing: (1) an intervening change in controlling law, (2) availability of new evidence not previously available, or (3) the need to correct a clear error of law or to prevent manifest injustice. Miller v. Smith, 229 So. 3d 148, 154-55 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). 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 Pevey, 2018 WL 4089685, at *2 (¶6); Maness, 250 So. 3d at 419 (¶69).

¶29. The appellate court reviews a trial court’s denial of a motion for a new trial for abuse of discretion. Miller, 229 So. 3d at 154 (¶27); McLaughlin., 249 So. 3d at 1084 (¶8). In the “Order Denying the Motion for Reconsideration” the trial court made specific factual findings on the proof Warner provided to show that Thomas did not have a “history of perpetrating family violence.” It found that the “Domestic Abuse and Protective Orders” and Warner’s testimony about Thomas’s slapping the child was countered by Thomas and his mother’s testimony. It found that there was no serious injury caused and this single incident did not constitute a “history of perpetrating violence” to trigger a presumption against continuing joint custody between the parties. We find that the trial court applied the proper legal analysis in determining that there was no basis for a new trial, and thus it did not abuse its discretion. See Lee v. Lee, 154 So. 3d 904, 909 (¶¶25-26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014).

A post on Maness is at this link.

 

Worth a Thousand Words

May 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

Chris Vandenbrook wanted photographs of the condition of the marital home to be admitted into evidence in his divorce trial, but the chancellor refused unless he could pinpoint the exact date when they were taken. Chris appealed.

His case highlights two important evidentiary considerations: First, that the foundation for admission of a photograph is simply evidence sufficient to to support a finding that it is a true depiction of what the offeror purports it to be; and Second, that you are not likely to get a chancellor reversed based on her evidentiary rulings.

Here is how Judge Carlton of the COA spelled it out in Vandenbrook v. Vandenbrook, decided March 26, 2019:

¶40. Next, Chris contends that the chancellor erred in not admitting photographs of the condition of the marital home into evidence. The chancellor refused to allow the
photographs into evidence unless Chris could state the precise date the photographs had been taken. Chris had previously testified that he began taking the photographs at the time Emma filed for divorce, but he did not have his cell phone with the photographs present, and the chancellor did allow him more time to retrieve it. He contends that he satisfied the requirements of Mississippi Rules of Evidence 1001(d) and 901(b)(l) and therefore the chancellor should have allowed the photographs into evidence.

¶41. A chancellor’s decision not to admit evidence will not be overturned unless the chancellor abused her discretion to such an extent that a party has been prejudiced. In re Estate of Laughter, 23 So. 3d 1055, 1064 (¶42) (Miss. 2009). By asking Chris to authenticate the photographs by verifying the dates they were taken, the chancellor was merely requiring that Chris produce sufficient evidence to support a finding that the photographs were what he claimed they were.

¶42. We find error, albeit harmless error, in the chancellor not admitting the photographs into evidence. Mississippi Rule of Evidence 901(a) states: “To satisfy the requirement of authenticating or identifying an item of evidence, the proponent must produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.” Chris testified that he started taking the photographs from the time that Emma filed for divorce, and he testified that he took all the pictures himself. He further testified that they depict the condition of the marital home during a time that Emma was living there. We find that his testimony was sufficient to satisfy Rule 901(a) and that the court should have admitted the photographs. Even so, “[i]n order for a case to be reversed on the admission or exclusion of evidence, it must result in prejudice and harm or adversely affect a substantial right of a party.” Bower v. Bower, 758 So. 2d 405, 415 (¶46) (Miss. 2000). Although we find error, we deem it to be harmless. “The chancellor has the sole responsibility to determine the credibility of witnesses and evidence, and the weight to be given each.” Lee v. Lee, 798 So. 2d 1284, 1288 (¶14) (Miss. 2001). With this precedent in mind, we do not find that the exclusion of the photographs would have affected the chancellor’s custody determination.

I agree with Judge Carlton that the chancellor was saying, in effect, that she was not satisfied with the foundation that Chris had laid. She may have questioned whether the photos really did show the condition at the time that Chris was claiming, and she wanted more detailed proof. Or, it could be that a difference of a day or two when the pictures were taken could have made a difference. We don’t know from the record.

A previous post about how to get a photograph into evidence is at this link.

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