Equity Shines Through

December 16, 2015 § 9 Comments

Just when you thought equity was moribund (okay, I confess that it’s more me than you), along comes a case where the appellate court looks over the masterful equitable remedy crafted by a thoughtful chancellor and says, “Job well done.”

That’s what happened in the MSSC case Scafidi, et al. v. Hille, decided December 10, 2015, which involved division of the parties’ interests in several businesses inherited jointly by siblings Gerald Scafidi and Jo Ann Scafidi Hille. The facts are complicated, and the proceedings were convoluted, but the gist of it is that the chancellor ordered what amounted to an equitable distribution of the corporations and real property so as to divide them fairly between the brother and sister. Gerald appealed raising many issues that were addressed in detail in the 44-page opinion by Justice Waller. For our purposes, though, we will look at how the court dealt with Gerald’s argument that the relief granted by the chancellor was improper:

¶60. We now turn to the relief granted by the chancellor. In an action to judicially dissolve a corporation, a chancellor does not have to order a dissolution, even if grounds such as oppression or deadlock are met. This is because the general view in Mississippi is that “[d]issolution is an extraordinary remedy to be sparingly administered in exceptional cases only.” Capitol Toyota, Inc. v. Gervin, 381 So. 2d 1038, 1039 (Miss. 1980). However, “if the strife among the participants has been so long and bitter that the former relationships of congeniality and trust cannot be re-established [like Jo Ann and Gerald’s case], there is little left that an unhappy shareholder can do except . . . bring about the dissolution of the business.” F.H. O’Neal & R. Thompson, O’Neal’s Close Corporations § 9.04 (3d ed. 1971). “But the more common relief in modern cases . . . is to provide relief alternative to dissolution.” Id. at § 9.25. Mississippi’s corporate dissolution statute states that “[n]othing contained in this section shall diminish the inherent equity powers of the court to fashion alternative remedies to judicial dissolution.” Miss. Code Ann. § 79-4-14.34 (i) (emphasis added).

¶61. Contrary to Gerald’s assertion, the chancellor did not dissolve the corporations. Instead, he fashioned an alternative remedy to this problem. The chancellor found that the source of funds for the $180,000 Gerald used to purchase the minority shareholders’ interest in the Trailer Park and the Restaurant corporations came from the corporations themselves. Those shares were purchased with funds equitably owned by both Jo Ann and Gerald. So Gerald’s purchase was for the benefit of both parties. The chancellor then disregarded the shares purchased by Gerald and considered Jo Ann and Gerald to be equal shareholders in the Restaurant and the Trailer Park. After equalizing their interests in the corporations, the chancellor ordered that the property lines be modified by survey to reflect that Jo Ann and Gerald owned fifty-percent of the land upon which the Trailer Park and the Campground were situated.

¶62. The Amended Final Judgment from which Gerald appeals states “that the Court divides, partites, and equitably separates the parties by granting each full ownership of separate companies . . . .” He then granted Jo Ann full ownership of the Trailer Park, and Gerald full ownership of the Campground. The chancellor ordered “that each of the parties is to execute the necessary documents, including deeds, bills of sale and stock certificates to accomplish the directions of the court.” Nowhere in the Amended Final Judgment does the chancellor mention “dissolution.” The chancellor did quite the opposite when he fashioned an alternative remedy to dissolution, which he had full authority to do under Section 79-4-14.34 (i) of the Mississippi Code.

¶63. Since the chancellor did not order a direct dissolution of the corporations, Gerald’s argument that this “equitable distribution” method violates the method provided by the Mississippi Legislature in Section 79-4-14.05 to dissolve a corporation and distribute its assets among its shareholders according to their interests is without merit.

¶64. We cannot locate any precedent in which a chancellor has granted this exact, or even similar, relief. However, we note that “[i]t is not necessary that some exact precedent be found for extending relief in a given situation.” Griffith’s Mississippi Chancery Practice § 35 (2000 ed.) (citing Miller v. Doxey, 1 Miss. 329, 333 (1829)). If a certain form of “relief is clearly requisite and a practical remedy may be applied, such remedy is not to be denied because that remedy has never been applied in just that manner to that exact state of case.” Id. The question for this Court to decide, then, is whether the relief granted here is an appropriate remedy under Mississippi Code Section 79-4-14.34(i), which states “[n]othing contained in this section shall diminish the inherent equity powers of the court to fashion alternative remedies to judicial dissolution.” Although little caselaw addresses Mississippi’s alternative-remedy provision, substantial precedent supports the chancellor’s broad powers to provide an equitable solution in cases such as this. See, e.g., In re Hardin, 158 So. 3d at 346.

¶65. Other jurisdictions offer guidance as to appropriate remedies to resolve disputes among dissenting shareholders in a close corporation. Some courts have resorted to remedies listed by statute, while others have fashioned remedies not specifically mentioned in a statute. O’Neal’s Close Corporations at § 9.35 …

After reviewing some of those statutory provisions from other states, the court concluded:

¶67. After reviewing these alternative remedies, and in light of all the particular factual circumstances of this case, we find that granting full ownership in the respective separate corporations operated individually by Gerald and Jo Ann was a practical, fair, and just remedy to resolve the dispute. A chancellor’s remedial powers have long been “marked by plasticity.” Griffith’s Mississippi Chancery Practice § 35 (citing Hall v. Wood, 443 So. 2d 834, 843 (Miss. 1983)). “Equity jurisdiction permits innovation that justice may be done.” Id. If ever a case needed the innovation allowed by equity jurisdiction, it is this one. Considering that nothing “shall diminish the inherent equity powers of the court to fashion alternative remedies to judicial dissolution,” Miss. Code Ann. § 79-4-14.34 (i), we find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in fashioning this alternative remedy.

I’m proud to see the high court recognizing the unique problem-solving capability of chancery court. Innovation and flexibility to achieve a just, equitable outcome are what equity is all about.

Is Equity Outmoded?

August 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

I pointed out here not too long ago that there is a significant distinction between the systems of law and equity in civil actions. Law courts (except in the case of an injunction action) grant money judgments and common-law remedies such as writ of habeas corpus. Equity (chancery courts) craft a remedy that will solve the underlying problem by crafting a remedy that may include coercion, prohibition, possession, dispossession, imposition of a trust or lien, money judgment, and any other action or combination of actions deemed appropriate to the situation.

Yet, as fundamental as that distinction is, I have posited here before that it seems more and more to be a challenging concept to our appellate courts.

Even in states that have merged law and equity, the distinction between legal and equitable remedies is important, because in those states, equitable remedies may not be imposed until the court finds that legal remedies are inadequate. UCLA Law Professor Samuel Bray has written a paper pointing out that the classification of some remedies as equitable is alive and well in jurisprudence across the nation, and that equitable remedies are actually part of a system that must not be dismantled unless and until something better replaces it. I believe his piece helps illuminate how vital equity, and chancery court, is in the scheme of our jurisprudence.

Here is the abstract:

The conventional wisdom is that the distinction between legal and equitable remedies is outmoded and serves no purpose. This Article challenges that view. It argues that the existing equitable remedies and remedy-related doctrines can be seen as a system. The components of the system fall into three categories: (1) equitable remedies, (2) equitable managerial devices, and (3) equitable constraints. These components interact subtly and pervasively. Together, they make the system of equitable remedies well suited to controlling a defendant’s behavior, especially in ways that are open-ended and adverbial. The system of equitable remedies is a useful and integrated whole.

This argument offers some support for an emerging body of Supreme Court cases that have sharply distinguished between legal and equitable remedies — cases such as Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, eBay v. MercExchange, and Petrella v. MGM. Moreover, this argument helps explain why there has been so little merger between law and equity in remedies, even as merger has happened in other aspects of American law. Finally, this argument offers a new perspective on the adequacy requirement, showing that it helps maintain the system of equitable remedies.

You can reach his article at this link. You might find his research handy next time you have a chancery appeal involving equitable remedies.

Thanks to Professor Bray for bringing this to our attention.

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