Boatwright is Dry-Docked

June 30, 2015 § 10 Comments

The legal travails of Toulman and Grace Boatwright have been chronicled here before.

To bring you up to date, this is the case in which: (1) a chancellor recused before ruling on a R59 motion; (2) the remaining chancellor refused to rule on the motion; (3) there was an appeal; (4) the COA reversed on the basis that the second chancellor should have ruled on the motion; (5) on remand the second chancellor recused, and a special chancellor took up the case and ruled on the R59 motion; (6) Toulman appealed again; (7) five (yes, 5) judges of the COA recused (if you’re counting, that’s seven recusals in this saga); and (8) the COA affirmed in Boatwright v. Boatwright, handed down June 23, 2015.

It seems a shame to draw the curtain closed on this epic, which arose in 2004, more than eleven years ago. (Of course, if cert is granted …)

Judges Carlton, Lee, and Irving would have granted a new trial, which would have kept this case going for perhaps an additional eleven years (optimistically speaking).

In case you’re trying to diagram this: McGehee wrote the prevailing opinion, in which Griffis, and Ishee joined; Carlton, Lee, and Irving dissented. Barnes, Roberts, Maxwell, Fair, and James did not participate. A 3-3 tie is an affirmance.

On the serious side, both the majority opinion, written by Special Judge McGehee, and the dissent, penned by Judge Carlton, address some weighty issues of judicial ethics arising out of the social relationships between attorneys and judges. This particular case came to grief when the chancellor accepted an invitation to go turkey hunting with one of the lawyers involved in the Boatwright litigation while the case was pending. Both opinions discuss the ethical considerations involved and their ramifications.

As with many ethical questions, there are not only murky areas, but different people in good faith can see things differently and draw different conclusions, as was the case here.

What is sometimes difficult to see is where to draw the line. In the Guardianship of McClinton case decided only last February by the COA, the court brushed aside attorney Michael Brown’s argument that the judge had an improper social relationship with another attorney in the case because the judge frequently had lunch with that attorney and they attended college football games together. For those of us here on the ground, it can be hard to draw distinctions so as to arrive at a firm idea of appropriate conduct.

The main thing is for us all to take to heart the serious ethical implications involved in the social interactions between lawyers and judges, and to be sensitive to them. It’s absolutely true that litigants, their families and friends, and passers-by are watching everything we do and drawing their own conclusions.

The Basis for a New Trial

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

MRCP 59(a) provides that the trial court may grant a new trial ” … in an action tried without a jury, for any of the reasons for which rehearings have heretofore been granted in suits in equity in the courts of Mississippi.” In non-jury cases ” … the court may open the judgment if one has been entered, take additional testimony, amend findings of fact and conclusions of law or make new findings of fact and conclusions, and direct entry of a new judgment.”

On its own initiative, the court may, within ten days of entry of a judgment, order a new trial (rehearing) for any of the above reasons. And the court may, after giving the parties’ notice, grant a new trial for reasons not stated in a motion. The court must spell out the grounds for its ruling.

In the case of Bariffe v. Estate of Lawson, et al., about which we posted yesterday, Justice Coleman’s dissent adds some important insight into how R59 is supposed to be applied by the trial court [beginning in ¶50]:

… Rule 59 must be read and interpreted in light of [MRCP] Rule 61, which provides:

No error in either the admission or the exclusion of evidence and no error in any ruling or order or in anything done or omitted by the court or by any of the parties is ground for granting a new trial or for setting aside a verdict or for vacating, modifying, or otherwise disturbing a judgment or order, unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.

Miss. R. Civ. P. 61. Thus, a harmless error in the proceedings that “does not affect the substantial rights of the parties” is not a sufficient reason for granting a new trial. Id. Applying Rule 59, the Court has held that trial courts have discretion in granting a new trial if the judge is convinced that (1) “a mistake of law or fact has been made” or (2) “injustice would attend allowing the judgment to stand.” Mayoza v. Mayoza, 526 So. 2d 547, 549-50 (Miss. 1988). …

As we discussed in the previous post, the chancellor granted a new trial in Bariffe because he felt that he had improperly limited the parties’ presentation of their cases in the first trial by imposition of time limits on the examination of witnesses. The majority found no error in his granting of a new trial. Judge Coleman would have held it to be error based on his analysis above.

If you are going to make a R59 motion and argument, make sure you define what substantial rights were affected by the judge’s ruling, and stress that point. If you are on the receiving end of the motion, argue that the movant has failed to raise an issue cognizable under R61.

 

Bound by the Record

June 5, 2014 § 4 Comments

It’s axiomatic that if you don’t introduce evidence to support a particular claim, your trial judge can not grant your client that relief.

It’s also axiomatic that, if you don’t make a record on a given point, you may not raise it for the first time on appeal.

Those two principles are what tripped up Donald Ainsworth in his attempt to reverse a chancellor’s ruling that based child support on all of his income, including annual bonuses and commissions from vehicle sales. Judge Carlton, writing for the COA in its opinion in Ainsworth v. Ainsworth, issued May 27, 2014, explained:

¶16. Donald argues the chancellor erred in determining his income for child support. Donald claims his yearly bonus and income from vehicle sale are not regular income for purposes of calculating child support. We first note Donald failed to raise the issue of his yearly bonus in his motion for reconsideration. It is well settled that an issue raised for the first time on appeal is barred from our review. See Ory v. Ory, 936 So. 2d 405, 409 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). Thus, we will only review Donald’s argument concerning income from vehicle sales.

¶17. The chancellor calculated Donald’s adjusted gross monthly income to be $4,562, which consisted of his salary, his bonus, and profits from vehicle sales. Following the statutory guidelines in Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-101(1) (Supp. 2013), the chancellor ordered Donald to pay $912.40, or twenty percent of $4,562, per month in child support. The chancellor noted that Donald admittedly failed to report income from any vehicle sales on his Rule 8.05 financial statement. The chancellor also noted Donald had failed to comply with her temporary order of December 2, 2010, which required Donald to report the sales of any vehicles to Melanie and to deposit the money from the sale of these vehicles into the registry of the court. During trial, Donald admitted that he made a small profit 3 from vehicle sales but purposefully did not report the sales of these vehicles, either to the chancery court or to the state or federal government for income-tax purposes. Donald also claimed he had no documentation by way of receipts or invoices for the sale of these vehicles. Donald testified he intended to continue selling vehicles and anticipated similar profits.

¶18. With respect to the chancellor’s finding, this Court cannot find the decision to include Donald’s profits from vehicle sales in her calculation of child support to be clearly erroneous. “The chancellor, being the only one to hear the testimony of witnesses and observe their demeanor, is the sole authority for determining the credibility of the witnesses.” Madden v. Rhodes, 626 So. 2d 608, 616 (Miss. 1993). Accordingly, we find this issue to be without merit.

The court also swatted aside: (1) Donald’s argument that the chancellor erroneously ordered him to pay a share of the children’s extracurricular activities; and (2) the court’s award of the tax exemptions to his ex-wife. Both arguments were rejected because he “failed to raise this issue in his motion for reconsideration.”

A few comments:

  • A R59 motion is the vehicle you need to employ to bring to the chancellor’s attention matters on which you offered proof at trial, but were not addressed by the judge. Unless it is crystal clear from a reading of the trial transcript that you offered proof to support a given claim, you can not assume that the appellate court or the trial judge will view it that way. In this case, for instance, Donald may have thought that admitting his tax return into evidence was enough to preserve the tax exemption claim, but that evidence goes to many points in a contested divorce trial. File a R59 motion and specifically point to the proof in the record that supports your claim, and give the judge a chance to rule on it. That preserves the point for appeal.
  • If you don’t offer any evidence at trial to support a claim, it won’t do you any good to file a R59 motion because the judge has to have evidence in the record to support her findings.
  • If you don’t offer any evidence at trial to support a claim, you not only lose that point at trial, but you also are barred from raising it for the first time on appeal. I am constantly amazed at how many attorneys simply do not put on proof in support of their claims. A good example is the request that a child support payor maintain a life insurance policy. Usually the only evidence is a witness saying that she wants him to have a policy. There is no testimony about the cost, or whether the payor is insurable, or anything else that would influence me one way or the other.
  • The only exception to the above is where there is newly discovered evidence that could not have been discovered in time to file a R59 motion. In that case, you need to file a R60(b)(3) motion.

I’ve mentioned here before that there is no “motion to reconsider” in our practice. That terminology is usually used to describe a R59 motion, but a R59 motion is actually for rehearing, or a new trial. Actually, though, there is such a thing as a motion to reconsider. Can you find it? [Hint: check out R60(c)].

Which Post-Trial Motion You Choose Can Make all the Difference

February 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

James Loftin was notified that his contract for employment as school superintendent would not be renewed, and he filed a request with the chancery court for a hearing, as provided in MCA 37-9-101 through -113.

On April 16, 2012, Loftin filed a public records request with the school district.

The non-renewal hearing went forward on April 27, 2012, despite a pre-hearing motion that Loftin had filed asking that it be delayed so that his public records request could be addressed. On July 12, 2012, the judge ruled that Loftin had waived the public records request because he had allowed the hearing to go forward. The ruling on the non-renewal was not in his favor.

Loftin filed a motion for reconsideration [you can read another post at this link on whether there is such a creature in Mississippi procedure] on July 24, twelve days after the court’s ruling.

On October 24, 2012, more than 100 days after the final ruling on the merits, the court overruled the motion for reconsideration, and Loftin filed his notice of appeal on November 2, 2012.

In the COA case of Loftin v. Jefferson Davis County School District, handed down February 18, 2014, the court affirmed the chancellor’s denial of the motion to reconsider. Judge Fair, for the majority, explained:

¶4. “A timely-filed notice of appeal is a jurisdictional prerequisite to invoking [appellate] review, and we review jurisdictional matters de novo.” Calvert v. Griggs, 992 So. 2d 627, 631 (¶9) (Miss. 2008). “[T]he time to file a notice of appeal is a jurisdictional issue that cannot be waived by the parties.” Dawson v. Burt Steel Inc., 986 So. 2d 1051, 1052 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008).

¶5. At issue is what effect Loftin’s motion for reconsideration had on the timeliness of his notice of appeal. Motions for reconsideration are filed every day in Mississippi, but the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure do not specifically provide for them. McBride v. McBride, 110 So. 3d 356, 359 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). This Court recently summarized how they should be treated:

The Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure provide two avenues to move the trial court to reconsider its judgment. The aggrieved party may (1) file a motion for a new trial or to alter or amend under Rule 59 or (2) file for a relief from a final judgment under Rule 60(b). The timing of the motion to reconsider determines whether it is a Rule 59 or Rule 60(b) motion.

A motion to reconsider filed within ten days of the entry of the judgment falls under Rule 59 and tolls the thirty-day time period to file a notice of appeal until the disposition of the motion. Consequently, a notice of appeal following the denial of a Rule 59 motion to reconsider encompasses both the denial of reconsideration and the underlying judgment.

But a motion to reconsider filed more than ten days after the entry of the judgment falls under Rule 60(b). And a Rule 60(b) motion does not toll the thirty-day time period to file a notice of appeal. So a notice of appeal following the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion to reconsider limits this court’s review to whether reconsideration was properly denied under Rule 60(b). This court has no jurisdiction to consider the merits of the underlying judgment.

Woods v. Victory Mktg. LLC, 111 So. 3d 1234, 1236-37 (¶¶6-8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citations omitted). The last day for Loftin to file his motion for reconsideration under Rule 59 was Monday, July 23, 2012. See M.R.C.P. 6(a). Loftin’s motion, filed on July 24, must be taken under Rule 60(b).

¶6. Rule 60(b) provides six bases for relieving a party from a final judgment:

(1) fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;

(2) accident or mistake;

(3) newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b);

(4) the judgment is void;

(5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application;

(6) any other reason justifying relief from the judgment.

Loftin’s motion for reconsideration makes none of those arguments. Instead, it simply contends that the petition should not have been dismissed under the facts and the controlling substantive law. Loftin obviously intended the motion to be considered under Rule 59(e), but because it was untimely, that ship has sailed. “An appeal from denial of Rule 60(b) relief does not bring up the underlying judgment for review.” Bruce v. Bruce, 587 So. 2d 898, 903-04 (Miss. 1991). Instead, “Rule 60(b) is for extraordinary circumstances, for matters collateral to the merits, and affords a much narrower range of relief than Rule 59(e).” Id. at 903. “Rule 60(b) motions should not be used to relitigate cases.” S. Healthcare Servs. Inc. v. Lloyd’s of London, 110 So. 3d 735, 742 (¶16) (Miss. 2013). Nor is a Rule 60(b) motion a substitute for a timely appeal. Id. at (¶14).

¶7. Loftin is not entitled to relief from judgment under Rule 60(b). We therefore affirm the trial court’s judgment denying Loftin’s motion for reconsideration.

Comments:

  • A R59 motion for a new trial or rehearing will stop the appeal deadline from running, but it must be filed within ten days of entry of the judgment.
  • A R60 motion does not stop the running of the appeal deadline.
  • Even if you style your motion as a R59 motion and ask for R59 relief, if you file it more than ten days after entry of the judgment, it will be treated as a R60 motion.
  • If you ask for relief under R60, you should spell out exactly what provisions of R60 you are invoking.
  • Remember that, as between R59 and R60(b), only a R59 motion will allow the appellate court to review the merits of the underlying judgment. An appeal from denial of a R60(b) motion limits the appellate court to a review of the denial of the R60(b) motion only.

Can You Ask for Rehearing, or to Alter or Amend a Judgment, Before There is a Judgment?

August 1, 2013 § 3 Comments

It’s fairly common in this court in a complicated case for me to issue an opinion in a case and direct that one of the attorneys prepare a judgment corresponding with it. The opinion is is issued on one date, and the judgment, as a result, is entered perhaps two weeks later.

It’s also fairly common for a lawyer, once the opinion has been issued, to file an MRCP 59 motion for rehearing in the interval between issuance of the opinion and entry of the judgment.

It does make a difference when you file your post-trial motion. A motion filed within 10 days of entry of the judgment is treated as a R59 motion, and one filed later than 10 days is treated as a R60 motion. City of Jackson v. Jackson Oaks Limited Partnership, 792 So.2d 983, 985 (Miss. 2001). Since the subject matter that may be addressed under each rule is markedly different, you can see that it makes quite a difference when your motion is filed.

So how is the court to treat your motion if you file it even before a judgment is entered? Is your motion a nullity?

The COA addressed the issue in Street v. Street, 936 So.2d 1002 (Miss. App. 2006), where the court stated:

¶ 16. The timing of post-trial motions under Rule 59(a) and Rule 59(e) is the same; such motions must be made “not later than ten days after the entry of judgment.” M.R.C.P. 59(b); 59(e). Both Stephen’s Rule 59(e) motion for reconsideration and his Rule 59(a) motion for a new trial were filed after the chancellor’s bench opinion but before the final judgment was entered. Carla argues that Stephen’s motion for reconsideration was untimely under Rule 59(e) because it was filed before the final judgment was entered rather than within ten days after the entry of the final judgment. For that reason, she contends that the motion should not have been considered by the chancellor.

¶ 17. It appears that the question of whether a Rule 59(e) motion is timely if filed before the entry of a final judgment is one of first impression in Mississippi. However, “[t]he Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure are patterned after the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and we have looked to the federal interpretations of our state counterparts as persuasive authority.” Hartford Cas. Ins. Co. v. Halliburton Co., 826 So.2d 1206, 1215(¶ 32) (Miss.2001). Federal authority is settled that a Rule 59 motion is timely though filed after the court makes findings of fact but before the entry of a final judgment. See 11 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 2d § 2812 at 82 n. 44 (1973).

¶ 18. As previously stated, the timing of a Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend a judgment and a Rule 59(a) motion for a new trial is identical; both motions must be made “not later than ten days after the entry of judgment.” M.R.C.P. 59(b); 59(e). In Hilst v. Bowen, 874 F.2d 725, 726 (10th Cir.1989), the Tenth Circuit observed that “courts and commentators generally agree that this ten-day limit sets only a maximum period and does not preclude a party from making a Rule 59 motion before a formal judgment has been entered.” The Hilst court found that the appellant’s motion for reconsideration was timely though made after the lower court rendered a memorandum and order but before the court entered a final judgment. Id. In concluding that a motion for a new trial filed before entry of judgment was timely, the Fifth Circuit stated that “[the] language [of Rule 59(b) ] does not explicitly require that a motion for new trial be made after judgment is entered, and it has not been interpreted to include this requirement.” Greater Houston Ch. of the ACLU v. Eckels, 755 F.2d 426, 427 (5th Cir.1985); see also McCulloch Motors Corp. v. Oregon Saw Chain Corp., 245 F.Supp. 851, 853 (S.D.Cal.1963) (finding that, by the rule’s use of the words “shall” and “not later than,” the ten days after the entry of judgment established an outside, not an inside, limit for the timing of a motion for a new trial). Based on this authority, we find that Stephen’s Rule 59(e) motion was timely filed after the chancellor’s rendition of her bench opinion, though before the final judgment was entered.

 Street was cited in the later case of Gary v. Gary, 84 So.3d 836 (Miss. App. 2012):

¶ 12. Because Michael filed his motion to reconsider five days before the November 29, 2010 entry of the nunc pro tunc order, this court considers his motion for reconsideration as a motion for new hearing or, alternatively, to amend or alter the judgment under Rule 59. M.R.C.P. 59(a), (e) (requiring both motion for new trial and a motion to alter or amend the judgment “be filed not later than ten days after entry of the judgment”); see Street v. Street, 936 So.2d 1002, 1008 (¶ 17) (Miss.Ct.App.2006) (finding a motion to alter the judgment filed after the court made findings of fact but before the entry of a final judgment was timely under Rule 59).

Thanks to attorney David L. Calder of the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law

SOME RULE 59 PITFALLS

June 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here’s the scenario … You are unhappy with the judge’s ruling in the divorce, and so is your client. The judgment was entered 7 days ago, and you and your client agree that neither a post-trial motion nor an appeal were included in the fee you charged to this point. Your client promised to bring you another few hundred dollars to file an appropriate post-trial motion. She understands that a R59 motion will toll the time for appeal, giving her additional time to marshal her assets for an appeal, if necessary. She also understands that the R59 motion must be filed within ten days of the date of the judgment. But time is running out and you haven’t heard back from her. You call opposing counsel, who is quite accommodating and suggests you just send an agreed order extending the time to file. You want 30 days? No problem. He’ll sign.

Pondering your impending dilemma, you arrive at several options:

  1. You could send that agreed judgment extending the time to file a R59 motion. You could get it to the judge at least by the tenth day, getting you in under the wire.
  2. Or, you could go ahead without your client’s participation, and without compensation, and file that R59 motion anyway.
  3. Or, you could just let the ten days go by, and file a R60 motion after then, if you get paid.
  4. Or, you could just not file a post-trial motion, and let the client pay for an appeal only.
  5. Or you could do nothing, and let the sorry so and so just rot in the sun because you weren’t paid.

Let’s look at these one by one:

  1. The agreed order. Before you do this read R59. I’ll wait. [Humming Tom Petty’s You Don’t Know What It’s Like to be Me to myself]. Done? What did you find? Is there any provision to enlarge the time? Not specifically, you say, but it’s not precluded by the language of R59. True, but read on in the Comment, where it says, “The ten-day period may not be enlarged. MRCP 6(b)(2).” R6(b)(2) states that the court, ” … may not extend the time for taking any action under Rules 50(b), 52(b), 59(b), 59(d), 59(e), 60(b), and 60(c) except to the extent and under the conditions therein stated.” So that accommodating counsel opposite may really be a Br’er Fox luring you to your doom.
  2. Go ahead on your own. This is the option I would elect. Filing the motion gives your client maximum protection. All R59 relief is on the table, and the time for appeal is extended. If your client changes her mind, you can always dismiss the motion. What about the fact that the filing was not explicitly authorized by your client? You should have no culpability if your action is in your client’s best interest. And as for pay, you can settle that later. Your client’s best interest comes first.
  3. R60 motion instead of R59. Not the best option. R60 does not stop the 30-day appeal clock from running. The scope of R60 is quite different from R59.
  4. No post-trial motion. At first blush, not an entirely unacceptable choice. A post-trial motion is not a prerequisite to an appeal in chancery. One drawback, though, is that if no R59 motion is filed the appeal deadline continues to run unabated. Another drawback is that a R59 motion may alert the judge to some flaw in his or her decision that she could correct, saving your client the considerable expense of an appeal. And, a more subtle consideration is that R59 allows you to bring something to the attention of the trial judge that you may not have objected to or made your record on at trial, and which would thereby be barred on appeal if you did not give the trial judge a chance to rule on it before your appeal.
  5. Rot in the sun. Are you serious?

The confluence of entry of a judgment, deadlines for post-trial motions, and deadline for appeal create a perilous passage fraught with shoals and cross-currents that can cause you and your client great damage. Watch the clock and chart a course that will ensure both of you the greatest possible protection.

SERIAL MRCP 59 MOTIONS

May 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

The MSSC case McNeese v. McNeese, decided April 25, 2013, is one that addresses a dizzying variety of points. But I want to focus on the particular aspect of the post-trial motions filed by both parties.

By way of background, the case arose after Kenton and Katye McNeese entered into a consent to divorce on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences, reserving for adjudication the issues of custody, visitation, support, equitable distribution, and alimony. After the judge rendered a judgment on September 2, 1011, mostly in Katye’s favor, she timely filed an MRCP 59 motion complaining that Kenton had failed to disclose certain items in his financial disclosures. Kenton neither responded nor filed his own R59 or 60 motion.

Following a hearing on Katye’s motion, the court entered an order on October 12, 2011, ruling on Katye’s motion, followed on the same day by an amended opinion and judgment clarifying the original opinion. And that is when all proverbial hell broke loose.

Kenton fired his attorney and, on the day following entry of the amended judgment, filed pro se “Motion to Reconsider, Motion for New Trial, to Alter or Amend Judgment, and Motion for Stay of Proceedings.” His motion(s) were filed 31 days after entry of the original judgment.

[Reconsideration, or Rehearing?]

The chancellor, in a display of saintly forebearance that one would be unlikely to experience with this judge, patiently allowed Kenton to present his argument and even evidence, the bulk of which was an attempt to show how the judge was wrong in his original ruling. The chancellor denied Kenton’s motion, Kenton filed a pro se appeal, and the MSSC took 23 pages to arrive at the word, “Affirmed.”

Let’s stop right there. Here are a couple of questions I have about what happened:

  • Kenton’s motion was an attack on the trial judge’s original ruling, essentially asking him to “reconsider” what he had done, or, in the parlance of the rule, for a “rehearing.” Those are R59 issues, that were required to be asserted within ten days of entry of the judgment, but he did not file his motion until 31 days after entry of the judgment. So why was he allowed to raise those points at that late date, and again on appeal? The amended judgment only clarified the original judgment, and apparently did not add anything substantive. Even if it had, however, I don’t think as a matter of law that entry of the amended judgment opened that door back for him, for the reasons I will state below.    
  • In the case of Edwards v. Roberts, 771 So.2d 378 (Miss.App. 2000), the COA held that there is one round of R59 motions, and only one round. You do not get to file for rehearing after the judge has ruled on the motion for rehearing. If that were not so, one could almost permanently toll the time for appeal by filing serial R59 motions after every ruling on previously-filed R59 motions, ad infinitum. There has to be finality of judgments. So how was Kenton able to get away with it in his case?
  • Kenton’s motion, since it was filed more than 10 days after entry of the original judgment, was properly a R60 motion. It did raise a single, valid R60 issue, namely the existence of newly-discovered evidence. The chancellor did allow him to proffer the allegedly newly-discovered evidence, which the judge ruled to be insignificant, and the MSSC affirmed. All of the other issues raised by Kenton were outside the scope of R60. I would have rejected them as untimely, and I hope I would have been affirmed.

These may appear to be quibbling points, but litigants, pro se and represented alike, are entitled to a final conclusion to their litigation travail. Untimely and insubstantial post-trial motions delay that finality and inject issues into the appeal that waste time and resources of the appellate courts to address and resolve.

WHIRLPOOL OF POST-TRIAL RELIEF

April 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

Anyone who has ever canoed or kayaked a swift-flowing stream knows that you can get caught in a whirlpool of cross-currents that is mighty difficult to get free of, and, instead of paddling along one’s intended course, one paddles frantically to break loose.

That’s the effect of what happened in McBride v. McBride, a COA case decided April 2, 2013. In that case, Robert and Vanessa were involved in a divorce. The court rendered a final judgment, and Vanessa filed a Rule 59 motion for rehearing (which she styled as a motion for reconsideration, btw). Some four months later Robert filed his “Motion for rehearing on Vanessa McBride’s Motion for Reconsideration, or, in the Alternative, for New Trial.” So, what we have here is a motion to “reconsider” the reconsideration; a post-trial whirlpool, if you will. Vanessa appealed.

In its opinion, the COA says at ¶13, “In her brief, Vanessa claims that Robert’s motion was not allowed ‘as the law allows one motion for reconsideration/new trial after a judgment is entered.’ Yet, Vanessa does not cite any authority for this legal principle.” And at ¶16: “As much as we may like to impose a one-motion-for-reconsideration rule, there is simply no authority to impose such a limitation …”

Now, it’s unclear to me exactly what Vanessa was attempting to argue with her one-motion claim, but I do believe there is a one-motion-for-Rule 59- relief rule expounded by our courts. In Edwards v. Roberts, 771 So.2d 378, (Miss.App. 2000), the COA addressed the issue in the context of a circuit court ruling on a motion for a new trial, which is the circuit court counterpart to the chancery court motion for rehearing, both of which are brought under MRCP 59. Here’s what the court said:

¶ 21. We start with the settled law that after a motion for new trial has been denied, no right exists to file for reconsideration. We find that reasoning equally applicable to motions for JNOV. “When the procedure authorizing a motion for a new trial has been followed and, pursuant to proper notice, the parties have made their representations to the court, and the court has duly considered and made his decision upon that motion, that completes both the duty and the prerogative of the court.” Griffin v. State, 565 So.2d 545, 550 (Miss.1990) (emphasis added). In Griffin, the lower court sustained two criminal defendants’ motion for new trial as to two of the counts, and overruled as to one count. Id. at 545. The defendants fled and were captured several years later. Id. At that time the State moved to set aside the order granting a new trial. Id. The judge sustained the State’s motions because he believed that he had made an error at law in granting a new trial. Id. On appeal, the Supreme Court found that the judge had no authority to revoke his earlier order for a new trial. Id.

¶ 22. The Griffin court relied on other states that had addressed the same question. Among other authorities, the court quoted the California Supreme Court’s holding that, “It has long been the rule that ‘A final order granting or denying [a motion for a new trial], regularly made, exhausts the court’s jurisdiction, and cannot be set aside or modified by the trial court except to correct clerical error or to give relief from inadvertence….’ ” Griffin, 565 So.2d at 549 (citing Wenzoski v. Central Banking Sys., 43 Cal.3d 539, 237 Cal.Rptr. 167, 736 P.2d 753, 754 (1987)). Once a motion for new trial has been ruled upon:

[I]f the party ruled against were permitted to go beyond the rules, make a motion for reconsideration, and persuade the judge to reverse himself, the question arises, why should not the other party who is now ruled against be permitted to make a motion for re-re-consideration, asking the court to again reverse himself? … This reflection brings one to realize what an unsatisfactory situation would exist if a judge could carry in his mind indefinitely a state of uncertainty as to what the final resolution of the matter should be.

Griffin, 565 So.2d at 549–50 (citing Drury v. Lunceford, 18 Utah 2d 74, 415 P.2d 662, 663–64 (1966)).

[9] ¶ 23. Though Griffin is a criminal case, the Supreme Court’s principal authorities for holding it improper to move for reconsideration of a motion for new trial were civil cases under versions of Rule 59. The Supreme Court’s conclusion that ruling on one motion for new trial exhausts the power of the court to entertain another such motion, certainly has an impact here. Until a judgment is final, a court has the authority to amend it. Griffin v. Tall Timbers Development, Inc., 681 So.2d 546, 552 (Miss.1996). Conversely, once it is final the authority is lost. The court’s initiating it own reconsideration removes the finality of the judgment after an earlier motion was denied. That creates the same difficulties that were discussed in Griffin v. State. Just as a second motion under Rule 59(a) cannot be brought by a party after an earlier Rule 59(a) motion has been denied, neither can the trial court itself entertain its own reconsideration under Rule 59(d) or Rule 50(b).

¶ 24. This is not to say that the finality of the judgment created by the denial of the first motion for new trial is absolutely unchangeable. Griffin v. State itself says that one last tool remains—correcting clerical error, relieving inadvertence, responding to newly discovered evidence, or otherwise considering the grounds for a Rule 60 motion. Griffin, 565 So.2d at 549. Since the state and federal versions of Rule 60 are similar, we can seek a better understanding of what can be achieved under Rule 60 by examining an explanation of federal caselaw. The Mississippi Supreme Court has said “the federal construction of the counterpart rule will be ‘persuasive of what our construction of our similarly worded rule ought to be.’ ” Bruce v. Bruce, 587 So.2d 898, 903 (Miss.1991) (citation omitted). The following section of an eminent treatise on the federal rules first explains that a denial of a new trial motion cannot be reconsidered, and then suggests what remains:

Term time as both a grant and limitation upon the district court’s power over its final judgments has been eliminated.[ footnote omitted] In lieu thereof and in the interest of judgment finality a short time period, that is not subject to enlargement, has been substituted, within which a party may move for a new trial or to alter or amend the judgment. When the court has decided such a motion in a way that the finality of the judgment has been restored, then relief, if any, should come by appeal or by a motion under Rule 60(b), which does not affect the finality of the judgment or suspend its operation. It would be destructive of the general aim of the Rules to permit successive attacks upon final judgments on motions to reconsider orders that deny new trial, or that deny or grant an alteration or amendment of the judgment.

The logic is clear that if there were no limit to motions for rehearing, there would never be an appeal from a final judgment as long as the successive motions are pending. It would be like getting caught in that whirlpool when you’re trying to paddle to finality.

McBride was reversed and remanded on other grounds. Judge Griffis’s opinion addresses the vernacular use of the term “reconsideration” at ¶15. It’s a subject we’ve discussed here previously.

MRCP 59 AND APPEALABILITY IN CHANCERY

March 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

In Forbes v. St. Martin, et al., handed down March 5, 2013, from the COA, the appellants’ first issue on appeal was “Whether the chancellor erred in denying the post-judgment motion of the [appellant] pursuant to MRCP 59.” Judge Griffis, for the majority, said:

¶15. There is actually only one issue in this appeal — whether it was error to grant the summary judgment. A chancellor’s judgment is final and appealable, and there is no requirement that a post-judgment motion be filed to perfect an appeal from chancery court.

¶16. In chancery court, a Rule 59(a) motion may be filed: (i) “for any of the reasons for which rehearings have heretofore been granted in suits in equity in the courts of Mississippi,” or (ii) for a new trial so “the court may open the judgment if one has been entered, take additional testimony, amend findings of fact and conclusions of law or make new findings and conclusions, and direct the entry of a new judgment.” A Rule 59(e) motion would allow the chancellor to “alter or amend the judgment.”

¶17. Forbes’s brief contends that the chancellor erred in the denial of the motion for reconsideration. “[A] motion to set aside or reconsider an order granting summary judgment will be treated as a motion under Rule 59(e).” Brooks v. Roberts, 882 So. 2d 229, 233 (¶15) (Miss. 2004) (citation omitted). “[T]he movant must show: (i) an intervening change in controlling law, (ii) availability of new evidence not previously available, or (iii) need to correct a clear error of law or to prevent manifest injustice.” Id. (citation omitted). A chancellor’s decision to deny a Rule 59 motion is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Brooks, 882 So. 2d at 233 (¶15). Forbes has offered no argument that the chancellor abused his discretion in the denial of the motion for reconsideration. Accordingly, we find no error as to the second issue, and we only consider whether it was proper for the chancellor to grant a summary judgment as to all claims. [Emphasis added]

I’ve made the assertion here before that an MRCP 59 motion is not required as a prerequisite to an appeal in a chancery court proceeding where the case was tried to the judge. A case tried to the judge without a jury does not require such a motion. That is the opposite of the rule when a jury has rendered a verdict in circuit and county courts; in those cases a motion for a directed verdict or JNOV under MRCP 50 would be required as a prerequisite to appeal.

The language above is also a good survey of what must be shown to get relief under R59.

ONE MORE CONSIDERATION OF RECONSIDERATION

February 21, 2013 § 8 Comments

I posted here not too long ago about the vernacular use of “Motion for Reconsideration” as the post-trial motion that is MRCP 59.

It’s pretty widespread. I recently had a four-page post-order motion challenging a temporary ruling of mine. The motion did not invoke any MRCP at all, but every page included the words “reconsideration” or “reconsider” at least once. When I took the bench and announced that I would treat the motion as made per MRCP 59 (which was an indulgence, since I am convinced that MRCP 59 relief lies only as to final judgments; See, Trilogy Communications, Inc. v. Thomas Truck Lease, Inc., 733 So.2d 313, 317-318 (Miss.App. 1998)), the proponent lawyer corrected me and said that it was actually a MRCP 60 motion for relief from judgment. Excuse me.

Judge Southwick back in 1999 addressed the subject in the case of Barber v. Balboa Life, 47 So.2d 863 (Miss.App. 1999), where he stated in footnote 3 at page 869:

“Pursuant to Rule 59 of M.R.C.P., relief following judgment is on motion for a new trial, not on motion to reconsider. Motions to reconsider, as previously known in practice and procedure in Mississippi prior to the adoption of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, have for all purposes and intent, been abolished and superceded [sic] by the aforementioned Rule 59 of M.R.C.P. It is suggested that the appellant apply Rule 59 of M.R.C.P. in the future under similar circumstances.”

That was 14 years ago. The footnote apparently didn’t have much impact.

I think the main reason most lawyers ask for reconsideration rather than rehearing, as the rule states, is that they absolutely do not want a rehearing. I mean, who really wants to retry what one has already tried? What they want the judge to do is take another look at the facts and/or the law and render a different result. That’s what rehearing has always looked like in chancery where the fact-finder and the judge of the law are one and the same. When the trial is over the fact-finder is not scattered to the far reaches of the county, as is the case with a jury. The fact-finder is right there in in the courthouse where she rendered the judgment in the first place. And she just might realize when confronted with the motion that a different outcome might be more equitable.

But the rule expressly says “rehearing.”

We judges are supposed to look past the form to the substance. When you use confusing language and do not invoke the proper rule, at best you will confuse the judge. At worst, you may find you’ve messed up your record for appeal.

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