What it Takes to Prove HCIT

October 14, 2019 § Leave a comment

Cobbling together enough evidence and corroboration to meet your burden of proof in an habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (HCIT) case can be quite a challenge.

In the COA’s recent case, Littlefield v. Littlefield, appellant Eddie Littlefield argued that the chancellor erred in granting his wife Brooke a divorce on the ground. The COA affirmed in a decision handed down August 27, 2019. Judge Tindell’s opinion first set down the legal standard for HCIT:

¶8. Eddie first argues that the chancellor erred in granting a divorce in favor of Brooke on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-1 (Rev. 2018) allows a chancellor to grant a divorce based upon habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Divorce is properly granted upon this ground if the claimant establishes, by a preponderance of the evidence, conduct that either:

(1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger and renders the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or

(2) is so unnatural and infamous as to render the marriage revolting to the non-offending spouse, making it impossible to carry out the duties of the marriage, therefore destroying the basis for its continuance.

Alexander v. Alexander, 95 So. 3d 696, 699 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing N. Shelton Hand, Mississippi Divorce, Alimony and Child Custody § 4:12 (2d ed. Supp. 1991)). In addition, there must be a causal connection between the treatment and the actual or threatened harm to the claimant’s health or well-being. Bias v. Bias, 493 So. 2d 342, 345 (Miss. 1986); see also Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992); Farris v. Farris, 202 So. 3d 223, 232 (¶33) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). To establish such a causal connection, there must be some corroboration to the moving party’s testimony of the offensive conduct, except in cases of isolation. Jones v. Jones, 43 So. 3d 465, 478 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Evidence of something more than “mere unkindness, rudeness, petty indignities, frivolous quarrels, incompatibility or lack of affection” is required to establish habitual cruel and inhuman treatment. Id. at 469 (¶9).

There follows five pages in which the court recites the evidence at trial supporting the chancellor’s findings.

As for Eddie’s arguments that Brooke had failed to offer sufficient corroboration, the court said:

¶18. Eddie asserts that Brooke’s testimony lacked corroborating evidence. But the testimony of Jean, Erhart, and Eddie himself corroborated the vast majority of Brooke’s allegations. We have held that a claimant’s corroborating evidence “need not be sufficient in itself to establish the ground, but rather, need only provide enough supporting facts for a court to conclude the [claimant’s] testimony is true.” Williams v. Williams, 224 So. 3d 1282, 1287 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). In this case, the chancellor was provided more than enough testimony and evidence to corroborate Brooke’s testimony.

And finally, with regard to the sufficiency of the evidence, the court said:

¶19. Eddie also argues that the evidence provided at trial was insufficient to prove habitual cruel and inhuman treatment by a preponderance of the evidence. As the trier of fact, the chancellor “evaluates the sufficiency of proof based on the credibility of the witnesses and the weight of their testimony.” Rawson v. Buta, 609 So. 2d 426, 431 (Miss. 1992). Divorces based upon habitual cruel and inhuman treatment are necessarily fact-intensive and require a case-by-case analysis. James Shelson, Mississippi Chancery Practice § 38:5 (2019). The chancellor must dually focus on both the alleged conduct of the offending spouse as well as the impact of that conduct on the complaining spouse and the marriage. Heimert v. Heimert, 101 So. 3d 181, 184 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). Upon review, we “must employ a subjective standard,” rather than an ordinary, reasonable person standard, understanding that the impact of the conduct on the complaining spouse is crucial. Harmon v. Harmon, 141 So. 3d 37, 42 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Faries v. Faries, 607 So. 2d 1204, 1209 (Miss. 1992)).

¶20. Eddie correctly argues that a more extreme set of facts is required than a showing of “mere unkindness, rudeness, and incompatibility.” Reed v. Reed, 839 So. 2d 565, 570 (¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). But “our supreme court has specifically noted that ‘[t]here are many kinds of acts such as wilful failure to support, verbal abuse, neglect, and the like which, if taken alone will not constitute cruelty, but when taken together will manifest a course of conduct as a whole which may amount to cruelty.’” Rakestraw v. Rakestraw, 717 So. 2d 1284, 1288 (Miss. Ct. App. 1998) (citing Savell v. Savell, 240 So.2d 628, 629 (Miss.1970)). Also, abusive conduct that is routine and continuous suffices to meet the requisite burden. Lomax v. Lomax, 172 So. 3d 1258, 1261 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016); see also Burnett v. Burnett, 271 So. 2d 90, 92 (Miss. 1972) (The “conduct must be habitual, that is, done so often, or continued so long, that its recurrence may be reasonably expected whenever occasion or opportunity present itself.”). For example, in Harmon, the offending spouse’s conduct included continuous sexual degradation, cursing and yelling, jealousy and constant accusations of infidelity, irrationality, and habitual name-calling. Harmon, 141 So. 3d. at 40 (¶¶5-11). Because the cumulative effect of the offending spouse’s behavior constituted cruelty, we upheld the chancellor’s judgment of divorce. Id. at 42 (¶17).

Another Divorce Misfire in an HCIT/Constructive Desertion Case

January 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

Brooke Hoffman charged her husband Michael with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and constructive desertion. After hearing the evidence, the chancellor dismissed her complaint, finding that she had proved neither ground. Brooke appealed the denial of the divorce.

The COA affirmed in Hoffman v. Hoffman, decided October 23, 2018, with Judge Wilson writing for a unanimous court:

¶22. As discussed above, Brooke alleged that she was entitled to a divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and constructive desertion. As a practical matter, there is little difference between these two grounds. “In effect, conduct that would qualify as habitual, cruel, and inhuman treatment becomes constructive desertion when the innocent spouse leaves the home rather than remaining.” Deborah H. Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 4.02[5][d], at 80 (2d ed. 2011).

¶23. “Habitual cruel and inhuman treatment is conduct that either: (1) endangers life, limb, or health, or creates a reasonable apprehension of such danger and renders the relationship unsafe for the party seeking relief, or (2) is so unnatural and infamous as to render the marriage revolting to the non-offending spouse, making it impossible to carry out the duties of the marriage, therefore destroying the basis for its continuance.” Farris v. Farris, 202 So. 3d 223, 231 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Heimert v. Heimert, 101 So. 3d 181, 184 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012)). “To prove habitual cruelty, the plaintiff must show more than mere unkindness, rudeness, or incompatibility.” Smith v. Smith, 90 So. 3d 1259, 1263 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011). “Although in cases of violence a single incident may be sufficient for a divorce, generally the plaintiff must show a pattern of conduct.” Id.

¶24. Similarly, “constructive desertion” occurs when the innocent spouse “is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace, and protection elsewhere” because the offending spouse has engaged in conduct that “would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relation, unendurable or dangerous to life, health or safety.” Griffin v. Griffin, 207 Miss. 500, 505, 42 So. 2d 720, 722 (1949). “Chancellors should grant a divorce on the ground of constructive desertion only in extreme cases.” Hoskins v. Hoskins, 21 So. 3d 705, 710 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). The burden of proof is on the party seeking the divorce to prove her ground by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 707 (¶6).

¶25. We affirm the chancery court’s judgment that Brooke failed to prove grounds for divorce. The chancery court noted that Brooke alleged only one incident of physical violence, which Mike denied. The court then noted that Brooke’s single allegation of violence was undermined by a police officer’s observation that she exhibited no signs of physical abuse immediately after the alleged injury. The court also noted that the day
following the alleged abuse Brooke wrote in a diary “that the parties made love and that she could ‘really tell that he (Mike) was emotionally present.’”

¶26. The chancery court also found that Brooke’s allegations related to Mike’s relationship with Matt were not credible. Mike denied Brooke’s allegations and another witness corroborated his testimony. Furthermore, the court found that Brooke offered “no proof” of an actual affair or physical relationship.

¶27. “It requires little familiarity with the institutional structure of our judicial system to know that this Court does not sit to redetermine questions of fact.” Johnson v. Black, 469 So. 2d 88, 90 (Miss. 1985). “The chancellor is the finder of fact, and the assessment of witness credibility lies within his sole province.” Darnell v. Darnell, 234 So. 3d 421, 423-24 (¶8) (Miss. 2017) (quotation marks omitted). “This Court gives deference to a chancellor’s findings in regard to witness testimony, because the chancellor is able to observe and personally evaluate the witnesses’ testimony and the parties’ behavior.” McNeese v. McNeese, 119 So. 3d 264, 275 (¶32) (Miss. 2013) (quotation marks omitted). Applying our familiar standard of review, we cannot say that the chancery court clearly erred in finding that Brooke’s allegations were not credible.

¶28. The same is true of the chancery court’s finding that Brooke’s allegations of emotional abuse were “unpersuasive.” The court noted that Brooke only testified to “a discreet number of unpersuasive specific incidents.” And, again, Mike denied Brooke’s allegations that he was emotionally abusive. It is for the chancellor “alone” to “judge[ ] the credibility of the witnesses” and weigh any “conflicting evidence.” Irle v. Foster, 175 So. 3d 1232, 1237 (¶32) (Miss. 2015). This Court does not reweigh conflicting evidence on such issues of fact. Mayton v. Oliver, 247 So. 3d 312, 322 (¶33) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017).

¶29. Suffice it to say there was conflicting evidence with respect to each of Brooke’s various allegations against Mike. Those conflicts represent issues of fact for the chancery court to decide. Id. The chancery court summarized its reasons for dismissing Brooke’s complaint for divorce as follows:

Brooke may very well have determined for herself that she is no longer willing to countenance the ways in which she and Mike seem no longer to get along, especially when considered from the perspective of another man’s arms with whom she may now seem more compatible. However, . . . for a divorce to be granted on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment there must be proof of systematic and continuous behavior on the part of the offending spouse which goes beyond mere incompatibility . . . .

. . . .

The theory of constructive desertion as a grounds for divorce is reserved for extreme cases. Although Brooke’s and Mike’s marriage might reasonably be characterized on the record made as unhappy and unfulfilling, the evidence does not support a finding that it is to be considered unendurable to Brooke.

. . . .

The [c]ourt takes no pleasure in declining to award relief in a circumstance where the parties are separated and one party professes to be so
unhappy as to seek to be officially unshackled from the bonds of matrimony. The [L]egislature, as the policy makers for this [S]tate, have consistently declined to amend the divorce statutes to provide that one party can obtain a divorce from the other spouse without a showing of fault. Our appellate courts have not expanded the definition of cruel and inhuman treatment to include circumstances which would otherwise comprise mere incompatibility. The [c]ourt is, therefore, constrained by the evidence presented to it and the record made, and cannot find that Brooke’s and Mike’s marriage was unendurable at the time that Brooke left. Thus, the [c]ourt cannot find that Mike is guilty of constructive desertion.

We find no clear error, legal error, or abuse of discretion in the chancery court’s findings and conclusions. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the chancery court dismissing Brooke’s complaint for a divorce.

Some observations:

  • The inescapable object lesson here is one most practitioners have come to appreciate over the years: HCIT is not an easy ground with which to obtain a divorce, even though the burden of proof is only a preponderance of the evidence.
  • In ¶24, dealing with constructive desertion, the court says, citing Hoskins, that “The burden of proof is on the party seeking the divorce to prove her ground by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 707 (¶6).” That can at least be misleading. Hoskins does not say that; when Hoskins mentions burden of proof, it is referring to HCIT. Indeed, the only ground for divorce with a preponderance burden of proof is HCIT. The other grounds require clear and convincing evidence. See, Bell, 2d Ed., § 4.02[1][b]. Bell does say that, “In effect, conduct that would qualify as [HCIT] becomes constructive desertion when the innocent spouse leaves the home rather than remaining.” Id., §4.02[5][d]. So I guess it could be argued that the HCIT burden of proof applies in constructive desertion cases, but I am not aware of any cases that say that directly.

Testamentary Capacity, Undue Influence, and the Burden of Proof

January 27, 2016 § 4 Comments

A will contest can present a bewildering forest of legal issues that can entangle the best lawyers. So, any time we can find some clarification, it’s worth taking a break to look it over.

In the COA case of Estate of Phelps: Terry et al. v. Phelps, et al., handed down December 8, 2015, the court dealt with an appeal from a classic will challenge based on a claim of both lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.

The chancellor held that the testator, Dorothy Phelps, did have testamentary capacity. He also ruled that there was a confidential relationship between Dorothy and her son, Henry III, but that Henry had rebutted the presumption of undue influence by clear and convincing evidence. The contestants, Henry III’s siblings Irene Phelps Terry and Mary Phelps Domin, appealed.

The COA affirmed. Since this is a pretty useful recitation of the law, I am going to quote at length from the opinion. Judge Lee wrote for the court:

A. Testamentary Capacity

¶14. In their first issue, Irene and Vicki claim the chancellor erred in finding that Dorothy possessed testamentary capacity.

¶15. “For a will to be valid, the testator must possess testamentary capacity.” Noblin v. Burgess, 54 So. 3d 282, 291 (¶32) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). “For testamentary capacity to be present, the testator must be of ‘sound and disposing mind’ at the time of the will’s execution.” Id. (quoting Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-1 (Rev. 2004)). “At that time, the testator must: ‘understand and appreciate the nature and effect of his act of making a will, the natural objects or persons to receive his bounty and their relation to him, and be able to determine what disposition he desires to make of his property.’” Id. (quoting In re Estate of Mask, 703 So. 2d 852, 856 (¶17) (Miss. 1997)).

¶16. Our supreme court has explained the burden of proof on the issue of testamentary capacity is as follows:

At trial, the will’s proponents carry the burden of proof, which they meet by the offering and receipt into evidence of the will and the record of probate. A prima facie case is made by the proponent solely by this proof. Afterwards, although the burden of proof remains on the proponents, the burden of going forward with proof of testamentary incapacity shifts to the contestants, who must overcome the prima facie case. The proponents may then present rebuttal proof if necessary. In short, the proponents must prove the testator’s testamentary capacity by a preponderance of the evidence.

In re Estate of Rutland, 24 So. 3d 347, 351 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (quoting In re Estate of Edwards, 520 So. 2d 1370, 1372 (Miss. 1988)).

¶17. In the instant case, an objection to probate was entered prior to the will being admitted to probate.

¶18. Henry III made his prima facie case of the will’s validity through the testimony of Kay Ousley Hyer, Cordell’s [the lawyer who prepared the will] legal secretary at the time Dorothy’s will was executed. Although Hyer had no recollection of the events on February 10, 1988, Hyer testified that she would not have signed the will’s attestation clause if she felt, through her interactions with Dorothy on February 10, 1988, that Dorothy was not of sound and disposing mind and memory. When asked whether Cordell would have signed the attestation clause, Hyer stated: “He would not have affixed his signature if [Dorothy was] not of sound mind and body.”

¶19. To support their argument on this issue, both Irene and Vicki testified that Dorothy lacked testamentary capacity because of her grief over Henry II’s death and because of other medical issues.

¶20. However, “[t]he mere fact that someone is too ill to handle his affairs does not in and of itself render him . . . void of testamentary capacity.” In re Estate of Laughter, 23 So. 3d 1055, 1061 (¶22) (Miss. 2009). Furthermore, we recognize that “[t]he testimony of subscribing witnesses receives greater weight than the testimony of witnesses who were not present at the will’s execution.” In re Estate of McQueen, 918 So. 2d 864, 871 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Edwards, 520 So. 2d at 1373). Therefore, Hyer’s testimony is given more weight than the testimony of Irene and Vicki, who were not present at the will’s execution, did not interact with Dorothy on February 10, 1988, and have an interest in the outcome of this case.

¶21. Even if Irene and Vicki presented sufficient evidence to overcome Henry III’s prima facie case, we note that Henry III presented rebuttal evidence through the testimony of Flora Collins. Collins worked for Dorothy for approximately twenty-six years and interacted with Dorothy on an almost daily basis. Collins stated that Dorothy appeared to be herself, “like she’s always been,” after returning home from the hospital. Collins also stated that Dorothy told her about the will on two separate occasions: “She told me that I have a will and they’re going to be surprised who I’m going to leave everything to.” Additionally, we note that the will appears reflective of Dorothy’s intent in prior codicils. This issue is without merit.

B. Undue Influence

¶22. In their second issue, Irene and Vicki claim Henry III did not present sufficient evidence to overcome the presumption of undue influence.

1. Presumption of Undue Influence

¶23. A presumption of undue influence arises where: (1) a confidential relationship existed between the testator and a beneficiary, and (2) there existed suspicious circumstances—such as the testator’s mental infirmity—or the beneficiary in the confidential relationship was actively involved in some way with preparing or executing the will. In re Last Will & Testament of Bowling, 155 So. 3d 907, 910-11 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Croft v. Alder, 237 Miss. 713, 115 So. 2d 683, 688 (1959)).

¶24. It is conceded that there was a confidential relationship between Dorothy and Henry III. However, the fact, alone, that a confidential relationship existed between Henry III and Dorothy is not sufficient to give rise to the presumption of undue influence. See In re Estate of Grantham, 609 So. 2d 1220, 1224 (Miss. 1992).

¶25. Nevertheless, in In re Estate of Harris, 539 So. 2d 1040 (Miss. 1989), our supreme court held that the presumption was raised with very little besides a confidential relationship. In re Last Will & Testament of Smith, 722 So. 2d 606, 612 (¶18) (Miss. 1998). In Harris, “the beneficiary simply found an attorney at the testator’s request and drove the testator to the attorney’s office.” Id.

¶26. The facts in the instant case are distinguishable from those in Harris. Henry III did not contact the attorney prior to the execution of the will. Nor did Henry III have knowledge that he was driving Dorothy to Hollandale for the purpose of executing a will. Henry III merely drove Dorothy to Hollandale on February 10, 1988, so she could “tend to some business.”

¶27. Furthermore, Henry III was not present during the execution of the will. Hyer testified as to Cordell’s usual practice with respect to allowing other people in the room during the execution of a will. Hyer stated: “I cannot recall a time that he would do that. It was always just the individual . . . It would be just between [Cordell and] that individual.”

¶28. In finding a presumption of undue influence, the chancellor noted Dorothy’s health and age. The chancellor also noted that after the will’s execution, the will was placed in a safety deposit box in both Dorothy and Henry III’s names; therefore, Henry III had the opportunity to view the will after its execution. The circumstances listed by the chancellor had nothing to do with the preparation and execution of the will or with Dorothy’s independent action.

¶29. The fact, alone, that a confidential relationship existed between Henry III and Dorothy is not sufficient to give rise to the presumption of undue influence. See Grantham, 609 So.2d at 1224. Henry III was not actively involved in preparing or executing the will, nor were there suspicious circumstances that negate independent action. See Dean v. Kavanaugh, 920 So. 2d 528, 537 (¶46) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). As such, the chancellor erred in finding that there was a presumption of undue influence. However, because we ultimately reach the same conclusion, this issue is without merit.

2. Overcoming the Presumption of Undue Influence

¶30. Even if there was a presumption of undue influence, Henry III presented sufficient evidence to overcome such a presumption.

¶31. Our supreme court has stated that:

[T]he presumption of undue influence is overcome if the beneficiary has proven by clear and convincing evidence:

(1) Good faith on the part of the beneficiary;

(2) the testator’s full knowledge and deliberation of his actions and their consequences; and

(3) independent consent and action on the part of the testator.

Grantham, 609 So. 2d at 1224 (citing Mullins v. Ratcliff, 515 So. 2d 1183 (Miss. 1987)).

¶32. In the instant case, the record contains sufficient evidence to satisfy each of these three prongs. With respect to the good-faith requirement, the chancellor considered the following factors: (a) the identity of the initiating party seeking preparation of the will; (b) the place of the execution of the will and in whose presence; (c) the fee paid; (d) by whom it was paid; and (e) the secrecy or openness surrounding the execution of the will. In re Estate of Holmes, 961 So. 2d 674, 682 (¶25) (Miss. 2007). The chancellor found that Dorothy initiated the preparation of the will, the terms of the will were discussed between Dorothy and Cordell outside the presence of others, and the will was executed before two attesting witnesses.[Fn 3] Although there was no evidence of the fee paid or who paid the fee, we agree there was clear and convincing evidence that Henry III acted in good faith.

[Fn3] See Rogers v. Pleasant, 729 So. 2d 192, 194 (¶9) (Miss. 1998).

¶33. With respect to the second requirement—that Dorothy had full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions—the chancellor considered the following factors: (a) whether Dorothy was aware of her total assets and their worth; (b) whether Dorothy understood who her natural inheritors were and how her action would legally affect prior wills; (c) whether Dorothy knew nonrelative beneficiaries would be included or excluded; and (d) whether Dorothy knew who controlled her finances and how dependent Dorothy was on anyone handling her finances. Holmes, 961 So. 2d at 684 (¶39). The chancellor found that the will gave each daughter not only a life estate in 320 acres of land but also exclusive control and possession of the income generated by that land, which was evidence that Dorothy was aware of her total assets. The chancellor also found that the revocation clause along with specific devises and bequests in the will was evidence that Dorothy understood who her natural inheritors were and how her action would legally affect prior wills. It is clear from prior documents that Dorothy never had any intention of including nonrelative beneficiaries. Finally, the chancellor found that there was evidence that Dorothy knew who controlled her finances. We agree there was clear and convincing evidence that Dorothy had full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions.

¶34. With respect to the last requirement, the chancellor found that Dorothy exhibited independent consent and action when she obtained independent advice from Cordell, who was a competent person, disconnected from Henry III, and devoted wholly to Dorothy’s interests. Holmes, 961 So. 2d at 680 (¶18). We agree there was clear and convincing evidence that Dorothy exhibited independent consent and action.

¶35. Assuming there was a presumption of undue influence, the presumption was overcome by clear and convincing evidence that Henry III acted in good faith, Dorothy had full knowledge and deliberation of the consequences of her actions, and Dorothy exhibited independent consent and action when she executed her will. This issue is without merit.

Some comments on this case next week.

Whose Burden of Proof is it, Anyway?

July 7, 2015 § 6 Comments

There must be a gazillion cases that stand for the proposition that the proponent of a position in a case bears the burden of proving every element of the position by competent evidence. It’s not the opponent’s job to do that. And it certainly is not the judge’s, because for the judge to step in and make sure that one party or the other is meeting his or her burden would — or should — subject that judge to sanctions by the Judicial Performance Commission. When the proponent fails to meet the burden of proof, dismissal is appropriate. That’s what R41(b) is for.

The above principle has me scratching my head over a recent COA decision.

Sharon Harris filed a complaint for a TRO and preliminary injunction against the National Oak Park High School Alumni Association, Inc. (NOPHSAA), seeking to prevent the organization from removing her as president because it had not followed its own bylaws. After reviewing legal memoranda submitted by the parties, the chancellor dismissed her complaint, relying on MCA 79-11-277(2), which authorizes a board of directors to remove any officer at any time with or without cause.

Sharon appealed, and asked the MSSC to supplement the record with the national organization’s bylaws and Roberts Rules of Order, which the court granted after the chancellor confirmed that those documents had been before him at the trial level, even though they were not made a part of the record. Nowhere in the record, apparently, were the organization’s Mississippi bylaws.

The COA, in Harris v. National Oak Park High School Alumni Association, Inc., decided June 30, 2015, reversed and remanded, saying this:

¶14. The record on appeal fails to reflect what NOPHSAA’s Mississippi bylaws require regarding a quorum, voting-eligibility requirements, the Board’s meeting procedures, and the validity of telephonic meetings and telephonic voting. Accordingly, we must remand this case for the chancellor to provide findings as to whether the Board followed applicable bylaw requirements for a quorum, meetings, and voting when the Board voted to dismiss Harris in a meeting where some members attended and voted by telephone. [Footnote omitted]

Now, I may be missing something, but if the record fails to reflect what the Mississippi bylaws require, and the case turns on what the Mississippi bylaws require, is the COA saying that the judge is required to make sure that they get into evidence? That’s a novel approach as far as Mississippi jurisprudence is concerned. Indeed, it’s a novel approach as far as American jurisprudence is concerned. Anyone who has ever tried a case, or sat as a trial judge, can tell you that, in the USA, it’s up to the parties, not the judge, to make a prima facie case. That’s what the term “adversarial system” means.

The COA’s decision cites Speights v. Speights, 126 So.3d 76, 82 (Miss. App. 2013), to support the above-quoted language. Speights reversed a chancellor’s award of attorney’s fees because there was no evidence in the record of its reasonability. Using that logic, the COA should have affirmed in this case, because, if the chancellor had granted Sharon her relief, his ruling would have been unsupported by any evidence at all.

The COA noted at ¶ 12 that the chancellor “provided no factual findings for appellate review.” What factual findings are required when the proponent fails to meet his or her burden of proof? The COA’s own decision states repeatedly that the key evidence is absent from the record. So even without the judge’s findings of fact the COA was able to see clearly the failure of the plaintiff to make a prima facie case, as did the astute chancellor.

In my opinion, the chancellor did exactly what a trial judge is supposed to do: dismiss this case for failure to meet the burden of proof. Does the COA think it is the chancellor’s job to investigate and make the record complete? The COA reversed a chancellor for that very thing last year.

Oh, and just for lagniappe, Sharon now has the recipe on remand for a do-over that will get her a W at trial and on the next appeal.

I hope either the COA or the MSSC fixes this lest it become precedent.

CLEARLY CONVINCING

May 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Several chancery matters require proof by clear and convincing evidence.

There are others, I am sure, but you get the point. Muster the necessary quality of proof or fail.

So, what exactly does constititute clear and convincing evidence, anyway? The COA in Hill v. Harper, 18 So.3d 310, 318 (Miss. App. 2005), defined clear and convincing evidence as:

“That weight of proof which produces in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations sought to be established, evidnce so clear, direct and weighty and convincing as to enable the fact finder to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts of the case. Moran v. Fairley, 919 So.2d 969, 975 ¶24 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Travelhost, Inc. v. Blandford, 68 F.3d 958, 960 (5th Cir. 1995)). ‘Clear and convincing evidence is such a high standard that even the overwhelming weight of the evidence does not rise to the same level.’ Id. (Citing In re C.B., 574 So.2d 1369, 1375 (Miss. 1990).”

 30 Am.Jur.2d, Evidence, §1167, provides this:

“The requirement of “clear and convincing” … evidence does not call for “unanswerable” or “conclusive” evidence. The quality of proof, to be clear and convincing has … been said to be somewhere between the rule in ordinary civil cases and the requirement of criminal procedure — that is, it must be more than a mere preponderance but not beyond a reasonable doubt. It has also been said that the term “clear and convincing” evidence means that the witnesses to a fact must be found to be credible, and that the facts to which they have testified are distinctly remembered and the details thereof narrated exactly and in due order, so as to enable the trier of facts to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the weighing, comparing , testing, and judging its worth when considered in connection with all the facts and circumstances in evidence.

WHEN IS A GIFT A GIFT?

June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

We’ve talked here before about inter vivos gifts between spouses, and how they do not raise a presumption of undue influence.

What about where the question is whether in actuality there was a gift at all, as where a child claims that the now-deceased or infirm parent made a gift of an item, and the siblings deny that any gift was made?

As a general rule, the donee bears the burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence all of the following:

  1. That the donor is competent to make a gift;
  2. That the gift was a voluntary act of the donor who had donative intent; 
  3. That the gift was complete and not conditional; 
  4. That the donor delivered the gift; and 
  5. That the gift was irrevocable.

In re Estate of Ladner, 909 So. 2d 1051, 1054 (Miss. 2004).

In the case of real property, however, the person seeking to set aside a facially valid deed bears the burden of proof. Mullins v. Radcliff, 515 So.2d 1183, 1190 (Miss. 1987).

In the case of a CD titled in the names of two or more persons, payable to any of the persons named, it is presumed that those persons are owners of the account.

In re Last Will and Testament and Estate of Dunn v. Reilly, 784 So. 2d 935, 942 (Miss. 2001) (citing Madden v. Rhodes, 626 So. 2d 608, 616 (Miss. 1993)). “When an account is held jointly in the name of one depositor or another, ‘each depositor is allowed to treat joint property as if it were entirely his own.’” DeJean v. DeJean, 982 So. 2d 443, 449-50 (Miss. App. 2007) (quoting Drummonds v. Drummonds, 248 Miss. 25, 31, 156 So.2d 819, 821 (1963)). That presumption of ownership may be overcome “‘upon proof of forgery, fraud, duress, or an unrebutted presumption of undue influence.’” Reilly, 784 So. 2d at 942 (quoting Madden, 626 So. 2d at 617).

These notes are taken from Judge Griffis’s COA opinion in Yarborough v. Patrick, decided June 7, 2011, at ¶¶ 22-26.

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