Rule 59 and the Court of Equity

May 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

Sometimes you want or need to argue that you should be granted R59 relief because this is a court of equity, and a new trial or rehearing, or new judgment are needed to do equity. The other side argues the rigid language of R59 and says the court can’t go beyond that.

In the case of Pevey v. Pevey, 2017-CA-01144-COA, 2018 WL 4089685 (August 28, 2018), an opinion yet unpublished in the Southern Reporter, Judge Fair (a former chancellor) of the COA wrote this in the unanimous opinion:

¶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. [ Maness v. K & A Enters. of Miss. LLC, No. 2017-CA-00173, ––– So.3d ––––, ––––, 2018 WL 3791250, at *12 (¶ 68) (Miss. Aug. 9, 2018) Id. at –––– (¶¶ 69, 71), 2018 WL 3791250, 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, ––– So.3d at –––– (¶ 69), 2018 WL 3791250, 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.

A previous post with a citation to Pevey is at this link. The Warner v. Thomas case at that link actually cites Pevey, despite the fact that it is unpublished in the Southern Reporter. I think the best practice is always to point out that the case you are citing is unpublished in the Southern Reporter, but you can also point out that it has been cited in other published decisions if it has. Another strategy is simply to use the authority cited in the unpublished case.

I think that a regrettable by-product of the MRCP has been a pharisaical tendency toward rigid application of the rules in chancery, losing sight that chancellors bring knowledge, wisdom, judgment, and a sense of fairness to bear. When you take that away from the judge and pen her in a rule cage with no room to maneuver, you might as well do away with the judge and simply look in the rule book for the answer.

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