Fixing Your No-Show

July 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

It can happen to the most diligent lawyer. Date of the trial is mis-calendered, or failed to get calendered, or you get busy doing something else and — oops — you are a no-show when the trial is scheduled to go.

A no-show is what happened in the case of Reed v. Reed, handed down by the COA June 24, 2014.

Jimmy Reed and his lawyer did not appear at the time appointed for Jimmy’s divorce trial. Jimmy’s lawyer believed that the case would not proceed as scheduled because, at the time, the chancellor was gravely ill. The lawyer even approached the district’s other chancellor and asked him to sign a continuance order in the belief that the case had been reassigned to him. The other chancellor demurred, however, and advised the lawyer to await appointment of a special judge by the MSSC.

The ill chancellor, however, did appear on the day set for the trial, as did Jimmy’s estranged wife and her attorney. The chancellor tried unsuccessfully for an hour to contact Jimmy’s lawyer, delaying the start of the trial. When he could not make contact the judge let Mrs. Reed proceed, and he rendered a judgment granting her a divorce on terms not very favorable to Jimmy.

Jimmy’s counsel learned what had transpired the next day when he received a fax from counsel opposite. He filed a timely R59 motion, explaining the reason for the failure to appear, and attacking the judgment as inequitable. The chancellor overruled the motion, and Jimmy appealed.

Citing Lee v. Lee, 78 So.3d 326, 328 (Miss. 2012), the court noted that ” … [a] divorce judgment entered when a party fails to appear is a special kind of default judgment. And to obtain relief from such judgments, absent parties are required to raise the issues in post-trial motions …” Since Jimmy had done exactly that, the COA accepted the case and reversed the chancellor’s ruling because he ” … failed to support his [equitable distribution] findings with any analysis, discussion, or mention of the Ferguson factors or the evidence before him …”

A few points to take away from this case:

  • If you find yourself in a no-show predicament, timely file a R59 motion and ask for rehearing. Don’t stop at explaining your unattendance; attack in the motion every aspect of the judgment. If you don’t, you will probably be barred from raising any claims of error that you did not mention in your motion.
  • The ASS-U-ME principle was at work here (ask somebody; they can explain). If I were Jimmy’s lawyer, I would have prepared for trial and shown up unless I had an agreed, signed, filed order of continuance in hand. I admit that I can be obsessive-compulsive about these things, but by assuming that the case was off, Jimmy was jeopardized unnecessarily. It all turned out okay, but it took an appeal to get Jimmy back to the starting line.
  • When the other side is a no-show, make sure that you put enough proof into the record (and do make a record) to support the judge’s findings. Then insist that the judge address and analyze all of the factors that apply in your particular case. Jimmy’s appeal would have been for naught had the chancellor simply analyzed the proof through the filter of the Ferguson factors.
  • I think most judges give an ordinarily diligent lawyer the benefit of the doubt in these cases. Everyone can screw up occasionally. On the other hand, lawyers who are chronically late or don’t attend to their business, or who make it a habit not to show up don’t get that favorable treatment. I have no idea why the chancellor in this particular case rejected the explanation for Jimmy’s non-appearance, so I can’t say whether the benefit-of-the-doubt principle was in play.

One nice subtlety in this case is Judge Ishee’s description of Jimmy’s post-trial motion as one for “rehearing,” as opposed to “reconsideration,” as is the common term for it. You can read another post on rehearing vs. reconsideration here.

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