It’s not in the Record Until You Get it into Evidence

September 3, 2019 § 4 Comments

It is elementary that until you get something into evidence it is not part of the record, and it cannot be considered by the court in making a decision.

Judge Westbrooks of the COA specially concurred in the case of Almasri v. Miss. Dept of Revenue, decided August 6, 2019, to remind attorneys and judges of that very point:

¶14. I agree with the majority’s opinion and write separately only to emphasize the importance of following procedures necessary to ensure that pertinent statements and representations are eligible for consideration as evidence and thereby designated as a part of the record.

¶15. The majority opinion notes that during the hearing on the MDOR’s motion to dismiss, counsel for Almasri indicated his client was unable to pay the required bond or assessment under protest. Though officers of the court, lone “statements by attorneys are not evidence.” Wackenhut Corp. v. Fortune, 87 So. 3d 1083, 1092 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (Court held circuit court erred by allowing expert witness’s baseless testimony; expert’s assertion was partially supported by lone attorney statement indicating plaintiff’s sobriety). As noted, there was no affidavit or sworn testimony supporting the attorney’s representation to the court; the lack thereof precluded Almasri’s alleged inability to pay from evidence in the chancery court, and consequently, the record this court considered on appeal.

¶16. To establish evidentiary value, it is imperative that attorneys take the opportunity to (1) reduce the statement(s) to written form by sworn affidavit or (2) provide sworn testimony to affirm any potentially relevant assertions. In instances where assertions, such as the one Almasri’s attorney made, may impact the outcome of a proceeding or appeal, the statements need to be a part of admitted (or proffered) evidence in the record. Lone statements or arguments of counsel simply are not enough.

To that very apt statement I would add that pleadings and motions are not evidence until they are admitted into evidence by the court. The same goes for exhibits to pleadings and motions. Even affidavits are not in the record until they are admitted into evidence.

I have had attorneys, while questioning a witness, pause and look over at me: “She is referring to Exhibit 2 to the complaint, your honor.” All I can do is inwardly wince.

The Duty to Make a Record

October 23, 2018 § 3 Comments

Following a hearing on Kellie McCarley’s claim for separate maintenance from her husband, Rickey McCarley, the chancellor announced that, although she would like to make a ruling from the bench right then, she needed to review the exhibits first. She scheduled a telephone conference to discuss her ruling with the attorneys. In that conference, she gave her opinion denying Rickey’s claim for divorce and granted Kellie separate maintenance. The telephone conference was not recorded or otherwise made a part of the record. There was also an amended order that clarified the chancellor’s ground for awarding separate maintenance.

Rickey appealed arguing among other grounds that the chancellor erred in not directing that the telephone conference be made a part of the record.

The COA affirmed in McCarley v. McCarley, decided August 21, 2018, with an opinion by Judge Carlton:

¶10. Rickey argues that the chancellor erred in failing to direct that the transcript from the telephone opinion be made part of the record. Rickey asserts that the amended order only states the chancellor’s conclusions in very abbreviated form and contains none of the underlying facts nor applies the law to those facts.

¶11. In support of his argument, Rickey cites to Uniform Chancery Court Rule 4.02, which provides that a chancellor’s opinion may be given orally or in writing. If the chancellor pronounces her opinion orally, then “it shall be taken down by the [c]ourt [r]eporter who shall, when directed by the [c]ourt, transcribe the same and submit it to the [c]hancellor for correction and approval.” UCCR 4.02. Rule 4.02 mandates that whether the opinion rendered is made orally or in writing, it “shall be filed among the papers and become a part of the record in the cause without any order or direction to that effect.” Id.

¶12. We recognize that Rule 52(a) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure states that in cases tried without a jury, “the court may, and shall upon the request of any party to the suit or when required by these rules, find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon and judgment shall be entered accordingly.” (Emphasis added).

¶13. Similarly, Uniform Chancery Court Rule 4.01 provides “In all actions where it is required or requested, pursuant to [Rule] 52, the [c]hancellor shall find the facts specially and state separately his conclusions of law thereon. The request must be made either in writing, filed among the papers in the action, or dictated to the [c]ourt [r]eporter for record and called to the attention of the [c]hancellor.” (Emphasis added).

¶14. At the conclusion of the hearing in the present case, the chancellor scheduled a telephone conference with the attorneys. The chancellor explained that she would give her opinion on the matter via telephone and would also request one of the attorneys to prepare the order at that time. The record contains no transcript from the telephone conference, but the record does contain the chancellor’s written order and amended order setting forth her ruling.

¶15. In the chancellor’s amended order, she denied Rickey’s complaint for divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment based on “lack of proof.” The chancellor also found “that [Kellie] is without material fault in the separation and that [Rickey] abandoned [Kellie] and has refused to provide any support.” The chancellor then determined that Kellie “has met the burden of proof necessary to support her claim for separate maintenance.” The record contains no request by Rickey or his attorney for the chancellor to find specially and state separately her conclusions of law.

¶16. We recognize that “[t]he burden rests upon the appellant to provide a record that contains all information needed for an understanding of matters relied upon for reversal on appeal.” Wells v. Price, 102 So. 3d 1250, 1259 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). This Court cannot consider or act upon matters not included in the record; rather, we “must confine ourselves to what actually does appear in the record.” Id. In Wells, 102 So. 3d at 1259 (¶32), the appellant failed to include in the record the transcripts from a bench trial and a telephone hearing, as well as the judgment entered after a separate bench trial. This Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, explaining that “[b]ecause [the appellant] did not provide us an
adequate record, . . . we cannot find the trial court in error and must assume the trial court’s ruling is correct.” Id. [Fn 2]

[Fn 2] Cf. Daley v. Daley, 909 So. 2d 106, 107 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). In Daley, the record failed to contain a transcript of the proceedings before the chancellor or any factual or legal foundation for the chancellor’s decision below. Id. This Court acknowledged that Uniform Chancery Court Rules 4.01 and 4.02 provide that the chancellor can “create either an oral or a written record at his discretion,” but “if the chancellor opts for an oral opinion, it must be transcribed for the record.” Id. at 107-08 (¶9). This Court then remanded the case back to the chancellor with instructions for the chancellor to create a record of his factual findings and conclusions of law. Id. at 108 (¶10).

¶17. In Baggett v. Baggett, 246 So. 2d 887, 889 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017), this Court found no merit to the appellant’s claim that the chancellor erred by failing to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in his judgment denying the appellant’s complaint for divorce. The Baggett court held that not only did the appellant fail to request that the chancellor make findings of fact and conclusions of law, but the facts of the case “were neither hotly contested, greatly in dispute, nor complex so as to require the chancellor to [make findings of fact and conclusions of law] without a request.” Id. at (¶19) (citing Tricon Metals & Servs., Inc. v. Topp, 516 So. 2d 236, 239 (Miss. 1987)).

¶18. Similarly, in Turner v. Turner, 744 So. 2d 332, 337 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999), the appellant argued that the chancellor erred by failing to make separate findings of facts and conclusions of law or on-the-record findings regarding his award of child support. Upon review, this Court found no error, explaining that “neither party requested in writing, or in any other acceptable manner, that the chancellor issue separate findings of fact or
conclusions of law.” Id. at (¶26).

¶19. In the case before us, the record contains the transcript of the trial testimony from Rickey, Kellie, Penny, and Rickey’s brother, Roger. Although the record does not contain a transcript of the telephone conference with the attorneys where the chancellor made her ruling orally, the record does contain the chancellor’s amended written order reflecting her aforementioned ruling. Furthermore, Rule 4.02 mandates that if a party requests the chancellor to find the facts specially and state separately her conclusions of law, “[t]he request must be made either in writing, filed among the papers in the action, or dictated to the [c]ourt [r]eporter for record and called to the attention of the [c]hancellor.” No such request by either party appears in the record before us. This issue lacks merit.

I can’t add much to that.

Admitting a Document into Evidence, Step by Step

July 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

It can be daunting for young lawyers to tiptoe through the evidentiary minefield of the courtroom, but perhaps the most intimidating of all is to get a document into evidence, a process fraught with objections and roadblocks.

If you can understand the process, step by step, you can plan it out to navigate the expected hurdles. For purposes of this post, the term “document” used here includes all objects identified in MRE 1001 (1) and (2), as well as all tangible items that can be offered into evidence.

Here is the procedure, step by step:

  1. Hand the document to the witness, and, at the same time, hand a copy to counsel opposite. The attorney on the other side has the right to examine anything you hand to a witness. It’s also required that you furnish him or her a copy per Uniform Chancery Court Rule (UCCR) 3.5. Some judges prefer that you hand the document first to the court reporter and have it marked for identification before handing it to the witness, but I have found that to be a minority. Sometimes counsel opposite may object to admission of the document before you have even offered it. The simple response is that the objection is premature because you have not yet offered the document into evidence.
  2. Ask the witness to identify it. The witness must know what the document is and be able to identify it. MRE 602. The answer is merely an description of what the document is (e.g., “This is one of my bank statements,” or “this is an invoice I received”). At this stage, it is not proper for the witness to testify as to the content or meaning of the document; the witness can only testify to what the document is. lf the witness does not know at all what it is, then attempt to refresh or restore recollection, via MRE 612, 613, 801(d), or 803(5), If your efforts are unsuccessful to have the witness identify the document, proceed to Step 10.
  3. Establish how the document is relevant. Ask whether this document relates to the mortgage debt, or the parties’ income and taxes, or hospital bills, or whatever is at issue in the case (e.g., “This is my March bank statement for the joint account that Kevin wrote the $10,000 check on”). MRE 401 and 402. If relevance can not be established, proceed to Step 10.
  4. Establish authenticity. This can be convoluted, but the rules are pretty clear on how to do it. MRE 901 and 902. You can avoid difficulty with this part by sending Requests for Admission (MRCP 36) asking the other side to admit the authenticity and admissibility of the document(s); if they deny, then file a motion asking the court to get them to admit it, and for your resulting costs. Most competent, ethical attorneys will recognize the futility of making you drag someone like a telephone company or bank employee to court only to establish authenticity when it is clear that the document is what it appears to be. If you can not establish authenticity, proceed to Step 10.
  5. Establish any hearsay exemption or exception. Probably the most-objected-to area. If you know in advance that there will be hearsay objection(s), prepare in advance to meet them with specific exceptions to cite and, if possible, case citations. MRE 803 and 804 offer a multitude of ways around the rule. If you can not find a way around hearsay, go to Step 10.
  6. Satisfy the “Best Evidence Rule.” An explanation of the Best Evidence Rule can be found here, and some suggestions for dealing with it can be found here. In a nutshell, the rule provides that, if you are trying to prove the content of a document, you must produce the original, unless you can establish that the original is lost, not obtainable, or is in the possession of your opponent, or relates only to a collateral issue. MRE 1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, 1006, and 1007. Again, you can avoid some unpleasantness with this via Requests for Admission (MRCP 36). If you trip and fall here, proceed to Step 10.
  7. Offer the document into evidence. “I offer this document into evidence, your honor,” is all you need to say. Be prepared to meet any objection. If the court overrules the objection(s) and orders that it be admitted, proceed to Step 8. If the court rules that it is inadmissible, proceed to Step 10.
  8. Hand the document to the court reporter and stop talking. Hand the document to the court reporter and be quiet while the court reporter marks it as an exhibit. You do not need to instruct the reporter on what exhibit number to give it, or how to mark it; that is the judge’s prerogative. The court reporter will either hand the exhibit to the judge or give it back to you when he or she is finished, and you may then proceed to Step 9.
  9. Continue with questioning the witness, if desired. If you need more testimony from the witness about the document or its contents, you can go on from there. The witness will need to have a copy of the exhibit from which to testify. But remember that if you take the original from the judge, the judge will not know what you are talking about. You had better either leave the original with the judge and provide the witness with a copy, or have a copy to provide the court to follow along with your examination, per UCCR 3.05. Remember, too, to always refer to the exhibit’s number when questioning a witness about it, or your record will be hopelessly unintelligible.
  10. If the court rules your document inadmissible. If the court sustains a hearsay objection, for example, first offer another exception as an alternative. If that fails, offer another. If you feel the judge is wrong based on a specific case, offer that case and ask the judge to reconsider based on that authority. If your efforts are unsuccessful, ask that the document be marked “for identification purposes only,” per MRCP 103(a)(2). That request will never be denied if you made a bone fide effort to get the document into evidence. You may still be able to get the document into evidence through the testimony of another, later witness, but if you cannot, the document is in the record for appeal purposes; if you do not have it marked for identification purposes only, it will not be in the record for appeal. You may try later to file a post-trial motion to supplement the record if you neglected to get the document in at the trial, but you will not likely get any relief if the trial judge is not satisfied that there was sufficient testimony of the witness about it, or the judge did not have an opportunity to examine it and rule on it.

Be prepared and be successful. A selection of other helpful posts on topic:


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