Blueprint for Proving Fraud on the Court

March 20, 2019 § 2 Comments

If you will type “fraud on the court” in that Search box over there on the right at the top of the page, you will call up some posts I have done on the effect that fraud on the court has on a judgment.

Most fraud-on-the-court situations are pretty clear. Sometimes, though, you have to convince the judge that the behavior about which you are complaining did constitute a fraud on the court even though it appears benign on its face. Your burden of proof is clear and convincing, so you have to make sure the evidence is strong.

In Manning v. Tanner, 594 So.2d 1164, 1167 (Miss. 1992), the MSSC established four factors that the court must find in order to vacate a judgment for fraud on the court:

(1) that the facts constituting the fraud, accident, mistake, or surprise must have been the controlling factors in the effectuation of the original decree, without which the decree would not have been made as it was made;

(2) the facts justifying the relief must be clearly and positively alleged as facts and must be clearly and convincingly proved;

(3) the facts must not have been known to the injured party at the time of the original decree; and

(4) the ignorance thereof must not have been the result of the want of reasonable care and diligence.

Clearly factor 1 is the most important to the analysis. If the allegedly fraudulent conduct would not have effected the outcome, the relief should not include setting aside the judgment. To illustrate: I set aside an irreconcilable differences divorce once because on a R60 hearing a year later emails were produced in which the parties essentially agreed that the PSA presented to the court was a sham, and that they were actually agreeing to terms that an attorney had told them I would never approve. Had I known of the side deal when I was presented the original judgment I would never have signed it.

Factor 2 mentions pleadings. Remember the requirement of R9(b) that “the circumstances constituting fraud … shall be stated with particularity.” You have to state in your motion what the specific conduct was that you claim was fraudulent. And, again, the conduct must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.

If your client knew, or should have known by reasonable care and diligence, of the fraud, then the court should not set aside the judgment. That’s Factors 3 and 4.

In deciding whether to set aside a judgment for fraud on the court, the chancellor must keep in mind that “Relief based on ‘fraud upon the court’ is reserved for only the most egregious misconduct, and requires a showing of ‘an unconscionable plan or scheme which is designed to improperly influence the court in its decision.’” Wilson v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 873 F.2d 869, 872 (5th Cir. 1989). “The mere non[-]disclosure to an adverse party and to the court of facts pertinent to a controversy before the court does not add up to ‘fraud upon the court’ for purposes of vacating a judgment under Rule 60(b).” Trim v. Trim, 33 So.3d 471, 477-78 (Miss. 2010). “To warrant relief pursuant to Rule 60(b)(1) the movant must prove fraud, misrepresentation or other conduct by clear and convincing evidence.” Hill v. Hill, 942 So.2d 207, 214 (Miss. App. 2006) [My emphasis].

Fraud on the Court and MRCP 60(b)

January 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

What does it take to trigger relief from fraud on the court?

That’s the question I posed in a previous post dealing with the COA’s October 2, 2012, decision in the case of Rosemary Finch v. Stewart Finch.

The answer based on the COA decision was that one need merely suggest that a fraud on the court was committed, and the chancellor can take it from there. So that settles that, right? Well, not exactly. The MSSC granted cert and took another look.

In Finch v. Finch, handed down January 16, 2014, the high court affirmed the COA’s decision on the chancellor’s handling of the fraud-on-the-court issue, but remanded for further findings of fact by the trial court on other issues.

The MSSC decison, penned by Justice Pierce, is worth your time to read, because it sheds further light on the dimensions of fraud on the court, how it affects judgments, how the trial court should address it, and how you should deal with it.

What is most strking to me about this opinion, however, is how the court divided on the decision:

LAMAR, KITCHENS AND CHANDLER, JJ., CONCUR. RANDOLPH, P.J., CONCURS IN PART AND IN RESULT WITHOUT SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION. DICKINSON, P.J., CONCURS IN PART AND DISSENTS IN PART WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY WALLER, C.J., KING AND COLEMAN, JJ.; CHANDLER, J., JOINS IN PART.

Four justices joined entirely in the opinion: Pierce, Lamar, Kitchens, and Chandler. Randolph added a fifth concurrence “in part and in result.” The dissent garnered five votes also: Dickinson, Waller, King, and Coleman. Chandler added a fifth vote, “in part.” Neither Justice Randolph nor Justice Chandler wrote an opinion explaining their concurrence or dissent in part, so we do not know enough to understand their rationales. Apparently, under the MSSC internal procedures, a tie vote goes in favor of the justice who wrote the original opinion. In his dissent, Justice Dickinson referred to this as a “plurality opinion.”

I found Justice Dickinson’s dissent to be forceful and persuasive. He questioned whether due process had been violated, and he found the proof of actual fraud lacking. He was not successful, though, in selling his opinion to a majority. So the law of Mississippi in cases involving fraud on the court remains as I described it in that previous post:

… all that was necessary in this case was to give the chancellor a suggestion that there may have been a fraud on the court, and she picked it up and ran with it. The chancellor has broad, equitable power when it comes to relief under MRCP 60(b), which the court can exercise on its own motion. In this particular case the problem was fraud, but 60(b) vests the court with the same equitable powers to address mistake, “or any other reason justifying relief from judgment …”

AND MORE RE FRAUD ON THE COURT

October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Only last week I posted here about what it takes to trigger relief from fraud on the court. There was yet another case dealing with fraud on the court handed down by the COA last week, and it’s one you need to add to your notes on the subject.

Dogan v. Dogan, decided October 9, 2012, by the COA, is an involved equitable distribution/alimony case that covers many familiar financial issues that arise in the course of a high-dollar divorce. David Dogan was a partner in a law firm and had earnings as much as $35,000 a month. The firm lost a major client, Durabla, to bankruptcy, though, which negatively impacted his earnings. The chancellor wrestled with calculation of David’s income and concluded that it was $19,000 a month. David’s wife, Barbara, charged that David committed a fraud on the court because, although he reported the lower income figure on his 8.05 statement, he had filed a home loan application stating his income as $35,000. Keep in mind that, under the general principle of Trim, knowingly submitting a false financial statement to the court is fraud on the court.

The COA, by Judge Roberts, beginning at ¶14, upheld the chancellor’s decision as to David’s income:

In Mississippi, the general rule is that fraud will not be presumed but must be affirmatively proven by clear and convincing evidence. See Hamilton v. McGill, 352 So. 2d 825, 831 (Miss. 1977); Taft v Taft, 252 Miss. 204, 213, 172 So. 2d 403, 407 (1965). Further, on appeal, there are four requirements to vacate a decree due to fraud:

(1) that the facts constituting the fraud, accident, mistake or surprise must have been the controlling factors in the effectuation of the original decree, without which the decree would not have been made as it was made; (2) the facts justifying the relief must be clearly and positively alleged as facts and must be clearly and convincingly proved; (3) the facts must not have been known to the injured party at the time of the original decree, and (4) the ignorance thereof at the time must not have been the result of the want of reasonable care and diligence.

Manning v. Tanner, 594 So. 2d 1164, 1167 (Miss. 1992). Barbara has failed to meet these requirements. First, the chancellor did not make his decision solely on David’s Rule 8.05 financial statement; therefore, the amount in his statement was not a controlling factor in the decree as is required under the first prong. Barbara also fails under prongs three and four because, assuming the discrepancy on the Rule 8.05 financial statement and loan application to be true, Barbara was aware of it at the time of the original decree. Additionally, the chancellor addressed the discrepancy and found that the amount of the loan application was an average of the last two federal tax returns and did not take into consideration the bankruptcy of Durabla and its financial impact on the firm.

Thus the COA continued to flesh out how Trim will affect our case law. Before you cry “Fraud” to the trial court, make sure you can support your claim with proof in the record of the four Manning factors.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO TRIGGER RELIEF FROM FRAUD ON THE COURT?

October 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

Basically, all you have to do is bring it to the court’s attention, and the judge can do the rest. That’s what the COA decision in Finch v. Finch, handed down October 2, 2012, says.

But before we talk about Finch, let me remind you of the MSSC decision in Trim v. Trim, which held that “the intentional filing of a substantially false Rule 8.05 statement is misconduct that rises above mere nondisclosure of material facts to an adverse party,” and constitutes fraud upon the court. There is no time limit to when that issue can be raised. So to allow your client to submit a false 8.05 is to allow the judgment always and forever to be vulnerable to possibly fatal attack, as was the case in Trim.

Only two months ago the COA held in Rogers v. Rogers that if you are going to claim fraud on the court, you will have to prove all of the classic elements of fraud, or you will fall short.

Now we have Finch, further defining the scope of fraud on the court. In Finch, Rosemary and Stewart, no longer love birds, got an irreconcilable differences divorce in which the special chancellor awarded Rosemary alimony based on financial proof submitted by the parties, including Rosemary’s claim that she was paying certain marital debts that she claimed she had been paying throughout the marriage.

The special chancellor’s appointment expired, and a newly-elected chancellor took the bench and assumed responsibility for the case.

In post-divorce litigation, Stewart asked the court to find Rosemary in contempt and to modify the alimony to take into consideration that Rosemary had “falsely represented” to the court that she had been paying the marital bills. He claimed and proved that she had failed to pay an American Express account, forcing Stewart to borrow some $38,000 to pay it. Also, she had not disclosed other family debt in the divorce that affected Stewart.

The chancellor found that Rosemary’s actions were a fraud on the court, and she decided that the fraud permitted her to reduce the alimony under MRCP 60(b). Stewart had not filed a 60(b) motion, had not specifically requested any 60(b) relief, and did not specifically plead or charge fraud. Rosemary appealed, claiming that it was error for the chancellor to grant 60(b) relief sua sponte, which had the effect of setting aside and doing away with issues to which the parties had agreed and settled before the original trial.

Judge Ishee’s opinion for the court states:

¶18. While Stewart did not file a Rule 60(b) motion, he did allege fraud in the petition for contempt and modification. Furthermore, “[t]he chancery court is vested with broad equitable powers with which it is able to decide if the original order was entered by mistake, fraud of a party, or for another reason justifying relief from the judgment under Rule 60(b) and may do so upon its own motion.” Tirouda v. State, 919 So. 2d 211, 214 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Edwards v. Roberts, 771 So. 2d 378, 386 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000)).

Rule 60(b) even states: “This rule does not limit the power of a court to entertain an independent action to relieve a party from a judgment, order, or proceeding, or to set aside a judgment for fraud upon the court.” Accordingly, the chancery court did not err by finding fraud upon the court and altering the final divorce decree without Stewart filing a Rule 60(b) motion.

Rosemary also tried to claim that the fraud, if any, was on Stewart and not on the court, which argument the COA rejected, based on Trim. She argued in addition that there was inadequate proof in the record of the elements of fraud, which the COA likewise rejected, based on the proof in the record and the findings of the chancellor.

To return to my initial point: all that was necessary in this case was to give the chancellor a suggestion that there may have been a fraud on the court, and she picked it up and ran with it. The chancellor has broad, equitable power when it comes to relief under MRCP 60(b), which the court can exercise on its own motion. In this particular case the problem was fraud, but 60(b) vests the court with the same equitable powers to address mistake, “or any other reason justifying relief from judgment …”

DEFINING THE SCOPE OF TRIM

August 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

You’ve read here before about the case of Trim v. Trim and its ramifications for family law practitioners. Trim is the MSSC case holding that intentional filing of a substantially false UCCR 8.05 financial statement constitutes a fraud on the court, so that any judgment based on it is vulnerable to being set aside any time.

In the case of Rogers v. Rogers, decided July 24, 2012, the COA confronted the question of intentionality and exactly how substantial the falsehood needs to be to warrant setting aside the prior judgment.

At trial in 2009, Charles Rogers submitted a financial statement that showed his monthly adjusted gross income as $4,651.71. The court awarded child support and alimony based on that figure.

Later, in a 2010 contempt proceeding brought by his ex-wife Julianne, Charles disclosed in discovery that his gross income was in excess of $88,000 a year, which would produce considerably greater adjusted gross income.

The chancellor found that the discrepancy was “proof of a gross misrepresentation and fraud” upon the court, and revised the final judgment of divorce to increase both the child support and alimony.

On appeal, the COA noted that in his 2009 trial testimony Charles had expressly testified that his yearly gross income was $88,000, that the $4,400 figure represented two weeks’ pay, and he had been asked about it in detail both on direct and under cross examination. At the contempt trial, Charles steadfastly stood by his position that he had not intentionally failed to disclose or falsified the financial information.

Judge Carlton recited the well-known Mississippi rule on establishing the elements of fraud:

¶18. The general rule is well settled that fraud will not be presumed but must be affirmatively proven. Taft v. Taft, 252 Miss. 204, 213, 172 So. 2d 403, 407 (Miss. 1965). The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that in order to establish fraud, the burden is on the proponent to prove the following elements:

(1) a representation, (2) its falsity, (3) its materiality, (4) the speaker’s knowledge of its falsity or ignorance of its truth, (5) his intent that it should be acted on by the hearer and in the manner reasonably contemplated, (6) the hearer’s ignorance of its falsity, (7) his reliance on its truth, (8) his right to rely thereon, and (9) his consequent and proximate injury.

Koury v. Ready, 911 So. 2d 441, 445 (¶13) (Miss. 2005) (citing Mabus v. St. James Episcopal Church, 884 So. 2d 747, 762 (¶32) (Miss. 2004)). Additionally, “fraud . . . must be proved with clear and convincing evidence.” Hamilton v. McGill, 352 So. 2d 825, 831 (Miss. 1977). We have recognized that “[c]lear and convincing evidence is such a high standard that even the overwhelming weight of the evidence does not rise to the same level.” Moran v. Fairley, 919 So. 2d 969, 975 (¶24) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citation omitted).

¶19. To vacate a decree due to fraud, the supreme court, in Manning v. Tanner, 594 So. 2d 1164, 1167 (Miss. 1992), listed the four necessary requirements that must be met:

(1) that the facts constituting the fraud, accident, mistake[,] or surprise must have been the controlling factors in the effectuation of the original decree, without which the decree would not have been made as it was made; (2) the facts justifying the relief must be clearly and positively alleged as facts and must be clearly and convincingly proved; (3) the facts must not have been known to the injured party at the time of the original decree, and (4) the ignorance thereof at the time must not have been the result of the want of reasonable care and diligence.

Applying the law of fraud to the case at hand, Judge Carlton concluded that the elements of fraud had not been proven, and that the chancellor’s judgment essentially setting aside the original judgment was, therefore, in error. Her opinion distinguished Trim in this way:

¶24. Julianne cites Trim v. Trim, 33 So. 3d 471 (Miss. 2010), in support of her argument that Charles’s inaccurate Rule 8.05 statement perpetrated a fraud upon the court. In Trim, George Trim submitted his Rule 8.05 statement listing the value of his company’s stock at $100,000. Id. at 473 (¶4). George and his ex-wife, Lisa, entered into a property-settlement agreement, which the chancellor later ratified, based on their assets and liabilities disclosed in their Rule 8.05 statements. Id. Lisa later discovered that George had misrepresented his stock value in his Rule 8.05 statement, and filed suit against him for fraudulent misrepresentation. Lisa’s expert valued George’s stock at $694,000 at the time of George and Lisa’s divorce. Id. at 474 (¶4). On appeal, the Trim court held that George’s intentional filing of a substantially false Rule 8.05 statement constitutes a fraud on the court, noting the chancellor’s finding that George’s Rule 8.05 statement drastically undervalued a major marital asset. Id. at 478 (¶17).

¶25. The case before us differs from Trim in that the record shows that Charles testified during trial and explained that his Rule 8.05 submission reflected a two-week pay period. In applying the standard for proving fraud to the facts and record before us, we cannot agree that Julianne met her burden of proving fraud by clear and convincing evidence. See Hamilton, 352 So. 2d at 831. Although Charles’s Rule 8.05 statement incorrectly reflected his monthly salary, the record shows that he explained the discrepancy several times in his trial testimony. As a result, we find that the chancellor erred in considering Charles’s Rule 8.05 statement only, and not also his trial testimony, in determining that Charles’s misrepresentation of his income rose to the level of fraud. In her July 6, 2010 judgment, the chancellor erroneously found that Julianne proved by clear and convincing evidence that Charles perpetrated a fraud upon the court. Therefore, the chancellor erred in vacating the prior decree and revising the final divorce decree by increasing the alimony award. Accordingly, we reverse and set aside the revised final judgment and reinstate the original divorce decree. We also reverse and render the increased award of $1,000 in rehabilitative alimony for thirty-six months, which was based upon the erroneous finding of fraud on the court. Since the record does not support a finding of fraud by clear and convincing evidence, we reinstate the chancellor’s original divorce decree. See Manning, 594 So. 2d at 1167; Shaeffer v. Shaeffer, 370 So. 2d 240, 242 (Miss. 1979).

So, unless and until the MSSC chooses to clarify the matter further, you will have to prove all of the elements of fraud by clear and convincing evidence in order to invoke Trim relief. Proof of discrepancies and oversights in 8.05 statements will not be enough to do the job.

YET ANOTHER REASON TO TAKE EXTRA CARE WITH 8.05’S

October 14, 2010 § 4 Comments

In the case of Trim v. Trim, 33 So.3d 471 (Miss. 2010), the Mississippi Supreme Court held that “the intentional filing of a substantially false Rule 8.05 statement is misconduct that rises above mere nondisclosure of material facts to an adverse party,” and constitutes fraud upon the court.

So what is the significance of the Trim case for everyday practitioners?

Let’s say that your client isn’t deliriously happy with the outcome of her equitable distribution case, but she accepts it without an appeal.  Ten months later she comes in to your office mad as a hornet with sheaves of paperwork that prove conclusively that her ex substantially understated on his 8.05 the value of financial assets that he controlled, and the gain to your client could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Aha!  You think, we have the sorry so-and-so right by the [indelicate word deleted]!

But wait.  How are you going to get this before the court?  MRCP Rule 59 relief expired 10 days after the judgment was entered, and the appeal time ran 30 days after entry.  MRCP Rule 60 actions to set aside a judgment for fraud have to be brought within six months of the date of the judgment.   

That’s where Trim comes in.  By finding substantial misrepresentation on the 8.05 to be a fraud on the court, as opposed to fraud on the opposing party, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that there is no time limit to bringing an action to aside an action based on 8.05 fraud.  That’s because MRCP Rule 60 expressly states:  “This rule does not limit the power of a court to entertain an independent action to relieve a party from a judgment, order, or proceeding, or to set aside a judgment for fraud upon the court.”

Trim has ramifications for lawyers in Chancery.  If you are in the habit of accepting your client’s 8.05 at face value without going over it with him or her, and without questioning behind it, you may be leaving your client open to an action to set aside that divorce judgment you thought you had laid to rest long ago.  The client may well question why you never went over the statement with him and counseled him about what to include and what not to include.  “My lawyer never told me that I had to list those three securities accounts; in fact, he never talked with me at all about what to include on the form.” 

In case you think this is the kind of thing that happens to somebody else somewhere else, think again.  Only this year, I set aside a divorce that was nearly two years old for substantial misrepresentation of financial assets that amounted to a fraud on the court.  It can happen to you.

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