A Contempt Potpourri

May 18, 2017 § 5 Comments

[NOTE: The MSSC reversed the COA’s decision on attorney’s fees on January 25, 2018, in Carter v. Davis.]

Every now and then a case wafts its way down from the exalted appellate stratosphere to us mortals down here at ground level and blesses us with a veritable potpourri of legal points that we can use in our mundane chancery existence.

A recent example is the case of Carter v. Davis, handed down by the COA on April 4, 2017.

Deveaux Carter had sued her ex-husband, Allen Davis, for contempt based on non-payment of child support. She contended that he owed $23,682 in child support arrearage, plus interest in the amount of $35,599, plus $88,664 for the children’s college expenses, plus $13,703 for unpaid medical expenses of the children, plus one-half the cost of the children’s vehicles, plus attorney’s fees and costs.

Following a trial, the chancellor determined that Allen owed $201,187, but the chancellor gave him credit for: (1) direct payments to the children during their time in college; (2) amounts paid to Deveaux and the children even after their emancipation; and (3) amounts paid by Allen’s mother. All three categories of payments combined totalled $197, 911, leaving a difference of $3,276, for which Deveaux was awarded a judgment. Allen was assessed a $7,500 attorney’s fee and costs.

Deveaux appealed, complaining about the credits. Allen cross-appealed, unhappy with the attorney’s fee award.

Judge Fair wrote the opinion for a unanimous court. Here are the points you can use:

  • It’s discretionary with the chancellor whether to grant credit for direct payments to the children (¶13).
  • It is proper to allow credit for direct payments to the children where to hold otherwise would unjustly enrich the other parent (¶13).
  • The credit may only be allowed when the payments by the payor were for matters contemplated by the original support order, such as food, shelter, or clothing (¶13).
  • Payments made by a grandparent may properly be credited to a parent if they are not restricted to some non-support purpose (¶11-12).
  • In order to support an award of attorney’s fees against a party, that party must be found in “willful” contempt. It is not enough to find that the action was made necessary by the conduct of that party (¶15).
  • The appellate court will not award appellate attorney’s fees when the trial court award of attorney’s fees is reversed (¶16).

The COA affirmed as to the chancellor’s credits, but reversed on the award of attorney’s fees, finding that the chancellor specifically held that Allen was not in willful contempt, but assessed the attorney’s fee solely because Deveaux was forced to bring the action. Since the attorney’s fee award at trial was reversed, the COA refused Deveaux’s request that she be awarded the customary one-half of the trial court’s award as an appellate attorney’s fee.

Semper Pactiones Quod Non

June 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

If the title of this post is not a legitimate Latin legal maxim, it should be, because it captures the essence of an important principle of extra-judicial modification. The above can be translated as “You don’t always get what you bargained for.”

That most certainly was true in the case of Patrick and Lesa Deckard, who were divorced from each other in 2003. The divorce judgment required Patrick to pay Lesa $1,200 per month as support for their two children.

Soon after the divorce one of the children went to live with the paternal grandparents. Patrick contended that he and Lesa agreed between them that the child support would be reduced to $800 a month, and then later to $600 a month. Yet another, later, agreement had Patrick paying child support of $700 a month, the amount of private school tuition. Lesa took the position that Patrick dictated what he would pay by claiming it was all he could afford; she pointed out also that Patrick never paid the amounts in question, anyway. Patrick did not produce any evidence of any extra-judicial agreements.

The chancellor found Patrick in contempt and awarded Lesa judgments totaling around $114,000 for unpaid child support, unpaid medical expenses of the children, and attorney’s fees. The judge also ordered Patrick to pay $800 in child support from that point on. Patrick appealed.

In the case of Deckard v. Deckard, decided June 2, 2015, the COA affirmed, Judge Ishee’s opinion laid out the rationale:

¶6. In the judgment of divorce issued by the chancery court on December 18, 2003, Patrick was ordered to pay child support in the amount of $1,200 per month. In the order dated March 6, 2014, Patrick was found to be in contempt for his failure to pay $107,013 in child support from 2005–2014. Patrick argues that the amount claimed is too high because their oldest son, Taylor, moved in with his paternal grandparents soon after the divorce.

¶7. Patrick asserts that allowing Lesa to collect child support from Patrick for Taylor’s benefit would be unjust enrichment because “for all practical intents and purposes he had never been in Lesa Deckard’s home and she never expended any monies for child support for his use and benefit.” However, the chancellor disagreed and found that Patrick owed the amount ordered by the original agreement to Lesa in unpaid child support. In doing so, the chancellor quoted the following from Smith v. Smith, 20 So. 3d 670, 674 (¶¶13-14) (Miss. 2009) (citations omitted):

The law remains firm that court-ordered child-support payments vest in the child as they accrue and may not thereafter be modified or forgiven, only paid. But this does not mean that equity may not at times suggest ex post facto approval of extra judicial adjustments in the manner and form in which support payments have been made. The noncustodial parent may be entitled to credit for any additional support which he/she has evinced by satisfactory proof to the trial court.

. . . .

In a contempt action concerning past-due child support, when the custodial parent introduces evidence that the noncustodial parent who is required to pay the support has failed to do so, a prima facie case of contempt has been made. At this point, the burden falls on the defending party, to avoid a finding of contempt, to prove that there was payment or other defense, and this proof must be “clear and convincing and rise above a state of doubtfulness.”

¶8. The chancellor found that while Taylor was living with Patrick’s parents, Patrick did not contribute any money or financial assistance in any manner to his parents for Taylor’s benefit. Accordingly, the chancellor found that there was not any evidence before the court that would allow Patrick to receive a credit for any child-support payments.

¶9. Although Patrick cites the case of Brewer v. Holliday, 135 So. 3d 117 (Miss. 2014), to support his position, the facts in this case are distinguishable from the facts in Brewer. In Brewer, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the chancellor’s finding that a man was not entitled to a credit for the amount of child support he had paid to his ex-wife for the period of time in which their son did not live with her. Brewer, 135 So. 3d at 121 (¶16). However, the chancellor only agreed to the credit because the son had been living with his father while his father was still paying the mother child support for him. Id.

¶10. In the instant case, Taylor was living with Patrick’s parents, and Patrick admits that there is no evidence that he contributed any money to his parents for Taylor’s expenses. “Whether or not a non-custodial parent should be given credit against his/her child support obligation[] is a matter left to the sound discretion of the chancellor.” Strack v. Sticklin, 959 So. 2d 1, 5 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). As such, we agree with the chancery court that Patrick is in contempt for his failure to pay $107,013 in child support.

Oh, and Patrick overlooked the fact that when child support is global (i.e., one amount for all children, as opposed to a specified amount per child), the fact that one child is no longer entitled to support (e.g., due to emancipation), it does not necessarily result in a reduction in the total amount of child support.

And on the issue of the enforceability of the extra-judicial agreements, the COA first pointed out that the evidence was in dispute as to whether there were ever any such agreements, and then made this observation:

¶13. “No party obligated by a judicial decree to provide support for minor children may resort to self help and modify his or her obligation with impunity.” Crow v. Crow, 622 So.2d 1226, 1231 (Miss. 1993) (citation omitted). “A party making an extra-judicial modification does so at his own peril.” Id. (citation omitted). Because there is no evidence of an extrajudicial agreement, we affirm the chancery court’s findings that Patrick is in contempt for $107,013 for unpaid child support.

An especially good lawyer will sit down with her client in the aftermath of a divorce, or custody, or child-support case and carefully explain that people quite often will try to reach all kinds of handshake agreements later — whether out of a desire to avoid more bloodshed and hard feelings, or to avoid the pain of more attorney’s fees, or from exhaustion — and those kinds of agreement are fraught with peril. Better to get some legal advice and a court order before changing what the court ordered.

 

 

Karma is a B****, or What Goes Around Comes Around

April 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

John Bowen got into the habit around 2005 of not paying his child support. His ex, Patricia, had to retain an attorney to file repeated petitions for contempt. When he did begin complying — more or less — with the court’s child support orders, he did so by paying the child support into the registry of the court, which required Patricia to retain an attorney to get a judge to sign a court order authorizing the Chancery Clerk to disburse the funds to her.

In 2009, the chancellor found John in contempt and slapped him with $10,000 in attorney’s fees. John appealed, and the COA, in Bowen v. Bowen, 107 So.3d 166 (Miss. App. 2012), affirmed the finding of contempt, but remanded for the chancellor to make findings on the McKee factors.

On remand, the chancellor awarded Patricia $7,350 in attorney’s fees. John again appealed.

In Bowen v. Bowen, handed down March 24, 2015, the COA affirmed. Judge Roberts, hitting the nail on the head, wrote for the unanimous court:

¶5. John’s sole issue on appeal is that the chancery court erred in awarding Patricia $7,350 in attorney’s fees. On appeal, we employ the abuse-of-discretion standard when reviewing a trial court’s grant or denial of attorney’s fees. Proctor v. Proctor, 143 So. 3d 615, 623 (¶34) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (citing Miss. Power & Light Co. v. Cook, 832 So. 2d 474, 478 (¶7) (Miss. 2002)). In McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982), the Mississippi Supreme Court provided factors for consideration when determining the proper amount of attorney’s fees to award:

The fee depends on consideration of, in addition to the relative financial ability of the parties, the skill and standing of the attorney employed, the nature of the case and novelty and difficulty of the questions at issue, as well as the degree of responsibility involved in the management of the cause, the time and labor required, the usual and customary charge in the community, and the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to the acceptance of the case.

¶6. Following this Court’s mandate, the chancery court held a hearing on the issue of attorney’s fees. Nancy Liddell, Patricia’s attorney, submitted into evidence an itemized bill for her work related to the case. She testified that in any instance where modification was mentioned in the bill, she halved the fee charged; thus, only the time spent working on the contempt action remained. Liddell additionally submitted an affidavit from a local attorney confirming that the range of $150-$200 per hour was the usual and customary rate for DeSoto County. John’s attorney did not dispute that these were the customary rates for DeSoto County. Patricia testified that she believed Liddell’s rate was reasonable, and that she “probably worried [Liddell] to death” with her constant communication. Patricia further elaborated that without Liddell’s aid, she would have been unable to get the owed child support from John. Liddell also testified that she expended many hours on this case, as it was more than just an average contempt action, and she had to turn away potential clients to handle this particular case.

¶7. In addressing the McKee factors in its oral ruling, the chancery court noted that the case was a novel case for a contempt action and had been ongoing since 2005. According to the chancery court, Patricia had to repeatedly file petitions for contempt because John would not obey court orders to pay child support. The chancery court explained that each time John failed to pay child support, Patricia “would have to talk to her attorney, have a petition filed, and after the petition [was] filed, after [John or his attorney were] served, then before [they] actually would have a trial, [John] would pay that child support. But he would not pay it directly to [Patricia].” When John did pay the child support, he would pay it to the chancery court, which required a signed order to release the check to Patricia, again requiring Liddell to prepare a motion for release of funds and an order to release the funds. The chancery court further stated that John, “by his repeated intentional misconduct[,] caused [Patricia] to incur attorney[’s] fees that she did not have money to pay[, o]ver and over and over again[,]” and Liddell successfully obtained relief for Patricia each time John failed to pay. The chancery court also found that Liddell was a skilled lawyer with over twenty years of experience, who missed other employment opportunities due to the constant work and preparation of this case. According to the chancery court, while this amount of attorney’s fees appeared high for an average contempt action, the $150-$200 per hour was a reasonable fee, and the bill would not have been as high if it were not for John’s repeated misconduct.

Patricia’s lawyer did a nice job of addressing the McKee factors with substantial proof. That gave the chancellor an adequate basis to support her ruling.

Remember that proof of McKee factors is not, strictly speaking, required to support an award of attorney’s fees in a contempt action; however, there must be some evidence of reasonableness. In other words, the chancellor has to have some basis to say that the award is reasonable. The best and most expeditious way to do that is via the McKee factors, as the COA ordered in this case.

Oh, and getting back to our starting point, did you notice how spiteful and intransigent John appeared to be in how he responded to the court’s orders to pay child support? Well, that’s where karma comes into play. Judge Roberts addressed the karma factor:

¶8. Based upon the evidence presented, we find that the chancery court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Patricia $7,350 in attorney’s fees. As the supreme court noted in Mabus v. Mabus, 910 So. 2d 486, 489 (¶8) (Miss. 2005), in contempt actions, “[w]here a party’s intentional misconduct causes the opposing party to expend time and money needlessly, then attorney[’s] fee and expenses should be awarded to the wronged party.” The chancery court found that the itemized expensed entered into evidence were reasonably incurred due to John’s repeated misconduct.

Karma is, indeed, a B****. Or, as we say in chancery court: Who seeks equity must do equity.

A Rule 54(b) Dismissal With a Twist

June 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

We’ve talked here numerous times about the unappealability of a judgment that disposes than fewer than all of the issues pending before the court. If you type “54(b)” in that search box over there it will take you to the many posts on the subject.

The COA case of Newson v. Newson, handed down May 13, 2014, presents a scenario that just might apply in one of your cases, so you should take notice.

In May, 2011, the chancellor entered a judgment granting Lori Newson a divorce from her husband, Anthony, on the ground of adultery. On that day, Anthony’s attorney advised the court that his client had filed for bankruptcy, so the judge reserved ruling on alimony and equitable distribution until the status of the bankruptcy was clarified. 

In March, 2012, the chancellor gave the parties the go-ahead to proceed. In August, 2012, the parties submitted a partial agreement, and the court made a partial ruling. The court stated that “the responsibility of the indebtedness of the respective parties, spousal support/alimony, attorney’s fees and/or costs owed by the parties would be reserved for a final hearing. Apparently there was another hearing, because in October, 2012, the court entered an order styled or referred to as a final order, granting Lori periodic alimony, and finding that Anthony was in arrears in the sum of more than $64,000 in alimony, for which he was in contempt. The judge left the record open for Lori’s attorney to present a statement of services rendered so that he could adjudicate attorney’s fees. Anthony filed a motion asking the court to reconsider (R59, I guess, since there is no such thing as a motion for reconsideration), which the court overruled. Anthony appealed.

The COA predictably ruled that, since the chancellor had left the record open without finally adjudicating the issue of attorney’s fees, and without certifying the case, the COA was without jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal.

Now, here’s the twist …

Quite often lawyers ask the court to combine into the final hearing the contempt issues that accrue during the pendency of a divorce. It’s not unusual for the court in such a situation to adjudicate finally all of the divorce issues — grounds, custody, child support, equitable distribution, alimony, attorney’s fees on the divorce — and then to treat the contempt issues. In addressing the contempt issues, the court many times will order that the contemnor do certain things to purge himself of contempt, and for the matter to be reviewed at a later date. Sometimes there is a second or even a third review hearing. In such a case, you are stuck with an unappealable divorce judgment until the trial judge finally adjudicates everything.

Unless …

  • You file a R59 motion (within ten days of the original judgment) asking the court to add the “express determination that there is no just reason for delay,” per R 54(b), and directing entry of a final judgment on the issues of divorce, custody, equitable distribution, alimony, attorney’s fees on the divorce, leaving the contempt issues to take their own, separate course. Or …
  • You could make a motion at the conclusion of your case that the issues be severed, and that the court make the R54(b) certification to be included in the final judgment.

Of course, you could ask the court not to combine the contempt issues in with the final divorce hearing in the first place, but most clients want the hourly billing and the courtroom time to end, so it’s usually more efficient from a time and law-weariness standpoint to get it all over with in one hearing.    

This is one of those situations where you need to pay attention to where you are and how you got there. Once you realize you are faced with a judgment that may not be appealable for quite some time, you need to take steps to extricate your client from that bind.

Enforcing the Temporary Order

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Does entry of a final judgment of divorce eliminate the possibility of an action to collect unpaid amounts due under a temporary order?

It’s not uncommon to be getting your waterfowl in a row for final hearing next week only to learn from your client for the first time that her husband owes her a couple of thou in child support or house payments or temporary alimony, and that news is followed by the query ” … and what are you going to do about it?”

So … what are you going to do about it?

In the COA case of O’Brien v. O’Brien, handed down February 11, 2014, Judge Griffis addressed the appellant’s argument that it was improper for the chancellor to find him in contempt of the temporary order after the final judgment of divorce was entered:

¶10. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-17(2) (Rev. 2013) provides that a chancellor may “hear complaints for temporary alimony, temporary custody of children and temporary child support and make all proper orders and judgments thereon.” Further, this Court may allow retroactive awards of temporary support even after a divorce judgment is entered. Strong v. Strong, 981 So. 2d 1052, 1055 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008). Temporary support ends when a final judgment is entered. Bond v. Bond, 355 So. 2d 672, 674-675 (Miss. 1991). However, a payor still has a duty to pay past-due temporary support, as a final decree of divorce does not preclude a chancellor from entering a judgment for arrearages of temporary support without having to express the right to enforce the judgment in the final divorce decree. Lewis v. Lewis, 586 So. 2d 740, 742 (Miss. 1991).

You have several ways to approach enforcement of temporary orders:

  • You can wait until the final judgment is entered and file a contempt action. Fair warning: bring your authority (e.g., the above paragraph) with you to court because I have had chancellors question the viability of such actions when I practiced.
  • With enough advance warning you can file a contempt action during the pendency of the divorce and ask that it be heard in advance of the final hearing.
  • Many lawyers will agree to combine temporary contempt issues with the final hearing. That is often done in this district. You can do that by pleading, of course, or by stipulation or agreed order, or it can be listed as a contested issue in a consent.

The main thing to remember is that amounts that were ordered to be paid under a temporary order are vested when due, and the right to collect them does not terminate on entry of the final judgment, even though the final judgment does terminate the temporary order itself. And it is not necessary for the final judgment of divorce to recite or provide for a right of future enforcement of the temporary order.

The Not-so-Illusory Agreement

January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

It has long been the law in Mississippi that parties effect extra-judicial modifications at their peril, and that chancery courts are neither designed or equipped to enforce such agreements.

Only last September we read here about Donald Brewer and Penny Holliday, who had agreed to modify their divorce judgment vis a vis custody and support. They had lawyers incorporate their agreement into an agreed judgment, and they proceeded to conform to the agreement in nearly every respect for several years. Only problem is, no one ever saw to it that the agreed judgment was entered. Both Donald and Penny believed that it had been entered. When the parties had a falling out and wound up back in court, the chancellor refused to enforce the agreement, notwithstanding the course of compliance, and found Donald in contempt. The COA affirmed, as you can read in the previous post.

Donald in due course persuaded the MSSC to take another look, and in Brewer v. Holliday, decided by the MSSC on January 9, 2013, the high court reversed. Justice Dickinson’s opinion states, in part:

¶14. This Court has recognized that, at times, equity may “suggest ex post facto approval of extra-judicial adjustments in the manner and form in which support payments have been made.” [citation omitted] For instance, in Alexander v. Alexander, this Court held that equity required crediting a father for payments of child support made directly to the child – once the child moved in with him – instead of to the mother. [citation omitted] And in Varner v. Varner, we explained that “the father may receive credit for having paid child support where, in fact, he paid the support directly to or for the benefit of the child, where to hold otherwise would unjustly enrich the mother.” [citation omitted] Noncustodial parents pay child support to custodial parents for the benefit of the child, not the parent, [citation omitted] and that support belongs to the child, not the custodial parent. [citation omitted]

[Note: read the opinion at the link for the case citations. Copying and pasting numerous footnotes is too cumbersome for this blog]

The court went on to remand the case for the chancellor to consider the fact that the child resided with Donald, à la Varner, finding that the arrangement should have been taken into account by the judge at the original hearing.

There is no airtight rule against enforcement of extra-judicial modifications. Each case must be considered on its own merits, and the equities must be weighed. Here, the high court considered that it would be best for Donald’s equities to be taken into account, rather than closing the door on enforcement of the agreement. No doubt the parties’ ignorance of the fact that the judgment had never been entered, coupled with their compliance with it for a time, had persuasive weight in this particular case.

The Fog of Contempt

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the press of courtroom battle, it sometimes happens that things get obscured, as in war, by the fog of all that is transpiring, so that it becomes difficult to appreciate things in their proper capacity.

I touched on this concept recently in a post dealing with contempt in its various, somwhat fluid incarnations.

On January 7, 2013, a panel of the COA had occasion to address the fog of contempt in the case of Zebert v. Guardianship of Baker.

Mr. Zebert, a lawyer, was appointed in 2000 to serve as guardian of the person and estate of a minor. Accountings were filed in each year from 2000 through 2007, but no accounting was filed in 2008 for the period from October, 2007, through September 30, 2008. The court issued a show-cause order and subsequently granted several continuances until Zebert himself asked to be relieved as guardian a year after the accounting had been due. The substitution, however, did not relieve Zebert of the duty to account for his period of responsibility.

Zebert filed an incomplete accounting, and the court held three more show-cause hearings, culminating in an adjudication of contempt and order for Zebert’s incarceration that the court suspended to allow the attorney time to get the accountings together. Zebert then filed a partial accounting disclosing at long last that he had made unapproved disbursements from the guardianship account, including unsecured loans to third parties, totalling more than $130,000, and reducing the assets of the estate to around $6,500.

The chancellor found Zebert in contempt and ordered him to be jailed until he purges himself of contempt. The adjudication was one of civil contempt.

Zebert appealed, complaining that his incarceration was criminal in nature, not civil, and that it was error for the court not to charge him formally, issue a summons, and have the matter heard by another judge.

The COA’s decision is of interest for the contrasting views between the majority, which held that Zebert’s contempt was civil because he was being required to provide a proper accounting, and which affirmed the chancellor, and the dissent by Judge Griffis, which agreed with Zebert that he is being punished criminally, and not being subjected to the coercive power of the court. I commend it to your reading because it illustrates how the same set of contempt facts can be seen by different people in a different light. The fog of contempt, if you will.

Another reason to read this decision is that it once again underscores why chancellors are getting increasingly intolerant of delinquent accountings, excuses, clueless lawyers, and malfunctioning and misfunctioning fiduciaries.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this case on a request for rehearing or cert.

Contending with Contempt

December 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

The ins and outs of contempt can get pretty confusing. There is civil contempt and there is criminal contempt, and there is direct criminal contempt, and there is constructive criminal contempt. There are different burdens of proof, and there are different due process requirements. In the heat of battle, it can be confusing. 

The MSSC decision in Judicial Performance Commission v. Harris, handed down December 5, 2013,  offers an opportunity to review the forms and requirements of contempt.  

A previous post dealing with the subject is at this link.

Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Civil contempt enforces the right of a private party to enforcement of a previous court judgment in his or her favor. It is triable in seven days via R81 summons. The burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence (although some cases say it is by clear and convincing evidence).
  • Criminal contempt enforces the authority of the court. There are two categores: direct and constructive. The burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Direct criminal contempt occurs in the presense of or within the sensory perception of the judge, and is punished instantly by the offended judge.
  • Constructive criminal contempt occurs outside the presence or sensory perception of the offended judge. It requires notice, an opportunity to defend, and other due process considerations, including the possibility of hearing before another judge.

The MSSC decision in In re Williamson, 838 So.2d 226, 228 (Miss. 2002), includes a helpful discussion.

As a judge I find some of these categories somewhat fluid. For example, when a party files a blatantly false and fraudulent document with the court, assuming the act is contemptuous, is it direct because it is presented to the judge as a pleading or evidence, or is it constructive because the act of filing took place outside the presence of the judge? Or, where a party in the course of testimony or in a pleading volunteers that he has done a clearly contemptuous act, is that direct or constructive? In my experience, it’s not always crystal clear when one is called upon to make the right decision.

As a lawyer, these distinctions may make a big difference to your client, whichever side you find yourself on. If all you’re seeking is to force compliance with a child support or alimony order, civil contempt is all you really need. If you try to get fancy and ask for criminal sanctions, you are propelling the case in a whole different direction with heightened burden of proof and more stringent due process requirements. If you are representing the alleged contemnor, you will want to be sure he or she is afforded all of the due process protection that applies. You might even want to argue for all due process protection in a direct criminal case simply because it would possibly allow the judge to cool down and the memory of your client’s reprehensible conduct to fade somewhat.

Children as Messengers

June 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

Robert Lyles and Christal Carpenter had a child together whom they named Emily Lyles. They entered into an agreed order under which Christal had custody of Emily. Robert was to have some specified visitation and telephone contact with the child. They also agreed to the following:

“[S]chool and extracurricular activities of the minor child shall be communicated to the other parent when the receiving parent first receives notice of the event and any associate[d] preparation dates, including date, time and place so as to allow both parties to attend when possible.”

Robert sued Christal for contempt claiming that she violated the agreed order by: (1) not allowing him alternating weekend visitation; (2) not notifying him of Emily’s extracurricular activities; and (3) not allowing him his telephone contact with the child.

In her defense to point (2), Christal averred that she had notfied Robert because Emily had her school backpack with her when she visited, in which were notes from the school about the extracurricular activities. She took the position that she was not in contempt because Robert had notice, if only he would take the trouble to look through Emily’s backpack.

The chancellor found Christal in contempt:

[T]he reason [the contenpt] is willful is because you assume that he should go through the backpack of your daughter … and find that document out, find that information out by himself. That [is not] what the Order says. It says as soon as you find out about that, you need to notify him. You [cannot] assume he got it from somewhere.

Christal appealed, and the COA, in Carpenter v. Lyles, decided May 28, 2013, affirmed.

I write to say that I, too, would have found Christal in contempt. As the chancellor said here, there is no question that Christal’s conduct violated not only the letter, but also the spirit and intent of the provision. It was her duty to communicate immediately and directly with Emily’s father, which she failed to do. I would have found an additional failure here, however.

My firm opinion is that parents may not discharge their responsibilities by shirking them off on the child. Christal was wrong, I would say, by leaving it up to Emily to be  her messenger. There are several points here to consider:

  • When parent A tasks the child to communicate information to parent B, parent A is putting the child squarely in the middle of what is quite often a conflict-ridden situation.
  • What punishment should the child receive for garbling the message or confusing the reply?
  • When the child is the messenger, parents are in a position to weigh the child down with adult, parental concerns that should be none of the child’s business or source of worry.
  • A child used as a messenger is often used as a bearer of critical and demeaning communications between adults.
  • Using the child as a messenger teaches the child that she is more important to the parents as a conduit of communiqués between combatants than she is as a beloved child.
  • Using the child as a messenger enlists the child as an ally to one side or the other, usually to the more embittered, negative side that has more invested in the twisted process.

No parent should be allowed to discharge his or her parental duties by proxy through a child. It’s damaging to the child, and definitely not in her best interest.    

I would encourage you to counsel with your clients to find ways to interact with opposing parents in an adult way that leaves children completely out of the conflict between them.

CAREER ON THE ROCKS

October 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

The saga of Hinds County attorney Michael J. Brown, addressed here in a prior post, reached its latest, most forecastable milestone last week with the order for his disbarment by the MSSC on October 4, 2012, in the case of Mississippi Bar v. Michael J. Brown.

Brown’s multiple transgressions in the handling of the Demon B. McClinton guardianship were brought to light in the Chancery Court of Hinds County where Judge Dewayne Thomas demanded that Brown produce an accounting, which Brown claimed he was unable to do due to destruction of records by water damage. Thomas appointed a guardian ad litem, who executed a search warrant on Brown’s residence and located the records that Brown claimed had been destroyed. At hearing the proof established that:

  • Brown had caused $550,000 of the minor’s funds to be loaned to one Linus Shackelford. Other than the loan in question, Shackelford’s relationship to Brown or McClinton is not revealed in the record.
  • Brown personally had signed a promissory note indicating that he personally had borrowed $507,745.81 from the minor McClinton.
  • Brown had forged two checks from Regions Bank in the sum of $205,020.81 and $32,725, respectively.
  • Brown caused the court on September 7, 2001, to approve a fee of $398,000, which the chancellor determined to be outrageous and unreasonable, and which fee was approved based upon Brown’s commission of a fraud upon the Court. To compound the malfeasance, Brown had plagiarized an opinion letter justifying the fee, which was the fraudulent act.
  • Brown perjured himself by claiming under oath that the records had been destroyed.
  • Brown cashed and deposited into his escrow account, rather than the guardianship account, life insurance proceeds paid on the death of the ward’s mother.

When Brown finally produced an accounting, it showed that he had disbursed $1,295,783.81 of guardianship funds, all from his escrow account and not from any approved guardianship account. None of the disbursements were authorized by the court. $235,000 in checks were made out to cash or to Brown, or were endorsed by Brown. The loan to Shackleford was never approved by the court.

So, based on his outrageous and entirely unjustifiable conduct, the MSSC disbarred him.

The next development is in the hands of the District Attorney for Hinds and Rankin Counties, who has been provided with the chancery court judgment and likely the file. 

You may be sitting there smugly thinking “Well, I will never do anything like that,” so that you can skim past this. But here’s the deal: even if you never engage in this kind of outright contempt, fraud, embezzlement, perjury and breach of fiduciary duty, if you handle the fiduciary matters entrusted to you in a sloppy fashion your good intentions and lack of criminal intent will not be enough to shield you from contempt, possible bar disciplinary action, money damages, and destruction of your reputation and standing with the court. Think about it: if you can’t account properly and in full for money entrusted to you, it doesn’t really matter if you weren’t acting criminally.

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