Late to the Party

July 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

Terrie Singleton and Orlando Buford had a son together. Orlando filed an action in chancery seeking custody of the child. On the day set for hearing Terrie failed to appear, and, based on the undisputed testimony of Orlando and his mother, he was granted custody.

Neither Terrie nor her attorney appeared because the attorney had calendered the case for the wrong date. Later that day the attorney discovered the error and asked for a continuance, which was denied. The attorney then filed a “motion for reconsideration” even before the judgment was entered, followed by a motion for new trial “or reconsideration” seven days after the judgment was entered. The chancellor denied the relief and Terrie appealed.

In Singleton v. Buford the COA reversed and remanded in a decision rendered June 18, 2019. Judge Jack Wilson’s opinion for the majority devoted considerable attention to whether Terrie’s post-trial motion were for R59 or R60 relief, and then turned its attention to whether the chancellor abused his discretion in not granting rehearing:

¶18. On the facts of this case, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the chancery court abused its discretion by denying Singleton’s motion for reconsideration or a new trial. [Fn omitted] A child custody case involves more than just the competing interests of ordinary civil litigants. As this Court has explained,

It passes without citation that, in child custody cases, the paramount consideration is the best interest of the child. . . . Certainly, a more prudent determination of custody may be made when based upon evidence presented from both parents rather than evidence presented by only one. Where a chancellor has the opportunity to consider the argument of both parents, the facts and circumstances affecting his determination are presumably more fully developed. It follows that a chancellor is able to make a more informed decision, thereby ensuring to a higher degree of certainty that the best interest of the child is met.

Wade v. Wade, 967 So. 2d 682, 684 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007).

¶19. Wade’s discussion of this issue is sound, and it applies directly to the facts of this case. There was no persuasive reason not to allow Singleton to present evidence and provide the court with additional information relevant to the custody determination. Allowing her to present evidence would have allowed the chancellor “to make a more informed decision, thereby ensuring a higher degree of certainty that the best interest of the child is met.” Id. And on the other side of the balance, the need for “[f]inality of judgments as a policy reason for denial is not nearly so strong” when a motion is filed within ten days of the judgment. Bruce, 587 So. 2d at 904. On these facts, we hold that the chancery court abused its discretion by relying on the “need to achieve finality in litigation” [Fn 7] and by denying Singleton’s motion.

[Fn 7] As noted above, the chancery court relied on Stringfellow v. Stringfellow, 451 So. 2d 219 (Miss. 1984), for this proposition. Stringfellow was a Rule 60(b) case involving issues of alimony and property division, and its facts bear little resemblance to the instant case. In Stringfellow, the chancery court held a hearing on alimony and property division, both sides presented evidence, and the court entered a final judgment. Id. at 220. The exwife later filed a Rule 60(b) motion in which she alleged that her ex-husband committed a fraud on the court, but the Supreme Court found no evidence of that. Id. at 222. The exwife also alleged that her lawyer failed to conduct adequate discovery, but the Supreme Court held that, without more, attorney incompetence “does not give rise to Rule 60(b)(2) relief.” Id.

¶20. We emphasize that a legal determination that a trial judge committed an abuse of discretion “does not ‘imply bad faith or an intentional wrong on the part of the trial judge.’” Sanford v. Dudley, 196 So. 3d 1106, 1112 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (brackets omitted) (quoting White v. State, 742 So. 2d 1126, 1136 (¶42) (Miss. 1999)). Rather, “an abuse of discretion is viewed as a strict legal term.” Id. (quoting White, 742 So. 2d at 1136 (¶42)). As our Supreme Court has explained,

[J]udicial discretion is not boundless but is defined as a sound judgment which is not exercised arbitrarily, but with regard to what is right and equitable in circumstances and law, and which is directed by the reasoning conscience of the trial judge to just result. An abuse of discretion means clearly against logic and effect of such facts as are presented in support of the application or against the reasonable and probable deductions to be drawn from the facts disclosed upon the hearing.

Douglas v. Burley, 134 So. 3d 692, 697 (¶13) (Miss. 2012) (citations and quotation marks omitted). On the facts of this child custody case, there simply was no “sound” reason for denying Singleton’s motion. As a result, the denial was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion.

Carlton dissented, joined by Barnes and Greenlee. They would have ruled that Singleton failed to meet her burden of proof for relief under R59.

This is one of those haunting scenarios that recur in lawyers’ nightmares. Sometimes, though, there is more to the story than meets the eye on appeal. If the lawyer were habitually late or absent, the judge may have drawn a line. If so, the better practice would have been to include that in the order denying the motion. I’m not saying that was a factor in this particular case, but if it were the judge’s action is more understandable.

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