December 3, 2019 § 1 Comment
MRCP 4(h) is pretty clear that failure to serve process within 120 days of filing the complaint without “good cause” requires dismissal of the complaint.
But that’s Rule 4. How does that apply in Rule 81 actions?
In her appeal to the COA, Natasha Hilton tried to convince the court that the counterclaim filed against her by her ex-husband Chris should have been dismissed because she was not served with process within 120 days of filing. She argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction. The chancellor brushed aside that argument, and so did the COA. In Hilton v. Hilton, handed down November 5, 2019, the court affirmed. Judge Tindell wrote for a unanimous court:
¶11. On appeal, Natasha first argues that Chris failed to properly serve her with a Rule 81 summons related to his counter-petition for contempt, modification, and attorney’s fees in violation of Rule 4(h). As such, Natasha contends that the chancellor lacked jurisdiction to enter his final judgment against her. Natasha further argues that the chancellor erroneously granted an extension to serve process in this case even though Chris failed to show good cause as to why he did not serve Natasha within 120 days. Chris argues, however, that Rule 81, rather than Rule 4(h), governs service of process in this matter and that the 120-day deadline is inapplicable here. Therefore, we must first address whether Rule 4(h) or Rule 81 applies to the foregoing case.
¶12. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 4(h) states:
If a service of the summons and complaint is not made upon a defendant within 120 days after the filing of the complaint and the party on whose behalf such service was required cannot show good cause why such service was not made within that period, the action shall be dismissed as to that defendant without prejudice upon the court’s own initiative with notice to such party or upon motion.
(Emphasis added). Rule 81(a)(9), however, states in pertinent part:
Applicability in General. These rules apply to all civil proceedings but are subject to limited applicability in the following actions which are generally governed by statutory procedures, . . . [including] Title 93 of the Mississippi Code of 1972.
(Emphasis added). Title 93 of the Mississippi Code covers all matters related to domestic relations, including modifications of custody. Roberts v. Lopez, 148 So. 3d 393, 398 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). Rule 81(d) states that “[t]he special rules of procedure set forth in this paragraph . . . shall control to the extent they may be in conflict with any other provisions of these rules.” Under Rule 81(d)(2), modification-of-custody-matters are triable within “7 days after completion of service of process in any manner other than by publication.” Rule 81(d), however, places no 120-day deadline for service of process, as in Rule 4(h). Rather, Rule 81(d)(5) states only that
upon the filing of any action or matter listed in subparagraphs (1) and (2) above, summons shall issue commanding the defendant or respondent to appear and defend at a time and place, either in term or vacation, at which the same shall be heard. Said time and place shall be set by special order, general order or rule of the court. If such action or matter is not heard on the day set for hearing, it may by order signed on that day be continued to a later day for hearing without additional summons on the defendant or respondent. The court may by order or rule authorize its clerk to set such actions or matters for original hearing and to continue the same for hearing on a later date.
¶13. This Court specifically addressed the applicability of Rule 4(h) and Rule 81 to modification-of-custody matters in Roberts. In Roberts, a mother filed a complaint for fraud against the father of her child after the father allegedly forged her signature on a joint complaint for modification of custody, which gave him sole custody of the child. Roberts,148 So. 3d at 397 (¶6). The mother later filed an amended complaint, which asked the chancellor to set aside all previous orders associated with the joint complaint or, in the alternative, to modify custody. Id. The mother served the father with a Rule 81 summons on the amended complaint, ordering his appearance for a hearing on the matter. Id. After a hearing, the chancellor modified the couple’s custody arrangement, giving the mother and father joint custody of the child. Id. at (¶7). The father appealed to this Court, arguing that the mother failed to serve him with the amended complaint within 120 days in violation of Rule 4(h). Id. at 398 (¶9).
¶14. In our analysis, this Court cited the Rule 81 procedures mentioned above as they related to the mother’s custody-modification matters. Id. at (¶¶9-10). This Court found that as a domestic-relations matter Rule 81 controlled service of process in the mother’s case, and not Rule 4(h). Id. at (¶10). We found specifically that because the father had been served with a Rule 81 summons commanding him to appear before the chancellor on the court ordered hearing date, “it [was] of no moment” that the mother served the father with her Rule 81 summons more than 120-days after filing her complaint. Id. We ultimately affirmed the chancellor’s modification of custody in this case. Id. at 402-03 (¶25).
¶15. Comparing the facts in Roberts with the facts before this Court today, we are obliged to apply the same holding to the case at hand. Similar to the mother in Roberts, Chris sought modification of his custody arrangement with Natasha, and therefore, the procedures in Rule 4(h) do not apply. Chris filed the counter-petition on September 20, 2016 and served Natasha with a Rule 81 summons on January 24, 2017, in compliance with Rule 81(d)(5). Natasha points out that Chris’s Rule 81 summons noticed the hearing for January 30, 2017, which was six days after she had been served as opposed to seven days as required by Rule 81(d)(2). However, in accordance with Rule 81(d)(5), the chancellor properly ordered the hearing be continued to July 18, 2017, upon agreement of the parties.
¶16. We therefore find that Chris effectively served process upon Natasha in compliance with Rule 81. Because we find service to be proper in this case, we need not address Natasha’s remaining arguments regarding good cause and dismissal under Rule 4. We further find that the chancellor committed no error in hearing and ruling upon Chris’s counter-petition.
A few observations:
- It’s a counterclaim, not a counter-petition. I know the COA has to use the nomenclature of the parties and the trial court to avoid confusion.
- Divorce is a Rule 4 action, so Rule 4(h) and its body of case law do apply. I wonder how that fits with the situation where that original divorce complaint has been on file 200 days before process is issued while you are trying to get an agreement for an ID divorce? Of course, statute of limitations doesn’t come into play as it does in circuit court, but still …
- I know what Rule 81 says, but please let me know if you are being required to issue summons on a counterclaim in your district. We never have in this district because the plaintiff-counterdefendant has already submitted himself or herself to the personal jurisdiction of the court and the purpose of process is to acquire personal jurisdiction; notice of the counterclaim is by Rule 5. No other district I ever practiced in required it. The only court that requires it to my knowledge is the COA. Maybe it’s just my ignorance.
- In any event, how could Natasha think that after a year of participation in the case, including agreed orders setting and continuing hearings, that she was not under personal jurisdiction? If one is never served with process at all, but appears and participates without objection, that court has personal jurisdiction over that person. The chancellor cut through that smoke and got right to the merits, as he should have.
- You should read the convoluted facts involving settings and continuances, claims of non-process, calendar-hopscotching, and more. It’s ‘way too convoluted to try to capture here.
November 5, 2019 § 2 Comments
Too many lawyers consider the judges’ findings on Albright factors to be like some sort of score board. I hear it in R59 motions: “But, Judge, we prevailed in one more factor, so my client should have been awarded custody.” And we see it in appeals, where the losing side argues something similar.
In a recent decision, Judge Jack Wilson of the COA spelled out how the trial and appellate courts are supposed to deal with Albright. Since it’s an excellent, succinct exposition on the law, I thought it would be helpful to include it for your use. This is from the case of Morgan v. Whitehead, handed down October 15, 2019:
¶18. “A chancellor’s custody decision will be reversed only if it was manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, or if the chancellor applied an erroneous legal standard.” Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (¶7) (Miss. 2012). “[T]his Court cannot reweigh the evidence and must defer to the chancellor’s findings of the facts, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence.” Hall v. Hall, 134 So. 3d 822, 828 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). The relevant question is whether the chancellor’s decision is supported by the evidence, not whether we agree with it. Hammers v. Hammers, 890 So. 2d 944, 950 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004).
¶19. In child custody cases, the “polestar consideration . . . is the best interest and welfare of the child.” Albright, 437 So. 2d at 1005. In determining where the child’s best interest lies, the chancellor should consider the following factors: (1) age, health, and sex of the child; (2) which parent had “continuity of care prior to the separation”; (3) parenting skills; (4) willingness and capacity to provide primary child care; (5) both parents’ employment responsibilities; (6) physical and mental health and age of the parents; (7) emotional ties between parent and child; (8) moral fitness; (9) “the home, school and community records of the child”; (10) the child’s preference, if the child is at least twelve years old; (11) the stability of the home environment and employment of each parent; and (12) any “other factors relevant to the parent-child relationship” or the child’s best interest. Id.
¶20. Albright does not require the chancellor to award custody to the parent who “wins” the most factors. Blakely v. Blakely, 88 So. 3d 798, 803 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). “The point of Albright is to identify the custody arrangement that would be in the child’s best interest—not to determine what is in either parent’s best interest or which parent is the better person.” Vassar v. Vassar, 228 So. 3d 367, 375 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). In addition, the chancellor is not required to find that each factor favors one parent or the other. Harden v. Scarborough, 240 So. 3d 1246, 1251 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). The chancellor is only required to consider each factor that is applicable to the case and determine what custody arrangement would be in the child’s best interest. Id. “We review the chancellor’s application of the factors for manifest error, giving deference to the weight that he assigned each factor.” Id.
October 30, 2019 § 2 Comments
When the Ballards, Candice and Marshall, were divorced from each other, the chancellor awarded custody to Marshall’s parents based on hearsay evidence. The MSSC reversed and remanded in Ballard v. Ballard, 255 So. 3d 126 (Miss. 2017).
On remand the chancellor awarded custody of the parties’ three children to Marshall. The catch is that Marshall is not the biological father of the youngest child, Jill, who was the product of a marital-separation affair. Candice appealed, arguing that she should have prevailed as to Jill based on the natural-parent presumption.
The MSSC affirmed in Ballard v. Ballard, decided August 29, 2019. Justice Beam wrote for the court:
¶12. … [Candice] argues that Marshall’s having acted in loco parentis for Jill was not enough to overcome the natural-parent presumption with regard to Candice’s custody of Jill. [Fn omitted] Candice correctly states that “[t]he law recognizes that parents are the natural guardians of their children, and ‘it is presumed that it is in the best interest of a child to remain with the natural parent as opposed to a third party.’” Davis v. Vaughn, 126 So. 3d 33, 37 (Miss. 2013) (quoting In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock and Hamby v. Leverock, 23 So. 3d 424, 429 (Miss. 2009)).
However, the presumption in favor of the parent may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence that “(1) the parent has abandoned the child; (2) the parent has deserted the child; (3) the parent’s conduct is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child; or (4) the parent is unfit, mentally or otherwise, to have custody.” Id. (quoting Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (Miss. 2012)). “If the natural-parent presumption is successfully rebutted, the court may then proceed to determine whether an award of custody to the challenging party will serve the child’s best interests.” Id. (citing Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46).
Id. (quoting Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (Miss. 2012)). “If the natural-parent presumption is successfully rebutted, the court may then proceed to determine whether an award of custody to the challenging party will serve the child’s best interests.” Id. (citing Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46).
¶13. Candice contends that this case is controlled by In re Waites v. Ritchie, 152 So. 3d 306 (Miss. 2014). In Waites, the mother sought to modify a custody agreement. Id. at 307. She subsequently notified T.J., her child’s biological father who had joined her petition seeking custody. Id. Although her husband, Scott, had cared for the child from the beginning, the chancellor excluded Scott from the Albright consideration because he was not a natural parent; the chancellor awarded full custody to the mother. Id. However, the chancellor allowed Scott and T.J. visitation. Id. Scott appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that Scott should have been considered on equal footing with the natural parents. Id. The mother and T.J. filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which this Court granted. Id. This Court found that the chancellor had properly excluded Scott from consideration. Id.
¶14. Candice further argues that the chancellor erroneously relied on a Court of Appeals case, Welton v. Westmoreland, 180 So. 3d 738 (Miss. Ct. App. 2015), to support awarding Marshall custody of Jill. In Welton, the natural father sought a modification of custody of his daughter Alexice and subsequently amended his complaint to seek custody of his daughter Justice. Id. at 740. Although Daniel was not Justice’s biological father, she believed he was until she was twelve years old. Id. Her biological father abandoned her and, after her birth, had never made an attempt to see her. Id. While Daniel knew he was not Justice’s biological father, he raised her like she was his own from the time she was four months old. Id. Further, Justice’s mother requested that Justice retain Daniel’s last name. Id.
¶15. In determining custody of Justice, the court acknowledged that,
[i]n general, the natural parent presumption precludes a court from granting custody to a “third party” over the objection of a natural parent absent clear and convincing evidence that the natural parent has abandoned or deserted the child, has engaged in immoral conduct harmful to the child, or is an unfit parent. Id. at 744. “The chancellor did not find that any of the grounds for overcoming the natural parent presumption had been established,” but he did find that, “on the ‘unique’ facts of this case, Daniel ‘stands in the place of a natural parent for purposes of custody of Justice.’”Id.
¶16. Welton relied upon two Supreme Court cases, Griffith v. Pell and J.P.M. v. T.D.M., for guidance. While the facts in Pell and J.P.M. vary slightly from the facts in Welton, the Court of Appeals appropriately extended the reasoning in those cases to apply to Welton, and, we find that the same principles apply to the present case. In Pell, as discussed in Welton, this Court held that “a husband who learned during divorce proceedings that he was not the biological father of a child born just prior to the marriage could be granted visitation and, custody over the objections of his wife (the child’s mother).” Id. at 745 (citing Griffith v. Pell, 881 So. 2d 184, 185-87 (Miss. 2004)). Moreover, as discussed in Welton, in J.P.M., this Court “affirmed an order granting custody to a husband who had learned during divorce proceedings that he was not the biological father of a child born to the marriage” because “[h]e was deemed the ‘father in fact’ and was not required to present additional evidence to rebut the natural parent presumption.” Id. (citing J.P.M. v. T.D.M., 932 So. 2d 760, 762-70 (Miss. 2006)).
¶17. This Court reasoned in both Pell and J.P.M. that the natural-parent presumption had been overcome based on several facts:
(1) the husbands stood in loco parentis; (2) they had supported, cared for, and treated the child as their own; (3) they could have been required to pay child support (“with the burden should go the benefit”); and (4) the biological fathers were not really in the picture: the one in Pell had disclaimed any interest in the child and had agreed to relinquish his parental rights, while the one in J.P.M. could not even be determined conclusively. Id. (quoting Waites, 152 So. 3d at 312).
¶18. In Welton, the Court of Appeals found that the facts necessary to overcome the natural-parent presumption were present but questioned whether the facts were sufficient to place Daniel in the position of a natural parent for purposes of Justice’s custody because Daniel had not been defrauded like the fathers in Pell and J.P.M. Id. at 747.
¶19. Welton held, “although the relevant Supreme Court decisions do not directly address the unique facts of this case, Pell’s reasoning and Waites’s emphasis on whether the biological father is ‘really in the picture’ are instructive and should control.” Id. “[T]he mere existence of a biological father who abandoned a child years ago should not be used ‘to defeat an existing father-child relationship when [that] biological father [is not] seeking to assume care, support and nurturance of the child.’” Id. (alterations in original) (quoting Pell, 881 So. 2d at 187). The mother led Justice to believe that Daniel was her father and confirmed that Justice’s biological father had abandoned her at birth. Therefore, the Welton court affirmed the chancellor, who had found “that Pell and subsequent Supreme Court decisions provided legal authority to grant physical custody of Justice to Daniel.” Id. at 748.
¶20. Welton logically extended the principles articulated in Pell and J.P.M.. The unique facts of Welton—allowing an in loco parentis figure to have custody—also are present here. There was no question that Marshall acted in loco parentis to Jill. Further, the trial court’s in loco parentis finding was neither raised as an issue on appeal nor was it overturned by the appellate court in Ballard.
¶21. Marshall always supported, cared for, and treated Jill as his own child, even though he knew she was not his biological child. Candice concedes that Marshall has always provided for Jill, as he did for John and Jane. She admitted even that Marshall is the only father Jill has ever known. Further, no evidence was presented that Candice sought support of Jill from the biological father. In fact, the biological father received notice of the hearing and did not attend, nor has he ever attempted to visit or to support Jill. It is clear that the biological father is absent.
¶22. Lastly, Candice argues that Welton is both distinguishable and predates this Court’s ruling in Miller v. Smith, 229 So. 3d 100 (Miss. 2017). This Court finds, however, that the facts of Miller are dissimilar. There, the Court found that the circumstances did not give Miller in loco parentis status. Miller, 229 So. 3d at 105. Miller had been sentenced to prison for eighteen months when the minor child, Smitty, was only a few months old. Id. at 104. After prison, Miller did not remain a constant in Smitty’s life. Id. Miller provided no financial assistance to Smitty, nor did he visit Smitty while his mother was in prison during 2012 and 2013. Id. Therefore, Miller did not rebut the natural-parent presumption, and the Court found substantial evidence in the record to support the chancellor’s conclusion that Miller did not stand in loco parentis. Id. at 104-105.
¶23. Accordingly, this Court finds that the chancellor appropriately held that custody of Jill could be awarded to Marshall pending an Albright analysis.
Justice Maxwell added a specially concurring opinion, joined by Randolph, Beam, Chamberlin, and Griffis, that concludes, “Here, I concur with the majority to the extent it backs away from the strong language in Waites and reaffirms Pell and T.D.M.’s holding that, under unique circumstances like these, a nonbiological parent’s in loco parentis status can be used to reach an Albright custody analysis without having to first rebut the natural-parent presumption.”
October 15, 2019 § 1 Comment
When Lora Ledet was 8 or 9 months pregnant, she began dating Spencer Diaz. When her son was born no father was listed on the birth certificate, and the child’s surname was that of his mother.
Lora and Spencer began living together, and, in April, 2014, an acknowledgment of paternity was filed per MCA 93-9-28 showing Spencer as the child’s father. The Department of Vital Records issued a revised birth certificate showing Spencer as the father and changing the child’s last name to Diaz.
After Lora and Spencer separated in October, 2015, DHS filed a complaint for child support. Spencer answered that the complaint was the first knowledge he had that he had been added to the child’s birth certificate, and that the acknowledgment was a forgery. He asked the court to disestablish paternity and terminate parental rights. Following a hearing, the chancellor denied him relief.
Spencer appealed, and two issues he raised were that the chancellor erroneously admitted the acknowledgment into evidence, and that its notarization was ineffective due to the notary’s failure to record the transaction.
On September 10, 2019, the COA affirmed in Diaz v. DHS and Ledet. Judge Westbrooks first laid out the standard to be applied when reviewing a trial judge’s ruling on admissibility of evidence:
¶6. “The admission of evidence is within the discretion of the chancellor, and reversal is not warranted unless judicial discretion is abused.” Sproles v. Sproles, 782 So. 2d 742, 749 (¶29) (Miss. 2001) (citing Smith v. Jones, 654 So. 2d 480, 486 (Miss. 1995)).
She then turned her attention to Spencer’s arguments on admission of the document into evidence and notary’s record-keeping:
¶7. Under Mississippi Code Annotated section 41-57-9 (Rev. 2013), “[a]ny copy of the records of birth, sickness or death, when properly certified to by the state registrar of vital statistics, to be a true copy thereof, shall be prima facie evidence in all courts and places of the facts therein stated.”
¶8. Moreover, the simple acknowledgement of paternity form was submitted in accordance with Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-9-28. There is a method for an alleged father to voluntarily acknowledge a child as his own. In In re Estate of Farmer ex rel. Farmer, 964 So. 2d 498, 499-500 (¶4) (Miss. 2007), the Mississippi Supreme Court held that “Mississippi Code Annotated Section 93-9-28 (Rev. 2004) establishes a procedure by which the natural father of a [child born out of wedlock] may voluntarily acknowledge the child as his own.” “[T]he execution of [an] acknowledgment of paternity shall result in the same legal effect as if the father and mother had been married at the time of the birth of the child.” Id. (alteration in the original). Section 93-9-28(1) provides:
The Mississippi State Department of Health in cooperation with the Mississippi Department of Human Services shall develop a form and procedure which may be used to secure a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity from the mother and father of any child born out of wedlock in Mississippi. The form shall clearly state on its face that the execution of the acknowledgement of paternity shall result in the same legal effect as if the father and mother had been married at the time of the birth of the child. The form shall also clearly indicate the right of the alleged father to request genetic testing through the Department of Human Services within the one-year time period specified in subsection (2)(a)(i) of this section and shall state the adverse effects and ramifications of not availing himself of this one-time opportunity to definitively establish the paternity of the child. When such form has been completed according to the established procedure and the signatures of both the mother and father have been notarized, then such voluntary acknowledgement shall constitute a full determination of the legal parentage of the child. The completed voluntary acknowledgement of paternity shall be filed with the Bureau of Vital Statistics of the Mississippi State Department of Health. The name of the father shall be entered on the certificate of birth upon receipt of the completed voluntary acknowledgement.
¶9. Here, Diaz maintains that the notary’s failure to have the parties sign the book under Mississippi Code Annotated section 25-33-5 (Rev. 2010) prohibits the admittance of the acknowledgment and reissued birth certificate. This Code section provides that “[e]very notary public shall keep a fair register of all his official acts, and shall give a certified copy of his record, or any part thereof, to any person applying for it and paying the legal fees therefor.” The statute requires only that the notary keep a record of all of [the] official acts. The section does not outline how to maintain that record. But Title 1 of the Mississippi Administrative Code, part 5, rule 5.16(B) (Nov. 30, 2011) provides that “[i]f the principal is not personally known to the notary, the notary may require, the signature of the principal . . . .” (Emphasis added).
¶10. Our Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the mere failure to strictly follow form will not render an acknowledgment void. See Estate of Dykes v. Estate of Williams, [Fn omitted] 864 So. 2d 926, 931 (¶20) (Miss. 2003); see also in re Jefferson, No. 11-51958-KMS, 2015 WL 359901, at *5 (Bankr. S.D. Miss. Jan. 26, 2015) (holding that Mississippi Code Annotated section 25-33-5 (Rev. 2010) does not indicate that a notarization not properly recorded in the notary’s log book is void, nor does it indicate that the notarized document is rendered defectively acknowledged due to the recordation failure).
¶11. In accordance with Mississippi caselaw, we find that lack of logbook entry does not deem the acknowledgment void. The chancery court considered all the testimony presented during the trial and followed the statutory procedures set forth in admitting the documents into evidence. Accordingly, we find no error.
A couple of thoughts:
- Paragraph 6 is a reminder that it is awfully tough to reverse a chancellor on admission of evidence in a bench trial, which is understandable because there is no jury to protect from harmful influences.
- The most complicated aspect of this case is the confuseration of spelling between “acknowledgment” and “acknowledgement.” Both are correct; however, the version with no “e” after the “g” is the preferred American usage, and the other is preferred in the UK, like “judgment” (American) and “judgement” (British).
October 1, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week I posted about the Abercrombie case which relied on Burgess v. Williamson to reach the conclusion that res judicata may operate to bar raising a claim of lack of subject matter jurisdiction on appeal.
Back in April, the COA faced the same issue and reached the same conclusion.
On April 3, 2016, a chancellor granted grandparent visitation rights to Toni Lisenby-Grundy, the paternal grandmother, with her grandson, John. The defendant in that case was the maternal grandmother, Jessie Lou Price. A year later Jessie was found in contempt for not allowing Toni her visitation. Jessie never appealed either of these judgments, and she never raised the issue of lack of jurisdiction in either of them.
Again, in May, 2017, Jessie was found in contempt for the same behavior.
Following the May, 2017, contempt judgment Jessie appealed, asserting as one ground that the contempt judgment is void because the trial court never had jurisdiction in the first place to award grandparent visitation. The basis for her jurisdictional challenge is that neither her husband, Roy, nor her daughter Theresa, had been joined as required by statute. A post on who are those required parties is at this link. Jessie charged that the failure of the court to have jurisdiction over all persons required to be joined voids the original judgment and all of its subsequent judgments and renders them unenforceable. In other words, the trial court never acquired subject matter jurisdiction.
In the case of Price v. Lisenby-Grundy, an April 16, 2019, decision, the COA rejected Jessie’s position and affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote the majority opinion:
¶26. At no time did Jessie challenge the court’s jurisdiction as to Toni’s original grandparent’s visitation action; nor did Jessie appeal the April 3, 2015 visitation order. [Fn 6] The doctrine of res judicata, therefore, bars Jessie’s attempt to challenge that order on jurisdictional grounds in this appeal. We find that Burgess v. Williamson, No. 2017-CA-00788-COA, 2018 WL 4705709 (Miss. Ct. App. Oct. 2, 2018) [270 So. 3d 1031 (Miss. Ct. App. 2018)], is instructive on this issue. In that case, Burgess appealed a May 9, 2017 contempt order against her based upon the court’s determination that she failed to comply with a final judgment awarding custody and support entered on September 8, 2015. Burgess, 2018 WL 4705709, at *2 (¶¶11-12). Among other issues on appeal, Burgess asserted that the chancery court “erred in assuming jurisdiction” over the matter. Id. at *2 (¶12).
6 We also observe that at no time did Theresa Price or Roy Price object to the chancery court’s jurisdiction on any basis, and neither Roy nor Theresa Price appealed the April 2015 visitation order.
¶27. We held that “if Burgess is trying to argue that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction to enter the original (September 8, 2015) final judgment awarding custody and support, her claim is barred by the doctrine of res judicata.” Id. at *3 (¶17). In so holding, we found that Burgess had defended the original proceeding on the merits, and did not appeal the September 8, 2015 judgment. The same is true in this case. Jessie was a party to Toni’s visitation action, participated in that action on the merits, and never challenged the chancery court’s jurisdiction on any basis. Indeed, Jessie Price’s attorney agreed to the form of the final order of visitation entered in the consolidated proceeding, which specifically provides that “[the] Court has complete and plenary jurisdiction over the subject matter and the parties involved herein.” Finally, Jessie did not appeal the April 2015 visitation order.
¶28. As we explained in Burgess, 2018 WL 4705709, at *3 (¶17), “[a]ny challenge to the . . . court’s jurisdiction should have been taken up in the original proceeding or on direct appeal from the original order.” In this regard, “[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. (citing Phillips v. Kelley, 72 So. 3d 1079, 1084 (¶18) (Miss. 2011) (“[S]ubject matter jurisdiction . . . may not be attacked collaterally.”) (quoting Travelers Indem. Co. v. Bailey, 557 U.S. 137, 152 (2009)). See also 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 as well as to other issues whether the questions relate to jurisdiction of the subject matter or jurisdiction of the parties.”); Restatement (Second) of Judgments §12 (1982) (“When a court has rendered a judgment in a contested action, the judgment precludes the parties from litigating the question of the court’s subject matter jurisdiction in subsequent litigation [subject to three narrow exceptions, inapplicable in this case].”). We find the same principle applies here and bars Jessie’s attempt to challenge the April 3, 2015 visitation order on jurisdictional grounds.
Not much more to say about that.
September 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
Yesterday and the day before we looked at the COA’s decision in Abercrombie v. Abercrombie and Judge McCarty’s dissent. Today we look at the majority’s response to the dissent:
¶26. The dissenting opinion is based entirely on evidence offered at a hearing that was held in the chancery court more than a year after this appeal was filed, and the dissent’s ultimate conclusion is that the chancellor should have taken additional steps when he entered his order “vacat[ing] the original judgment of divorce in this case.” Post at ¶40. However, that order was also entered over a year after this appeal was taken, and it is not the subject of this appeal. Indeed, as discussed above, a panel of this Court previously recognized that the chancellor retained jurisdiction to address the parties’ fraud on the court precisely because that issue “was not the subject of the judgment that Faith challenges in this appeal.”
¶27. In this appeal, Faith challenges the chancery court’s July 26, 2017 order denying her April 14, 2017 motion to dismiss and set aside for lack of jurisdiction. In that motion, Faith did not allege any fraud on the court, and there was no evidence of fraud on the court when the chancellor entered his ruling. Indeed, although the dissent primarily addresses the validity of the Louisiana adoption, there was nothing to indicate any problem with the Louisiana adoption when the chancellor entered the judgment that is now before us on appeal. The only challenge that the chancellor addressed in that ruling was Faith’s claim that the court’s initial child custody determination was void because Mississippi was not Reed’s home state at the time of the original judgment of divorce. For the reasons explained above, Faith’s attack on the court’s jurisdiction to make an initial custody determination was barred by res judicata because the case had already been litigated to a final judgment three times. [Fn 5] Therefore, the chancellor properly denied Faith’s motion.
[Fn 5] To be clear, we agree with the dissent that the issue of subject matter jurisdiction “cannot be waived.” However, it can be finally decided—and beyond re-litigation—when as in this case, it has been resolved in multiple successive final judgments.
¶28. Thus, the dissent is attacking an order that simply is not before us on appeal. The order that the dissent attacks was entered more than a year after this appeal was taken, and there has been no attempt to appeal it. Nowhere does the dissent say that the chancellor committed any error in the order that is actually the subject of this appeal. [Fn 6]
[Fn 6] Although we have considered the post-appeal proceedings in the chancery court and the chancellor’s post-appeal rulings, we have done so only (1) to rule on Faith’s motion to stay proceedings in the chancery court and to stay execution of the chancellor’s orders (which we denied, see supra ¶21) and (2) to determine whether this appeal is moot (we hold that it is not, see supra n.2).
¶29. One final point: the dissent accuses this Court and the chancellor of somehow “usurp[ing] jurisdiction from Louisiana” and “infringing upon [Louisiana’s] authority to govern its own citizens.” Post at ¶48. Nothing could be further from the truth. As far as this Court is aware, no custody proceeding is pending in any Louisiana court, and no judge in Louisiana has attempted to make any custody decision pertaining to Reed. If such an action is ever filed in Louisiana, the chancellor may communicate with the Louisiana judge, the chancellor may relinquish continuing jurisdiction over Reed’s custody, and the Louisiana court may assume jurisdiction. See Miss. Code Ann. §§ 93-27-110 & -202 (Rev. 2018); La. Stat. Ann. §§ 13:1810 & :1815 (Rev. 2007). That may be an appropriate course in the future, but it has nothing to do with the ruling that is before this Court in this appeal. The ruling that is before this Court in this appeal simply rejected Faith’s challenge to the chancery court’s jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination.
September 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
Yesterday we visited the COA’s decision in Abercrombie v. Abercrombie, in which the majority rejected Faith Abercrombie’s argument that the trial court’s order should be set aside for lack of UCCJEA subject matter jurisdiction. The COA ruled that the issue was precluded by operation of res judicata.
Judge McCarty lodged a strong dissent that bears reading. Here it is:
¶36. The revelation of the extensive fraud that both parents purportedly committed destroys jurisdiction because we have learned for a fact that this case is centered in Louisiana. Since subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and cannot be achieved through deception or fraud, I believe we are required to reverse for lack of jurisdiction.
¶37. Our Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act decrees that “[n]o infant shall be adopted to any person if either parent, having been summoned, shall appear and object thereto before the making of a decree for adoption . . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-17-7 (Rev. 2014). The Act establishes that both parents are necessary parties to an adoption proceeding. Id. We know for a fact that this prerequisite of the Act was not complied with because the slow [sic] reveal that the natural father was not made aware of (much less provided consent for) the child’s adoption.
¶38. This was fraud, as even the parties have now belatedly conceded. “When consent for a supposedly ‘uncontested’ adoption is gained by intentionally concealing the identity of a known natural parent from the chancellor, a fraud is perpetrated upon the court.” Doe v. Smith, 200 So. 3d 1028, 1030 (¶1) (Miss. 2016). There was fraud in Doe too, where the natural mother falsified her son’s birth certificate to facilitate his adoption, and this “deception caused the court to grant an adoption to a third party based on false, material representations.” Id.
¶39. Such a fraud thwarted the whole purpose of the Act and the court’s role in following it because “an intentional fraud aimed solely to circumvent a natural parent’s statutorily mandated consent to an adoption undermines the effective administration of justice.” Id. at 1033 (¶17).
¶40. Because the adoption is void based upon fraud, neither of those two people who committed the fraud should have standing. “[A] lack of standing robs the court of jurisdiction to hear the case.” In re Estate of Ivy, 121 So. 3d 226, 243-44 (¶88) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). Therefore, “any ruling on a case brought by someone who lacked standing is void ab initio.” Id. When a divorce decree is invalidated on grounds of fraud related to child custody and adoption, it follows that all subsequent custody determinations should be deemed void ab initio. We have previously held that “when a divorce is invalidated, all matters decided as a result of the divorce decree are null and void and should be brought in another hearing.” Clark v. Clark, 43 So. 3d 496, 502 (¶25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). Such matters to be reversed include the award of “alimony, child custody, and child support.” Id. (emphasis added). When the chancery court vacated the original judgment of divorce in this case, as it was required to do, it should have also vacated all custody determinations stemming from the divorce.
¶41. Our inquiry should end there. A court cannot find that it has jurisdiction over a custody dispute between two adoptive “parents” when the validity of the adoption itself has been shown to be fraudulent. For our courts to assert jurisdiction over a child born to a Louisiana resident, “adopted” by pretense in Louisiana, and who has resided in Louisiana at all times following the so-called adoption, would directly contradict the very purpose of the Act. The UCCJEA, now nearly universal, was enacted among the separate states in part to prevent exactly this forum-shopping.
¶42. The fact that the issue of jurisdiction arises at this late date does not matter because subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived. Ridgeway v. Hooker, 240 So. 3d 1202, 1208 (¶23) (Miss. 2018). Nor can subject matter jurisdiction be acquired through the passage of time because a party may raise the issue of subject matter jurisdiction at any point, including on appeal. Pierce v. Pierce, 132 So. 3d 553, 560 (¶14) (Miss. 2014). Our Supreme Court has long been blunt that we must examine whether we have jurisdiction because “[s]ubject matter jurisdiction, which is succinctly defined as the authority of a court to hear and decide a particular case, depends on the type of case at issue, and we have the primary duty [to
determine sua sponte] whether a particular case lies within our jurisdiction.” Common Cause of Miss. v. Smith, 548 So. 2d 412, 414 (Miss. 1989).
¶43. The United States Supreme Court agrees this is a core duty of courts. “When a requirement goes to subject-matter jurisdiction, courts are obligated to consider issues [sua sponte] that the parties have disclaimed or have not presented.” Gonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U.S. 134, 141 (2012). This can be frustrating to the Judiciary, as the Court points out, because “[t]he objections [to jurisdiction] may be resurrected at any point in the litigation, and a valid objection may lead a court midway through briefing to dismiss a complaint in its entirety.” Id. As a result “months of work on the part of the attorneys and the court may be wasted.” Id.
¶44. This is unfortunately one such case—where months of effort by the lawyers and the court system end up with a dismissal. Yet we must reverse, and since when we do not have jurisdiction, we should not rule. Accord Common Cause of Miss., 548 So. 2d at 418 (dismissing the appeal sua sponte for lack of jurisdiction because contempt was criminal, not civil); Dudley, 979 So. 2d at 693 (finding a lack of jurisdiction sua sponte due the notice of appeal being filed untimely); Cotton v. Veterans Cab. Co., 344 So. 2d 730, 731 (Miss. 1977) (finding a lack of jurisdiction sua sponte because there was not a final judgment); Bolivar v. Waltman, 85 So. 3d 335, 339 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (finding a lack of jurisdiction because necessary parties were not included).
¶45. Our prior rulings related to this point do not result in a procedural bar either. In the case addressed supra, we reviewed the nonpayment of child support, not custody, making the issue of jurisdiction under the UCCJEA inapplicable. Burgess v. Williamson, 270 So. 3d 1031, 1035 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). More importantly, the mother’s challenge of subject matter jurisdiction was deemed res judicata because she “answered [the] original petition for custody and child support, she filed a counterclaim, the case proceeded to trial, and the chancery court entered a final judgment.” Id. at 1036 (¶18). The mother in this case took none of these procedural steps taken by the mother in the prior litigation.
¶46. Even if the mother’s claim was barred under the doctrine of res judicata, the law recognizes three exceptions to allow a party to litigate the issue of subject matter jurisdiction after a judgment has been rendered:
(1) The subject matter of the action was so plainly beyond the court’s jurisdiction that its entertaining the action was a manifest abuse of authority; or
(2) Allowing the judgment to stand would substantially infringe the authority of another tribunal or agency of government; or
(3) The judgment was rendered by a court lacking capability to make an adequately informed determination of a question concerning its own jurisdiction and as a matter of procedural fairness the party seeking to avoid the judgment should have opportunity belatedly to attack the court’s subject matter jurisdiction.
Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 12 (1982).
¶47. In the present case, the subject matter was so plainly beyond Mississippi’s jurisdiction that it was an abuse of authority for the chancery court to hear the case. The only connections between the child and Mississippi are that he was born in Mississippi and his “adoptive” father currently resides in Mississippi. Both points fail to secure jurisdiction: the child has lived in Louisiana since shortly after his birth, and because the validity of the “adoption” has been brought into question, we cannot assume jurisdiction based on this fact.
¶48. For Mississippi to assert jurisdiction over this case would be to usurp jurisdiction from Louisiana, infringing upon the State’s authority to govern its own citizens. The child in question was born to a Louisiana resident, was allegedly “adopted” in Louisiana, and domiciled in Louisiana at all times following the “adoption.”
¶49. Further, the Abercrombies’ actions of defrauding and concealing facts from the chancery court deprived the court of the ability to properly make an adequate and informed decision regarding whether it had jurisdiction to hear the case. With the truth concerning the alleged adoption now unearthed, it is clear that our State does not and could not have jurisdiction over the matter.
¶50. Our courts do have continuing jurisdiction over the misrepresentations the parties made in this case because they were submitted to our courts and made within our State. See M.R.C.P. 11. It is a felony to “willfully and corruptly swear, testify, or affirm falsely to any material matter . . . in any court of law or equity . . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 97-9-59 (Rev. 2014) (emphasis added); see also Miss. Code Ann. § 97-9-61 (Rev. 2014) (penalty of perjury in a non-felony trial not to exceed ten years). While this case should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, that does not mean the repeated fraud on our court system should go without penalty.
¶51. For these reasons I must respectfully dissent.
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.
August 14, 2019 § 1 Comment
Most all of us who spend time in chancery court are familiar with this melancholy scenario or something similar: mom and dad are using drugs and are living a shiftless existence; they leave their baby with grandparents; then, after a while, the parents — or one of them — get cleaned up and appear suddenly demanding to reclaim the baby. A courtroom fight ensues, with hard feelings and injured relationships.
We know from Davis v. Vaughn, 126 So. 3d 33, 36 (Miss. 2013) that the mere fact that the grandparents have stood in loco parentis is not enough to defeat the claim of the natural parent. In Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (Miss. 2012), the court said, ” … grandparents who stand in loco parentis have no right to the custody of a grandchild, as against a natural parent, unless the natural-parent presumption is first overcome by a showing of abandonment, desertion, detrimental immorality, or unfitness on the part of the natural parent.”
The latest case on point came down from the COA on June 25, 2018, in Seale v. Thompson. It won’t take you long to read Judge McCarty’s succinct six-page opinion that cites only two cases (Davis and Smith) in the body and Albright in a footnote. The decision affirms the chancellor’s ruling that the grandfather had overcome the natural-parent presumption by establishing his son-in-law’s unfitness due to drug abuse. It’s a sad and all-too-familiar scenario for those of us who toil in chancery.
August 12, 2019 § 1 Comment
Should the custodial mother lose custody because she: (1) planted drugs in the father’s truck and had him arrested; and (2) fabricated a drug screen on her minor son that purported to show that the father had given the child drugs?
The chancellor thought so in the modification case between Tamara Barbaro and her ex, Coty Smith, and modified custody. Barbaro, aggrieved, filed an appeal.
In Barbaro v. Smith, handed down July 16, 2019, the COA affirmed. The facts and procedural history alone extend to 18 1/2 pages, so you might want to check them out. Here is how Judge Jack Wilson addressed Barbaro’s argument that the chancellor erred in finding that there had been a material change in circumstances that adversely affected the child:
¶72. A party who requests a modification of child custody “must prove by a preponderance of evidence that, since entry of the judgment or decree sought to be modified, there has been a material change in circumstances which adversely affects the welfare of the child.” Riley v. Doerner, 677 So. 2d 740, 743 (Miss. 1996) (quoting Ash v. Ash, 622 So. 1264, 1265 (Miss. 1993)) (emphasis omitted). The chancellor must consider the “totality of the circumstances” to determine whether such a change in circumstances has occurred. Id. (quoting Tucker v. Tucker, 453 So. 2d 1294, 1297 (Miss. 1996)). “[I]f such an adverse change has been shown, the moving party must show by [a preponderance of the] evidence that the best interest of the child requires the change of custody.” Id. (quoting Ash, 622 So. 2d at 1266).
¶73. The chancellor found that Barbaro’s participation in a scheme to plant illegal drugs in Smith’s truck and her tampering with Will’s drug test had resulted in a material change of circumstances. The chancellor also found that Barbaro’s actions had necessitated restrictions on visitation and an abrupt, emergency change in custody, which adversely affected Will—as shown by his being more clingy and insecure. Finally, citing Riley, supra, the chancellor found “that there could have been [additional] adverse harm to [Will] had Barbaro’s actions been successful” because the “father-child relationship would have been severed.”
¶74. Barbaro argues that the chancellor erred because the evidence generally showed that she was a fit parent and even a good mother and because Will had not yet suffered harm. She further argues that even if she did help plant drugs or falsified a drug test, the charges against Smith were ultimately dropped, and the “alleged threat of harm is moot.”
¶75. Barbaro’s argument takes too narrow a view of the concept of a material and adverse change in circumstances. In addressing this issue, the chancellor must consider the “totality of the circumstances.” Riley, 677 So. 2d at 743 (quoting Tucker, 453 So. 2d at 1297). “The concept [of a material change in circumstances that adversely affects the child] is intended to encompass its broadest possible meaning in order to protect children,” including but not limited to changes that adversely affect the “child’s mental and emotional well-being.” Marter v. Marter, 914 So. 2d 743, 748-49 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Bredemeier v. Jackson, 689 So. 2d 770, 775 (Miss. 1997)).
¶76. In Riley, the Supreme Court held that “where a child living in a custodial environment clearly adverse to the child’s best interest, somehow appears to remain unscarred by his or her surroundings, the chancellor is not precluded from removing the child for placement in a healthier environment.” Riley, 677 So. 2d at 744. The Court held that a change in custody may be warranted “even without a specific finding that such environment has adversely affected the child’s welfare. A child’s resilience and ability to cope with difficult circumstances should not serve to shackle the child to an unhealthy home, especially when a healthier one beckons.” Id. The Court stated that “[t]he test . . . for custody modification need not be applied so rigidly, nor in such a formalistic manner so as to preclude the chancellor from rendering a decision appropriate to the facts of an individual case. In particular, it should not thwart the chancellor from transferring custody of a child from one parent to another when, in the chancellor’s judgment, the child’s welfare would be best served by such transfer.” Id. at 745.
¶77. As we have explained above, there is substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s factual findings that Barbaro participated in a scheme to plant drugs and tampered with Will’s drug test. The chancellor further found that Barbaro’s extreme conduct threatened harm to Will because, if successful, it would have resulted in Smith’s imprisonment and likely severed the father-child relationship. The chancellor concluded that this clear threat of harm to Will was a material and adverse change in circumstances—even though, thankfully, Barbaro was not successful, and the specific threat to Will was averted. We cannot say that the chancellor clearly erred or abused his discretion by applying the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley to the facts of this case. Riley recognizes that a parent’s conduct that threatens harm to a child may rise to the level of a material and adverse change in circumstances even if the child “somehow appears to remain unscarred.” Id.; accord Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1014 (¶39) (Miss. 2003).
¶78. Moreover, there is substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s finding that Will had already been adversely affected by Barbaro’s conduct. Barbaro’s conduct necessitated restrictions on Smith’s visitation and then an abrupt, emergency change of custody and restrictions on Barbaro’s visitation. These events would not have occurred but for Barbaro’s misconduct. Furthermore, witnesses testified, and the chancellor found, that these changes caused Will to be more clingy and insecure.
¶79. In summary, the chancellor did not clearly err or abuse his discretion by applying Riley to the facts of this case or by finding a material change in circumstances that adversely affected Will. Therefore, the chancellor appropriately proceeded to consider whether a change in custody would be in Will’s best interest. See Riley, 677 So. 2d at 743.
That’s some useful authority in ¶¶75 and 76.