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 …

PUBLISH RIGHT OR PERISH

November 9, 2010 § 4 Comments

We’ve talked before about what you need to do when publishing process for a defendant whose post office address is known.  You can read that post here.

When you have no information about the defendant’s whereabouts, there are a couple of things you have to do before you can publish.

MRCP 4(c)(4)(A) states in part:

… if it be stated in … sworn complaint or petition that the post office address of the defendant is not known to the plaintiff or petitioner after diligent inquiry, or if the affidavit be made by another for the plaintiff or petitioner, that such post office address is unknown to the affiant after diligent inquiry and he believes it is unknown to the plaintiff or petitioner after diligent inquiry by the plaintiff or petitioner, the clerk … shall promptly prepare and publish a summons to the defendant to appear and defend the suit. 

Your first step is to send your client out into the world to make an effort to find the defendant.  Have her call his relatives and ask about where he is.  If they say the last they heard he was in Milwaukee, have your client call information in Milwaukee or look him up on the internet.  If he remarried, try to contact his later spouse or children.  Suggest she call his former employers or co-workers.  Most of these efforts will be futile, but the efforts themselves, not the success, constitute the “diligent” part of “diligent search.” 

After your client has diligently, but unsuccessfully, tried to find the defendant, prepare your pleadings including a sworn allegation in your pleading or an affidavit that the defendant’s address is unknown to your client “after diligent inquiry.”   You must include that language, or your publication will  be a nullity.

The rule says that the “clerk shall promptly prepare and publish a summons,” but it is the universal practice that the lawyer prepares the summons and gives it to the clerk to issue, and the lawyer carries it to the paper for publication.  The publication must be substantially in the form of MRCP Form 1-C.

Publication is once a week for three successive weeks in a newspaper published in the county.  The publication notice certified by the newspaper is filed in the court file by the lawyer.

The defendant has thirty days from the date of first publication within which to file a responsive pleading.

Once you get before the court, your client or the affiant will have to testify to the efforts they made to locate the defendant.  There is no case law defining the proof necessary to satisfy the diligent inquiry requirement.  In Page v. Crawford, 883 So.2d 609, 611-12 (Miss. App. 2004), the court said this:

There is no bright line rule as to how many efforts must be made by a plaintiff to locate a named defendant to satisfy the requirement of diligent inquiry.  There is also the question of balancing the quality of those inquiries with their quantity. Standing on a street corner and asking passersby if they know the defendant’s location would clearly not constitute diligence, no matter how many persons were asked in that manner. Beyond that, it becomes a matter of balancing quantity, quality and the interests of the parties.

In this case, Page did make several attempts to locate and serve Crawford within the 120-day period, searching through both telephone and utility directories and repeatedly engaging process servers. When Page finally found Crawford’s husband, he refused to accept certified letters regarding the matter. Although land records do seem like an obvious place to conduct an inquiry, Page was looking under a former name that was given at the time of the accident.

In Caldwell v. Caldwell, 533 So.2d 413 (Miss. 1988), the Mississippi Supreme Court found Mr. Caldwell’s half-hearted efforts to discover his wife’s post office address in Alaska to be insufficient, especially in view of the fact that she had family he could have contacted, but did not, to further his search.

I have refused to allow parties to go forward where it was obvious that more could have been done to locate the defendant.  In one case, the plaintiff testified that the last she heard her husband was in prison in Texas.  I pointed out to the attorney that prisoners, of all people, should be among the easiest to locate.  Sure enough, they went back to the drawing board and found him on an internet prisoner locator site.  They then got personal process on him and were able to proceed with an uncontested divorce.    

The purpose of MRCP 4 is to ensure that a defendant receives notice of legal proceedings against him, if at all possible, so that he has the opportunity to defend.  If the court finds that your client’s efforts fulfill that purpose, your publication process will be adequate.  Don’t take your client’s word for it that she has tried to find him and failed.  Make her go through the process of trying.

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