The Retirement Time-Bomb

April 30, 2019 § 1 Comment

Many, many divorces include either provisions in PSA’s or adjudications that divide retirement benefits to begin 10, 20, or even more years in the future, long after the time for appeal has run.

What happens when the underlying assumptions upon which that PSA or adjudication is based are changed over time or prove to be inaccurate or untrue?

Carolyn Hall was granted a divorce from Gary Hall on the ground of adultery in 2006. She was awarded alimony, and, as part of the property division, Gary was ordered to pay her: $23,976.23 from his 401(k) plan; $2,976.13 from his stock ownership plan; and $600 per month from his pension if he retired at normal age (based on a projected benefit of $5,212 per month, reflecting the plan’s increase during the parties’ 10-year marriage).

In 2007, Gary’s employer froze his pension benefits, but Gary did not file any action to seek modification. In 2016, Gary accepted an early retirement offer, causing him to retire at age 62 rather than the normal retirement age of 65.

Gary filed a petition for modification in February, 2017, claiming that the freezing of his benefits was a material change in circumstances that reduced his retirement benefits, and asked to eliminate the payment to Carolyn entirely. Perhaps recognizing that property division is unmodifiable (East v. East, 493 So.2d 927, 931 (Miss. 1986)), Gary argued at hearing that he was actually seeking relief from the divorce judgment pursuant to MRCP 60(b)(5) and (6). The chancellor granted Carolyn’s motion and dismissed Gary’s case. Gary appealed.

In Hall v. Hall, decided March 19, 2019, the COA affirmed.

¶13. Gary’s petition does not mention that it was filed under Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) and (6). However, during the hearing on August 2, 2017, as well as within his brief to this court, Gary argued that he is entitled to relief pursuant to Rules 60(b)(5) and (6) and he is also entitled to equitable relief. Since this issue was raised with the chancery court we will address the Rule 60(b) arguments made by Gary.

¶14. Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) and (6) provide:

(b) Mistakes; inadvertence; newly discovered evidence; fraud; etc. On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or his legal
representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons:

. . . .

(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application;

(6) any other reason justifying relief from the judgment.

The motion shall be made within a reasonable time, and for reasons (1), (2) and (3) not more than six months after the judgment, order, or proceeding was entered or taken. . . .

The supreme court follows the following criteria for determining Rule 60(b) motions:

(1) That final judgments should not lightly be disturbed; (2) that the Rule 60(b) motion is not to be used as a substitute for appeal; (3) that the rule should be liberally construed in order to achieve substantial justice; (4) whether the motion was made within a reasonable time; (5) [relevant only to default judgments]; (6) whether if the judgment was rendered after a trial on the merits-the movant had a fair opportunity to present his claim or defense; (7) whether there are intervening equities that would make it inequitable to grant relief; and (8) any other factors relevant to the justice of the judgment under attack.

M.A.S. v. Miss. Dep’t of Human Servs., 842 So. 2d 527, 530 (¶16) (Miss. 2003). See also Carpenter v. Berry, 58 So. 3d 1158, 1159 (¶18) (Miss. 2011); M.R.C.P. 60(b), advisory
committee’s note.

¶15. Our court previously held in [In re Dissolution of Marriage of De St.] Germain[, 977 So.2d 412 (Miss. Ct. App. 2008)]  that a court did not err when dismissing a
motion brought under Rule 60(b) where the appellant waited five years to set aside a divorce judgment:

Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) [states that] “it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application”[], [and] the catch-all provision under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) [provides for] “any other reason justifying relief from the judgment[.]”[] One who proceeds under either Rules 60(b)(5) or 60(b)(6) must do so “within a reasonable time.” M.R.C.P. 60(b). The chancellor did not specifically state that Brenda failed to file her motion “within a reasonable time,” but his ruling implies as much. We cannot find that the chancellor abused his discretion. Brenda filed her motion approximately five years after the chancellor entered the divorce judgment. The allegations raised within Brenda’s motion could have been submitted much earlier than five years after the judgment of divorce. Accordingly, we affirm the chancellor’s decision to grant Robert’s motion to dismiss.

Germain, 977 So. 2d at 416 (¶10).

¶16. Rule 60(b) reads in pertinent part that relief must be sought “within a reasonable time.” Additionally, the supreme court has held “Rule 60(b) provides for extraordinary relief which may be granted only upon an adequate showing of exceptional circumstances . . . .” Entergy Miss. Inc. v. Richardson, 134 So. 3d 287, 291 (¶10) (Miss. 2014). Here, Gary has not demonstrated any exceptional circumstances.

¶17. Further, Rule 60(b) motions are not to be used as a substitute for appeal. M.A.S., 842 So. 2d at 530 (¶16). Gary never appealed the original judgment of divorce or its retirement provisions. However, Gary has now filed a petition approximately ten years later challenging the retirement provisions of the divorce judgment. Moreover, during the hearing on August 2, 2017, Gary testified that his employer, Standex International Corporation, notified him that his retirement plan was frozen in 2007 and at least twice a year thereafter [Fn omitted] … [here the court quoted excerpts from the trial transcript in which Gary essentially admitted that he could have filed a court action much earlier than he did].

¶18. Gary’s petition could and should have been submitted much earlier than ten years after the memorandum opinion and divorce judgment. Gary knew or should have known in 2007 that his retirement plan was frozen in 2007 and that his retirement benefits would most likely not be $5,200 per month as projected. Gary failed to timely file his petition under Rule 60. In view of that, we affirm the court’s decision to dismiss Gary’s petition.

This case highlights the difficult position that litigants find themselves in when the assumptions upon which the equitable division change or prove to be untrue. If you’re negotiating how to divide your client’s retirement, it would be better to cast it as alimony, which is modifiable. If that doesn’t fly, try to negotiate a percentage rather than a fixed sum. If the case is being adjudicated, be sure to develop your client’s position that any such award should be alimony, and why, and that any award should be as a percentage.

Whatever strategy you employ to minimize risk to your client (and you), it’s important to keep in mind that these retirement provisions are ticking away in your client’s life, far beyond the time limit to appeal, and remember: property division is not modifiable.

Circuit or Chancery?

August 27, 2018 § 4 Comments

The State of Mississippi filed suit in chancery court against a number of pharmacies for fraud and deceptive trade practices in connection with Medicaid reimbursements. The complaint sought the following relief:

(1) an order enjoining the Defendants from continuing the fraudulent, deceptive and/or unfair acts or practices complained of herein, and requiring correcting measures;
(2) an award of compensatory damages to the State in such amount as is
proved at trial;
(3) an award of actual damages;
(4) an award of all civil penalties provided for by statute;
(5) an award of punitive damages;
(6) an accounting of all profits or gains derived in whole or in part by the Defendants through their fraudulent, unfair and/or deceptive acts or practices complained of herein;
(7) a constructive trust of the moneys illegally and impermissibly obtained from the Defendants’ scheme;
(8) an order imposing a constructive trust on and/or requiring disgorgement by the Defendants of all profits and gains earned in whole or in part through the fraudulent, unfair and/or deceptive acts or practices complained of herein;
(9) an award of attorney fees, costs, and prejudgment interest; and
(10) such other and further relief as the Court may deem appropriate and just.

Defendants responded asking that the matter be transferred to circuit court because of the claims for money damages, and because they wanted to protect their right to a jury trial. The State objected.

The chancellor agreed with the defendants

In his order, the chancellor found that, although the State prayed for some equitable relief, the claims primarily involved recovery of actual and punitive damages. In deference to the Mississippi Constitution’s right to a trial by jury, the judge ruled that, when claims are connected to a contractual relationship or are otherwise involve a question of law, the questions of both law and equity are more appropriately presented in
circuit court. The judge held that the main relief sought was legal, and ordered that the case be transferred to circuit court. The State appealed.

In State of Mississippi v. Walgreen Co., et al., the MSSC affirmed. Justice Beam wrote the August 8, 2018, opinion for a unanimous court. The court first addressed and rejected the State’s argument that an injunction sought under MCA § 75-24-9 must be brought in chancery court. It then went on to deal with the transfer from the equity court to the law court. This is the portion of the opinion addressing chancery vs. circuit jurisdiction:

¶29. We recognize the importance of the State’s request for remedies, including an accounting and a constructive trust, which typically require the chancellor’s equitable review, and we certainly do not intend to devalue that importance here. But an application of the State’s equitable claims is not enough to limit jurisdiction to the chancery court; not even through the application of Section 75-24-9. We have held that chancery courts maintain “the discretion to award legal and even punitive damages as long as” their jurisdiction has attached. Southern Leisure Homes, Inc. v. Hardin, 742 So. 2d 1088, 1090 (Miss. 1999). Though, in matters like the one before us today, “it is more appropriate for a circuit court to
hear equity claims than it is for a chancery court to hear actions at law since circuit courts have general jurisdiction but chancery courts enjoy only limited jurisdiction.” McDonald’s Corp. v. Robinson Indus., Inc., 592 So. 2d 927, 934 (Miss. 1991); see also Hardin, 742 So. 2d at 1090; Union Nat’l Life Ins. Co. v. Crosby, 870 So. 2d 1175, 1182 (Miss. 2004).

¶30. We reiterated this position in Era Franchise Systems, Inc. v. Mathis, 931 So. 2d 1278 (Miss. 2006). There, we noted that “equitable claims are more appropriately brought before a circuit court when they are connected to a contractual relationship or other claims tied to questions of law.” Mathis, 931 So. 2d at 1283 (citing Copiah Med. Assocs. v. Mississippi Baptist Health Sys., 898 So. 2d 656, 661 (Miss. 2005); Crosby, 870 So. 2d at 1175; RE/Max Real Estate Partners v. Lindsley, 840 So. 2d 709 (Miss. 2003)). In Mathis, Venit Mathis filed a complaint against multiple defendants alleging various claims, framed as a derivative action on behalf of REP–an organization in which he alleged to have a fifty-percent stake. Like the State in the matter before us, Mathis pleaded several causes of action and prayed for both legal and equitable relief. After the chancery court determined that it would be best to bifurcate the action, leaving the equitable claims in chancery court and transferring the legal claims to the circuit court, the defendants appealed. This Court reviewed the matter and determined that the chancellor had committed reversible error. Mathis, 931 So. 2d at 1283-1284. Following our holding in Crosby (stating that where a complaint seeks both actual and punitive damages, the “remedy is clearly legal rather than equitable in nature,” Crosby, 870 So. 2d at 1179), we determined that the circuit court’s general jurisdiction is better suited to try a case when doubt exists as to whether the claims are equitable or legal. Mathis, 931 So. 2d at 1282 (citing Burnette v. Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co., 770 So. 2d 948, 952 (Miss. 2000)). Finding that Mathis’s action revolved around issues stemming from contractual obligations not met by the defendants, we reversed the chancellor’s decision denying the defendant’s motion to transfer the matter to the circuit court. Id. at 1283.

¶31. Similarly, in the often-cited Crosby case, the plaintiffs brought an action to recover against the defendants for several common-law and statutory claims arising out of sale of insurance policies and allegedly exorbitant premiums. Crosby, 870 So. 2d 1175 (Miss. 2004). Although the plaintiffs requested a constructive trust, an accounting, and injunctive relief, the defendants claimed that the complaint sounded in tort and contract law–not equity–and requested the case be transferred to circuit court. Reviewing the matter on interlocutory appeal, this Court reversed the chancellor’s denial of the defendant’s motion to transfer, and determined that “each and every one of Crosby’s claims, even the equitable claims of unjust enrichment and constructive trust, arise from the sale and alleged breach of an insurance contract.” Id. at 1182. We noted that an argument alleging otherwise ignores the fact that, unless there was a contractual relationship between Union National and Crosby, she would have no claims arising from the sales, administration and service of the insurance policy. . . .The alleged mismanagement and misappropriation of premium money concerns Crosby’s contractual duty to pay for the insurance policy and Union National to provide her coverage. Id.

¶32. This analysis is directly applicable to the State’s claims against the pharmacies. While it is true that the State’s complaint does not plead the facts necessary to establish a breach-of-contract cause of action, we must look to “the substance, and not the form” of the claims in our resolution of a matter. Copiah Med. Assocs., 898 So. 2d at 661. With the State’s single theory of wrongdoing arising from the defendant’s obligations under the Medicaid provider agreements, the State’s decision to omit a breach-of-contract claim in no way affects the complaint’s substance: the claims asserted and the relief requested present legal arguments and legal remedies. Moreover, much like Crosby and Mathis, the heart of the complaint concerns a provider agreement (a contract), its terms, and the parties who failed to abide by the arrangement. While the equitable issues pleaded are relevant and not to be ignored, the legal issues which flowed from the pharmacies’ alleged inflated reimbursement requests predominate the State’s claims and requests for relief. As a result, jurisdiction properly lies in the circuit court.

¶33. Putting aside the State’s requests for restitution, accountings, constructive trusts, and injunctions, the complaint prays for millions of dollars in actual and punitive damages based on the defendants’ alleged unwillingness to comply with the signed provider agreements. Whether the State disagrees that the basis of these complaints sounds in contract is of no moment. Rather, as most of the claims are legal in nature, the circuit court is the appropriate forum to rule on the matter.

¶34. This decision in no way strips the Attorney General of his constitutional authority to pursue an injunction. Rather, it allows the State fully and fairly to pursue all claims against the defendants, while providing the defendants with an opportunity to have those issues presented to a jury.
The State, therefore, should fully and ably proceed with its complaint in circuit court.

I could quibble all day with the “general jurisdiction” vs. “limited jurisdiction” fiction and how it is so unhelpful to this discussion, but I’ll pass and submit to the principle that if the matter is an action for damages, it should go to circuit.

Having said that … <HERESY ALERT> … my question is, “Why, Mississippi, do we continue to put ourselves through this contortion when we could resolve it easily by merging our law and equity courts into one system?” I know that’s heretical, coming especially from a chancellor, but merger of law and equity has worked handsomely in almost all of the other United States for as many as 150 years without jurisprudential armageddon.

In a merged system, we would not have tug-of-wars between circuit and chancery. As many claims for relief as one has could be joined in a single action to be addressed by the court as appropriate.

Some say that would sacrifice the expertise in minor’s issues, probate, and family law that has been accumulated in chancery over the centuries. That is a somewhat valid concern, but I don’t see that the quality of judicial decisions in merged states is significantly less than Mississippi’s. Also, in some jurisdictions where number of judges and caseload are adequate, judges specialize in certain areas such as family law and criminal law, allowing development of expertise.

Some do not want to sacrifice the jobs of sitting chancellors in a merger, but I don’t think that merger would result in the loss of a single judge slot.  We would still have the same number of cases to be handled, requiring at least as many judges as we have now.

Others say, “If it ain’t broke …” etc. To that I concede that it ain’t necessarily broke … but is it functioning as efficiently, justly, and equitably as it can and should?

We ought always be ready and willing to discuss and debate the best ways to fashion our court system.

Busted

May 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

In 1972, Carroll and Susan O’Brien purchased 104 acres of land in Simpson County as joint tenants with right of survivorship. The purchase money came from Susan’s inheritance.

Fifteen years later, in 1987, the couple was divorced by judgment on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Their PSA, which was incorporated into the judgment, included the following provision:

It is agreed between the parties that all real property jointly owned by these parties shall remain as same now is, with each party owning a one-half undivided interest in all real property and that said real property cannot become community property by any future marriages by either spouse. No disposition of any land holdings may be made while both parties are alive unless by mutual agreement in writing.

It is obvious from the language above that their intent was that the ultimate survivor would become sole owner of the property.

Only problem is that Carroll had a different idea. In 1995, using an old power of attorney (POA) that Susan had signed back in 1970, he quitclaimed the Simpson County property to himself and his new wife, Socorro. Contrary to the express language of the PSA, Carroll had not sought or obtained Susan’s “mutual agreement in writing” to dispose of his interest in the real estate. He did not execute the deed as Susan’s attorney-in-fact. There were a couple of later conveyances in 2000 and 2007, resulting in the property being conveyed solely to Socorro.

Carroll died in November, 2012.

Susan filed suit to void the deeds and remove clouds on her title to the property. She alleged breach of fiduciary duty by his self-dealing use of the POA, lack of authority to convey, fraud, and unjust enrichment. Socorro filed a denial, along with affirmative defenses of equitable estoppel, laches, and waiver, and demanded one-half of the ad valorem taxes back to 1995.

Susan filed a motion for summary judgment. The chancellor found that no written agreement was ever made to allow Carroll to convey any interest in the property, and that all of his attempts to convey the property after the divorce would be cancelled and set aside. Socorro appealed.

The COA unanimously affirmed in the case of O’Brien, Individually and as Executrix of the Estate of O’Brien v. Westedt, handed down April 10, 2018. There are some legal points of interest to property lawyers.

Citing Mosby v. Mosby, 962 So. 2d 119, 124 (¶15) (Miss. App. 2017), the court affirmed the chancellor’s decision:

¶12. Susan responds that the Mosby case clearly stands for the principle that conveyances which thoroughly frustrate the intent of a divorce decree shall be set aside. Id. She claims that, based on the trial court’s interpretation and application of Mosby to the undisputed facts of the case, she was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. She contends that the property settlement agreement is clear that neither she nor Carroll could dispose of any interest in the real property while both were alive without the written agreement of the other. As previously quoted, the agreement states that “[n]o disposition of any land holdings may be made while both parties are alive unless by mutual agreement in writing.”

¶13. The chancery court noted that in “Mosby, a divorced husband attempted to thwart the intent of the divorce decree by conveying his one-half interest in the property to his second wife while retaining a life-estate in himself in a scheme to avoid splitting the equity in the property with his first wife.” Id. Based on the Mosby case, the court found that the property settlement-agreement provision governed, and all attempts by Carroll to convey the property after his divorce from Susan should be canceled and set aside. We agree. See also McKinney v. King, 498 So. 2d 387, 388 (Miss. 1986) (holding that, “[i]t is fundamental law that an agent owes his principal absolute good faith and fidelity, and he cannot in the exercise
of his authority as agent acquire property or interest therein rightfully belonging to his principal without full disclosure and free consent of his principal.”).

¶14. The property-settlement agreement clearly contemplated that the property would pass by survivorship unless both parties agreed otherwise in writing. “[P]roperty settlements under divorce actions are binding on the parties if fair, equitable and supported by consideration.” Weeks v. Weeks, 403 So. 2d 148, 149 (Miss. 1981). Socorro does not claim that the property-settlement agreement entered into by Carroll and Susan was unfair, inequitable and not supported by consideration at the time Carroll and Susan executed it. The contract was enforceable, and the conveyances were void; therefore, the original joint tenancy with rights of survivorship was still intact at Carroll’s death, and Susan is entitled to the entire property.

A few thoughts:

  • I am going to presume that the concept of keeping the property jointly titled post-divorce originated with the clients, and not the lawyers. Perhaps neither had the funds to buy out the other’s interest. Whatever, I don’t think it’s usually best to leave the parties in a joint ownership arrangement after a divorce.
  • Regardless of the wisdom or lack thereof behind the property arrangement, I give full credit to the lawyer who drafted it. The provision leaves no doubt about what the parties intended, and it left no wiggle room that Carroll could have used to justify his actions.
  • This case also highlights that you need to discuss with your divorce clients how to tidy up their affairs after divorce. They need to do a credit check to make sure there are no joint credit accounts of which they were unaware. They need to cancel all previous wills. They need to execute a cancellation of all prior powers of attorney and file the cancellation with the chancery clerk among the property records. They need to check and change life insurance beneficiaries as necessary. They need to close all joint banking and securities accounts. It’s an important subject about which I’ve posted here before.
  • Righting wrongs and making sure that equity is done are core functions of chancery court.

 

In God We Trust

May 2, 2018 § 1 Comment

As we discussed yesterday, it was a dispute over whether the local church held property in trust for the denomination that brought First Presbyterian Church of Starkville into litigation with the Presbytery of Saint Andrew, PCUSA.

Justice Randolph’s majority opinion in Presbytery of Saint Andrew, PCUSA v. First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville, Mississippi, decided April 12, 2018, includes a precise summary of the law of trusts in Mississippi. I thought it would be something you might find useful:

¶23. Generally, trusts are classified under two broad categories: (1) express trusts and (2) implied trusts. Mississippi law requires that “no trust of or in any real property can be created except by written instrument signed by the party who declares or creates such trust. . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 91-8-407 (Rev. 2013). Neither party asserted the existence of any writing signed by the proper FPC officials after authorization that satisfies Section 91-8-407,whether by original deed or separate trust instrument. Likewise, no declaration of trust is filed in the land records of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, as provided by Section 91-8-407(b)(2).

¶24. No express trusts were entered into by the parties under traditional Mississippi trust law. No reference exists in any deed to creation of a trust relationship. It follows that no clear expression of an intent to create a trust exists, nor any reference even to the term “trust.” Neither party has asserted the opposite. Likewise, no separate document such as a trust instrument exists in writing. Again, neither party asserts the contrary.

¶25. None of the elements of creation of an express trust are present, such as the writing, the clear intent of the trustor, or the confirming authority of creation of a trust and the transfer of property by the governing body. See Church of God Pentecostal, 716 So. 2d at 208. Therefore, no traditional express trust nor any legally enforceable and separate traditional trust instrument exists or existed that would operate to vest a beneficial interest in and over the legally titled property of FPC to PCUSA.

¶26. While an express trust must be written, implied trusts differ in that they arise by implication of the law or are presumed from the circumstances. Mississippi recognizes two types of implied trusts: (1) constructive trusts and (2) resulting trusts.

¶27. A constructive trust is a judicially imposed remedy used to prevent unjust enrichment when one party wrongfully retains title to property. McNeil v. Hester, 753 So. 2d 1057, 1064 (Miss. 2000). FPC purchased the property at issue. No evidence exists that PCUSA invested any funds into the acquisition of any of the parcels of land. No evidence of any documents, oral conversations, minutes, or other written or oral supporting evidence exists that any arrangement of trust was contemplated in the tradition of a constructive trust. No constructive trust is implied by law based on the facts as agreed upon by the parties.

¶28. A resulting trust “is designed to give effect to the unwritten but actual intention of the parties at the time of the acquisition of title to the affected property.” Robert E. Williford, Trusts, 8 Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 73:2, 422 (2001). Additionally, Section 91-8-407(a)(2) specifically requires the intention to create a trust. When FPC incorporated in 2003, no intention to create a trust or create an express trust relationship existed. Furthermore, it is clear that PCUS disclaimed any interest in church trust property until just before the merger forming PCUSA. Although a trust provision was placed in the constitution when PCUSA was formed, the local churches were granted the right to opt out of that provision. FPC took measures on several different occasions to exercise its right to opt out. It did so in session meetings and bylaws of incorporation; it did so with reassurances by officers of PCUSA that compliance with the opt-out would allow FPC to hold title to its property. It is
reasonable to conclude the consistent position of FPC as representative of its intent that FPC wanted to remain, as it always had, the owner of its property. There is no evidence of a resulting trust.

 

It’s Alive!

January 17, 2017 § 5 Comments

“It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!”  — Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Only last year I posed the question whether the venerable and seldom-used Bill of Discovery (BOD) in chancery were dead. That post dealt with the COA’s decision in Kuljis v. Winn-Dixie, Montgomery, LLC, in which the court affirmed a chancellor’s dismissal of a BOD filed by a plaintiff seeking information to determine whether a viable cause of action existed against the grocery-store chain. The judge ruled that the matter should be brought in circuit court and pursued via discovery there.

At the time I questioned whether the decision portended the death of the BOD, and I pointed to (former chancellor) Judge Fair’s dissent in its defense.

The issue arose again in a recent case decided January 10, 2017, Graham v. Franks, et al., and Judge Fair, writing this time for the majority, held that the BOD is, indeed a viable procedure in chancery. Here’s how he addressed it:

¶9. This appeal hinges on Franks’s assumption in his Rule 12(b)(6) motion that complaints for discovery and accounting do not state a cause of action in and of themselves, as Franks has never challenged any particular element of either claim. The dispositive question therefore appears to be whether a complaint that seeks only discovery or an accounting states a cause of action under Mississippi law.

¶10. It is beyond dispute that a complaint for an accounting is a valid cause of action under Mississippi law: “A Mississippi chancery court holds the authority to hear a case for an accounting.” Univ. Nursing Assocs. PLLC v. Phillips, 842 So. 2d 1270, 1275 (¶14) (Miss. 2003); Crowe v. Smith, 603 So. 2d 301, 307-08 (Miss. 1992). The remedy sought by an accounting is the accounting itself “and a judgment for the amount found due upon the accounting.” 1A C.J.S. Accounting § 54 (2005). And “the jurisdiction of a court of equity over matters of account rests upon three grounds[:] the need of a discovery, the complicated character of the accounts, and the existence of a fiduciary or trust relation.” Phillips, 842 So.2d at 1275 (¶14) (quoting Henry v. Donovan, 148 Miss. 278, 114 So. 482, 484 (1927)). All of those appear to have been alleged in the Grahams’ complaint.

¶11. Next, we address the complaint for discovery in chancery, for the second time this year. [Fn 1] We are now presented with the issue of whether the pure discovery action – formerly a “bill of discovery” and now called a “complaint for discovery” – remains a viable and independent cause of action within chancery court jurisdiction. We hold that it does.

[Fn 1] See Kuljis v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery LLC, 2015-CA-00256-COA, 2016 WL 1203823 (Miss. Ct. App Mar. 29, 2016), reh’g denied (Aug. 23, 2016), cert. granted (Nov. 17, 2016).

¶12. In March of 1981 the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure were adopted by the Supreme Court of Mississippi, to become effective on January 1, 1982. Seven years later, in State Oil & Gas Board v. McGowan, 542 So. 2d 244 (Miss. 1989), the supreme court was presented with the question of whether the new rules had abolished the common law right to a “Bill of Discovery in Chancery.” It found that they had not:

The bill of discovery is one of the ancient bills used in equity practice. Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, 1925, § 427 p. 422. The Board argues that the bill is no longer available as a discovery devise in Mississippi practice as it was abolished or rendered obsolete by the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure effective January 1, 1982. This Court disagrees with this premise.

Griffith, supra, addresses the Bill of Discovery:

But there is a distinct bill in chancery known, strictly speaking, as the bill of discovery, by the use of which disclosure may be required of material facts exclusively within the knowledge or possession of the defendant and which without such discovery no full and adequate proof of them could be made. It had its origin out of the common law rule that no party in interest was a competent witness in any case; and it began at an early date to be allowed in the court of chancery in order to relieve against what otherwise would have resulted in a denial of justice when it happened that the facts or the documents establishing a right or materially aiding therein rested in the exclusive possession or control of the opposite party; and, originally its office was simply to aid a pending suit at law or one about to be brought, and the chancery part of the proceedings were usually deemed as concluded upon the coming in of the full answer making the
disclosures or producing the documents sought. In other words, the obtaining of the discovery was the sole object and end of the bill, no relief other than the discovery being prayed. It was therefore purely ancillary to a trial in some other case and ordinarily in some other forum.

Id. at pp. 422, 423.

Rule 82(a), M.R.C.P. makes clear that nothing in the rules alters the jurisdiction of any court, nor is the power of any court to grant substantive relief changed from what it was before the rules.

It is true that the nomenclature of the legal practice was changed by the abolition of the names of the old writs and procedural names. M.R.C.P. Rule 2. See Dye v. State Ex Rel. Hale, 507 So. 2d 332, 337 n.4 (Miss. 1987). As such, the terminology of a “Bill of Discovery” has been rendered obsolete, and procedurally it is referred to as a “complaint.” However, the adoption of the rules affected procedure, not substance. The power and authority of the Chancery Court to grant the substantive relief of “discovery” remains viable and available although it has been broadened and simplified by M.R.C.P. 26-37. The need for this substantive remedy is evident by this lawsuit.

McGowan, 542 So. 2d at 248-49.

¶13. In addition to McGowan, only two Mississippi Supreme Court cases have addressed historical chancery court “bills” for relief in the context of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. In Leaf River Forest Products Inc. v. Deakle, 661 So. 2d 188 (Miss. 1995), the court relied heavily on McGowan, including the quotations above, in holding that the jurisdiction of a chancery court to grant a “bill of peace,” like a “bill of discovery,” had also survived enactment of the Rules of Civil Procedure. The more recent case of Moore v. Bell Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick-GMC LLC, 864 So. 2d 939 (Miss. 2004), also relied on and quoted McGowan with approval.

¶14. While it is true that the complaint for discovery requires a meritorious underlying cause of action if it is to be the sole basis for equitable jurisdiction, [Fn 2] the chancellor observed that there were numerous ones here; the complaint was dismissed not because there was no underlying cause of action but because the complaint did not seek relief for one. The Supreme Court of Mississippi has recognized, however, that a complaint for discovery has discovery itself as the substantive relief sought – “the sole object and end of the bill, no relief other than the discovery being prayed.” McGowan, 542 So. 2d at 248. “Rule 82(a) [of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure] makes clear that nothing in the rules alters the jurisdiction of any court, nor is the power of any court to grant substantive relief changed from what it was before the rules.” Id. at 249.

[Fn 2] See Davis v. Lowry, 221 Miss. 283, 292, 72 So. 2d 679, 681 (1954); see also James W. Shelson, Mississippi Chancery Practice § 18:2 (2016).

¶15. As both discovery and accounting remain independent causes of action under Mississippi law, and Franks has never argued the insufficiency of the Grahams’ allegations on any specific element of either, we conclude that the trial court erred in granting the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. We remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

In the right case, you might find that the Complaint for Discovery (formerly BOD) is just what you need to get the job done, and the issue is now settled (unless and until the MSSC sees it differently) that it is a viable procedure. Remember: it requires that you have a “meritorious underlying cause of action” that sounds in equity. It’s not enough to file a PI case in chancery seeking damages and add some incidental accounting claim so as to get your discovery relief via BOD. That will most likely simply get you bounced over to circuit court.

A CD Pitfall

January 26, 2016 § 5 Comments

A 2015 COA case reveals a feature of CD’s that could cause problems for some of your clients, and could impact estates you handle.

In 1990, Audie Bell English and several other relatives purchased a $75,000 CD at Sunburst Bank, which later was acquired by Regions Bank. The CD automatically renewed every 6 months at the then-prevailing rate. Under its terms, any of the purchasers could cash out the CD without participation of the others, but to do so the original CD was required to be presented. There was a policy in place, however, for issuance of a replacement original in the event that the initial original certificate became lost.

All of the other purchasers died, and Audie Bell, the sole survivor, presented the original certificate to Regions for payment. The bank refused to honor it, however, because it could not locate any records, which it took to mean that the CD had already been redeemed.

After Audie Bell died, the executrix of her estate filed suit against Regions for breach of contract, seeking damages in the face value of the $75,000 CD, plus a little more than $247,000 in accrued interest.

Both the estate and the bank filed motions for summary judgment.

The chancellor granted Regions summary judgment, relying on a New York case that held, in essence, that there is a legal presumption of payment arising out of the fact of a long delay between the right to enforce an obligation and the attempt to do so. He found no genuine issue of material fact, and that Regions was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

In the case of Estate of English v. Regions Bank, decided August 25, 2015, the COA reversed, noting that Mississippi did not recognize the same presumption as in the New York case. The court remanded for a hearing on the fact issue whether the CD had been redeemed, or whether it should be paid.

It should be emphasized here that what was reversed here was the finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact. The chancellor may well resolve the fact issue against the estate at trial, but that will depend on presentation of evidence by both sides.

What I think merits your attention is that, more and more, it seems to me, the rules of banking are tilting in favor of the banks and against “small” depositors [to a bank, $75,000 is a piddling deposit; to most of us, it is a fortune]. You might want to factor this in when advising your clients about record-keeping and protecting assets. Some of your may have some comments about how your clients can protect themselves from an adverse outcome in a scenario such as this, and how to avoid litigation. I just think most of us believe that when we have in hand an original negotiable instrument such as a CD, we expect it to be honored, and that the burden of its own record-keeping should be on the bank.

Partiting the Former Marital Residence

January 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

Robert and Betty Coleman were divorced in 2002. Under the terms of the divorce judgment, Beverly got exclusive use and possession of the former marital residence, which was situated on family land deeded to the couple by Beverly’s mother, until the parties’ minor child attained majority age. Beverly was responsible to pay the mortgage debt, taxes, and insurance on the property, and the parties were to split equally any maintenance expenses. The judgment did not spell out what was to be done when the child turned 21.

In the years following the divorce, Beverly lived in the home and dutifully paid the sums assigned to her. Robert never paid any of the maintenance expenses.

When the child turned 21 in 2013, Beverly filed an action, apparently for modification of the divorce judgment, seeking possession, title to, and ownership of the home.

Robert counterclaimed for partition, and he filed a motion for a summary judgment that partition, rather than modification, was the proper avenue to accomplish the division. The chancellor agreed with Robert, ruling that “the parties are not married, the property is no longer the marital homestead and the property is subject by law to a division by partition as provided by statute.” That’s a neat, pinpoint ruling that avoids the problem that property division may not be modified.

A hearing was held on the petition, and the chancellor ruled that Betty should have title. He adjusted the equities by ordering Beverly to pay Robert $34,103.70, which amounted to his half-equity in the property at the time of the divorce adjusted upward for appreciation over time.

Robert appealed, arguing that the trial court impermissibly modified the divorce judgment and unfairly partited the property.

In Coleman v. Coleman, handed down January 12, 2016, the COA, by Judge Griffis, affirmed.

So, did the chancellor improperly modify the divorce judgment? Judge Griffis responds:

¶7. “A cotenant wishing to partite real property subject to a divorce decree is not required to file suit to modify the decree, but may exercise her statutory right to partition by filing a petition for partition.” Mosby v. Mosby, 962 So. 2d 119, 123 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (citing Blackmon v. Blackmon, 350 So. 2d 44, 46 (Miss. 1977)). Robert argues that the chancellor essentially modified the divorce decree and that this modification was improper.

¶8. “This argument is without merit because the chancellor clearly granted the petition for partition and did not, in fact, modify the decree.” Id. Robert requested a partition, and the chancellor stated in his judgment that “the parties are no longer married, the equities need to be adjusted[,] and the partition statutes provide a sound method of arriving at a just and equitable result.” The court “proceeded accordingly under partition.” As the chancellor’s decision was based upon the partition statutes and he did not modify the divorce decree, the Court finds this issue without merit.

And did the chancellor abuse his discretion in how he awarded title and adjusted the equities? Again, Judge Griffis:

¶9. When parties seek a partition of land, “the question of title shall be tried and determined in the suit and the court shall have power to determine all questions of title.” Miss. Code Ann. § 11-21-9. In doing so, “[t]he court may adjust the equities between and determine all claims of the several cotenants . . . .” Id.

¶10. Generally, “a partition in kind, rather than a partition by sale, is the preferred method of dividing property in Mississippi.” Cathey v. McPhail & Assocs., 989 So. 2d 494, 495 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (citing Fuller v. Chimento, 824 So. 2d 599, 601 (¶8) (Miss. 2002)). Robert and Beverly agreed that the home could not be divided in kind and that it should be sold under statute. They also agreed to a private sale to allow Beverly to purchase the home. A chancellor may order the sale of property and “a division of the proceeds among the cotenants according to their respective interests.” Miss. Code Ann. § 11-21-11 (Rev. 2004). As both parties agreed to a sale, the chancellor essentially needed to “adjust the equities between and determine all claims” of Robert and Beverly and divide “the proceeds” between Beverly and Robert “according to their respective interests.” Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-21-9 & 11-21-11.

As for how the chancellor adjusted the equities, the COA went through the court’s analysis, and found it proper that Robert was awarded his equity at the time of the divorce plus its appreciation, and Beverly was awarded her equity at the time of the divorce, plus its appreciation, plus the additional equity that accrued over the years due to her payment of the mortgage debt. The COA found no merit in Robert’s argument.

Most crucially, the trial judge’s findings were supported by substantial evidence:

¶15. Keeping in mind the appropriate standard of review, this Court holds that the chancellor’s findings of fact and conclusions of law are supported by substantial evidence and are not an abuse of discretion. Robert did not provide any alternatives to the findings of the chancellor. Furthermore, the parties both agreed that a sale to Beverly was ideal. The chancellor’s well-reasoned conclusions are supported by the record and the briefs of the parties. The partition statutes allow for the chancellor to divide the proceeds among the cotenants according to their interests in the property. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-21-11. After inspecting the record, this Court is unable to see that Robert was denied any of his rights as a cotenant in the chancellor’s final decree. Finding no error, this Court affirms.

This is not one of those spectacular, keeper cases that one whips out every few trials. It’s just a workaday, nuts-and-bolts decision that provides a glimpse into the quotidian matters that stream steadily through the chancery courts every day, and how the chancellors are called upon to fashion common-sense, practical solutions.

Equity Shines Through

December 16, 2015 § 9 Comments

Just when you thought equity was moribund (okay, I confess that it’s more me than you), along comes a case where the appellate court looks over the masterful equitable remedy crafted by a thoughtful chancellor and says, “Job well done.”

That’s what happened in the MSSC case Scafidi, et al. v. Hille, decided December 10, 2015, which involved division of the parties’ interests in several businesses inherited jointly by siblings Gerald Scafidi and Jo Ann Scafidi Hille. The facts are complicated, and the proceedings were convoluted, but the gist of it is that the chancellor ordered what amounted to an equitable distribution of the corporations and real property so as to divide them fairly between the brother and sister. Gerald appealed raising many issues that were addressed in detail in the 44-page opinion by Justice Waller. For our purposes, though, we will look at how the court dealt with Gerald’s argument that the relief granted by the chancellor was improper:

¶60. We now turn to the relief granted by the chancellor. In an action to judicially dissolve a corporation, a chancellor does not have to order a dissolution, even if grounds such as oppression or deadlock are met. This is because the general view in Mississippi is that “[d]issolution is an extraordinary remedy to be sparingly administered in exceptional cases only.” Capitol Toyota, Inc. v. Gervin, 381 So. 2d 1038, 1039 (Miss. 1980). However, “if the strife among the participants has been so long and bitter that the former relationships of congeniality and trust cannot be re-established [like Jo Ann and Gerald’s case], there is little left that an unhappy shareholder can do except . . . bring about the dissolution of the business.” F.H. O’Neal & R. Thompson, O’Neal’s Close Corporations § 9.04 (3d ed. 1971). “But the more common relief in modern cases . . . is to provide relief alternative to dissolution.” Id. at § 9.25. Mississippi’s corporate dissolution statute states that “[n]othing contained in this section shall diminish the inherent equity powers of the court to fashion alternative remedies to judicial dissolution.” Miss. Code Ann. § 79-4-14.34 (i) (emphasis added).

¶61. Contrary to Gerald’s assertion, the chancellor did not dissolve the corporations. Instead, he fashioned an alternative remedy to this problem. The chancellor found that the source of funds for the $180,000 Gerald used to purchase the minority shareholders’ interest in the Trailer Park and the Restaurant corporations came from the corporations themselves. Those shares were purchased with funds equitably owned by both Jo Ann and Gerald. So Gerald’s purchase was for the benefit of both parties. The chancellor then disregarded the shares purchased by Gerald and considered Jo Ann and Gerald to be equal shareholders in the Restaurant and the Trailer Park. After equalizing their interests in the corporations, the chancellor ordered that the property lines be modified by survey to reflect that Jo Ann and Gerald owned fifty-percent of the land upon which the Trailer Park and the Campground were situated.

¶62. The Amended Final Judgment from which Gerald appeals states “that the Court divides, partites, and equitably separates the parties by granting each full ownership of separate companies . . . .” He then granted Jo Ann full ownership of the Trailer Park, and Gerald full ownership of the Campground. The chancellor ordered “that each of the parties is to execute the necessary documents, including deeds, bills of sale and stock certificates to accomplish the directions of the court.” Nowhere in the Amended Final Judgment does the chancellor mention “dissolution.” The chancellor did quite the opposite when he fashioned an alternative remedy to dissolution, which he had full authority to do under Section 79-4-14.34 (i) of the Mississippi Code.

¶63. Since the chancellor did not order a direct dissolution of the corporations, Gerald’s argument that this “equitable distribution” method violates the method provided by the Mississippi Legislature in Section 79-4-14.05 to dissolve a corporation and distribute its assets among its shareholders according to their interests is without merit.

¶64. We cannot locate any precedent in which a chancellor has granted this exact, or even similar, relief. However, we note that “[i]t is not necessary that some exact precedent be found for extending relief in a given situation.” Griffith’s Mississippi Chancery Practice § 35 (2000 ed.) (citing Miller v. Doxey, 1 Miss. 329, 333 (1829)). If a certain form of “relief is clearly requisite and a practical remedy may be applied, such remedy is not to be denied because that remedy has never been applied in just that manner to that exact state of case.” Id. The question for this Court to decide, then, is whether the relief granted here is an appropriate remedy under Mississippi Code Section 79-4-14.34(i), which states “[n]othing contained in this section shall diminish the inherent equity powers of the court to fashion alternative remedies to judicial dissolution.” Although little caselaw addresses Mississippi’s alternative-remedy provision, substantial precedent supports the chancellor’s broad powers to provide an equitable solution in cases such as this. See, e.g., In re Hardin, 158 So. 3d at 346.

¶65. Other jurisdictions offer guidance as to appropriate remedies to resolve disputes among dissenting shareholders in a close corporation. Some courts have resorted to remedies listed by statute, while others have fashioned remedies not specifically mentioned in a statute. O’Neal’s Close Corporations at § 9.35 …

After reviewing some of those statutory provisions from other states, the court concluded:

¶67. After reviewing these alternative remedies, and in light of all the particular factual circumstances of this case, we find that granting full ownership in the respective separate corporations operated individually by Gerald and Jo Ann was a practical, fair, and just remedy to resolve the dispute. A chancellor’s remedial powers have long been “marked by plasticity.” Griffith’s Mississippi Chancery Practice § 35 (citing Hall v. Wood, 443 So. 2d 834, 843 (Miss. 1983)). “Equity jurisdiction permits innovation that justice may be done.” Id. If ever a case needed the innovation allowed by equity jurisdiction, it is this one. Considering that nothing “shall diminish the inherent equity powers of the court to fashion alternative remedies to judicial dissolution,” Miss. Code Ann. § 79-4-14.34 (i), we find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in fashioning this alternative remedy.

I’m proud to see the high court recognizing the unique problem-solving capability of chancery court. Innovation and flexibility to achieve a just, equitable outcome are what equity is all about.

Relief in a Vacuum

October 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

If the separate maintenance is denied, may the chancellor nonetheless order financial relief?

In Spotswood v. Spotswood, decided by the COA on September 1, 2015, the chancellor at trial ruled that Lori and Robert Spotswood were equally at fault in  the separation, and, therefore, that Lori was not entitled to separate maintenance. The chancellor ordered Robert to reimburse Lori for the monthly health insurance premium that she pays through her employment for his health insurance coverage, and to pay one-half of the mortgage on the marital residence.

On the face of it, the judge’s order makes some sense. Robert, after all, is benefitting from Lori maintaining his coverage under her health insurance at her expense. She may not be able to cancel that coverage while they are still married. Likewise, Robert is no longer living in the home, and Lori is stuck with 100% of a joint debt. It only seems fair that Robert should pay his fair share.

Robert appealed, though, complaining that the judge had no authority after he denied separate maintenance to order in this action that he make those payments. Judge Irving, writing for the court, agreed, reversing and rendering:

¶7. In Pool v. Pool, 989 So. 2d 920, 927 (¶¶20-21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted), this Court stated:

Separate maintenance is [a] court[-]created equitable relief based upon the marital relationship. The purpose of a decree for separate maintenance is to compel the husband to resume cohabitation with his wife or to provide for her separate maintenance. . . . The [chancery court] may award separate maintenance when (1) the parties have separated without [substantial] fault by the [requesting party;] and (2) the [nonrequesting party] has willfully abandoned the [requesting party] and [has] refused to [provide] support [therefor].

(Emphasis added).

¶8. For a chancery court to award separate maintenance, it must first find that the aforementioned requirements have been met. Once those requirements are met, then the court may, in its discretion, award support. However, if the court finds that separate maintenance is unwarranted, it cannot, in the name of equity, do an end-run around what the law forbids by ordering one spouse to undertake certain financial obligations for the benefit of the other spouse. In this case, because the chancery court found that Lori was not entitled to separate maintenance, the chancery court lacked the authority to order Robert to make the payments.

So, does this mean that Lori is stuck making Roberts’ health insurance premium payments and the entire mortgage payment? Not necessarily. The opinion continues:

¶9. To be clear, we do not address the issue of whether the chancery court erred in denying Lori separate maintenance, as that issue is not before this Court. Nor should anything in this opinion be interpreted as holding that Lori is required to continue to pay Robert’s insurance premiums or the entire mortgage payment without reimbursement from Robert. As to the latter, the mortgage contract dictates the obligations of the parties. We only hold that the chancery court erred as a matter of law in ordering Robert to make the payments after denying Lori’s request for separate maintenance. Accordingly, we reverse the chancery court’s judgment as to the payments and render judgment in favor of Robert.

In other words, Lori may maintain an action to recover from Robert, but not in this case, since all she sought was separate maintenance, which was denied. I think she might have achieved a different result had she pled in the alternative for either separate maintenance or for contribution from Robert for his share of the premiums and/or mortgage payments. You can join as many actions as you have against a party in the same complaint.

Is Equity Outmoded?

August 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

I pointed out here not too long ago that there is a significant distinction between the systems of law and equity in civil actions. Law courts (except in the case of an injunction action) grant money judgments and common-law remedies such as writ of habeas corpus. Equity (chancery courts) craft a remedy that will solve the underlying problem by crafting a remedy that may include coercion, prohibition, possession, dispossession, imposition of a trust or lien, money judgment, and any other action or combination of actions deemed appropriate to the situation.

Yet, as fundamental as that distinction is, I have posited here before that it seems more and more to be a challenging concept to our appellate courts.

Even in states that have merged law and equity, the distinction between legal and equitable remedies is important, because in those states, equitable remedies may not be imposed until the court finds that legal remedies are inadequate. UCLA Law Professor Samuel Bray has written a paper pointing out that the classification of some remedies as equitable is alive and well in jurisprudence across the nation, and that equitable remedies are actually part of a system that must not be dismantled unless and until something better replaces it. I believe his piece helps illuminate how vital equity, and chancery court, is in the scheme of our jurisprudence.

Here is the abstract:

The conventional wisdom is that the distinction between legal and equitable remedies is outmoded and serves no purpose. This Article challenges that view. It argues that the existing equitable remedies and remedy-related doctrines can be seen as a system. The components of the system fall into three categories: (1) equitable remedies, (2) equitable managerial devices, and (3) equitable constraints. These components interact subtly and pervasively. Together, they make the system of equitable remedies well suited to controlling a defendant’s behavior, especially in ways that are open-ended and adverbial. The system of equitable remedies is a useful and integrated whole.

This argument offers some support for an emerging body of Supreme Court cases that have sharply distinguished between legal and equitable remedies — cases such as Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, eBay v. MercExchange, and Petrella v. MGM. Moreover, this argument helps explain why there has been so little merger between law and equity in remedies, even as merger has happened in other aspects of American law. Finally, this argument offers a new perspective on the adequacy requirement, showing that it helps maintain the system of equitable remedies.

You can reach his article at this link. You might find his research handy next time you have a chancery appeal involving equitable remedies.

Thanks to Professor Bray for bringing this to our attention.

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