Res Judicata and Subject Matter Jurisdiction

September 23, 2019 § Leave a comment

We all know that subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived or conferred on a court by consent. The court either has it or does not. And it is often said that it can be raised at any stage of the proceeding, although that is too sweeping a statement, as we will see.

But can the issue of subject matter jurisdiction become res judicata so that, if facts emerge that call it into question later, the issue cannot be raised at that point?

That question was at the center of a recent case before the COA. The procedural history is somewhat convoluted. Faith Abercrombie and her ex, Jonathan, were engaged in lengthy, contentious litigation over their adopted son, Reed. There had been prior judgments adjudicating that Mississippi had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA that had been appealed twice and were affirmed. After the chancellor ruled on March 9, 2017, on various issues, Faith filed a motion to set aside the order and all prior orders touching custody for lack of jurisdiction, claiming that Mississippi was not her son’s home state at any relevant time. When the motion was denied, Faith appealed.

In the meantime, with the appeal pending, Faith’s attorney learned that the adoption had been procured by fraud on the part of both Faith and Jonathan, and disclosed the fact to the court. On December 7, 2018, the chancellor vacated the original judgment of divorce, fined both of them, issued a writ of habeas corpus for the child, and directed the clerk to send copies of its order to the Louisiana adoption court and the district attorney. Faith filed a motion with the COA asking the court to stay execution of the order vacating the divorce, and a panel of the court denied the motion because the December, 2018, order was not the subject of the order appealed from.

In Abercrombie v. Abercrombie, handed down August 20, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Jack Wilson wrote for the 9-1 majority:

¶22. Faith argues that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to make an “initial child custody determination” under the UCCJEA, Miss. Code Ann. § 93-27-201, because Mississippi was not Reed’s home state. She further argues that all subsequent orders touching on Reed’s custody and visitation are void due to lack of jurisdiction. However, we conclude that Faith is barred from re-litigating this issue, which has been decided in at least three prior final judgments. [Fn 2]

[Fn 2] Although the chancery court set aside the original divorce judgment based on fraud on the court, we conclude that this issue is not moot for at least three reasons. First, even after setting aside the divorce judgment, the chancery court has continued to exercise jurisdiction with respect to Reed’s custody, and Faith continues to contest the court’s jurisdiction to do so. Second, Faith argues that all of the chancery court’s prior judgments and orders touching on Reed’s custody and visitation must be set aside for lack of jurisdiction, including prior orders finding her in contempt and awarding attorney’s fees. However, the chancery court’s December 7, 2018 order only set aside the original divorce judgment, not all of the court’s judgments and orders. Third, if we agreed with Faith that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction, we would also be compelled to reverse and render the award of attorney’s fees that we address below in Part II.

¶23. This Court recently addressed a similar issue in Burgess v. Williamson, 270 So. 3d 1031 (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). In Burgess, the father (Williamson) filed a petition for custody;the mother (Burgess) filed an answer and a counterclaim for custody; the chancery court found that it had jurisdiction and awarded custody to Williamson; and Burgess did not appeal from the final judgment. Id. at 1033, 1037 (¶¶4-6, 18). In a subsequent contempt proceeding, Burgess argued that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to enter its original judgment determining the child’s custody. However, this Court held that the doctrine of res judicata barred Burgess’s argument. Id. at 1035-36 (¶¶17-18). We explained that “[o]nce a case is litigated to a final judgment, and no appeal is taken, a party who participated in the original litigation cannot collaterally attack the court’s jurisdiction in a later proceeding.” Id. at 1036 (¶17); see also Phillips v. Kelley, 72 So. 3d
1079, 1084 (¶18) (Miss. 2011) (“[S]ubject matter jurisdiction . . . may not be attacked collaterally.”); Dep’t of Human Servs. v. Shelnut, 772 So. 2d 1041, 1045 (¶13) (Miss. 2000) (“The principles of res judicata apply to questions of jurisdiction . . . whether the questions relate to jurisdiction of the subject matter or jurisdiction of the parties.”).

¶24. The same reasoning applies here. [Fn 3] Indeed, whereas Burgess involved just one prior final judgment, this case had been litigated to a final judgment three times before Faith filed the motion that is the subject of this appeal. In each of those prior judgments, the chancellor found that the chancery court had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter, and each time the court’s judgment was affirmed on appeal or was not appealed. First, the April 2015 final judgment of divorce specifically found that the court had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter. Faith appealed, but this Court affirmed the final judgment of the chancery court because there was no evidence in the record to support Faith’s assertion that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction. Abercrombie, 193 So. 3d at 683 (¶¶10, 12). Second, in June 2015, Faith filed a motion for relief from judgment in which she attacked the chancery court’s jurisdiction. The chancellor denied Faith’s motion in an August 2016 final judgment that (a) again specifically found that the court had continuing, exclusive jurisdiction and (b) clearly noted that it was a “Final Judgment” for purposes of Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 54. Faith did not appeal from that final judgment. Third, in March 2017, the chancellor entered an order on issues of custody, visitation, child support, and attorney’s fees. That order again found that the court had continuing, exclusive jurisdiction. Faith did not appeal that ruling either; instead, she waited more than thirty days and then filed yet another motion attacking the chancery court’s jurisdiction.

3 Contrary to the dissent’s assertions, Burgess is not materially distinguishable. In Burgess, this Court addressed Burgess’s argument “that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction to enter the original . . . final judgment awarding custody and support,” and we held that her claim was “barred by the doctrine of res judicata.” Burgess, 270 So. 3d at 1035 (¶17). We noted that even the issue of subject matter jurisdiction is subject to the doctrine of res judicata. Id. at 1036 (¶17). In doing so, we simply reiterated what the Supreme Court had already held in both Phillips and Shelnut, supra.

¶25. Because this case has been litigated to a final judgment three times previously, the chancery court’s jurisdiction to enter its original judgment and initial determination of custody is res judicata. Phillips, 72 So. 3d at 1084 (¶18); Shelnut, 772 So. 2d at 1045 (¶13); Burgess, 270 So. 3d at 1035-36 (¶¶17-18). Therefore, the chancellor correctly ruled that Faith’s challenge to the court’s jurisdiction is barred. [Fn 4]

[Fn 4] Although the chancellor denied Faith’s motion based on the somewhat related concepts of waiver and judicial estoppel, we may affirm on alternative grounds. See Brocato v. Miss. Publishers Corp., 503 So. 2d 241, 244 (Miss. 1987).

Judge McCarty wrote a sharp dissent that we will look at tomorrow.

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

September 20, 2019 § Leave a comment

Some Useful Equitable Distribution Points

September 18, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last year’s Pettersen case caused somewhat of a ruffle among many attorneys when it affirmed a chancellor’s findings that pre-marriage assets were marital or converted to marital, and passive appreciation of pre-marital securities was also marital. One lawyer told me that he was still scratching his head over the latter.

Lost in the consternation is that the opinion by Judge Barnes includes some jewels of authority that you might find useful:

Frederick Pettersen claimed that the chancellor erred when he announced that he would not consider child support, but he never objected at trial. In ¶10, the court said, “Furthermore, this issue was not asserted in Frederick’s motion for reconsideration.” Aside from the fact that there is no such thing as a motion for reconsideration, this is a remarkable statement because it assumes that you must assert the bases for your R59 motion in the motion. In my experience, few attorneys recite more than that they want a new trial or an amendment of judgment without detailing the reasons why. R7(b) specifically states that a motion “shall state with particularity the grounds therefor, and shall set forth the relief or order sought.” That “grounds therefor” language is pretty important, but sometimes overlooked.

As for the proper demarcation date, the court said at ¶12:

Our Court has held:

“The law in Mississippi is that the date on which assets cease to be marital and become separate assets—what we refer to as the point of demarcation—can be either the date of separation (at the earliest) or the date of divorce (at the latest).” Collins v. Collins, 112 So. 3d 428, 431-32 (¶9) (Miss. 2013). [However, a] chancellor may consider a temporary order as the line of demarcation between marital and separate property. Id. Ultimately, however, the chancellor has the discretion to draw the line of demarcation. Id. at (¶10).

Randolph v. Randolph, 199 So. 3d 1282, 1285 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016).

At ¶18, the opinion discussed classification of assets:

¶18. Furthermore, when determining whether certain property is marital, a chancery court “must inquire whether any income or appreciation resulted from either spouse’s active efforts during the marriage.” Rhodes v. Rhodes, 52 So. 3d 430, 436 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “If so, that income or appreciation becomes part of the marital estate.” Id.

In ¶19, the court rejected Frederick’s argument that his wife, Audrey, was not entitled to any of his retirement funds because of an extra-marital affair:

Moreover, a spouse’s misconduct is only one factor to consider in the division of marital assets. A chancery court “should not view equitable distribution as a means to punish the offending spouse for marital misconduct. Rather, ‘marital misconduct is a viable factor entitled to be given weight by the chancellor when the misconduct places a burden on the stability and harmony of the marital and family relationship.’” Bond v. Bond, 69 So. 3d 771, 773 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Carrow v. Carrow, 642 So. 2d 901, 904-05 (Miss. 1994)).

In discussing whether pre-marital properties were properly classified, the court said at ¶23:

¶23. “Marital property is ‘anyand all property acquired or accumulated during the marriage and is subject to an equitable distribution by the chancellor.’” Mamiaro v. Mamiaro, 179 So. 3d 51, 53 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (quoting Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 915 (Miss. 1994)). There is no dispute that these properties were acquired before the marriage. But, in discussing Ferguson, the Mississippi Supreme Court held:

Instead of looking to the bare title of a marital asset, this Court, as should the trial courts, will continue to consider all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the accumulation of the marital assets, including noneconomic contributions and factors, when deciding how the marital property should be divided under our system of equitable distribution.

Carnathan v. Carnathan, 722 So. 2d 1248, 1253 (Miss. 1998). Although Frederick argues that Audrey made no economic contribution to these properties, he acknowledges that Audrey helped prepare balance sheets with respect to the rental properties for a period of time during their marriage. We find, therefore, that the chancery court’s awarding her ten percent of the properties’ value was not an abuse of discretion.

And the court reminded us of the definition of commingling:

¶26. “Commingled property is a combination of marital and non-marital property[,] which loses its status as non-marital property as a result.” Maslowski v. Maslowski, 655 So. 2d 18, 20 (Miss. 1995).

Finally, the opinion considered Frederick’s argument that he used non-marital funds to purchase an asset, so it should be a “mixed asset” with greatly reduced equitable distribution to Audrey:

¶29. “[A] presumption of marital property arises to any property acquired during the marriage.” Maslowski, 655 So. 2d at 20. The chancellor properly considered the applicable Ferguson factors, finding: (1) the property was acquired during the marriage; (2) Audrey had “substantially contributed to this property by serving as bookkeeper”; and (3) Frederick had managed the subject property during the separation and continues to do so. Therefore, we find no merit to this issue.

When an Untimely Post-Trial Motion Results in a Timely Appeal

September 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

If you file a motion for a new trial later than ten days after the judgment is entered and the other side does not object, allowing the judge to rule on the motion, does your motion for a new trial toll the time to appeal?

Yes, said the COA in the case of Brown v. Blue Cane Water Assoc., et al., decided June 4, 2019. This is how Judge McDonald’s opinion addressed the issue:

¶21. Although the parties do not raise the issue, this Court must first determine that it has jurisdiction to consider this appeal. Hamilton v. Southwire Co., 191 So. 3d 1275, 1279 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016); Gallagher v. City of Waveland, 182 So. 3d 471, 474 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015). After reviewing when the final judgment, the motion for a new trial, and the notice of appeal were filed and recent precedent, we determine that we do have jurisdiction to consider the merits of the issues on appeal. In the past, we had strictly enforced the time limits for filing appeals in cases where post-trial motions are not timely filed. But these rules have been relaxed.

¶22. Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a) states that “the notice of appeal required by Rule 3 shall be filed with the clerk of the trial court within thirty days after the date of entry of the judgment or order appealed from.” M.R.A.P 4(a). Certain post-trial motions will toll this thirty-day deadline, including a motion for a new trial filed under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 59. (The law had once provided that the extension of time to appeal operates only if the post-trial motion itself is timely filed. Brand v. Barr, 980 So. 2d 965, 962 (¶¶10-11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008).) Under Rule 59(e), motions for a new trial must be filed within ten (10) days of the judgment. Moreover, a paper is not “filed” until the clerk actually receives it. Bolton v. Illinois Cent. R.R. Co., 218 So. 3d 311, 313 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). In Byrd v. Biloxi Regional Medical Center, 722 So. 2d 166, 168-69 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998), we held that “an untimely filed Motion for Reconsideration will not excuse an untimely Notice of Appeal, and clearly will not create or confer jurisdiction in this court.”

¶23. The Mississippi Supreme Court relaxed this strict enforcement in Wilburn v. Wilburn, 991 So. 2d 1185 (Miss. 2008). In that case, the chancery court issued its modification order on June 1, 2007. Wilburn, 991 So. 2d at 1191 (¶12). Counting weekends, the response was due on June 11, 2007. Id. The ex-wife filed a “Motion for Reconsideration” one day later on June 12, 2007. Id. The motion was denied and timely appealed. Id. at 1190 (¶8). The Mississippi Supreme Court applied established precedent and found that the motion for reconsideration was untimely. But the Court further found that because the husband did not object to the timeliness of the motion when it was before the chancery court, he was procedurally barred from raising the issue for the first time on appeal. Id. at 1191 (¶13). The Court proceeded to consider the appeal on its merits. Id. at 1192 (¶14).

¶24. We recently applied Wilburn in Massey v. Oasis Health & Rehab of Yazoo City LLC, No. 2017-CA-00086-COA, 2018 WL 4204207 (Miss. Ct. App. Sept. 4, 2018). In Massey the circuit court granted a motion to compel arbitration on November 9, 2016. Id. at *4 (¶11). Massey filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59 on November 22, 2016—one day late. Id. at *5 (¶16). Massey’s motion was denied and appealed within thirty days of the denial. Id. at (¶17). We reviewed prior cases that dealt with the timeliness of an appeal when a motion for new trial or reconsideration was not timely filed in the court below. Id. We noted the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling in Wilburn v. Wilburn, supra,
which created an exception to the bar of hearing an appeal if the timeliness of a post-trial Rule 59 motion is not challenged before the trial court. Id. at *6 (¶18). Following these precedents in Massey, we held:

Here, just as in Wilburn, Massey filed his Rule 59 motion one day too late, and Oasis responded to the motion on the merits—without objecting to the motion as untimely. After the circuit court denied Massey’s Rule 59 motion, Massey filed a notice of appeal. Just as in Wilburn, Massey filed his notice of appeal within thirty days of the order denying his Rule 59 motion, but more than sixty days after entry of the underlying order. As to the issue of appellate jurisdiction, there is no material difference between this case and Wilburn. Under Wilburn, we have jurisdiction to address the appeal and the merits of the underlying order compelling arbitration.

Massey, 2018 WL 4204207, at *6 (¶20). The special concurrence in Massey noted a similar holding found in Carter v. Carter, 204 So. 3d 747 (Miss. 2016), that the lack of an objection to an untimely Rule 59 motion procedurally bars an appellee from raising the issue of timeliness on appeal. Massey, 2018 WL 4204208, at *15 (¶59) (Greenlee, J., specially concurring). The concurrence pointed out that the Carter decision cited federal case law, saying:

Our supreme court seems to recognize, as the United States Supreme Court did in Bowles, [Fn 4] that “procedural rules adopted by the Court for the orderly transaction of its business are not jurisdictional and can be relaxed by the Court in the exercise of its discretion . . . .” Bowles, 551 U.S. at 212, (quoting Schacht v. United States, 398 U.S. 58, 64 (1970)). New Mississippi ground is being broken. . . .

Massey, 2018 WL 4204207, at *15 (¶61) (Greenlee, J., specially concurring).

[Fn 4] Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205 (2007)

¶25. In this case, the final judgment was signed on December 15, 2017, and filed with the clerk on December 18, 2017. The Browns had ten days to file their motion for a new trial (i.e., December 28, 2017). Browns’ counsel indicated in his certificate of service that he served the motion on Blue Cane’s counsel by mail on December 27, 2017 (a Thursday). But the clerk did not file the motion until January 3, 2018, which was seven days later and sixteen days after the judgment was filed.

¶26. Blue Cane responded to the motion for a new trial but did not challenge its untimely filing. On January 23, 2018, the chancery court denied the motion for a new trial in an order filed with the clerk on January 26, 2018. A notice of appeal was filed on February 2, 2018. Both Wilburn and Massey are directly on point. Although the Browns’ Rule 59 motion was not timely, Blue Cane did not object. Pursuant to Massey and Wilburn, we find that we do have jurisdiction to proceed to a ruling on the merits.

Two thoughts:

  • “A paper is not filed until the clerk actually receives it.” Crucial point. In paper-filing districts, the motion is not filed until the clerk enters it on the docket, per MRCP 79(a). Mailing it to the clerk, or even handing it to the clerk, does not accomplish this. MEC overcomes this problem.
  • Sometimes we go along in order to get along. Your pal, hunting buddy, and fellow church member, who happens to be opposing counsel, approaches you and says, “Man, I screwed up and filed that R59 motion a day late; I hope you’ll give me a pass on that so I won’t look bad.” You could say “<wink> <wink> Sure, pal, no problem, I know you’d do the same for me.” But it would be more in line with your professional responsibility to your client to say, “I hate that for you, but I have to object to timeliness to protect my client; I hope you understand.”

GAP Act Resources

September 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

I’ve added a page where I am going to post helpful GAP Act resource material.

If you’re on a PC, look to the left of the page. There you will see a tab entitled, “GAP Act Material.” click on it and you will find tabs for the material stored there; only one tab for now, “Summary of the GAP Act.”

On mobile, click on “Menu” at the top of the page and a drop-down will appear with several choices, including “GAP Act Material” and “Summary of the GAP Act.”

As I run across resources that I think will be helpful, I will publish them there for you. Check back from time to time.

Reading

September 13, 2019 § Leave a comment

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It’s an improbable, yet engaging story: in coastal North Carolina a young girl abandoned by her family grows to womanhood isolated from townfolk in a shack in the marshes. In her loneliness she seeks love but finds more reliable solace in the beguiling beauty of nature, becoming an authority on coastal species. There is a murder mystery that must be solved, and there is a trial. Delia Owens’s lyrical prose will keep you reading, but if you’re like me, you may grow restless with some over-romanticized passages and her recitation of Amanda Hamilton poetry. My advice is to bear it and be patient. All becomes clear in a stunning twist of an ending in the last few pages that you may not see coming. Fiction.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Pulitzer prize-winning novel of a wheelchair-bound author, Lyman Ward, researching and writing the story of his grandparents, who were among early settlers of the west. Ward’s life and that of his grandparents parallel each other as the novel unfolds, and historic literary figures weave in and out of the grandparents’ accounts. Stegner vividly captures the old west of Colorado, California, Mexico, and Idaho in the second half of the 19th century. Although fictional, the stories are based on actual letters of Mary Hallock Foote. Fiction.

1491, by Charles C. Mann. What was America like before Columbus and the later Spaniards arrived and disrupted the native civilizations and devastated them with diseases to which the Americans had no immunity? You will be surprised at Mann’s revelations of complex cultures that rivaled Sumer and ancient Greece in their sophistication, organization, philosophy, engineering, and architecture. Their achievements in agriculture alone are astonishing enough, creating maize and developing most of the varieties of beans and all of the squashes we consume today. This book is an intriguing eye-opener. Non-fiction.

The Pioneers, by David McCullough. Focusing on the lives of ordinary citizens who travelled on flatboats down the Ohio River to sculpt civilization in the wilderness, McCullough tells in microcosm the story of the settlement of the Northwest Territory and how the values of these settlers and their insistence on adhering to the principles of the Northwest Ordinance shaped much of American settlement that followed. Non-fiction.

A Woman of no Importance, by Sonia Purnell. The true, incredible story of one-legged American Virginia Hall, who operated in France as a spy for British intelligence (she had been rejected by US intelligence) and facilitator of the resistance, most of the time in Lyon right under the nose of the vicious, sadistic Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie. Her exploits included spiriting resistance fighters and British spies out of prisons, supplying and coordinating spies and arming resistance groups, arranging sabotage, and managing underground railroads that helped spies and others on the lam from the Nazis escape to Spain and Switzerland, all of which earned her the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945. It’s a sensational story that is all the more remarkable in that it really happened. Non-fiction.

Beartown and Us Against Them, by Fredrick Backman. On the surface this pair of novels (the second continues the story of the first) tell the story of the impact of hockey on two small towns in Norway. What they are really about, though, is what sports of any kind (e.g., high school football) mean to a small rural community, how sports can corrupt and debase people, and how sports can ennoble and uplift. Backman, who is author of A Man Called Ove, has an idiosyncratic, clear style that is easy and enjoyable to read. Fiction.

Indianapolis, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. Thoroughly researched account of America’s worst military naval disaster, the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis in the waning days of WWII. The book opens with a depiction of the ship’s heroic involvement in most of the war’s major naval engagements in the Pacific, its near destruction by a Kamikaze plane, and its top-secret delivery to Tinian of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The account continues with the vessel’s tragedy of July 30, 1945, barely two weeks before Japan surrendered, when, on her way from Guam to Leyte for a training exercise, she was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea and went down, taking 300 of the 1,200 crew with her. Hair-raising survivor accounts tell how they were not found until 3 1/2 days later, during which their numbers were thinned drastically by dehydration, shark attacks, drowning, and suicide. The book also details the aftermath, including court-martial of the ship’s captain and his ultimate exoneration. Non-fiction.

American Pop, by Snowden Wright. The rise and fall of the fictional Forster family of North Mississippi, whose forebear created the soft drink Panola Pop in a drug store, managed it into the best-selling cola in the world, became fabulously wealthy, and then dissipated it all in later generations. The story of the family and their soda empire evolves against the canvas of a century of American history that ultimately seals the family’s fate. This pop (no pun intended) novel is entertaining and light, bubbly and tasty like its eponym. Wright, a Meridian native, is son of Circuit Judge Charles Wright. Fiction.

Been Down so Long it Looks Like up to Me, by Richard Fariña. College hijinks in the early 60’s, before the Beatles and Bossa Nova pushed aside folk music, coffeehouse jazz, and the beatniks. Fariña, who was married to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi, was an up-and-coming folk singer who performed with his wife and was being heralded as the next Bob Dylan. On the day his novel was published in 1966, though, he was killed in a motorcycle accident leaving a publication celebration party. This is a roman à clef for Fariña’s own experience at Cornell University with his close friend, Thomas Pynchon. But behavior that seemed provocative and venturesome back then comes across as puerile and tiresome almost 60 years later. Still, it’s a peek into an era and its values. Fiction.

On Desperate Ground, by Hampton Sides. Retelling of the plight of 30,000 US Marines in the Korean War sent by incompetent generals into a trap at the Chosin Reservoir, where they were attacked by more than 120,000 Communist Chinese troops. The marines were forced to fight their way out through enemy lines. Sides tells the story through the eyes of officers and enlisted men whom he interviewed, and does not conceal his scorn for the generals who sent the men into this predicament. Non-fiction.

Res Judicata and the Foreign Divorce

September 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

After Lisa Crew and Ellis Tillotson were divorced from each other in North Carolina, Lisa filed a complaint for equitable distribution in Mississippi, where the parties’ property was located. Following a trial the chancellor divided the marital estate.

Lisa appealed, complaining that the distribution was inequitable and erroneous. Ellis cross-appealed that the North Carolina judgment rendered the equitable distribution claims res judicata, and the chancellor erred in accepting jurisdiction.

In Crew v. Tillotson, decided August 20, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Tindell wrote the 6-3 decision:

¶15. With regard to the application of res judicata in divorce cases, this Court previously explained:

The doctrine of res judicata reflects the refusal of the law to tolerate a multiplicity of litigation. It is a doctrine of public policy designed to avoid the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and foster reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibilities of inconsistent decisions. Res judicata bars all issues that might have been (or could have been) raised and decided in the initial suit, plus all issues that were actually decided in the first cause of action.

Article IV, § 1 of the United States Constitution requires that full faith and credit be given to the judicial proceedings of sister states. However, those proceedings are only entitled to full faith and credit where the rendering court properly has subject matter and personal jurisdiction. The United States Supreme Court has applied the Full Faith and Credit Clause in the context of divorce actions.

Lofton v. Lofton, 924 So. 2d 596, 599 (¶¶14-15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Our caselaw further recognizes “that a divorce action involving multiple states is ‘divisible.’ That is, a divorce action involving one resident party and one foreign party may or may not be able to adjudicate personal rights, though it can sever a marriage as long as at least one party is a resident of that state.” Id. at 601 (¶27). In addition, “Mississippi law is clear that where the case in the foreign court is not decided on its merits, while suit might be barred from any other court in the state where the judgment was rendered[,] it is not res judicata in Mississippi.” Weiss v. Weiss, 579 So. 2d 539, 541 (Miss. 1991) (internal quotation mark omitted).

¶16. Here, Ellis contends the chancellor erroneously found that North Carolina did not possess personal jurisdiction over him. We agree with Ellis that the record reflects he voluntarily submitted to North Carolina’s personal jurisdiction when he entered a general appearance in the divorce proceeding. Our analysis therefore focuses on Ellis’s arguments that North Carolina statutory law required Lisa to raise equitable distribution in the divorce proceeding there and that her failure to do so barred her from asserting the issue in a subsequent action in Mississippi. Ellis relies on North Carolina General Statute Annotated section 50-11(e) (2013), which provides:

An absolute divorce obtained within this State shall destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under [North Carolina General Statute Annotated section] 50-20 unless the right is asserted prior to judgment of absolute divorce; except, the defendant may bring an action or file a motion in the cause for equitable distribution within six months from the date of the judgment in such a case if service of process upon the defendant was by publication pursuant to . . . [North Carolina General Statute Annotated section] 1A-1, Rule 4 and the defendant failed to appear in the action for divorce.

¶17. The North Carolina divorce judgment adjudicated three matters. The divorce decree granted the parties an absolute divorce under North Carolina law, allowed Lisa to resume the use of her maiden name, and allowed Lisa’s attorney to withdraw from the case. No dispute exists that Lisa’s North Carolina divorce complaint never raised the issue of equitable distribution and that the matter was therefore neither litigated in nor adjudicated by the North Carolina divorce proceeding. Lisa argues, however, that the North Carolina court lacked in rem jurisdiction to dispose of the parties’ property located outside the state. For this reason, Lisa asserts that she did not attempt to raise the issue in the divorce proceeding and that her failure to do so poses no bar to her current Mississippi action. To support her argument, Lisa cites North Carolina General Statute Annotated section 50-11(f), which states:

An absolute divorce by a court that lacked personal jurisdiction over the absent spouse or lacked jurisdiction to dispose of the property shall not destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under [section] 50-20 if an action or motion in the cause is filed within six months after the judgment of divorce is entered.

(Emphasis added).

¶18. As the United States Supreme Court has previously recognized:

[W]hen claims to the property itself are the source of the underlying controversy between the plaintiff and the defendant, it would be unusual for the State where the property is located not to have jurisdiction. . . . The State’s strong interests in assuring the marketability of property within its borders and in providing a procedure for peaceful resolution of disputes about the possession of that property would also support jurisdiction, as would the likelihood that important records and witnesses will be found in the State.

Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 207-08 (1977) (footnotes omitted).

¶19. As we have already noted, Mississippi recognizes divisible divorce actions. Lofton, 924 So. 2d at 601 (¶27). Here, during the North Carolina divorce proceeding, neither party ever raised the issue of equitable distribution of their marital property located in Mississippi. Further, as reflected by its decree, the North Carolina court never addressed the issue. Normally, under North Carolina statutory law, a party’s failure to raise equitable distribution waives the issue in a future proceeding. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 50-11(e). But as the North Carolina Supreme Court has recognized, exceptions do exist. “Chapter 50 clearly contemplates the survival of those rights[to equitable distribution and alimony] under certain circumstances[,]” and section 50-11(f) provides an exception that “applies to cases wherein the trial court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant or jurisdiction to dispose of the property.” Stegall v. Stegall, 444 S.E.2d 177, 179, 180 (N.C. 1994).

¶20. We believe that such circumstances exist in the instant case. Because the North Carolina court never exercised jurisdiction to dispose of the parties’ marital property, the grant of divorce did not destroy Lisa’s right to equitable distribution under section 50-11(f) because she filed such an action within six months of the entry of divorce. We therefore find no error in the chancellor’s determination that res judicata failed to bar Lisa’s action in Mississippi. Accordingly, we find that Ellis’s argument as to this assignment of error lacks merit.

Judge Jack Wilson, joined by Barnes and Corey Wilson, wrote a well-reasoned dissent.

GAP Act: Section 125

September 10, 2019 § Leave a comment

A good starting point in looking at the GAP Act is with the most frequently asked questions that I have heard about the new law. Those questions are: How does the GAP Act affect guardianships and conservatorships that were opened before January 1, 2020?; and Can I opt out of GAP Act coverage?

Those questions are answered in Section 125 of the GAP Act, which is entitled “Transition Provisions.”

Here is Section 125 verbatim:

Section 125. Transition provisions. Except as otherwise provided in this chapter:

(a) This chapter applies to all guardianship and conservatorship proceedings commenced on or after January 1, 2020;

(b) This chapter applies to all guardianship and conservatorship proceedings commenced before January 1, 2020, unless the court finds that application of a particular provision of this chapter would substantially interfere with the effective conduct of the proceedings or prejudice the rights of the parties, in which case the particular provision of this chapter does not apply and the superseded law applies; and

(c) An act done before January 1, 2020, is not affected by this act.

Comments:

  • “Proceedings commenced” means that if you file an action to create a guardianship or conservatorship on or after January 1, 2020, your action is governed by the GAP Act. That’s because MRCP 3(a) provides that “A civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.” There is no exception or “opting out” for an action commenced on or after January 1, 2020.
  • But, if you file to create a guardianship or conservatorship under current law before January 1, 2020, and the case is not presented until after January 1, 2020, there is a way that you could choose which law will apply. If you do not take other steps, your case will be under the GAP Act, and you will likely have to re-issue process and amend pleadings to comply with GAP. Or you can get the judge to enter an order exempting your case, as spelled out below.
  • If you have an existing guardianship or conservatorship, or you are in the situation in the previous paragraph, and you want to continue under the superseded law, I would suggest that you file a motion claiming that the application of Section 125 “would substantially interfere with the effective conduct of the proceedings or prejudice the rights of the parties,” and obtain a court order that the case will proceed under the superseded statutes until further order of the court. In the alternative you can ask the judge to rule that application of a particular provision, such as the enhanced notice requirements, or some other particular provision will make it harder to administer and cause more expense. The ruling on that motion will be at the chancellor’s discretion, which varies from judge to judge. Don’t assume it would be automatic.
  • DON’T Discard your current Title 93, volume 20 of the Code! You may need those provisions after the GAP Act comes online. If you’re operating from an online code, you might want to print out a copy of the current Title 93, Chapter 13 just to be sure you have something to go back to.

The Fifth Amendment and the Adverse Inference

September 9, 2019 § 3 Comments

Can a chancellor grant a divorce solely on the adverse inference created when a witness invokes the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution?

That was one of the questions raised in Martha Bradshaw’s appeal from a chancellor’s adjudication that she was guilty of adultery and granting a divorce to her husband, Loyd.

To refresh your recollection as to that adverse inference, here is a quote from ¶22 of the COA’s August 13, 2019, decision in Bradshaw v. Bradshaw, penned by Judge Greenlee:

Concerning a witness’s “taking the Fifth” in civil cases, the trier of fact may draw an adverse inference from a defendant’s refusal to testify. Gibson v. Wright, 870 So. 2d 1250, 1260 (¶42) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004).

Let’s say the witness was asked, “have you committed adultery during the marriage?” and the witness pleads the Fifth, at that point the court may infer that the witness’s answer would have been adverse to his or her interest.

So, when a witness claims the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination in a divorce case, is that inference enough to satisfy the burden of proof? Judge Greenlee says:

However, we have failed to find a case that allows a divorce to be granted based solely on that inference.

In a specially concurring opinion, Judge McCarty raises the question whether in Mississippi it is even appropriate to invoke the Fifth on the basis that answering the question could subject one to prosecution for adulterous conduct. At footnote 7 he observes:

It is unlawful cohabitation conjoined with more than a single act of adultery that is a crime—a misdemeanor. Miss. Code Ann. § 97-29-1 (Rev. 2014); see Miss. Dep’t of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks v. Bradshaw, 196 So. 3d 1075, 1085 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (holding that there is no general crime of adultery, but that the Code prohibits cohabitation when there is a “habitual . . . laying together”).

Then, at footnote 8, he points out:

There have been prosecutions for adultery, but we do not see reported cases on it lately. See Ratcliff v. State, 234 Miss. 724, 728, 107 So. 2d 728, 729 (1958) (examining the law and the corollary prohibition on marriage between blacks and whites, which unlike the cohabitation crime, was a felony punishable with 10 years); Housley v. State, 198 Miss. 837, 839, 23 So. 2d 749, 749 (1945) (affirming dual convictions for unlawful cohabitation). Although it is easy to see the objection as gamesmanship, we have reminded the Bar not too long ago “that cohabitation between persons not married to each other is against the law in Mississippi,” and while “this law is frequently broken has been recognized by the supreme court,” it remains on the books as a crime. Sullivan v. Stringer, 736 So. 2d 514, 516-17 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). We ruled there that “[c]ommission of crimes by a custodial parent, even if they are only about sex, is properly the concern of a chancellor,” although it should be added that the weight accorded to it is left to the trial court. Id.

He refers to the objection based on possible prosecution for adultery as “incorrect” in footnote 9:

The same incorrect objection was lodged in McDonald v. McDonald, 69 So. 3d 61, 66 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). We noted in passing that we would “decline to address the question of whether [the husband] could have successfully been prosecuted for adultery . . . . ” Id. at 66 n.2.

 

 

“Quote Unquote”

September 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

“Music is essentially useless, as life is.”  —  George Santayana

“The day you open your mind to music, you’re halfway to opening your mind to life.”  —  Pete Townshend

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”  —  Friedrich Nietzsche

Where Am I?

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