Worth a Thousand Words

May 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

Chris Vandenbrook wanted photographs of the condition of the marital home to be admitted into evidence in his divorce trial, but the chancellor refused unless he could pinpoint the exact date when they were taken. Chris appealed.

His case highlights two important evidentiary considerations: First, that the foundation for admission of a photograph is simply evidence sufficient to to support a finding that it is a true depiction of what the offeror purports it to be; and Second, that you are not likely to get a chancellor reversed based on her evidentiary rulings.

Here is how Judge Carlton of the COA spelled it out in Vandenbrook v. Vandenbrook, decided March 26, 2019:

¶40. Next, Chris contends that the chancellor erred in not admitting photographs of the condition of the marital home into evidence. The chancellor refused to allow the
photographs into evidence unless Chris could state the precise date the photographs had been taken. Chris had previously testified that he began taking the photographs at the time Emma filed for divorce, but he did not have his cell phone with the photographs present, and the chancellor did allow him more time to retrieve it. He contends that he satisfied the requirements of Mississippi Rules of Evidence 1001(d) and 901(b)(l) and therefore the chancellor should have allowed the photographs into evidence.

¶41. A chancellor’s decision not to admit evidence will not be overturned unless the chancellor abused her discretion to such an extent that a party has been prejudiced. In re Estate of Laughter, 23 So. 3d 1055, 1064 (¶42) (Miss. 2009). By asking Chris to authenticate the photographs by verifying the dates they were taken, the chancellor was merely requiring that Chris produce sufficient evidence to support a finding that the photographs were what he claimed they were.

¶42. We find error, albeit harmless error, in the chancellor not admitting the photographs into evidence. Mississippi Rule of Evidence 901(a) states: “To satisfy the requirement of authenticating or identifying an item of evidence, the proponent must produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.” Chris testified that he started taking the photographs from the time that Emma filed for divorce, and he testified that he took all the pictures himself. He further testified that they depict the condition of the marital home during a time that Emma was living there. We find that his testimony was sufficient to satisfy Rule 901(a) and that the court should have admitted the photographs. Even so, “[i]n order for a case to be reversed on the admission or exclusion of evidence, it must result in prejudice and harm or adversely affect a substantial right of a party.” Bower v. Bower, 758 So. 2d 405, 415 (¶46) (Miss. 2000). Although we find error, we deem it to be harmless. “The chancellor has the sole responsibility to determine the credibility of witnesses and evidence, and the weight to be given each.” Lee v. Lee, 798 So. 2d 1284, 1288 (¶14) (Miss. 2001). With this precedent in mind, we do not find that the exclusion of the photographs would have affected the chancellor’s custody determination.

I agree with Judge Carlton that the chancellor was saying, in effect, that she was not satisfied with the foundation that Chris had laid. She may have questioned whether the photos really did show the condition at the time that Chris was claiming, and she wanted more detailed proof. Or, it could be that a difference of a day or two when the pictures were taken could have made a difference. We don’t know from the record.

A previous post about how to get a photograph into evidence is at this link.

Five Rookie Faux Pas

April 22, 2019 § 2 Comments

Aside from the fact that much of their attire is shiny new, and their shoes are not (yet) run down and scuffed up, it’s usually easy to spot rookie attorneys by the vexation they spread around them like pixie dust as they make their wake through a hearing. Here are five of the most vexatious:

The Leading Objection.

Attorney 1:  Were you living with your wife when you moved to Kosciusko?

Attorney 2:  Objection; leading.

Now, what did we accomplish in that exchange other than to impress on some observers that Attorney 2 knows the difference between a leading and a non-leading question? Well, one thing it accomplished was to break up the flow of the hearing, which is self-defeating. Another thing it accomplished is to pi$$ off the other attorney, who is likely to retaliate when Attorney 2 goes on direct, which in turn pi$$e$ off the judge who is straining to discern some substance amid this frivolity.

Maybe there is a case out there in which the appellate court reversed because the judge allowed a leading question. If so, it was certainly a jury trial and not a chancery bench trial. But I am not aware of any such case, so keep in mind that your objection is accomplishing nothing to protect your record.

My suggestion is that you save your leading objections for when the other side is drawing blood, like this:

Attorney 1:  Isn’t it true that you could not have possibly admitted to your neighbor your adultery because you weren’t there that day?

Now that’s rightly objectionable, and should by all means draw an objection, which should be sustained. Why? Because it’s really the lawyer testifying, and it goes to the substance of the case.

Moral of the story: Save leading objections to protect your case. Don’t cheapen the objection by whipping it out every time you hear a leading question. We all know that you know what’s leading and what’s not; you don’t need to convince us.

Pleadings are NOT Evidence.

If you want the trial judge to consider a document or the testimony of a witness, you must get that document or oral testimony admitted into evidence. Exhibits to the pleadings and the pleadings themselves are NOT in evidence. They will not be used by the the judge as a basis for her ruling in your case unless and until they are in evidence.

Getting things into evidence does require a command of the rules of evidence. Study them. Know them. Click on the Categories button over there on the right and select “Evidence.” There are all sorts of posts about how to get business records, photos, hearsay, and the kitchen sink into evidence. Know how to do it, and how to authenticate. These are survival tools. You will die in the desert wasteland of litigation without a canteen full of evidence knowledge.

And equally important, keep in mind that only what is in evidence can be considered by the appellate courts (with the exception of offers of proof and documents marked for identification; look those up).

Moral of the story: Get proficient in evidence. It’s to a lawyer what human anatomy is to a doctor. And, if you are one of those characters who managed to be birthed out of the law-school womb into the legal world without having taken evidence, please have the common decency to forewarn your chancellor.

You Can NOT Question a Witness About the Substance of a Document that is not in Evidence.

There are all kinds of legitimate reasons why this is so. The mainmost being that we have no idea whether the information in it is admissible at all. Is it hearsay? Is it authentic? We have no way of knowing unless you lay the proper foundation.

This is a common rookie mistake. It usually draws an objection. When the opposing lawyer is slumbering or inexperienced or merely incompetent and fails to object, I sometimes will stop the questioning lawyer and “gently encourage” him to get the document into evidence before questioning the witness about it. That’s because I don’t want to hear a bunch of inadmissible twaddle that I will have to shake out of my head later when I am writing my opinion.

Are you confused about how to get that document into evidence? Well, not meaning to brag, but there is a helpful post at this link on how to get a document into evidence, step by step.

Moral of the story: Follow the process, step-by-step, to get that document into evidence. If it’s one that you anticipate will draw objections, be prepared to meet them by studying the applicable rules in advance. I am sometimes brought near to grateful tears when I see a lawyer in action who has actually studied the rules.

And Don’t Forget to Offer the Document into Evidence.

It happens from time to time. The lawyer lays the document before the witness, has him identify it, and then launches off into some more breathtaking realm of inquiry. After an hour or so of exhilarating rabbit hunting, the young Perry Mason confidently slaps his sheaf of notes down on the table and proclaims, “Tender the witness.” The document is still sitting there before the witness, unadmitted into evidence. Pity. It might have made the difference in the case.

Moral of the story: All those preliminary, foundational steps to admission are for naught if you don’t ask the court to admit the document into evidence.

Object When You Have to!

Don’t take my caveat above against leading objections to mean that you should never object or that you should curtail your objections. Object when it makes a difference.

Let me repeat that more loudly: OBJECT WHEN IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE!

I have seen lawyers sit there and let the other side get rank hearsay in. I have seen documents full of hearsay and other objectionable material pass through with a nod and “no objection.” If it’s hearsay, object. If the document is unauthenticated, object. If it’s completely irrelevant, object. And so on.

One baffling non-objection I have seen lately is to the question, “How many times have you been arrested?” Look at MRE 609. Arrests don’t mean anything. Anyone can be arrested for anything. I can have you arrested for practically nothing (okay, I will have to file a false affidavit, which will get me kicked off the bench, which I won’t do, but there are plenty of people who do file false affidavits out of revenge, or spite, or for no good reason at all). It’s the conviction that counts, and there are limitations on that. Read the rule.

The judge is not a mushroom to be buried in excrement from which wisdom is expected to sprout.

Morel of the story: Object when it makes a difference, and you will be more effective and make a more effective case. BTW … a little fungus humor never hurt anyone.

Judicial Estoppel or Not?

February 25, 2019 § Leave a comment

Judicial estoppel is the principal that prevents you from taking inconsistent positions in the course of litigation. An example might be where one admits adultery in a pleading, but then tries to deny it at trial.

A question of judicial estoppel arose in the adverse possession trial between the Winters and the Billings. The Winters claimed ownership of some land by adverse possession. In answering interrogatories, Mr. Billings stated seven times that he had not spoken with Mr. Winters about the land, but at trial he tried to testify that he had given Mr. Winters permission to use the land. Winters objected on the ground of judicial estoppel, and the chancellor overruled the objection. After the chancellor entered judgment in favor of the Billings, the Winters appealed on several grounds, one of which was that the judge erred in not ruling that the inconsistent statements were barred by judicial estoppel.

In Winters v. Billings, a COA decided January 15, 2019, the court affirmed the judge’s ruling on judicial estoppel. Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:

¶24. The Winterses assert that because Mr. Billings made seven statements in sworn interrogatories that he never spoke with Mr. Winters about the land, the chancellor should have judicially estopped Mr. Billings from asserting that he gave Mr. Winters permission to use the land.

¶25. “Judicial estoppel is designed to protect the judicial system and applies where intentional self-contradiction is being used as a means of obtaining unfair advantage in a forum provided for suitors seeking justice.” Kirk v. Pope, 973 So. 2d 981, 991 (¶31) (Miss. 2007) (internal quotation mark omitted). Our supreme court has held that there are three elements of judicial estoppel: “A party will be judicially estopped from taking a subsequent position if (1) the position is inconsistent with one previously taken during litigation, (2) a court accepted the previous position, and (3) the party did not inadvertently take the inconsistent positions.” Clark v. Neese, 131 So. 3d 556, 560 (¶16) (Miss. 2013).

¶26. The chancellor found that the jointly-submitted pretrial order indicated that “Mr. Billings gave Mr. Winters and his family ‘permission’ to use the disputed strip of property” and that the pleadings were amended to conform to that pretrial order. Furthermore, the chancellor noted that Mr. Winters indicated in his own testimony that he spoke with Mr. Billings about the land, and only the contents of that conversation were disputed. We also note that the interrogatories were vague as to their actual subject, but they meant to elicit general responses and do not focus on permission or lack thereof. “A chancellor sits as a fact-finder and in resolving factual disputes, is the sole judge of the credibility of witnesses.” Tice v. Shamrock GMS Corp., 735 So. 2d 443, 444 (¶3) (Miss. 1999). In this position, the chancellor may assess the materiality and relevance of answers to interrogatories, along with any inconsistent testimony thereto at trial and decide on its credibility. Mr. Billings’s assertion was not inconsistent with a prior position taken during litigation, the chancellor had not accepted the previous position, and the chancellor’s holdings indicated that at most Mr. Billings inadvertently may have taken the inconsistent positions.

¶27. Under our limited standard of review, we hold that the chancellor’s holding was not manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, nor did the chancellor apply an incorrect legal standard. Thus, we affirm.

Two observations:

  • It’s not too far a stretch for the chancellor to suppose that Mr. Billings’s inconsistencies might have been inadvertent. The case took around 3 years to make it to trial, and lots of words get thrown around in a three-year span, some of which may be spoken or written based on misunderstanding. That pre-trial order was likely the nail in the coffin, so to speak, for the judicial estoppel argument.
  • Just because your claim of judicial estoppel is shot down by the trial judge, it does not mean that you can’t cash in on the inconsistencies. As the COA said, ” … the chancellor may assess the materiality and relevance of answers to interrogatories, along with any inconsistent testimony thereto at trial and decide on its credibility.” In other words, you can hammer away at the witness about his credibility and apparent inability to get his story straight. That sort of thing can be loads of fun, particularly on cross-examination.

Evidence Resurrected

August 14, 2018 § 5 Comments

It was back in 2012 that I reported the death of Evidence as a required course at both the Ole Miss and MC law schools. You can re-visit that post at this link, if you care to.

Among my several points bewailing that Evidence was no longer a required course was this:

I shiver at the thought of lawyers setting foot in my court room who have no grasp of the nuances of the best evidence rule, parol evidence, hearsay, or even how to get a document into evidence. I shiver for myself and for their poor clients. Some point out that the MRE is so much easier to understand and apply than the old mix of statutes and case law. True. But having a set of rules and understanding them enough to use them properly and effectively are entirely different things. Rules only take you so far. There are cases interpreting those rules that one must learn about. And the rules are neither crystal clear nor do they address everything one needs to know. Cite me a rule, for example, on what objection applies in any given situation. Or tell me how MRE 803(3) pertaining to wills applies in a will contest? Or when does past recollection recorded apply instead of refreshed recollection, and vice versa? Some elucidation is required for even the most astute student.

Well, the worm has, so to speak, turned. In her address to the Ole Miss law alumni at the Mississippi Bar Convention last month, Dean Susan Duncan reported that Evidence is returning to the OM Law curriculum as a required course. A legislator with whom I visited told me that MC Law is following the same path.

I would not want to take my ailments to a doctor who has not studied Human Anatomy. Evidence is the Human Anatomy of the legal profession.

Self-Appendectomy

July 17, 2018 § 1 Comment

Comments on this blog are limited to lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals. Yet I still get comments frequently from lay-people.

A recent proposed and unapproved comment by a frustrated pro se litigant highlights the tension between reasonable access to justice and the judge’s role as impartial tribunal:

I had a Judge finally rule that all evidence from previous case could be submitted to this new case. Of course, Defendants lawyers objected. Defendants lawyer then said that not of it was evidence, some were marked for I.D. only. The Judge said he wouldn’t even look at the I.D. ones. Being Pro Se, after spending about 8,000.00 on attorneys fees and not using my evidence, almost every bank statement, cancelled check sheet from the bank. I was asked by Judge, “What is it? I said a bank statement. Other attorney objected, said it was hearsay, and I had to put it in as I.D. After a couple times I just handed it to the other attorney but the Judge stated I had to say what it was. Therefore, it was objected to as hearsay. Printouts from a bank. Please..Check written out the casinos, lawsuits Plaintiff was hit with and depleted our funds, are not admissible. I.D. only which the next Judge will not use. I always thought that was depleting marital assets. Writing a brief for Supreme Court and this is way out of my league.

Some thoughts:

  • In a contested case, the judge absolutely can not assist one side or the other over evidentiary hurdles, objections, or lack of basic litigation skills. A judge who does so has crossed, or is dangerously close to crossing, the line into advocacy.
  • I have often said that I have never seen anyone who acted pro se in a contested case leave the courtroom in better shape than when they entered.
  • ” … this is way out of my league.” Yes, it is. It takes lawyers around 3 years to absorb the basic knowledge base and elementary analytical skill to know how to get into the courtroom, and several years of experience on top of that to do a creditable job in litigation. Appellate cases require even more. There is a learning curve for every courtroom advocate. It’s painful to watch a pro se litigant try to master the same curve in a few hours that took a college-and-law-school-trained lawyer several years to master herself.
  • The lawyer in this case was zealously representing his client, which is precisely his ethical duty. It may have seemed unfair to the pro se litigant, but she was not being treated unfairly; she was simply overmatched, and, again, the judge could not help her without becoming her advocate.
  • No judge is going to let a lawyer overreach and take advantage of a pro se litigant, but that is solely in the interest of maintaining a neutral, fair playing field. A judge can not help one side to its benefit or to the other’s detriment.

Refreshing Recollection

June 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

It happens sometimes that the witness simply can not recall something that you need to have in the record. Before you give up and move on to something else, consider MRE 612, which is entitled, “Writing Used to Refresh a Witness’s Memory.”

Actually, the title is a misnomer, because under MRE 612(a) you can use a “writing, recording, or object” to refresh the witness’s memory.

Here are the steps:

  1. Establish that the witness is unable to recall something;
  2. Counsel is unable to jog the witness’s memory through questioning. The court may allow leading questions;
  3. Counsel shows the writing, recording, or object to the witness and asks whether looking at it will help refresh her memory. If yes, she is allowed to read or look over it silently;
  4. If the witness after looking at it can then say she now recalls the matter independent of the writing, recording, or object, she may then testify to that independent recollection;
  5. If the witness can not recall the matter after that procedure, counsel may lay a foundation for admitting the writing’s, recording’s, or object’s contents under MRE 803(5), past recollection recorded exception to the hearsay rule (that’s for another day).

What is an “object?” The advisory committee note mentions a photograph as an example. But there is no requirement in the rule that the object have content or substance, as would a photograph, a map, or a hand-drawn sketch. In law school our evidence professor said that a pencil or a comb could be used, so long as they would help refresh the witness’s memory.

When I practiced, I liked to do step 3 a little differently. I would ask the witness whether there was something that would help jog his memory. Most times the answer was something like, “Yes, if I could look over the inventory I made,” or something to that effect, I would then hand the witness what he identified.

Remember that under the MRE the writing, recording, or object used in R612 need not meet the requirements of past recollection recorded unless and until the witness has no independent recollection after looking at it and must use it to testify (e.g., “I don’t remember well enough to testify without referring back to this list …”).

 

The Best Evidence Rule in Action

June 18, 2018 § Leave a comment

You won’t see many appellate cases in which the best evidence rule (MRE 1002, 1003, and 1004) comes into play. That’s because the appellate courts give great deference to the trial judge’s rulings on evidence.

But a recent case shows how the rule can come up at trial, how the trial judge deals with it, and how the appellate courts address it.

A contract dispute arose between Clifford Frisby and Ferrell Warden over sale of a home. Warden claimed that the parties had an agreement that he would perform certain work on the property and be given credit for the value of the work against the sale price. At trial he offered three documents into evidence to support his claim. Frisby objected to their authenticity. The chancellor ruled that they were admissible, and ultimately ruled in favor of Warden. Frisby appealed on several grounds, one of which was that the chancellor erred in admitting the three documents contrary to the best evidence rule.

In Frisby, et al. v. Warden, decided May 8, 2018, the COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote the opinion for a unanimous court:

¶7. Frisby asserts that the chancellor improperly admitted the disputed handwritten contracts into evidence. According to Frisby, these documents were duplicates of original handwritten documents that he never signed. Therefore, he argues that pursuant to Mississippi Rules of Evidence 1002 and 1003, the duplicates were inadmissible because there was a genuine question as to their authenticity. In response, Warden asserts Frisby has
offered nothing to show that the chancellor abused her discretion nor that any substantial right has been affected. A review of the record indicates that the chancellor, in denying Frisby’s motion for reconsideration, explained the handwritten contracts were admitted into evidence pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Evidence 1004(c). We find this determination was not manifest error.

¶8. Frisby correctly asserts that pursuant to Rule 1002, known as the best-evidence rule, an original writing is generally required to prove its contents. Further, pursuant to Rule 1003, Frisby correctly asserts that a duplicate cannot be admitted when a genuine issue has been raised about the original’s authenticity. However, an exception to the best-evidence rule exists when the party against whom the original would be offered had control of the original, received notice that the original would be subject to proof at trial, and failed to produce the original at trial. M.R.E. 1004(c).

¶9. In the present case, Warden introduced duplicates of three handwritten documents into evidence in support of his complaint for specific performance. Frisby initially objected to their introduction, but allowed them to be introduced “for the purpose of this hearing,” while still contesting their authenticity. Thus, the hearing proceeded to determine the authenticity of the alleged contracts, with both parties presenting multiple witnesses.

¶10. During the hearing, Frisby testified as an adverse witness and explained that he had never seen the three alleged contracts before and that Warden had never been to his office. However, Warden testified that he drafted all three of the handwritten documents “so that [he] could have some kind of documentation on a deal [they] had on the house.” Further, Warden testified that while he originally had the original documents, he met Frisby at Frisby’s office, where Frisby made copies of the documents and retained the originals, and gave Warden copies. Michael Neill, the previous owner of the property, also testified for Warden. He testified that he deeded the property to Frisby in 2010, and that when he spoke with Warden in 2011 or early 2012, Warden said he was buying the house from Frisby and “doing odd jobs” to pay off the house. Further, Neill testified that he saw Frisby sign a document in 2014, but that he did not know the document’s purpose. Neill later testified that he had overheard Frisby and Warden discussing ownership of the house for labor.

¶11. As previously mentioned, the admission or suppression of evidence is within the discretion of the trial judge and will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Tunica Cty. [v. Matthews], 926 So. 2d [209] at 212 (¶5) [(Miss. 2006)]. Further, “the chancellor sits as the fact finder and is the sole judge of the credibility of a witness when resolving factual disputes.” Stokes v. Campbell, 794 So. 2d 1045, 1048 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001). As such, it was the chancellor’s job as trier of fact to determine which version she found more credible. LeBlanc v. Andrews, 931 So. 2d 683, 689 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). The chancellor, after hearing all the evidence, accepted Warden’s testimony as the most credible, admitting the duplicates pursuant to Rule 1004(c). Because there was substantial credible evidence in the record to support the chancellor’s finding, this Court must accept them. Accordingly, this issue is without merit.

Not much to add. The chancellor found the documents to be what they purported to be — that’s authenticity — and her decision was supported by evidence in the record. It’s her call to make, she made it, and the COA affirmed it.

The testimony that Frisby copied the documents and kept the originals was enough to shoot down his demand to produce the originals, per MRE 1004(c).

Law and the Church

May 1, 2018 § 2 Comments

Church bodies wind up in court from time to time. Often the dispute is over which ecclesiastical entity or faction of the congregation will own or control church property or assets. Both sides tend to want to charge the other with heresy, or violation of church polity, or something along those lines, and they try to draw the court into their dispute.

It was a dispute over ownership of church property that brought First Presbyterian Church of Starkville (FPC) and The Presbytery of Saint Andrew into litigation. The Presbytery claimed that FPC, which wanted to withdraw from PCUSA, held the church property in trust for the denomination. FPC argued that it had opted out of any trust arrangement. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. In his ruling in favor of FPC, the chancellor pointed out that the issue to be resolved was ownership of the property, and not doctrinal issues. The Presbytery appealed.

In Presbytery of St. Andrew, PCUSA v. First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville, Mississippi, the MSSC affirmed the chancellor’s ruling that FPC did not hold the church property in trust for the Presbytery. Judge Randolph’s April 12, 2018, opinion for the 7-2 majority explains the standard that the courts must apply in determining ecclesiastical legal disputes:

¶20. Mississippi has adopted the “neutral principles of law” approach for resolving church property disputes. See Schmidt v. Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, 18 So. 3d 814, 824 (Miss. 2009); Church of God Pentecostal, Inc. v. Freewill Pentecostal Church of God, Inc., 716 So. 2d 200, 206 (Miss. 1998).

The neutral-principles approach “relies on objective, traditional concepts of trust and property law. . . .” Id. at 205. “It calls ‘for the completely secular examination of deeds to the church property, state statutes and existing local and general church constitutions, by-laws, canons, Books of Discipline and the like. . . .’ ” Id. (quoting Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of N.J. v. Graves, 83 N.J. 572, 417 A.2d 19, 23 (N.J. 1980), cert. denied sub nom. Moore v. Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of N.J., 449 U.S. 1131, 101 S. Ct. 954, 67 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1981)). Religious documents must be carefully scrutinized in purely secular terms without relying on religious precepts. Church of God Pentecostal, 716 So. 2d at 205-06 (citing [Jones v.Wolf, 443 U.S. [595,] 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020, [61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979)]). If a deed, corporate charter, or religious document incorporates religious concepts in its provisions concerning ownership of the property, the court must defer to the authority of the ecclesiastical body so as to avoid resolving any religious controversy. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020 (citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese [v. Milivojevich], 426 U.S. [696,] 709, 96 S. Ct. 2372, [49 L. Ed. 2d 151 (19760])[sic]. Schmidt, 18 So. 3d at 824.

¶21. As the chancellor held, the underlying reason for the schism among FPC members and between FPC and the Presbytery is not the issue before this Court. The only issue to be decided is whether PCUSA ever had a trust interest in FPC’s property. We find that the chancellor properly found that it did not.

The opinion goes on to lay out an excellent summary of the law of trusts in Mississippi. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. For now, the main thing is to recognize that it’s not the court’s job to resolve doctrinal disputes or to usurp authority of religious governing bodies.

If you have a small-town, people practice, it’s practically inevitable that you will be asked to represent one side or another in a similar fracas. Feelings are hurt, emotions are raw, and things are said in anger that probably would be better left unsaid. The lawyers have their hands full trying to maintain control. My law partner decades ago handled some of these kinds of cases, and came to be known in the community as the “go-to” lawyer when schisms arose. He sued Ministers, Elders, Presbyteries, Bishops, Dioceses, and even Synods. In one of the last cases he handled before we went our separate ways, however, I told him that he had gone too far. He was suing an Apostle. To me, that just crossed a line.

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.

… And More on R41(b) Dismissal

March 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Only yesterday we visited the notion of an MRCP 41(b) dismissal in a trial without a jury. The point there was that the motion is one to dismiss, not for a directed verdict.

Today we study the standard that the trial court is to apply in deciding how to rule on the motion.

In In the Matter of the Dissolution of the Marriage of Lewis, decided by the COA on March 20, 2018, Judge Wilson expounded on the topic:

¶13. In a bench trial, after the plaintiff “has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant . . . may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief.” M.R.C.P. 41(b). A motion for involuntary dismissal under Rule 41(b) is different from a motion for a directed verdict, which is made only in a jury trial. Ladner v. Stone Cty., 938 So. 2d 270, 273 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). “This distinction must be understood, because the standard of review for a dismissal is different than that for a directed verdict.” Id.

¶14. In ruling on a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss, “[t]he judge must consider the evidence fairly, rather than in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,” as would be the case on a motion for a directed verdict or a motion for summary judgment. Century 21 Deep S. Props. Ltd. v. Corson, 612 So. 2d 359, 369 (Miss. 1992) (emphasis added). That is, the trial judge should give the plaintiff’s evidence only “such weight and credibility as he would ascribe to it if he were making findings of fact and rendering final judgment.” Gray v. Alumax Extrusions Inc., 477 So. 2d 1355, 1356-57 (Miss. 1985). If the judge “would find for the defendant” on the evidence presented, “the case should be dismissed.” Corson, 612 So. 2d at 369. “[T]he motion should be granted if the plaintiff has failed to prove one or more essential elements of his claim or if the quality of the proof offered is insufficient to sustain the plaintiff’s burden of proof.” Buelow v. Glidewell, 757 So. 2d 216, 220 (¶12) (Miss. 2000). “The court must deny a motion to dismiss only if the judge would be obliged to find for the plaintiff if the plaintiff’s evidence were all the evidence offered in the case.” Corson, 612 So. 2d at 369 (emphasis added).

¶15. “This Court applies the substantial evidence/manifest error standards to an appeal of a grant or denial of a motion to dismiss pursuant to [Rule] 41(b).” Id. The trial judge’s “decision on the motion is, for purposes of appeal, treated like any other finding of fact. In other words, his decision will not be disturbed on appeal unless it was manifestly wrong.” Gray, 477 So. 2d at 1357.

Applying the law to the case at hand:

¶16. “The chancellor’s findings of fact about cohabitation [and] de facto marriage . . . are entitled to substantial deference when reviewed on appeal.” Hughes v. Hughes, 186 So. 3d 394, 397 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quoting McMinn v. McMinn, 171 So. 3d 511, 518 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014)). “We will not reverse a chancellor’s findings regarding the existence or nonexistence of a de facto marriage unless they are manifestly or clearly erroneous.” Id. at 403 (¶26) (citing Burrus v. Burrus, 962 So. 2d 618, 621 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006)).

We’ll look at the concept of de facto marriage in a later post. At this point it’s important to bear in mind the standard you need to argue to convince the chancellor to grant — or deny — that 41(b) motion.

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