No Findings = Reversal

April 2, 2018 § 1 Comment

It’s axiomatic that the chancellor’s conclusions have to be supported by findings of fact.

A recent iteration of that rule is in Gipson v. Jackson, a COA case decided February 13, 2018, in which the court reversed and remanded a case for failure of the judge to make findings supporting an upward modification of child support in excess of the statutory child-support guidelines. Judge Westbrook wrote for the court:

¶9. Gipson argues that the chancellor failed to make specific findings on the record, as required for a modification of child support; yet there was a $200 increase. [Fn 3]

[Fn 3] Jackson asserts that the core issue of the case is whether the chancellor has the authority to increase child-support payments for a noncustodial parent without providing any factual support for his decision or consulting the Mississippi Child Support Guidelines. Jackson further asserts that this issue is an issue of first impression. However, this Court and the Mississippi Supreme Court have addressed child-support modifications involving a noncustodial parent and specific on-the-record findings of fact. See Dailey v. McBeath, 151 So. 3d 1038, 1044 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014); Klein v. McIntyre, 966 So. 2d 1252, 1258 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007); Wallace v. Bond, 745 So. 2d 844, 847 (¶11) (Miss. 1999).

¶10. This Court has held that “the chancellor must apply the guidelines to make the determination that their application would be unjust.” Evans v. Evans, 75 So. 3d 1083, 1091 (¶31) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citation omitted). But there are exceptions to the guidelines regarding the modification of child support in Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-103 (Rev. 2015). This section provides:

The rebuttable presumption as to the justness or appropriateness of an award or modification of a child[-]support award in this state, based upon the guidelines established by [Mississippi Code Annotated section] 43-19-101 [(Rev. 2015)], may be overcome by a judicial or administrative body awarding or modifying the child[-]support award by making a written finding or specific finding on the record that the application of the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case as determined according to the following criteria:

(a) Extraordinary medical, psychological, educational or dental expenses.
(b) Independent income of the child.
(c) The payment of both child support and spousal support to the obligee.
(d) Seasonal variations in one or both parents’ incomes or expenses.
(e) The age of the child, taking into account the greater needs of older children.
(f) Special needs that have traditionally been met within the family budget even though the fulfilling of those needs will cause the support to exceed the proposed guidelines.
(g) The particular shared parental arrangement, such as where the noncustodial parent spends a great deal of time with the children thereby reducing the financial expenditures incurred by the custodial parent, or the refusal of the noncustodial parent to become involved in the activities of the child, or giving due consideration to the custodial parent’s homemaking services.
(h) Total available assets of the obligee, obligor and the child.
(i) Payment by the obligee of child-care expenses in order that the obligee may seek or retain employment, or because of the disability of the obligee.
(j) Any other adjustment which is needed to achieve an equitable result which may include, but not be limited to, a reasonable and necessary existing expense or debt.

Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-103 (emphasis added).

¶11. Jackson presented a Rule 8.05 financial statement to the chancery court, and Gipson testified that he could pay an increase in child support – although the amount of the increase was not discussed. The chancery court discussed the fact that Gipson and his wife traveled frequently and the fact that Gipson had purchased gifts [Fn omitted] for himself and his wife. However, the chancellor made no specific findings as to Gipson’s adjusted gross income and gave no specific reasons for deviating from the guidelines.

¶12. The chancellor stated that while Gipson was not working due to a chronic ankle injury, he could get a part-time job and earn more income. The chancellor also stated the following:

As to the modification of child support, there’s no doubt in this [c]ourt’s mind that this man can work. He is what you call a typical deadbeat. For a man to make only $500.00 a month, and has got all of the toys around his house that he’s got, but they belong to daddy. This [c]ourt wasn’t born yesterday. And he says he likes to fish[.] I do[,] too. It costs me $50.00 to $100.00 every time I go fishing — gasoline, the bait, and everything else. But this man is able to fish, he is able to do carpenter work, he is able to do a lot of other stuff, but he physically cannot hold out to hold a job. This [c]ourt doesn’t believe it. I’m going to set the child support at $350.00 a month, increase it.

¶13. However, we find that the increase in child support was based upon speculative income. In order for there to be a deviation from the guidelines, there must be specific findings of fact on the record. Further, “[w]hen a chancellor makes a ruling without specific findings of fact and a party raises the issue of the amount of child support awarded, this Court will send the issue back to the lower court for the mandatory specific findings of fact as to why the chancellor deviated from the guidelines.” Dailey, 151 So. 3d at 1044 (¶16). As a result, the chancery court’s upward modification of child support is reversed and remanded in order for the chancellor to make specific on-the-record findings that the application of the child-support guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in this case.

As I have said here before, this do-over could have been avoided:

  • Here, seeing that the judge was going off on somewhat of a tangent, it might have been a good idea to ask the court for leave to develop more testimony that would have supported detailed findings by the judge. And then, at the conclusion of the proof, make a motion to conform the pleadings to the proof, since the issue was tried without objection by consent.
  • If you are tasked with drafting the judgment, make sure you address each and every Ferguson and Armstrong factor addressed by the court, with a brief stab at the court’s findings. When you do that you have documented what was not documented here — that the judge did analyze the proper factors. And this goes for every kind of case in which trial factors are required to be addressed.
  • If for some reason the bench ruling is not transcribed, ask the court before everyone is finally dismissed to order that it be done. If that does not work, file a motion to supplement the record to add the bench ruling.
  • If you can’t get the bench ruling into the record, file a timely R59 motion asking the court to make the appropriate findings.
  • Oh, and it should go without saying that it is your responsibility as counsel for one of the parties to make a record of the applicable factors in your case. The judge can not address them without evidence to support them. If you’re wondering what the applicable factors are, here is a link to lists of them , which I have referred to as “Checklists.”

Deference to the Chancellor’s Findings of Fact

January 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Language along the following lines opens the great majority of appeals from chancery court rulings: 

“We employ a limited standard of review on appeals from chancery court. Miller v. Pannell, 815 So. 2d 1117, 1119 (¶9) (Miss. 2002). We will not disturb the factual findings of a chancellor so long as the chancellor’s findings were supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous, or applied an erroneous legal standard. Biglane v. Under The Hill Corp., 949 So. 2d 9, 13-14 (¶17) (Miss. 2007). ‘We use a de novo standard when analyzing questions of law.’ Id.”

Indeed, that is the very language of the COA’s decision in the case of Legacy Hall of Fame, Inc., et al. v. Transport Trailer Service, et al., decided January 21, 2014. In that case, Judge Fair’s opinion for the majority affirmed the chancellor’s ruling denying Legacy’s claim that its officer was non compos mentis when he executed a contract for the corporation. Judge Fair stated in response to the appellant’s argument that the chancellor had failed to give proper weight to the testimony of its witness, Dr. White, on the issue of competence:

¶21. This Court’s “standard of review is indeed deferential, as we recognize that a chancellor, being the only one to hear the testimony of witnesses and observe their demeanor, is in the best position to judge their credibility.” In re Estate of Carter, 912 So. 2d 138, 143 (¶18) (Miss. 2005) (citing Culbreath v. Johnson, 427 So. 2d 705, 708 (Miss. 1983)).

¶22. The chancellor made it clear in his bench opinion that he was considering Dr. White’s testimony. We find that the chancellor was not clearly erroneous in finding that Legacy Hall did not overcome the presumption of competency. Therefore, we affirm the chancellor’s decision.

That same day the COA handed down its decision in the case of Borden v. Borden, affirming a chancellor’s award of custody to Mr. Borden based on an Albright analysis. The appellant argued that the chancellor was in error in how he analyzed the Albright factors, and in how he reached his conclusions based on the proof. Judge Roberts, for the majority, explained:

¶16. The record clearly shows that the chancellor carefully weighed each Albright factor, and he acted within his discretion when he held that six of those factors favored Shannon, as opposed to only one that favored Mary Jane. Although reasonable minds could weigh the evidence and reach different conclusions, the chancellor did not abuse his discretion when he applied the Albright factors. The dissent would reverse the chancellor’s judgment and award Mary Jane custody of the children, thus rendering a judgment in Mary Jane’s favor. With utmost respect for the dissent, our standard of review does not include reweighing the evidence or substituting our opinion for the chancellor’s. It is the chancellor’s responsibility to “hear the evidence, assess the credibility of the witnesses, and determine ultimately what weight and worth to afford any particular aspect of the proof.” Tritle v. Tritle, 956 So. 2d 369, 373 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). “Even if we would have given greater weight to different testimony, so long as substantial credible evidence supports the chancellor’s decision, we will not substitute our opinion for the chancellor’s.” Id. The chancellor could have certainly found that Mary Jane was evasive during her testimony as an adverse witness. We find no merit to Mary Jane’s claim that the chancellor awarded Shannon primary custody of the children as a means to punish her for her inappropriate conduct with other men or her false allegations of child abuse. Thus, we affirm the chancellor’s award of primary custody to Shannon.

That is the way it is supposed to work: as long as the chancellor’s findings are based on substantial credible evidence in the record, they should be undisturbed on appeal if they are based on a correct application of the law.

The MSSC requires the COA to review the chancellor’s findings and to make a determination whether the chancellors’decision was supported by substantial credible evidence. That necessitates an examination of the record and scrutiny of the trial judge’s findings. But it does not mean that the appellate court becomes a second-line chancellor making its own conclusions on the facts. That is the chancellor’s job. You might keep that in mind the next time you’re confronted with the decision whether to take an appeal from a chancellor’s findings of fact.

 

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