March 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
When Jon A. Swartzfager and Thomas R. Saul had a disagreement over the sale of some land, Saul filed suit in chancery court for breach of contract, equitable estoppel, and promissory estoppel.
The chancellor of the district recused, and the MSSC appointed Special Chancellor #1. That judge granted partial summary judgment and conducted some proceedings, in one of which he declared a written instrument to be a valid, enforceable contract. Before he got to a trial, however, Chancellor #2 unfortunately died.
Enter Chancellor #3. This time, the judge did set the case for trial, and it was heard on November 29, 2012, and January 25 and April 8, 2013. Before Chancellor #3 could render a final judgment, he, too, died.
The MSSC appointed Chancellor #4, who huddled with the attorneys and entered an order memorializing the parties’ agreement that he could review the existing record and render a decision. Chancellor #4 did just that, finding that Swartzfager had breached the contract, and awarding damages of more than $200,000, which included $79,098.81 in prejudgment interest. Swartzfager appealed.
In the case of Swartzfager v. Saul, decided February 16, 2017, the MSSC reversed in part and remanded. Essentially, the court affirmed everything but the award of prejudgment interest, and remanded for the chancellor to recompute damages without the prejudgment interest.
Only thing is, Chancellor #4 is now retired and is no longer sitting as a senior or special judge, so he will not be available to deal with the case on remand.
Enter Chancellor #5. Stay tuned.
A few interesting points from the decision by Justice Maxwell:
- Swartzfager argued that the MSSC should review the case de novo because Chancellor #4 based his decision on testimony before previously-assigned chancellors; he also urged that the previous chancellors’ findings should be given no deference. The court rejected that claim at ¶18 on the principle of judicial estoppel. The parties had agreed to follow that procedure, and he is precluded from taking a contrary position at a later stage of the case.
- Another point pressed unsuccessfully by Swartzfager was that it was error for the chancellor to adopt Saul’s findings of fact and conclusions of law verbatim. The court disagreed, pointing out that the judge made his own findings, including adopting some findings of previous chancellors. I might add that even if the chancellor had wholly adopted Saul’s findings, it was not error for him to do so. You can read a post about the subject here.
- The reversal on the issue of prejudgment interest came about because Saul had not included a prayer for that relief in his complaint, and so he was precluded from getting that relief per MRCP 8. The court noted that, since the reversal was based on the state of the pleadings, and not on the merits, it did not need to address whether the damages were liquidated, or if there were bad faith, which are two of the bases necessary to support an award of prejudgment interest.
- There’s a lot of substance in this case that you might find useful, including: what it takes for a writing to be a contract; equitable estoppel; emotional distress damages arising out of a contract dispute; and assessment of attorney’s fees in absence of punitive damages.
January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
This from the case of Cornelius v. Overstreet, 757 So.2d 332, 335 (Miss. App. 2000):
¶ 9. In addition, this Court would like to comment to the bar and the trial bench about cases similar in nature which fall within the purview of Rule 81(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. The initiation of such actions should be by filing “complaints” or “petitions,” and “counterclaims” or “cross-claims” (whichever might be appropriate), not “motions” and “cross-petitions” as was done in this case. See M.R.C.P. 13, 81(d)(1-3), 81(f), and comments to 81(d)(3) and 81(f).
November 27, 2013 § 9 Comments
It’s no secret that lawyers do not reinvent the wheel every time they do a pleading, PSA, will, or other instrument. What happens when a client needs a document in a new matter is that one like it is conjured up from the bowels of the computer hard drive (substitute “Cloud” for hard drive if you need to), the names and personal information are changed, tweaks are made to make it fit the new matter’s particular circumstances, and — voila! — the new document is dispatched into the legal universe to do the task it was designated to do.
This process works quite well as long as the attorney (or staff) is vigilant, but sometimes there are embarrassing glitches.
One obvious problem occurs when not all of the requisite changes are made, creating incongruities that can have consequences ranging from comic to tragic.
The type of problem I would like to address, however, is one that I characterize as “fossilization of the hard drive.” It occurs when lawyers time and again have the same erroneous matter in pleadings, PSA’s, or other documents, and, when (again) brought to their attention the lawyers sheepishly admit the error and promise (again) to fix it. But they don’t. Because that error is saved countless times in other documents on the hard drive, and changing it once does not solve the problem.
A harmless example of what I am talking about is the lawyer in our district whose divorce complaints pled grounds thus: ” … guilty of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment as codiciled in MCA 93-5-1 …” That’s hard to eradicate when it appears in 1,000 other complaints stored — and fossilized — on the hard drive. Every time I called it to his attention, he professed he would fix it. After five years or so, he managed to pull it off somehow.
How do you make sure that, as you catch a flaw in your pleadings, or learn the hard way not to include a particular provision in a PSA, or a case comes down mandating that you change a will provision, that you will get it right next time?
Here is a suggested solution. When you save a complaint, or PSA, or will, always add the month and year when it was done as a suffix to the file name. Example: “Henry PSA 08-13” or “Jackson Divorce Complaint 11-13” or “Reed Tom Will 04-12.” As you refine your pleadings, PSA’s, and probate documents, you save them as the most recent, and then, later, when you need a template, you call up the most recent as the best example that incorporates new innovations and eliminates old errors. That way, the old fossils can repose undisturbed until some 22nd-century legal archaeologist stumbles on them.
There is probably a better way to do this that you have discovered and implemented in the intervening years since I passed on from the practice. If so, you can leave them in a comment or email me.
November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
A chancellor has the power to impose conditions that may seem “just and proper under the circumstances,” regardless whether any party demanded such relief. Miss. State Highway Commission v. Spencer, 233 Miss. 155, 101 So.2d 499, 504-05 (1958).
The source of this power is apparent in several of the maxims of equity:
- Equity will not suffer a wrong without a remedy.
- Equity delights to do complete justice and not by halves.
- Equity acts specifically and not by way of compensation.
The proper focus of a chancery court remedy, then, should be to fix the underlying problem, completely and not in part.
In three recent COA cases, the court upheld chancellors’ rulings where the trial judge went beyond the pleadings to fashion a remedy designed to fix the underlying problem.
In Goolsby v. Crane, decided October 23, 2012, and discussed in a previous post, the parties were before the court on the mother’s petition to modify to increase child support, and the father’s counterclaim for custody. After hearing all of the testimony, particularly that of the children, the chancellor found that the then-existing visitation schedule was not working, and he modified the visitation schedule. No one had asked for that particular relief, but the COA affirmed on the basis that there was substantial evidence to support the judge’s action.
The case of Finch v. Finch, handed down October 2, 2012, which was the subject of a previous post here, arose from post-divorce contempt and modification procedures. The ex-husband pled that the ex-wife’s alimony should be terminated because she had misled him about joint debts when he agreed to a property settlement agreement, and he now found himself saddled with considerable debt. The chancellor took it a step further and found that the ex-wife had committed a fraud on the court, justifying termination of her alimony. The ex-wife appealed, copmplaining that the ex-husband had failed properly to plead fraud (see Rogers v. Rogers, decided August 1, 2012, and posted about here). The COA affirmed, finding that there was a substantial basis to support the chancellor’s decision, and pointing out anyway that the mention of the words “falsely represented” in the ex-husband’s petition was enough notice that the issue was in play. The court also pointed out that the chancellor has the power under MRCP 60(b) on her own motion to address fraud.
In Scott v. Scott, decided October 30, 2012, the parties had entered into a 1997 property settlement agreement that gave the ex-wife all of the ex-husband’s Tier II Railroad Retirement Benefits “through the date of the divorce.” A separate order was drafted for submission to the retirment agency in the form required by that agency, but the order left out the phrase “through the date of the divorce.” Predictably, when the husband applied for his benefits, he learned to his chagrin that the agency, relying on the order, had awarded the wife 100% of the Tier II without limitation. The ex-husband asked the chancellor to modify to correct the situation, and the ex-wife denied that the property division could be modified. The chancellor brushed aside both positions and invoked MRCP 60(a) to correct the clear discrepancy between the express terms of the parties’ agreement and the order. The COA affirmed.
The common thread in each of these cases is that the trial judge did what she or he deemed “just and proper under the circumstances” to fix the underlying problem. It’s a matter of substance over form.
March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
Litigation Misfire. (noun): 1. Litigation that fails to ignite at the proper point 2. A case that blows up in one’s face. 3. Any case in which none or few of the positive points your client told you about her case ever materializes at trial.
We’ve all had our misfires. No need to catalog them here. Some misfires happen despite your best efforts and most professional approach to the case. Others are the direct result of a lawyer’s failure to do his homework. When the misfire falls in the latter category, it can dearly cost your client, or you, or both of you. The cost of a misfire can be a daunting thing.
In the COA case of McKnight v. Jenkins, decided March 13, 2012, the tab came to $23,969.17. Here is what Judge Lee’s opinion said, beginning at ¶ 14:
“The chancellor ordered Holly to pay $19,956.67 in Walter’s attorneys’ fees and $4,012.50 in GAL fees. The chancellor found Walter’s attorneys’ fees had been incurred for his defense of the abuse and contempt allegations. The chancellor found sanctions would be appropriate due to Holly’s unsubstantiated slander of the chancellor who had previously been involved in the case; however, the chancellor did not attribute a specific amount of his award as sanctions. In regard to the contempt action, “[a] chancellor is justified in awarding attorney’s fees that are incurred in pursuing a contempt motion.” Elliott v. Rogers, 775 So. 2d 1285, 1290 (¶25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000). In regard to Walter’s defense of the abuse allegations, the chancellor relied upon Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-23 (Supp. 2011), which requires a party alleging child abuse to pay court costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred by the defending party if the allegations are found to be without merit. The chancellor found, pursuant to McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764 (Miss. 1982), the attorneys’ fees incurred by Walter were reasonable and necessary. We can find no abuse of discretion by the chancellor in awarding Walter attorneys’ fees.
¶15. In regard to the GAL fees, the chancellor determined Holly’s unfounded abuse allegations were the reason he appointed a GAL; thus, the chancellor contended Holly should be responsible for the GAL’s fees. Section 93-5-23 also requires the party alleging child abuse to pay court costs in addition to attorneys’ fees. GAL fees have been considered court costs. Foster v. Foster, 788 So. 2d 779, 782 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000). Thus, it was proper for the chancellor to order Holly to pay the GAL fees.”
You can add to the ouch factor in this case the fact that Holly was unemployed at the time she was assessed these fees and costs. It matters not what her ability to pay is when the fees are assessed for contempt.
It goes without saying, or should, that you need to investigate the claims that your client brings to you, no matter how tempting that cash retainer looks. MRCP 11(a) specifically says that when the attorney signs the pleading as required:
The signature of an attorney constitutes a certificate that the attorney has read the pleading or motion; that to the best of the attorney’s knowledge, information and belief there is good ground to support it; and that it is not interposed for delay.
Those words are there for a reason. They impose an important and serious duty on you as an officer of the court not to burden the courts, opposing parties and counsel with frivolous or unfounded matters, to limit your pleadings only to those that genuinely state a cause of action, and to do your homework before you ever set the wheels of the courts in motion.
The payback for not complying with MRCP 11(a) is set out in MRCP 11(b). It’s interesting reading, and I won’t spoil the surprise for you by repeating it here, but you really should read it for yourself and not hear it for the first time from the bench. On March 15, 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld 11(b) sanctions in a case out of Rankin County, In Re Guardianship of B.A.D., which reversed and remanded on other grounds. You should read that case for its exposition of what it is like to face the wrath of a chancellor.
Don’t overlook Rule 2.1 of the Rules of Professional conduct, which requires you to act as an advisor to your client. As I have said here many times, you are not a mere clerk-typist for your client. Nor are you merely your client’s robotic alter ego. You are an independent professional whose highest duty is to advise. As a wise man once said, “About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists of telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop.”
MCA § 93-5-23 states “If, after investigation by the Department of Human Services or final disposition by the youth court or family court allegations of abuse are found to be without foundation, the chancery court shall order the alleging party to pay all court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred by the defending party in response to such allegations.” The chancellor in McKnight could possibly have relied on that section, since he found the allegations to have been without foundation. I have taken the position that all of the elements of the statute have to be present in order to require the imposition of sanctions; i.e., there must be an investigation by DHS or final disposition by a youth court or family court, with a finding that the charges are without foundation. I refused to impose the statutory sanctions in a case where DHS found that the charges could not be substantiated because, by the time they investigated, the bruises on the child were too faded to make a clear finding. The fact that there were bruises convinced me that the charges were not “without foundation” within the meaning of the law, and DHS did not say they were without foundation. To me, sanctions should be carefully limited to appropriate cases so as to avoid a chilling effect on family members, neighbors, doctors, school officials and others who are in a position to report and perhaps put a stop to child abuse.
The Litigation Accountability Act, MCA 11-55-1, et seq. is something else to watch out for. It provides a cause of action against an attorney or party for meritless action, claim or defense, or for unwarranted delay or for “unnecessary proceedings.”
A caveat … the fact that I personally set a high threshhold for sanctions should not lead you to relax your standards. Professionalism demands it. And as a practical matter, your judge may see sanctions differently. I once saw a judge pop a lawyer, not her client, with a $1,500 sanction for failure to answer interrogatories after being ordered to do so. And I myself even assessed more than $20,000 in a case that had been tried by my predecessor, and which was reversed and remanded on a finding of no jurisdiction; the case law is clear that to pursue a case where there is no jurisdiction after you were put on notice is sanctionable, even where the chancellor allowed you to proceed to final judgment.
In my opinion, all sanctions should be judiciously weighed and never lightly imposed. Some lawyers seem to add requests for sanctions to almost every pleading they file, although those requests are, wisely, seldom presented for adjudication. Seems to me that the old saw, “what goes around comes around,” has particularly apt application to this subject.
January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
Consider this scenario …
You have represented Betty Sue in several matters, including a contentious divorce, contempts, and closing on her new home. Betty Sue was so satisfied that you have ended up doing legal work for many of her family and friends. She has been quite the bonanza in terms of clientelle. One day she comes into your office with her ex and asks you to do an agreed modification so that Junior can go live with his dad in Simpson County to play football. You draft a joint petition and an agreed judgment, have everyone sign off, present it to the chancellor, and Voila! Another minor miracle to impress Betty Sue and her wide circle of family and friends.
As often happens, though, things fall apart. Junior gets into trouble and is kicked off of the football team. He is not getting along with dad, and he decides he wants to return to mom. Dad refuses. Betty Sue returns once again to your office, and you take a retainer, prep pleadings, and file for modification, fully expecting another feather in your cap. So far so good. Until …
In the mail comes a motion to disqualify you in the case on the basis that you represented both parties in that joint motion and agreed judgment. You dig up the file and to your dismay you see that nowhere on the pleading or the judgment is it indicated that you represented Betty Sue alone. The chancellor sees it the other side’s way, and you are out on your ear. Betty Sue and her family, being country folk who don’t have time for subtleties and nuances, feel that you are dropping her and maybe even have gotten in league with her ex. Ouch. To try to make amends you refund Betty Sue’s retainer so she can hire another attorney. But the damage is done.
The problem could have been avoided if you had simply included a paragraph in the pleading that spelled out that you represent Betty Sue alone in the modification, that you have given no legal advice to the ex, and that he signifies by signing that he understands that he may consult with any attorney of his choice; you should also have spelled out at your signature line “Attorney for Betty Sue _____ only,” and added pro se, after the ex’s name. That would have been plenty for the chancellor to refuse to disqualify you.
The same principle applies any time the other party is unrepresented. Be especially aware when you have a joint complaint for irreconcilable differences (ID) divorce that, since it is unethical for an attorney to represent both parties in an ID divorce, your pleading must spell out which party you represent.
And always, in your property settlement agreement (PSA), add a paragraph identifying which spouse you represent, that you have provided the unrepresented party no advice, and that the unrepresented party has had the opportunity to confer with the attorney of his or her choice. That way, when the pro se party signs the PSA, future quibbling over who you represented is effectively sealed off.
Another source of confusion over who represents whom arises in minor’s settlements. Insurance companies often hire attorneys to file the petition and have it approved by the court. Too often, though, that petition does not specify whom the attorney represents. It would seem to be a simple matter for some language like that set out above to be included in the petition and even in the judgment approving the settlement. Leaving the point ambiguous would seem to be an invitation to a fly-specking attorney to try later to get the settlement set aside. If you would like to read about how and why that might happen, check out Carpenter v. Berry, et al.
Finally, confusion over who represents whom can arise when a lawyer lets his or her name slip into the court file. That happened in my court recently when a lawyer showed up in response to an MRCP 81 summons and allowed as how she “might be hired to represent the respondent,” and signed off on an agreed order resetting the hearing. She later tried to take the position that she had never been hired and so was not in the case. Sorry, but she is in the case until the judge signs an order letting her out. Another post on when appearances can lock you into a case is here.
November 1, 2011 § 2 Comments
“It is the pleading that makes the case for adjudication, and it is the evidence that sustains or defeats it upon the final hearing.” Terry v. Jones, 44 Miss. 540, 1871 WL 8413 (1871).
Voilà! After 140 years and a sea-change in the rules of Mississippi pleading, that ancient formula holds oh-so true in our courts. The pleadings frame the issues; the evidence admitted at trial determines the outcome.
Put another way: THE PLEADINGS ARE NOT EVIDENCE.
This immutable principle has not only for ages been a bedrock of procedure in Mississippi courts, it has also been the rock that has dashed the case of many an unseasoned or unwary practitioner.
Don’t ever assume because you have pled something that the court will take it as true. On the contrary, without actual evidence in the record, the court can not take it as true, whether it wants to or not.
I have seen lawyers leave key elements of their cases lying on the court room floor simply because they neglected to offer proof thereof. This is a chronic problem when it comes to claims for attorney’s fees, but the problem is not limited to that issue. I see Rule 59 motions more frequently than I’d like where the motion claims I “overlooked” a point, but the attorney concedes that the witness never testified about the matter. I should grant the motion, the lawyer pleads, because it was, after all, in the pleadings.
Here’s the deal: If you don’t include a properly-pled issue in your pleadings, the court can not consider it. BUT, just because it is in your pleadings does not mean it is established; you still have to put on evidence in support of it.
September 12, 2011 § 2 Comments
Riff Raff: I ask for nothing, Master!
Frank: And you shall receive it, IN ABUNDANCE!
— From The Rocky Horror Picture Show
In chancery court, be careful what you ask for — or don’t ask for. What and how you plead can make a big difference in your outcome.
Take the case of Caudill v. Caudill, 811 So.2d 407, 408-9 (Miss. App. 2001), in which Douglas, acting pro se, filed a response to a contempt petition raising his inability to pay as a defense. When Douglas tried to argue at trial that his pleading was sufficient to support a reduction in separate maintenance, the chancellor rejected his claim on the basis that “there is no petition to relieve you of paying …” and that he “needed to have filed a counterclaim asking for affirmative relief.” Douglas appealed, pointing out that pro se litigants are held to a less stringent standard of pleading than are lawyers. McFadden v. State, 580 So.2d 1210, 1214 (Miss. 1991). Citing West v. Combs, 642 So.2d 917 (Miss. 1994), Douglas argued that the trial judge should have looked to the substance of his pleading rather than its form.
The COA rejected Douglas’s argument and upheld the chancellor:
“While it is true that a pro se litigant may not be held to the same standard in drafting his pleadings as an attorney, the chancellor is not held to the task of a mind reader. If the chancellor is not able to determine a request for relief from the pleadings, he may not grant such relief. Douglas did not make a specific request for a reduction in separate maintenance and did not amend his pleadings to include such a request. The chancellor did not abuse his discretion or commit manifest error in refusing to consider Douglas’s pro se answer as a counterclaim for a reduction in his obligation.”
If you don’t include a request for specific relief in your pleadings, don’t expect to get it.
Chancellors (thankfully) are not expected by the appellate courts to be mind readers — at least in the realm of pleadings.
This case involved a pro se litigant; you, as a lawyer, are held to a higher standard.
If you do overlook pleading for certain relief, try putting on proof on the point anyway, and, if you do put in the proof you need, ask the court for leave to amend the pleadings and conform the pleadings to the proof. If the other lawyer blocks your attempts, as for leave to amend per MRCP 15.
If you ask for nothing, you shall receive nothing — in abundance.
In the recent case of Knighten v. Hooper, decided September 6, 2011, the COA upheld the chancellor’s decision not to award the child dependency tax exemption on the basis that the issue was not raised in the pleadings. Both parties had, at the court’s behest, presented proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, and Knighten had inserted the issue for the first time in his submission. There had been no proof on the point at trial. The COA held at ¶ 16:
“After reviewing the pleadings and trial transcript, we find that Knighten did not properly raise the issue through his pleadings or evidence presented at trial. See MRCP 8, 15. As a result, Hooper was not given notice and an opportunity to respond. The issue was not subjected to the adversarial process and, as such, was not properly before the chancellor for consideration. Therefore, the chancellor did not err when she refused to address the issue in her judgment.”
While we are on the subject, keep in mind that once a pre-trial order is entered, it controls and determines the issues and relief, no matter what was in the original pleadings. In Singley v. Singley, 846 So.2d 1004 (Miss. 2002), the trial judge allowed in proof supportng a claim for alimony over objection on the basis that, although alimony had been omitted from the pre-trial order, it had been pled for in the original pleadings. The COA reversed, and the MSSC, in upholding the COA, stated, at page 1013:
“”The pre-trial statement approved by order of the chancellor controls. It is clear and concise, easily understood and substantially complies with M.R.C.P. 16. We hold that the chancellor cannot modify the statement unless it is done by mutual agreement with the parties as was initially done, or the chancellor finds manifest injustice, neither of which occurred. The Court of Appeals is affirmed on this issue.”
As it is true that you may not receive something for which you have not pled, the converse is true: that you may receive something for which you pled, but did not exactly foresee.
Take, for instance, the case of Rose v. Upshaw, handed down by the COA on August 30, 2011. In that case, Rose registered a Louisiana judgment in Mississippi, and asked the chancery court to severly restrict Upshaw’s visitation under the Louisina judgment. Instead, the chancellor found that the visitation provisions of the Louisiana judgment were not working, and modified the visitation in Upshaw’s favor. Rose appealed, contending that it was improper for the chancellor to grant any modification relief other than the restricted visitation he had prayed for. The COA disagreed:
Rose essentially argues, since he was the one to plead modification, the chancellor could only modify the visitation order to meet Rose’s specific request that Upshaw’s visitation be restricted. But, procedurally, the chancellor was not limited to granting all-or-nothing relief — either enforcement of the unmodified Louisiana order or restriction of Upshaw’s visitation rights. “On visitation issues, as with other issues concerning children, the chancery court enjoys a large amount of discretion in making its determination of what is in the nest interest of the child.” Haddon v. Haddon, 806 So.2d 1017, 1020 (¶ 12) (Miss. 2000)(citing Harrell v. Harrell, 231 So.2d 793, 797 (Miss. 1970).
So there you have it. Two general principles of pleading that you need to bear in mind:
- If your pleading does not include a clear request for relief that a chancellor can comprehend, you can’t expect to receive that relief; and
- Be careful of the issues you introduce into the proceedings because that whipsaw effect can sting.
March 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
If anyone has a legitimate claim over authority to have the last word, it’s got to be the Oxford English Dictionary, aka the OED to English word afficianados everywhere. The OED is recognized as being the authoritative source for what is and is not an actual English word (as any accomplished Scrabble fan can tell you).
When one thinks dictionary, however, one may think stuffy, hidebound, behind the times, snooty, pompous. After all, dictionariologists are ivory-tower academicians far removed from the slangy stew that we here in the real world actually speak, right?
Au contraire, mon frère (as George Carlin used to say). The OED is updated almost continuously, as I recently discovered. You can read updates weekly. Yes, weekly. Here is the latest update page; check it out for yourself.
It seems that the OED, in its never-ending quest to remain both authoritative and relevant is constantly prowling around, sniffing through pop culture and its detritus, detecting newly acceptable entrants into our ever-expanding language.
This particular update includes newly-recognized words (really initialisms): OMG (Oh my God, or gosh or goodness), LOL (laughing out loud), FYI (For your info), IMHO (in my humble opinion), TMI (too much info) and BFF (best friends forever), all from the internet. And here’s a stunning addition: ♥, as in “I♥NY.”
A few other neologisms of interest: La-La land; non-dom (non-domiciled); fabless (great word meaning the opposite of fabulous); muffin top (as in waistline flab); dotted line (think organizational chart, not legal document); happy camper; and lumpenintelligentsia (faux German for what I am not sure). There are others.
I am bringing these to your attention for the possibilities they open to spice up your appellate briefs and pleadings. Imagine what this new infusion of vocabalury would add to even the most prosaic pleadings. Take, for example, this paragraph of an Answer to a Complaint for Divorce:
In answer to Paragraph 6 charging him with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, defendant can only say OMG, she must have been in la-la land when she dreamed that up! FYI the defendant has never manhandled or even been rude to plaintiff, except for one heated argument about whether or not she had developed a muffin-top. Affirmatively, defendant would show that he is not a happy camper due to these charges, even though the relationship was pretty much fabless, defendant has nonethess ♥’d the plaintiff with all his ♥ and truly believed that he and the plaintiff were BFF. He also objects to this airing of the parties’ private business in these pleadings and resulting discovery as TMI.
How could any court frown on such a masterpiece of the language, bearing as it does the stamp of approval of the esteemed OED?
The possibilities appear endless, what with regular updates that literally ladle scoops of delicious new words onto your plate every week.
November 8, 2010 § 3 Comments
Rule 7, MRCP, states:
“There shall be a complaint and an answer; a reply to a counterclaim denominated as such; an answer to a cross-claim; a third-party complaint, if a person who is not an original party is summoned under the provisions of Rule 14; and a third-party answer, if a third-party complaint is served. No other pleading shall be allowed, except that the court may order a reply to an answer or third-party answer.”
“An application to the court for an order shall be by motion which, unless made during a hearing or trial, shall be made in writing, shall state with particularity the grounds therefor, and shall set forth the relief or order sought.”
Early on, the appellate courts held that the trial courts are to look beyond the name given to the pleading by the drafting attorney to the substance of the document. In other words, calling a counterclaim a “countercomplaint” or calling a petition a “motion” does not deprive the court of authority to act.
Still, styling a pleading incorrectly can cause confusion and may even lead the trial court into error, as it did in the case of Sanghi v. Sanghi, 759 So.2d 1250 (Miss. App. 2000).
The better practice is to use the proper nomenclature when drafting pleadings, so that your intent is clear and you can at least look like you know what you are doing.
I have looked at the rules and studied the few cases on the subject and have come to the conclusion that the following table sets out the proper names to be used for various pleadings, at least until the appellate courts give some more definitive guidance on the subject.
|Function||Title of Pleading||Party Filing and Opposing Party|
|Initiate a new lawsuit not based on a prior judgment||Complaint||Plaintiff and Defendant|
|Answer a Complaint||Answer||Defendant and Plaintiff|
|File a claim by defendant against the plaintiff||Counterclaim||Counterclaimant and Counterdefendant|
|File a claim by defendant against co-defendant||Cross-claim||Cross-claimant andCross-defendant|
|Initiate a lawsuit seeking modification or enforcement of existing judgment||Petition||Petitioner and Respondent|
|Answer a Petition||Answer||Respondent and Petitioner|
|File a claim by respondent against the petitioner||Counterclaim||Counterclaimant and Counterrespondent|
|File a claim by respondent against a co-respondent||Cross-claim||Cross-claimant and cross-respondent|
|Ask the court in an already-filed action for some relief (e.g., temporary relief, compel discovery, summary judgment, etc.)||Motion||Movant and Respondent|