DEVIOUS SEARCH AND INQUIRY

July 26, 2012 § 3 Comments

It avails one naught to get a judgment when all the proper parties have not been given notice and an opportunity to defend.

In 2007, Lottie Woods brought an action for adverse possession of family property. She claimed in her complaint that she was the sole and only heir of her uncle Cornelius, and she published process for him, his unknown heirs, and any other person claiming an interest in the property.

It should have been a clue of problems to come when Corenelius, Jr. showed up at the appointed time and produced a birth certificate showing he was Cornelius’s son. But it all seemed to work out because Lottie and Jr. settled the dispute between them, dividing the property. 

The only problem with all of the foregoing is that Lottie neglected to make it known that she had four other siblings who could claim an interest in the property. In other words, as Jr.’s appearance foretold, she could hardly be said to be the “sole and only” heir. Her brother Samson and the other siblings filed an objection and separate litigation to correct the matter.

The COA case of Byrd v. Woods, et al., decided June 19, 2012, is where this particular drama was played out. The case goes off on several other points of law, but the one that I want to focus on here is what happens when a party does not comply with MRCP 4’s requirement that there be diligent search and inquiry before process by publication. Here is what Judge Fair had to say about it, commencing at ¶14:

Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(4) states that if a defendant cannot be found after diligent search and inquiry, shown by sworn complaint or filed affidavit, he may be made a party by publication. In the 2007 adverse possession action, Lottie filed an affidavit of diligent search and inquiry to obtain a publication summons. However, she must have known that her brother (and her other siblings) would have an interest in the “family land” she sought to adversely possess. They were both potential heirs of Cornelius and believed the property belonged to their family. Further, Lottie and Samson were not estranged, so it is unlikely she could not find him after diligent search and inquiry. But Lottie did not serve Samson personally, nor did she mention or serve her other three siblings.

“The rules on service of process are to be strictly construed. If they have not been complied with, the court is without jurisdiction unless the defendant appears of his own volition.” Kolikas v. Kolikas, 821 So. 2d 874, 878 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). In Caldwell v. Caldwell, 533 So. 2d 413 (Miss. 1988), the supreme court stated “if at any stage of the proceedings it appears that . . . the affidavit was not made in good faith after diligent inquiry, under the facts of the particular case, the process should be quashed by the court . . . .” Id. at 416.

Therefore, Lottie did not obtain service of process on Samson by publication because her affidavit was not made in good faith after diligent inquiry. Neither he nor Lottie’s other siblings are bound by the 2007 judgment.

The lesson here is that when your client avers that he or she has made “diligent inquiry,” or, using the traditional phrase still used by many lawyers, “diligent search and inquiry,” you had better make darned sure that there was indeed a search and inquiry, and that it was in fact diligent. It’s a subject we’ve talked about here before.

Expect the chancellor to inquire behind the affidavit before granting any relief. I always do, and I do not accept a shrug of the shoulders or a couple of half-hearted attempts. In one case before me the woman claimed that the last she knew of her husband he was hanging out at a bar in Wayne County. I asked whether she had gone there to inquire about him. When she said “no,” I ordered her to go to the bar and ask the bartender and some of the habitués whether they knew his whereabouts. Wonder of wonders, she found him and he was personally served.

In the case of Lottie Woods, based solely on what I read in the COA opinion, I would have found that her claim in a pleading intended to influence a judge that she was the sole and only heir when she had living siblings in the area and Cornelius’s son was still alive to have been a fraud on the court. As it was, her “oversight” has cost all of these parties more than five years of wasted time in litigation, and they are returning to the starting line, probably poorer for the trial and appeal attorney fees, and surely not thrilled with the legal process. If only Lottie had sworn truthfully …

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SATISFY THE DILIGENT INQUIRY REQUIREMENT OF MRCP 4?

August 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

We’ve talked here, here and here about MRCP 4 and its requirements for obtaining process by publication. The prerequisite to any process by publication is “diligent inquiry” to discover whether the party is to be found in Mississippi, and, if not, her post office address.

No process by publication can issue until there is an affidavit filed stating that diligent inquiry has been made. The one who claims to have made the inquiry is required to testify to the efforts involved. It is in the court’s discretion to determine whether the inquiry was indeed diligent.

So what exactly is diligent inquiry? To what extent is a party required to search out the whereabouts of the opposing party? I will confess to a certain degree of inconsistency on this issue on my part, due primarily to the fact that in Mississippi we do not have a template of authority or guidelines to go by. I do always question the witness about measures taken, and I am usually satisfied that he or she has done all that can be done.

Recently, it came to my attention that Florida has a form certificate of diligent inquiry that is required in all such cases. The affiant must check all of the categories of effort that apply. Here are the guts of the Florida certificate:

  • United States Post Office inquiry through Freedom of Information Act for current address or any relocations.
  • Last known employment of respondent, including name and address of employer. You should also ask for any addresses to which W-2 Forms were mailed, and, if a pension or profit-sharing plan exists, then for any addresses to which any pension or plan payment is and/or has been mailed.
  • Unions from which respondent may have worked or that governed particular trade or craft.
  • Regulatory agencies, including professional or occupational licensing.
  • Names and addresses of relatives and contacts with those relatives, and inquiry as to respondent’s last known address. You are to follow up any leads of any addresses where respondent may have moved. Relatives include, but are not limited to: parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, great-grandparents, former in-laws, stepparents, stepchildren.
  • Information about the respondent’s possible death and, if dead, the date and location of the death.
  • Telephone listings in the last known locations of respondent’s residence.
  • Internet at http://www.switchboard.com or other internet people finder.
  • Law enforcement arrest and/or criminal records in the last known residential area of respondent.
  • Highway Patrol records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Department of Motor Vehicle records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Department of Corrections records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Title IV-D (child support enforcement) agency records in the state of respondent’s last known address.
  • Hospitals in the last known area of respondent’s residence.
  • Utility companies, which include water, sewer, cable TV, and electric, in the last known area of respondent’s residence.
  • Letters to the Armed Forces of the U.S. and their response as to whether or not there is any information about respondent.

Some of these measures seem somewhat extravagant to me; a Freedom of Information Act request, for example, seems a bit much. Certain other listed measures would be futile due to privacy and HIPAA concerns, in my opinion.

The list, though, does have much to commend it in that it illustrates the extent of information available to find someone. In the era of internet, with Google and the like, the old “I asked his momma and she doesn’t know where he is” just doesn’t cut it anymore. The more extensive the search, the more different measures employed, the more likely it is that the court will find the effort to have been diligent.

I heard an uncontested divorce a while back in which the plaintiff had published process based on a claim that she did not know where the defendant was, and was not to be found in Mississippi. She testified about all the relatives she had talked to who claimed not to know where he was, either. In the course of her testimony, she let slip that the last she had known he was in prison in Texas. I interrupted and asked how long his prison term was, and she responded that he should still be there because he had been sentenced to something like 20 years. I pointed out to the attorney that of all people on the planet a prisoner should be among the easiest to locate, and I continued the hearing to a later date for that purpose. The attorney easily located the man on the internet, and she and her client returned to court a couple of months later and proceeded on personal process. 

My suggestion is that you don’t file that diligent inquiry affidavit unless and until you are satisfied that your client has, indeed, made a bona fide effort to locate the other party. You may wind up doing some of the work yourself.

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