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.

Child Support Plus

April 29, 2019 § 3 Comments

Henry and Elizabeth Gunter consented to a divorce on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences, agreeing that they would share joint legal custody, and that Elizabeth would have physical custody of their three children. They submitted the issues of child support, private-school costs, extracurricular expenses, and uninsured medical expenses to the court for adjudication.

The chancellor ordered Henry to pay monthly child support in the sum of $918, which was 22% of his AGI. She also ordered the parties to pay one-half each of private-school tuition, daycare expense, extra-curricular activities, and non-covered medical expenses. Henry appealed, complaining that guideline support plus the additional payments amount to 43.2% of his monthly AGI, and, therefore, are excessive and erroneous.

In Gunter v. Gunter, handed down April 9, 2019, the COA affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part. Judge Greenlee wrote for the unanimous court:

¶8. A chancery court has discretion in determining an award of child support. Harden v. Scarborough, 240 So. 3d 1246, 1255 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). And this Court will not find an abuse of discretion when “the required support [is] equal to the amount that is presumptively correct under the child-support guidelines.” Mosher v. Mosher, 192 So. 3d 1118, 1126 (¶38) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016).

¶9. Henry indicated in an affidavit that his adjusted gross income was $4,173.84 per month. The chancery court awarded Elizabeth 22% of this amount, or $918 per month. This is the percentage detailed by our code for the support of three children. Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-101(1) (Rev. 2015). But the chancery court continued with additional monetary awards that included private-school tuition, daycare, extracurricular expenses, and uninsured medical expenses. Although the chancery court does not explicitly state so in the judgment, these additional inclusions depart from the statutory guidelines. Under the chancery court’s judgment, Henry would make all of the following monthly payments to Elizabeth: $918 for child support, $550.42 for private-school tuition, [Fn omitted] $260 for daycare, [Fn omitted] and $75 for uninsured medical expenses. This amounts to monthly payments of $1,803.42, or 43.2% of Henry’s adjusted gross income. [Fn omitted]

¶10. The guidelines are, however, merely guidelines, and they “do not control per se the amount of an award of child support.” Clausel v. Clausel, 714 So. 2d 265, 267 (¶8) (Miss. 1998). Because the chancery court “has special knowledge of the actual circumstances,” McEachern v. McEachern, 605 So. 2d 809, 814 (Miss. 1992), a departure is permissible when the chancery court “mak[es] a written finding on the record that the application of the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate . . . .” Dunn v. Dunn, 695 So. 2d 1152, 1155 (Miss. 1997).

I. Private-School Tuition

¶11. Our caselaw indicates that private-school tuition costs should be treated as a part of child support and should not be “calculated separately from and in addition to the support award.” Southerland v. Southerland, 816 So. 2d 1004, 1006 (¶11) (Miss. 2002). Our own court has held that “[r]equiring [an ex-spouse] to pay half of the tuition over and above the statutory [amount] without a written or specific finding by the chancellor as to why the deviation is needed renders the award inappropriate.” Moses v. Moses, 879 So. 2d 1043, 1048 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). And we have followed this precedent. E.g., Davis v. Davis, 983 So. 2d 358, 363 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (“Thus, the private school tuition normally must be considered as child support.”). The judgment from the chancery court does not include the pertinent information as to why the deviation is needed.

¶12. The transcript, however, reveals the chancery court’s reasoning was that the children had attended private school nearly all their lives and Elizabeth wanted to continue to send them to private school. Although such a ruling may be permissible, see In re C.T., 228 So. 3d 311, 316 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017) (holding that the chancery court did not abuse its discretion in “allocating to [parent with primary physical custody] the decision-making authority in regard to where the child attends school”), reh’g denied (Oct. 17, 2017), the chancery court must make “a written or specific finding” as to why that deviation is required. Therefore, this Court reverses and remands the specific issue of private-school tuition to the chancery court for further proceedings for findings consistent with this opinion.

II. Daycare

¶13. Henry also disputes the inclusion of daycare costs beyond his monthly child support payments. The chancery court found “it . . . only fair that [Henry] pay one half of the day care expenses so that the mother can go to work.” This is a justifiable deviation from the guidelines. E.g., Marin v. Stewart, 122 So. 3d 153, 157 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (“The chancellor’s reasoning properly falls under section 43-19-103(i) [Supp. 2012], as the child must go to daycare in order for Stewart to retain employment. Therefore, there is sufficient evidence to justify the chancellor’s determination that the application of the guidelines were inappropriate.”). Henry’s contention is meritless, and therefore we affirm the chancery court’s judgment on this issue.

III. Medical Expenses

¶14. Finally, Henry disputes the inclusion of uninsured medical costs, but he still recognizes that “the Court may consider and order him to pay one-half of the medical expenses of the minor children without running afoul of the guidelines.” He is correct; the chancery court’s judgment is in accordance with our caselaw. E.g.,Kilgore v. Fuller, 741 So. 2d 351, 356 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999) (holding that health expenses are not included in the statutory guidelines). Again, his contention is meritless, and we affirm the chancery court’s judgment on this issue.

That’s some helpful authority for what it takes to support deviation from the child support guidelines.

Nowadays, it is absurd to believe that a child can be provided food, shelter, clothing, other necessities, education, transportation, physical activities, and entertainment for 14% of the payor’s AGI. For two children, that percentage becomes 10% each, and for three it’s a paltry 7 1/3% apiece. The children’s best interest demands deviation. Undivorced parents devote much more than 40% of their income to maintaining a household for the children. It’s not uncommon for parents to spend all they make and then load up credit cards for family vacations and amenities.

If you are representing the parent who will be receiving child support, you must make a record that will justify the court’s findings of fact that call for deviation. If you don’t, your client may have to settle for the statutory minimums.

April 23, 2019 § Leave a comment

Judges’ Spring Conference

Next post April 29, 2019

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.

April 19, 2019 § Leave a comment

Holiday.

Courthouse closed.

 

Double Fault

April 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

When both parties are clearly guilty of grounds for divorce, who gets the divorce?

Stephen Anderson proved that his wife, Emmarie, was guilty of adultery. She put on proof that he was guilty of habitual drunkenness and habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. The chancellor found both parties had proven the other guilty by the requisite standard of proof.

What is the chancellor to do? Grant both parties a divorce? Grant Stephen a divorce because adultery is more serious? Grant the divorce to Emmarie because people shouldn’t be violent toward each other? Order them to go home together and try to preserve the sanctity of their marriage?

The chancellor granted Emmarie a divorce, and Stephen appealed, arguing that he should have been granted the divorce because it was Emmarie’s adultery that caused his separation from her.

In Anderson v. Anderson, decided March 19, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Lawrence wrote the opinion, which analyzed Stephen’s argument on the point:

¶9. Stephen argues that because he proved that Emmarie committed adultery and Emmarie’s adultery caused him to leave, he should have been granted a divorce on that ground. Stephen further argues that Emmarie should not have been granted a divorce on habitual cruel and inhuman treatment because she reconciled with him after her 2012 claim.

¶10. “There can be but one divorce granted. Where each party has requested a divorce and offers proof sufficient to establish a basis for divorce, the chancellor must then determine which of the parties will be granted a divorce.” Garriga v. Garriga, 770 So. 2d 978, 983-84 (¶23) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000) (citing Hyer v. Hyer, 636 So. 2d 381, 382 (Miss. 1994)). Here, Stephen filed for divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and adultery. Emmarie counterclaimed on the same grounds.

¶11. In Sproles v. Sproles, 782 So. 2d 742, 746 (¶14) (Miss. 2001), the chancellor granted the wife a divorce on the grounds of habitual drunkenness and habitual cruel and inhuman treatment instead of granting the husband a divorce on the ground of adultery even though his wife admitted at trial that she had committed adultery. Our supreme court affirmed the chancellor, finding that “[t]here [was] ample proof that it was [the husband’s] conduct that caused the dissolution of the marriage and that [the wife] was entitled to a divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment and habitual drunkenness.” Id. at 747 (¶20). In Boutwell v. Boutwell, 829 So. 2d 1216, 1219 (¶¶40-43) (Miss. 2002), our supreme court dealt with a nearly identical issue and relied on Sproles to affirm the chancellor’s grant of divorce to the wife on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.

¶12. Here, Emmarie admitted that she committed adultery. However, the chancellor also heard testimony from Emmarie, Emmarie’s mother, and Emmarie and Stephen’s son about Stephen’s physical abuse upon Emmarie that started prior to and throughout the marriage. Ultimately, the chancellor determined that it was Stephen’s continued course of physical abuse upon Emmarie that caused the breakdown of the marriage. Finding the chancellor’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, we affirm the chancery court’s grant of divorce to Emmarie on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.

Here the chancellor specifically found that it was Stephen’s conduct that caused the breakdown of the marriage, and it was on that finding that she made the award of the divorce to Emmarie. That basis has been upheld by the courts.

When you have the possibility that either party may be granted a divorce because both have grounds, it would behoove you to develop proof that the opposing party was more at fault. You need that kind of proof in connection with Ferguson, Albright, and Armstrong factors.

 

 

If You Want Specific Findings, Here’s What You Do

April 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

Dotie Jackson was unsuccessful in his attempt to modify custody. The chancellor found that he had failed to prove a material change in circumstances that would impact the child and warrant further analysis of the three-prong test for modification. He appealed.

In the March 19, 2019, case of Jackson v. Jackson, the COA affirmed the chancellor’s ruling. One issue Dotie raised was that the chancellor had erred in not making specific findings. Judge Greenlee’s opinion for the unanimous court addressed the point:

¶15. Dotie argues this matter should be reversed and remanded for the chancellor to make specific findings that there was no material change in circumstances which adversely affected the children. He also argues specific findings under an Albright [Fn omitted] analysis are required.

¶16. Under both the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure and the Uniform Chancery Court Rules, the chancellor is not obligated to provide specific findings of fact unless a party requests that she do so. See Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46, 48 (¶¶7,16) (Miss. 2012) (citing Johnson v. Gray, 859 So. 2d 1006, 1012 (¶31) (Miss. 2003)). Dotie did not make such a request. And we have specifically acknowledged that this rule applies in child-custody cases. Blevins v. Bardwell, 784 So. 2d 166, 174-75 (¶¶30-31) (Miss. 2001).

¶17. But here, the chancellor did make findings of fact that are clearly set forth in her bench ruling. The chancellor definitively concluded:

[T]he Court finds and agrees with the guardian ad litem . . . with regard to the children . . . . [J]ust as [the] guardian ad litem, I have conducted an analysis based upon information made available to me. And it is my opinion that there has been no substantial material change in the home of Lori Beth Duperier [Jackson] that would warrant further consideration of the three-prong test for custody modification.

A careful reading of the chancellor’s bench ruling reveals the facts on which she based her ruling.

[T]he parties are really blessed. They have two beautiful young children, and they are healthy, and they are doing well. Both parents are healthy, financially stable . . . and they live a good life.

. . . .

[T]he mother contacted the professionals, and they did what they are required to do. They are to report situations where . . . they’re concerned that there is some type of abuse.

The chancellor noted that the investigation concerning the abuse allegations “was handled quickly.” She further stated:

I believe and I found credible the mother’s testimony that once the allegations were dismissed that she saw no need for the counseling. The guardian ad litem
testified the children were doing well. They [are] happy. They are healthy. They love both parents. Probably as the children see it, they did not skip a beat on their relationships with both parents. From my description, they are involved. They love both parents.

Thus, the chancellor found the allegations against Dotie did not alter the children’s relationships with either Dotie or Lori Beth. As earlier discussed, we found no error in the chancellor’s finding there was no material change in circumstances that adversely affected the children. And in absence of such a finding, the chancellor was not required to make specific findings under the Albright factors. Anderson[v. Anderson], 961 So. 2d [55] at 58 (¶6) [(Miss. Ct. App. 2007)]. Reversal and remand is not warranted in this instance.

Some thoughts:

  • There is plenty of case law that the Chancellor is required to make specific findings on the Albright factors. No motion is required to trigger that particular duty.
  • BUT if the chancellor finds no material change or adverse effect, then the chancellor is not required to analyze the case under Albright, so the duty of specific Albright findings does not come into play.
  • If you want specific findings for matters such as material change, which unlike Albright are not required findings, you must make a motion per UCCR 4.01 and bring it to the attention of the court. The rule states:

In all actions where it is required [e.g., Albright] or requested [by a motion made according to this rule], pursuant to MRCP 52, the Chancellor shall find the facts specially and state separately his conclusions of law thereon. The request must be made either in writing, filed among the papers in the action, or dictated to the Court Reporter for record and called to the attention of the Chancellor.

Prescription for a Prescriptive Easement

April 15, 2019 § Leave a comment

A prescriptive easement is one acquired essentially by adverse possession. The COA’s decision in Watts v. Jackson, decided March 19, 2019, has such an excellent, concise statement of the law of prescriptive easements that I thought you might find it useful to have it on hand. Judge Westbrooks wrote the opinion (edited by me):

¶6. “The standard and burden of proof to establish a prescriptive easement is the same as a claim of adverse possession of land.” Mayton v. Oliver, 247 So. 3d 312, 322 (¶32) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). “To acquire property by adverse possession or by prescriptive easement the claimant must show that the possession was: (1) open, notorious, and visible; (2) hostile; (3) under claim of ownership; (4) exclusive; (5) peaceful; and (6) continuous and uninterrupted for ten years.” Biddix v. McConnell, 911 So. 2d 468, 475 (¶18) (Miss. 2005). “These elements must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.” Mayton, 247 So. 3d at 322 (¶32). “Clear and convincing evidence is such a high standard of proof that even the overwhelming weight of the evidence does not rise to the same level.” Id.

. . .

¶8. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that all six elements must be proven for a prescriptive easement to be valid. See Sharp v. White, 749 So. 2d 41, 43 (¶9) (Miss. 1999). In its order, the chancery court does not break down the elements required, and this Court has held that when “the chancellor did not state any specific findings of fact concerning these six elements . . . we will proceed on the assumption that he resolved all such fact issues in favor of the appellee.” Rawls v. Blakeney, 831 So. 2d 1205, 1207 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).  . . .

A. Open, Notorious, and Visible

¶9. The supreme court has held that “it is not necessary, in order to establish an easement by prescription, that the way has been in constant use, day and night, but it may be established by such use as business or pleasure may require.” Threlkeld v. Sisk, 992 So. 2d 1232, 1238 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting Browder v. Graham, 204 Miss. 773, 780 (1948)).  . . .

B. Hostile

¶10. “Hostile use is use that is inconsistent with the title of the servient-estate owner.” Threlkeld, 992 So. 2d at 1239 (¶18). “Use of property that is permissive prevents a
prescriptive easement from forming.” Id. “Use by express or implied permission or license, no matter how long continued, cannot ripen into an easement by prescription, since adverse use, as distinguished from permissive use, is lacking.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).  . . .

C. Under the Claim of Ownership

¶11. “One claiming a prescriptive easement need not claim to own the land itself, but he or she must claim to own an easement.” Id. at 1239 (¶21) (quoting Delancey v. Mallette, 912 So. 2d 483, 488 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005)).  . . .

D. Exclusive

¶12. “For a prescriptive easement, ‘exclusive’ does not mean that no one else used the road, but that ‘the use was consistent with an exclusive claim to the right to use.’” Threlkeld, 992 So. 2d at 1239-40 (¶22) (quoting Moran v. Sims, 873 So. 2d 1067, 1069 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004)). Moreover, “[w]e conclude that the distinction to be made when using the term exclusive as it relates to a prescriptive easement does not mean to keep all others out, but to show a right to use the land above other members of the general public.” Keener Properties L.L.C. v. Wilson, 912 So. 2d 954, 957 (¶8) (Miss. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).  . . .

E. Peaceful

¶13. “‘Peaceful’ is defined as ‘marked by, conducive to, or enjoying peace, quiet, or calm.’” Biddix v. McConnell, 911 So. 2d 468, 477 (¶25) (Miss. 2005) (quoting Webster’s
Third International Dictionary 1160 (1986)).  . . .

F. Continuous and Uninterrupted for Ten Years

¶14. “A prescriptive easement vests when the adverse use has been continuous and uninterrupted for a period of ten years.” Threlkeld, 992 So. 2d at 1240 (¶24) (quoting
Delancey, 912 So. 2d at 489 (¶18)).  . . .

The court reversed the chancellor’s grant of a prescriptive easement. The COA held that Jackson had failed to prove that his use of the easement was hostile or exclusive.

 

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

April 12, 2019 § Leave a comment

No GAL = No Error

April 10, 2019 § Leave a comment

After Amber Brown was personally served with a summons for a contempt proceeding, she failed to appear and was found in contempt and ordered to pay her ex-husband, Hewlett, $5,000 in attorney’s fees. She appealed.

One of her manifold issues was that the judge erred in not granting a continuance to allow for appointment of a GAL.

In Brown v. Hewlett, decided March 12, 2019, the COA affirmed. Here is Judge Jack Wilson’s opinion on the point:

¶29. First, Brown asserts that the chancery court should have granted a continuance and appointed a GAL to investigate “allegations of abuse and/or neglect.” However, Brown never asked the court to appoint a GAL. Therefore, any claim that the court should have exercised its discretion to appoint a GAL is procedurally barred. See, e.g., McDonald v. McDonald, 39 So. 3d 868, 885 (¶54) (Miss. 2010) (“The well-recognized rule is that a trial court will not be put in error on appeal for a matter not presented to it for decision.”).

¶30. Nor was the appointment of a GAL mandatory in this case. If there is a legitimate charge of abuse or neglect in a custody proceeding, then the chancery court must appoint a GAL, “whether the parties requested a [GAL] or not.” Carter v. Carter, 204 So. 3d 747, 758-59 (¶50) (Miss. 2016) (citing Miss. Code Ann. §93-5-23 (Rev. 2018)); see also Miss. Code Ann. § 93-11-65 (Rev. 2018)). However, the appointment of a GAL is mandatory only if there is a “sufficient factual basis to support” an allegation of abuse or neglect. Carter, 204 So. 3d at 759 (¶51). The chancery court has “discretion” to determine whether such an allegation is “legitimate.” Id. at (¶53). If the court concludes that there is no factual basis for the allegation, then the appointment of a GAL is not mandatory. Id. In this case, Brown fails to cite to any concrete allegation of abuse, let alone any evidence to support such a claim. Even at the final hearing before the chancery court, Brown merely testified that Lily had seen a counselor for unspecified reasons. On this record, the chancery court did not abuse its discretion by not appointing a GAL sua sponte in this contempt proceeding. [Fn omitted]

Simply because you insert the magic phrase “abuse and neglect” into your pleading, you have not created a duty for the chancellor to appoint a GAL in your case. As the opinion demonstrates, there must be a sufficient factual basis to support the allegation — sufficient to convince the judge that there are facts worth investigating that bear on the best interest of the child. Remember, you must call the request to the attention of the court, and that is done via motion. Under R 43(e), you can use an affidavit of your client or someone with eye-witness knowledge to support the motion.