Dodging the Summary Judgment Bullet

June 19, 2018 § 3 Comments

Daren Froemel filed a will contest claiming that his mother, Mary Lou, lacked mental testamentary capacity when she made her will. The beneficiaries of the will filed a motion for summary judgment with affidavits of the subscribing witnesses and others attesting to her mental capacity. Daren responded in an answer that the discovery revealed Mary Lou had been hospitalized at the time for “altered mental status,” and that she had been prescribed and was taking 22 different medications, including morphine. He argued that those facts established a basis to deny summary judgment, but he did not file counter-affidavits. The chancellor granted summary judgment in favor of the beneficiaries, and Daren appealed.

In Estate of Froemel: Froemel v. Williams, et al., handed down May 8, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee penned the unanimous opinion:

¶13. Here, the beneficiaries offered the will, and it was admitted to probate. Thus, they established a prima facie case regarding Mary Lou’s testamentary capacity. Additionally, when the beneficiaries moved for summary judgment in response to Daren’s contest, they attached four affidavits of individuals that testified as to MaryLou’s mental capacity. At this point, Daren was required to respond to the summary judgment motion with some evidence to rebut the beneficiaries’ prima facie case to show a genuine issue for trial. Daren, however, filed an answer in response—and nothing more—in which he reiterated that Mary Lou had been hospitalized for altered mental status and had prescriptions for twenty-two medications. Following the reiteration of these two facts, Daren stated in his response, “Clearly, a genuine issue of material fact exists in regards to the decedent’s mental state.”

¶14. It is well settled that “[t]he existence of a genuine issue of material fact will preclude summary judgment.” Calvert v. Griggs, 992 So. 2d 627, 632 (¶11) (Miss. 2008). However, we note that “[a] fact is neither material nor genuinely contested . . . merely because one party proclaims it so.” Suddith v. Univ. of S. Miss., 977 So. 2d 1158, 1167 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). “The mere allegation or denial of material fact is insufficient to generate a triable issue of fact and avoid an adverse rendering of summary judgment.” Kaigler v. City of Bay St. Louis, 12 So. 3d 577, 583 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Palmer v. Biloxi Reg’l Med. Ctr. Inc., 564 So. 2d 1346, 1356 (Miss. 1990)). “More specifically, the plaintiff may not rely solely upon the unsworn allegations in the pleadings, or arguments and assertions in briefs or legal memoranda.” Id.

¶15. In the instant case, Daren rested upon the mere allegations in his pleadings and summarily concluded there was a genuine issue of material fact. While Mary Lou’s hospitalization and prescriptions the month prior to the execution of her will may have been important facts in this case, there was no evidence of a genuine issue of material fact—namely, that Mary Lou lacked testamentary capacity as determined by the three relevant factors at the time she executed her will. Daren offered no testimony by affidavit, deposition, or otherwise regarding Mary Lou’s testamentary capacity. Our supreme court has offered the following in response to a nonmovant’s failure to appropriately respond to a summary judgment motion:

[W]e wish to make it clear that this Court intends to enforce Rule 56(e), which requires affidavits or other evidence establishing “a genuine issue for trial.” Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Those who practice before our trial courts are well advised to respond to summary judgment motions with affidavits, deposition testimony, responses to discovery, and other evidence approved by Rule 56, allowing our trial judges a fair look at whether triable issues of material fact exist. As the rule specifically provides, parties may not simply rely on their pleadings . . . .

Franklin Collection Serv. Inc. v. Kyle, 955 So. 2d 284, 291 (¶24) (Miss. 2007).

¶16. Because the beneficiaries established a prima facie case that the will was valid—and specifically that Mary Lou possessed testamentary capacity at the time of its execution—and Daren failed to rebut the prima facie case with any summary-judgment evidence that there
was a genuine issue for trial, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment.

Daren’s shortcoming in this case was to respond to the affidavits with mere assertions. Had he offered an affidavit with interrogatory answers and deposition excerpts attached, the outcome might have been different.

Still, were the requirements of Franklin actually satisfied here? Daren did cite to “discovery,” which we will assume here to include interrogatory responses and depositions, both of which must be sworn, and possibly responses to requests for admission. But are they a part of the record? Well, nowadays nobody files that stuff in the record. Merely referring to it without attaching excerpts supporting your position is like saying, “You’ll have to take my word for it, Judge.” Again, an affidavit with excerpts attached would likely have made a difference.

Another cause for pause is the language of R56 itself. R56(c) specifies that “The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” If any … I wonder what that means amidst all that other material the court is supposed to consider?

The moral of this story is to file one or more affidavits, even if all you are relying on is discovery material.

Answers to RFA’s

May 22, 2018 § 6 Comments

MRCP 36 Requests for Admission are quite useful in domestic litigation. Following is the language of the rule dealing with answers, annotated with my comments:

“(a) … The matter is admitted unless, within thirty days after service of the request, or within such shorter or longer time as the court may allow, the party to whom the request is directed serves upon the party requesting the admission a written answer or objection addressed to the matter, signed by the party or by his attorney, but, unless the court shortens the time, a defendant shall not be required to serve answers or objections before the expiration of forty-five days after service of the summons upon him. If objection is made, the reasons therefor shall be stated.”

CommentSubject to the language below in Paragraph b, you have to get your response filed within 30 days. The rule says that the attorney can sign for the client, but I don’t recommend that because often the answering party is literally stuck with and by the response. When the client signs it’s hard for him to maintain later that he never intended to admit that fact. Note that the reasons for an objection must be stated; remember that you and your client are bound by what you state. If you don’t assign a particular reason, you likely have waived it, subject to Paragraph b.

“The answer shall specifically deny the matter or set forth in detail the reasons why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny the matter.”

Comment: I suggest that you repeat the language of the request in the denial so that there is no doubt as to what is admitted (e.g., “Defendant admits that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017” rather than “Admitted.” This may sound fussy, but unless you can give me a persuasive reason not to do it my way, I stand my ground.

“A denial shall fairly meet the substance of the requested admission, and when good faith requires that a party qualify his answer or deny only a part of the matter of which an admission is requested, he shall specify so much of it as is true and qualify or deny the remainder.”

Comment: Here is where the advice immediately above becomes clear. By saying only “denied,” in the above example, you are denying every word. But the answer, “Defendant denies that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017” leaves no doubt whatsoever what exactly he is denying. And that is what the rule requires. The rule also clearly requires that if you are admitting in part and denying in part you have to specify (e.g., “Defendant admits that he was at the home of Francine Jones, but denies that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017”).

“An answering party may not give lack of information or knowledge as a reason for failure to admit or deny unless he states that he has made reasonable inquiry and that the information known or readily obtainable by him is insufficient to enable him to admit or deny.”

Comment:  This requirement is seldom met, in my experience. If you are going to seek refuge behind lack of information, you are going to have to take a further step and make reasonable inquiry to obtain that information. Only after making “reasonable inquiry” may you then state that the information known or readily obtainable is insufficient to enable an admission or denial complying with the rule. The requirement of reasonable inquiry is a good reason always to require your client to sign the responses. Oh, and keep in mind that your failure to answer with the reasonable inquiry language may provoke a motion to take the matter as admitted, which means that you will have an uphill climb to convince the judge to let you amend, as provided in Paragraph b.

“A party who considers that a matter of which an admission has been requested presents a genuine issue for trial may not, on that ground alone, object to the request; he may, subject to Rule 37(c), deny the matter or set forth reasons why he cannot admit or deny it.”

Comment:  No matter how inane the request, you have to answer the substance of the request. It’s never adequate to respond like “This is a modification action, after all, and adverse effect on the child has been pled.”

“The party who has requested the admissions may move to determine the sufficiency of the answers or objections. Unless the court determines that an objection is justified, it shall order that an answer be served.”

Comment:  If the court determines that an objection is unjustified, then it must order than an answer be served. You get another shot at an answer. This is why an objection is better than an unresponsive answer.

“If the court determines that an answer does not comply with the requirements of this section, it may order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended answer be served.”

Comment:  Here is where your chickens come home to roost if you don’t properly answer with “reasonable inquiry” or make some kind of unresponsive answer. You run the risk that the judge will merely order that the matter be taken as admitted. There are no factors for the judge to apply; it’s within the judge’s discretion whether to order that it be taken as admitted or that you may file an amended answer.

“The court may, in lieu of these orders, determine that final disposition of the request be made at a pre-trial conference or at a designated time prior to trial. Rule 37(a)(4) applies to the award of expenses incurred in relation to the motion.”

Comment:  Self-explanatory.

“(b) Effect of Admission. Any matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission.”

Comment:  Conclusively established means exactly that. “Any admission that is not amended or withdrawn cannot be rebutted by contrary testimony or ignored by the court even if the party against whom it is directed offers more credible evidence.” DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 801 (Miss. 2002).

“Subject to the provisions governing amendment of a pre-trial order, the court may permit withdrawal or amendment when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that withdrawal or amendment will prejudice him in maintaining his action or defense on the merits.”

Comment:  Although the rule appears to provide that you will be allowed to amend or withdraw a response if you can show (a) that presentation of the merits will be subserved, and (b) the other side can not show prejudice, the MSSC has held that the trial court “may,” but is not required, to consider the two prongs of the rule in denying a motion to withdraw or amend. Young v. Smith, 67 So. 3d 732, 740 (Miss. 2011).

“Any admission made by a party under this rule is for the purpose of the pending action only and is not an admission by him for any other purpose nor may it be used against him in any other proceeding.”

Comment:  Don’t expect to use those old admissions from your opposing party’s first divorce in this second one.

Charging for Medical Records

April 11, 2018 § Leave a comment

Jane’s Law Blog reports that there is a petition for interlocutory appeal before the MSSC filed by Neurospine LLC, a medical provider, from sanctions assessed by Jasper County Circuit Court for overcharging for medical records. You can read the details at this link.

Although the case reported is from a circuit court, it is of interest to chancery practitioners as well, since medical records play a role in many chancery proceedings. Are you (or your client) being overcharged? Read the authority cited in Jane’s post and judge for yourself.

Jane Tucker’s blog is a helpful resource to keep up with decisions of the appellate courts, as well as filings, pending issues, and interesting oral arguments and briefs.

Understanding the MEC Privacy Requirements

January 8, 2018 § 2 Comments

Section 9(A) of the MEC administrative procedures imposes a duty to protect sensitive information of parties and children in filings with the court. Social Security numbers, names of minor children, dates of birth, and financial account numbers are prohibited and must be redacted. Attorneys are directed to use caution with personal identifying numbers (e.g., driver’s license numbers), medical records, employment history, individual financial information, and proprietary or trade-secret information.

There are exceptions, however, set out in Section 9(B). It states:

The redaction requirement shall not apply to the following:

  1. The record of an administrative or agency proceeding.
  2. The record of a court or tribunal, if that record was not subject to the redaction requirement when originally filed. See Section 5(D) for a listing of restricted access cases.
  3. Documents filed under seal.
  4. Documents filed as Restricted Access if the private information is necessary and relevant to the case. See Section 5(D) for listing of restricted access cases.

Section 5(D) designates certain cases as “Restricted Access” (RA), meaning that persons other than the attorneys of record and clerks will only be able to view remotely the case’s docket page; as with other unsealed cases, the public may view documents on file in RA cases at the terminal in the clerk’s office.

Cases designated as RA include:

Debt Collection; Garnishment; Replevin; Child Custody/Visitation; Child Support; Divorce, both fault and irreconcilable differences; Modification; Paternity; Termination of Parental Rights; Birth Certificate Correction; Conservatorship; Guardianship; Minor’s Settlement; Protection from Domestic Abuse Law.

Note that adoption is not listed. That’s because adoptions are under seal, and so are exempted under 9(B)(3), above.

Also not listed are estates. That means that the redaction requirements do, indeed, apply to them.

Even if your case is not designated in the rule as an RA case, you may still move the court to restrict a document or the entire case for good cause, per Section 5(D)(3).

Just because your case falls in an RA category does not mean that can or should ignore your client’s right to privacy. Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, passwords, and personal identifying numbers should always be scrubbed from documents filed with the court, exchanged in discovery, and introduced into evidence, unless your client has specifically authorized you to release that specific information.

And remember that MRCP 5.1 extends the MEC privacy rules to districts using non-MEC electronic filing.

Taking as Admitted … or not

September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

Ursel Williams sued her husband, Wayne Williams, for separate maintenance after he left her. In the course of litigation, Wayne propounded R 36 requests for admission (RFA’s), most of which went to the merits of Ursel’s claims. Ursel never responded, and Wayne moved at trial for the chancellor to take the requests as admitted. She refused. Wayne appealed the judge’s grant of separate maintenance and raised in his appeal the issue of the chancellor’s refusal to take the admissions as admitted.

In Williams v. Williams, decided August 22, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee wrote for a 7 1/2 -1 1/2 court (Judge Wilson joined the dissent “in part”):

¶7. Rule 36 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure governs requests for admissions. The rule states, in pertinent part, that a matter will be deemed admitted if the party upon whom the request was served does not timely respond or file an objection addressed to the matter. M.R.C.P. 36(a). A timely response equates to one being made within thirty days. See id. Thereafter, the matter is conclusively established unless the court permits the admission’s withdrawal or amendment. M.R.C.P. 36(b). “A matter that is deemed admitted does not require further proof.” Locklear v. Sellers, 126 So. 3d 978, 981 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). Still, while “Rule 36 is to be applied as written, . . . ‘it is not intended to be applied in Draconian fashion.’” In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock & Hamby, 23 So. 3d 424, 432 (¶28) (Miss. 2009) (quoting DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 801-02 (¶26) (Miss. 2002)). Specifically, “[a] certain amount of discretion is vested in the [chancellor] with respect to whether he or she will take matters as admitted.” Earwood v. Reeves, 798 So. 2d 508, 514 (¶19) (Miss. 2001) (citation omitted).

¶8. The problem here is that the admissions produced contradictory results. Some of the requests asked Ursel to admit that: the separation was her fault, Wayne did not refuse to support her, and Wayne did not abandon her. However, another request asked Ursel to admit that “there is no significant conduct on [y]our part that negatively impacts the enjoyment of the marriage contract.” Ursel obviously admitted to this statement in her untimely response. As such, we fail to see how the matter could be conclusively established as Wayne argues; thus, it was within the chancellor’s discretion to rely on the trial testimony to resolve any conflicts. Furthermore, the chancellor recognized that it was within her discretion to review the reason for Ursel’s failure to timely answer the requests for admissions. The chancellor found the delay of thirty-three days was not “critical,” and we can find no abuse of discretion in this instance. The dissent states that Wayne’s requests for admissions were deemed
admitted for Ursel’s failure to timely reply and that the contradictory admission does not encompass the essential elements of Ursel’s separate-maintenance claim. However, the dissent concedes that it is within the chancellor’s discretion whether to take matters as admitted. In this instance, we cannot find error by the chancellor.

Nothing earthshaking here.

In child custody cases, RFA’s may not be relied upon by the chancellor as the body of proof. And here is another post (with the same title) on the point.

It’s important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t send RFA’s out to do the bulk of the heavy lifting in your case. They aren’t designed to do that. As the court has said, the purpose of the request for admission under Rule 36 is “to determine which facts are not in dispute . … It is not intended to be used as a vehicle to escape adjudication of the facts by means of artifice or happenstance.” DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 802 (Miss. 2002).

You Don’t Play — You Pay

July 17, 2017 § 3 Comments

Robert A. Johnson filed a contest to his father’s will, which left everything to Robert’s stepmother, Myra Henderson, and bequeathed nothing to Robert and his brother.

Henderson gave notice of a deposition to be taken in her attorney’s office in Mississippi. Johnson, who lived in California, filed a motion to quash and for a protective order on the basis that it was unduly burdensome on short notice, and that Henderson should either have to pay his travel expenses, or should do the deposition by remote video, or should travel to California to depose him. The chancellor ruled that Johnson would have to travel to Mississippi to give the deposition, but did allow him thirty days’ notice.

Based on the court’s ruling, Henderson re-noticed the deposition for thirty-two days later at her attorney’s Mississippi office. Three days before the scheduled time, however, Johnson’s lawyer called Henderson’s lawyer and told him that Johnson would not appear. Johnson did not appear at the appointed time and date.

Henderson filed for sanctions. At the hearing on the motion, Johnson’s attorney argued that Johnson had been to busy to attend. The chancellor inquired why Johnson had not filed anything to stay the date to a less busy period, and the attorney replied that he wanted to, but was unable to coordinate documentation with Johnson’s California lawyer. Henderson argued for financial sanctions. The chancellor, however, had other ideas: “I can not allow somebody to file an action in a will contest or otherwise in my Court and not make themselves available to the Court for necessary discovery. I can’t allow it. It’s frankly, contemptuous. And also, if it’s not done, all it does is slow down the wheels of justice.” He dismissed Johnson’s complaint with prejudice, and Johnson appealed.

The case was taken by the MSSC, which affirmed in In the Matter of the Estate of Johnson: Johnson v. Henderson, decided June 1, 2017. Justice Maxwell wrote for the 5-4 majority:

¶11. The rule governing a party’s failure to attend a properly noticed deposition is very clear. “If a party . . . fails . . . to appear before the officer who is to take his deposition, after being served with a proper notice, . . . the court in which the action is pending on motion . . . may take any action authorized under subsections (A), (B), and (C) of subsection (b)(2) of this rule.” M.R.C.P. 37(d) (emphasis added). One of the actions authorized by subsection (b)(2) is the issuing of an order “dismissing the action or proceeding or any part thereof, or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party[.]” M.R.C.P. 37(b)(2)(C). So under Rule 37, dismissal is an authorized sanction.

¶12. Johnson does not claim he lacked proper notice of the December 11, 2015 deposition. So under Rule 37(d)’s plain language, his failure to appear triggered the chancellor’s discretionary authority to dismiss his will contest with prejudice. Johnson recognizes this authority but tries to temper his nonappearance by arguing it was not willful. As his lawyer later pitched it to the chancellor, he was just too busy to be there.

¶13. Johnson insists this Court’s precedent cuts against his being hit with the ultimate sanction of dismissal. See, e.g., Pierce v. Heritage Props., Inc., 688 So. 2d 1385, 1388 (Miss. 1997) (finding the plaintiff’s willful discovery violation supported the trial judge’s sanction of dismissal). But the record shows his nonattendance was willful. Opting against seeking court permission or intervention, he gambled on forgiveness, and intentionally skipped out on his properly noticed deposition. Johnson made no prior mention of work obligations or serious conflicting business duties. It was only afterward, when looking down the barrel of dismissal, that his attorney suggested to the chancellor that Johnson’s California business would have been disrupted had he attended the deposition. Johnson had not mentioned this excuse to the court before ditching his deposition. Nor did he seek court intervention or direct his counsel to work with Henderson’s lawyer to find a more suitable date to be deposed.

¶14. In fact, Johnson apparently never intended to inform Henderson he was not coming. Our review shows it was Henderson’s lawyer who contacted Johnson’s attorney three days before the scheduled deposition to verify Johnson would be there. And only then, according to Henderson’s attorney, did Johnson’s lawyer tell him his client was not coming.

¶15. In addition to willfulness, we also consider “whether the failure to comply is attributable to the party itself, or their attorney,” and “whether the failure to comply was a consequence of simple confusion or a misunderstanding of the trial court’s order.” Beck v. Sapet, 937 So. 2d 945, 949 (Miss. 2006) (citing Pierce, 688 So. 2d at 1389). Here, the record supports the chancellor’s finding that it was in fact Johnson—not his attorney—who decided to skip the deposition. And his absence was not based on confusion over the judge’s November 9 ruling that he come to Mississippi to be deposed. It was willful.

¶16. Based on this willful, unexcused failure to attend the December 11 deposition, we find the chancellor was within his discretion under Rule 37(d) to sanction Johnson by dismissing his action. See Salts, 872 So. 2d at 674 (affirming the trial judge’s dismissal under Rule 37(b)(2)(C) for failure to attend a deposition as within the judge’s discretion); Gilbert v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 749 So. 2d 361, 364 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (affirming trial judge’s sanction of dismissal because “the record reveals that it was more wilfulness or bad faith on the part of Gilbert that prevented his appearance” at the scheduled deposition).

¶17. The dissent and Johnson try to distinguish Salts and Gilbert by arguing, in those cases, the plaintiffs had been ordered to attend the depositions. And in his case, Johnson was never ordered by the chancellor to show up on December 11. But the fact the parties in Salts and Gilbert were under court order—and Johnson was not—is immaterial to our analysis. It simply makes their failures to appear not only violations of Rule 37(d) but also Rule 37(b), which specifically governs the failure to comply with discovery-related court orders. See Salts, 872 So. 2d at 674; Gilbert, 749 So. 2d at 364. There is nothing in Rule 37(d)—the subsection that specifically governs a party’s failure to attend his own properly noticed deposition—that limits the trial court’s discretionary authority to dismiss to only those case where a party has been expressly ordered by the court to attend a deposition. Compare M.R.C.P. 37(d) (governing “Failure of Party to Attend at Own Deposition or Serve Answers to Interrogatories or Respond to Request for Inspection”) with M.R.C.P. 37(b) (governing “Failure to Comply With Order”). Again, Rule 37(d) makes clear a party cannot ignore a properly served notice of deposition with impunity. Instead, he must appear or, if appearance is not feasible, seek the other side’s cooperation and, if necessary, the court’s intervention. In this case, Johnson did nothing. He simply rolled the dice and decided not to come to Mississippi to be deposed, despite the judge’s ruling.

¶18. The dissent also suggests the chancellor did not consider lesser sanctions—another factor we weigh when reviewing the sanction of dismissal. See Beck, 937 So. 2d at 949 (citing Pierce, 688 So. 2d at 1389). But we find he did. At the motion-for-sanctions hearing, Johnson’s counsel specifically argued that, “if sanctions are imposed, they should be financial sanctions.” This, he insisted, would “allow [Johnson] to compensate the opposing party but still have his day in court here.” The chancellor considered but rejected this suggestion.

¶19. It is obvious the chancellor felt lesser sanctions would not suffice. In meting out the appropriate sanction, he found he could not allow practitioners to file lawsuits then thwart necessary discovery through their nonavailability. He deemed such a course as “frankly, contemptuous.” In his view, this sort of willful behavior “slow[s] down the wheels of justice.” From this exchange, it is evident the judge acknowledged and considered Johnson’s argument but found dismissal the only viable sanction for Johnson’s willful conduct. See Pierce, 688 So. 2d at 1390-91 (affirming the sanction of dismissal, in part, because the trial court had considered less-drastic sanctions but found none would have the same deterrent value). While this court may have crafted a different sanction, we cannot say the chancellor lacked discretion to dismiss with prejudice under Rule 37(d).

¶20. As a final matter, Johnson argues the chancellor wrongly denied his motion for a protective order. This was the motion he filed in response to the first notice of the October 22, 2015 deposition. The record contains no transcript from the November 9, 2015 hearing on Johnson’s motion. But during the January 5, 2016 sanctions hearing, Johnson’s attorney recapped the judge’s prior ruling, acknowledging “[p]reviously . . . the court ruled that it was better to have in person depositions and we agreed.” (Emphasis added.) But even if Johnson disagreed with the judge’s ruling that he had to come to Mississippi to be deposed, he could not simply ignore the properly noticed December 11 deposition. Johnson could have filed a second motion for protective order based on the timing of the deposition, but he did not. [Fn omitted] Instead, he deliberately chose not to attend. Based on this unexcused absence, we find the chancellor was within his discretionary authority under Rule 37(d) to sanction Johnson with dismissal.

There is a rigorous dissent, which you might want to read for authority in case you find yourself on the uphill side in a similar case.

What you need to take notice of here is that R37(d) has got some serious teeth that can inflict fatal damage on your case. You can’t always control a recalcitrant client such as Johnson apparently was in this case, but you may be able to file a timely motion for a protective order that might insulate him from the most extreme sanction.

In any event, this case is anecdotal evidence that judges are becoming less patient with people who file lawsuits and then gum up the works. If you come to play, you need to play. If you don’t, the ultimate price is what you may have to pay.

Bill of Discovery is Viable, but …

June 6, 2017 § 1 Comment

In March, 2016, the COA all but pronounced the death of the Bill of Discovery, an ancient chancery proceeding that allowed a party to file an action solely to discover information when there is no other way to obtain it. I posted about the case at this link.

The MSSC granted cert, and in Kujlis v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, LLC, decided March 30, 2017, the court stated that “The bill of discovery is a viable equitable action and remedy in chancery court …” (¶4).

BUT … the majority opinion held that Kujlis was not entitled to discovery in chancery because her complaint pled as the basis for discovery that she had suffered a personal injury, which is a circuit court matter. In essence, the court held that the discovery has to relate to some matter within chancery jurisdiction.

Justice Dickinson, joined by Kitchens, King, and Coleman dissented, pointing out that there was no circuit court action filed when Kujlis filed her Bill of Discovery, so there was no way to invoke circuit civil discovery under the MRCP. The dissenters noted that the Bill of discovery, which long predates the MRCP, only requires a showing that the information sought can not be obtained any other way, not that it is required for a given purpose. They also point out that the majority’s holding limits chancery jurisdiction contrary to MRCP 82(a).

You need to read the opinions for yourself to get a grasp on both sides’ reasoning.

I guess the moral here is that, if you file a Bill of Discovery in chancery court, simply plead and prove that the information sought cannot be obtained by other methods, and stand on that. As the court stated in ¶8, citing a previous case, ” … a complaint for discovery has discovery itself as the substantive relief sought — ‘the sole object and end of the bill, no relief other than discovery being prayed.”

That leaves unanswered the issue of relevance. The defendant comes into court and asks, “Why should I have to take the time and trouble to gather up all this information simply because they asked for it?” Good question. And per Kujlis, when the court makes you answer it, you just might create a dismissal.

Way back in 1950, Judge Griffith said, ” … the principle has been strengthened in its operation under our practice, for it is now the thoroughly settled rule in this state that discovery is a sufficient equity to draw all features of a controversy into chancery for full, final and complete relief … it has been held and repeatedly re-affirmed by our courts that the equity of discovery is sufficient to give the chancery court power to proceed to full relief although all other relief is purely legal in nature.” Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, 2d Ed., 1950, § 429. We’ve travelled far from that concept.

 

The Price of Admission

August 17, 2016 § 1 Comment

Chancery court can be a strange land for strangers who spend most of their time in law courts. There, things tend to be pretty black and white; here, well, not so much. One of the things that circuit lawyers find particularly frustrating is that chancellors sometimes seem to look past the black letter of the rules in some of their rulings.

It can cut both ways, though.

In the recent case of Randallson v. Green, a COA case decided June 21, 2016, Arthur Randallson and his wife, April, argued that the chancellor erred in relying on their deemed answers to requests for admission in determining custody.

The case came before the chancery court on a complaint filed by Randall and Laura Green seeking legal and physical custody of Aeva, the daughter of Arthur and April. The Greens filed requests for discovery which were not answered by the Randallsons until 51 days after they were served on them. The chancellor awarded custody to the Greens, and the Randallsons appealed.

Their first assignment of error was that the chancellor erred in relying on their deemed MRCP 36 admissions (RFA’s) to determine custody. Judge Lee wrote for a unanimous court:

¶19. This Court has strictly enforced the application of Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 36 according to its terms. Boyd v. Boyd, 83 So. 3d 409, 416 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “The rule states that a party has thirty days in which to submit a response to a request for admission, or within forty-five days after service of the summons upon a defendant.” Id. (citing M.R.C.P. 36(a)). “Matters will be deemed admitted after this time period, unless the court allows for either a shorter or longer period of time in which to answer.” Id.

However, the trial court, on motion, has the discretion to “permit withdrawal or amendment [of a matter admitted] when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that withdrawal or amendment will prejudice him in maintaining his action or defense on the merits.”

Id. (quoting M.R.C.P. 36(b)).

¶20. The record is clear that Arthur and April filed untimely responses to Randall and Laura’s requests for admissions. See id. at (¶21). They failed to request a withdrawal or amendment of the admissions prior to trial. See id. Thus, the operation of the rules deems the matters admitted. Id. (citing M.R.C.P. 36(a)). “Matters admitted by default under Rule 36(a) are established unless and until the trial court allows amendment or withdrawal by motion under Rule 36(b).” Id. (quoting DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 799 (¶17) (Miss. 2002)).

¶21. However, in Gilcrease v. Gilcrease, 918 So. 2d 854 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005), we held that “child custody is a judicial determination, and is never to be regarded as a merely evidentiary matter.” Boyd, 83 So. 3d at 417 (¶23). Thus, basing a determination of child custody solely on a Rule 36 admission is improper. Id.

¶22. In her bench ruling, the chancellor considered Arthur and April’s admissions. But then the chancellor stated:

[T]his [c]ourt is a court of equity and the attorneys for the plaintiffs know that. They did not . . . rest their case [after the admissions were deemed admitted and] ask me to find by clear and convincing evidence that the parents [were] unfit . . . . They went on to present evidence to this [c]ourt, which gave the [c]ourt some . . . very real concerns.

After discussing the evidence, the chancellor stated that she “considered the totality of the [r]equest for [a]dmissions, the guardian [a]d litem report, [and] the testimony . . . from all of the witnesses” and found “that the [natural-]parent presumption [had] been overcome.”

¶23. Upon a thorough review of the record, we do not find that the chancellor abused her discretion. See id. at 418 (¶28). It is clear that the admissions were not the sole basis for the custody decision. See id. The chancellor heard all of the testimony at trial and used the GAL’s report as part of her consideration, in addition to the admissions by Arthur and April. See id. Therefore, this issue is without merit.

You can take away at some points:

  • Failure to answer RFA’s can have as significant effect in a chancery court as in a law court.
  • The chancellor in a child custody case may not rely solely on admissions to make its custody decision.
  • The only way a chancellor (or any other judge operating under the MRCP) may relieve your client of the effect of admissions, whether deemed or expressly made, is if you timely file a motion and put on proof that (a) the merits of the case will be served by granting the motion, and (b) there is not prejudice to the other party. Fail to do that, and your client is stuck. Wait until the day of trial, and you probably will fail on (b).
  • Don’t forget that you can move to “withdraw” or amend even when your client wholly failed to respond at all. You just have to go through the motion routine above.
  • But, hey, instead of putting all your chips on a rescue procedure that relies on the possibly sketchy discretion of the judge, why not focus instead on your office procedures? Have a protocol in place that the minute a RFA appears in your email inbox, or is served with process, or is hand-delivered, or arrives in the mail, your staff knows to give it top priority and get it to your immediate attention. Calendar the due date. Make an immediate appointment with the client to come up with responses ASAP. Get the answers filed within a reasonable time.
  • Resist the temptation to answer every question with something like, “Defendant is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief …” unless that really and truly is the case. On a bad day the judge could find that sort of response sanctionable.

The MRCP 60(b) Appeal

May 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in Crossley, et al. v. Moore, et al., decided April 21, 2015, addresses an important distinction between an appeal on the merits and what is reviewable in an appeal from a court’s MRCP 60(b) ruling.

In that case, the chancellor had stricken Crossley’s (the collective name for the defendants that this post will apply) answer and counterclaim due to a prolonged and obstinate refusal to cooperate and obey court orders for discovery. The judge entered a default judgment against the defendants, and set a hearing on damages. At that hearing, he heard testimony and entered a judgment against the defendants for more than $760,000 in damages, which included $26,000 in attorney’s fees. Crossley did not appeal.

Five months after entry of the judgment, Crossley filed a motion pursuant to MRCP 60(b) to set aside the judgments, claiming (1) that they never received notice of the hearing on sanctions for discovery violations, and (2) that they never received notice of hearing on the damages issue. At hearing, however, the defendants admitted that they did receive notice of the sanctions hearing, but insisted that they had not as to the damages hearing. The chancellor overruled the motion as to the sanctions hearing, leaving the default judgment intact, but granted a rehearing on the issue of damages.

Crossley appealed, arguing that the trial judge was in error in dismissing their answer and counterclaim based on sanctions.

The COA affirmed. Judge Maxwell wrote for the majority:

¶13. We begin with the discovery sanction. And the first order of business is to determine just exactly what Crossley and Templet are appealing. From their brief, they seem to argue they are appealing the merits of the August 2009 decision to strike their answer. But that decision led to a default judgment—a judgment that became final in March 2010. And this final judgment was not appealed. Nor was this judgment set aside. While the chancellor did order a new hearing on damages, Crossley and Templet acknowledge in their brief that the chancellor “refused to set aside the judgment itself.”

¶14. With the underlying default judgment left undisturbed, what Crossley and Templet are in fact appealing is the denial of their Rule 60(b) motion to set aside. See Blackmon v. W.S. Badcock Corp., Inc., 342 So. 2d 367, 371 (Ala. Civ. App. 1977) (holding that a Rule 60(b) ruling to vacate a damages award and conduct a new hearing did not confer on the movant the right to address the merits of the underlying default judgment). As we recently reiterated, this court’s “review of the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion is extremely limited.” Davis v. Vance, 138 So. 3d 961, 963 (¶1) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). We are “not allowed to inquire into the actual merits of the underlying judgment.” Id. This is because Rule 60(b) is not a vehicle to relitigate the merits of a trial judge’s decision. Woods v. Victory Mktg., LLC, 111 So. 3d 1234, 1237 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). So even if the chancellor had done something that may have been reversible error had Crossley and Templet timely appealed, the fact remains that they did not appeal. And Rule 60(b) cannot be used to get around this. See Williams v. New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc., 728 F.2d 730, 736 (5th Cir. 1984).

¶15. This court reviews the denial of their Rule 60(b) motion for abuse of discretion. Stringfellow v. Stringfellow, 451 So. 2d 219, 221 (Miss. 1984).

That’s a critical point to grasp. You can not use R60(b) as a vehicle to open the merits of the underlying judgment to appellate review. Once the deadline for appeal has past, the judgment itself is final and not reviewable on the merits. The only issue on appeal is whether the trial judge abused his or her discretion in ruling on the R60(b) motion. In this particular case, the COA ruled that the chancellor had not abused his discretion.

Another take-away from this case is that continued obstinate evasion of discovery and failure to abide by court orders for discovery have painful consequences that can radically alter the landscape of a lawsuit.

 

 

A Double Nightmare for Counsel

December 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sometimes we assume something and it makes us say “Ouch.”

Gregory Dailey and his ex, Tracie McBeath, were entangled in child-support-contempt litigation. Hearing had been continued a time or two, and Gregory’s attorney had filed a motion to compel discovery, noticed for the most recent trial setting, and both counsel agreed that the case should be continued. That’s where things went haywire.

Here’s how Judge Barnes, in the COA case of Dailey v. McBeath, issued November 25, 2014, described the situation:

¶5. A hearing on the petition was held April 19, 2012. Tracie’s counsel asserted a motion to compel discovery, claiming that when she had finally received an answer from Gregory a week prior to the hearing, there was no proper documentation (tax returns, check stubs, etc.) included. She also claimed that Gregory had purposely eluded investigators, giving them false information, and that he was hiding assets. Gregory failed to appear at the hearing. His counsel, however, was present and acknowledged that Gregory had not filed tax returns for the last seven years. Gregory’s counsel complained that counsel opposite had not been communicating with him and that he had been unable to depose Tracie, even though he had been trying for months.

So, Gregory is a no-show, possibly because he and his attorney assumed that a simple order addressing the discovery issues with a resulting continuance would be the net result. But, that assumption proved to be painfully incorrect, as Judge Barnes went on to describe:

¶9. Gregory’s counsel made an appearance on his behalf at the April 19, 2012 hearing, evidently expecting that the chancery court was only going to address the motions for discovery and grant the parties’ motions for a continuance. However, the chancellor refused to continue the proceedings and denied both parties’ motions. Although counsel argued that Gregory was located three hours away in Madison, Mississippi, as were the attorney’s files for the case, the chancellor advised the parties to prepare for trial and to attempt to reach an agreement. He admonished:

I’m going to continue with the case and you have no authority to release your client. I have that trouble in other cases and it’s my policy to go forward. . . . And I’m not going to play games with discovery. . . . Y’all should have cooperated with each other. I’m going to try the case, so just get your stuff ready.

. . . .

Now, what I will do is give y’all a chance to visit to see if you can resolve the matter. And it may be that you can talk to your client by phone. I will not tolerate from either one of you all the failure to cooperate and discuss a case.

¶10. On appeal, Gregory argues that the chancellor’s denial of a continuance, which gave his counsel only seventeen minutes to prepare for trial, was “an inherent abuse of discretion” and that he was “ambushed” and “unable to defend himself.” A chancellor’s decision to deny a motion for a continuance is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Sizemore v. Pickett, 76 So. 3d 788, 794 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Robinson v. Brown, 58 So. 3d 38, 42 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011)). Absent a finding of prejudice, we will not reverse the denial of a continuance. Robinson, 58 So. 3d at 42 (¶10). [Footnote omitted]

¶11. While the chancellor’s decision to proceed with the hearing without Gregory present may appear harsh, we find that it was not an abuse of discretion. Gregory and his counsel should have been prepared for the possibility that the motions for a continuance would be denied. Gregory was obviously aware of the hearing, as his counsel was in attendance to represent him. Gregory does not contend that he was unable to attend the hearing, and he knew that he owed the prior judgment to Tracie and that the hearing had been scheduled for several months. Furthermore, the record shows that the chancery court had previously granted a continuance on August 17, 2011, and the chancellor noted at the hearing that the case had been set since February 21, 2011.

¶12. Consequently, we find any prejudice suffered by Gregory due to the chancellor’s decision to proceed with the hearing was of Gregory’s own making, and the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in denying the motions for a continuance.

  A few nuggets sifted from the ashes:

  • Never wait until the day of trial to bring unresolved discovery disputes to the court’s attention.
  • Never assume that you will be granted a continuance, even when both sides ask for it.
  • Never, ever, excuse your client from being present for a matter set for hearing by court order.
  • Never argue with a straight face that you are being “ambushed” when the case has been set for 14 months.

Remember two important principles:

  • The older a case becomes, the less likely the chancellor will be to grant motions that would have the effect of prolonging it, and
  • If you insist on assuming something, be prepared to deal with the consequences when your assumption proves to be incorrect.

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