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.

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