Four Judges, and a Remand Makes Five

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.

Bluewater Again in the COA

February 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Only last week I posted about a COA decision in which the court cited the Bluewater Logistics case for the proposition that the trial judge’s verbatim adoption of a party’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law no longer triggers either heightened scrutiny nor less deference on the part of the appellate court.

That mention, in Carlson v. Brabham, was merely a comment by the court.

Then, last Tuesday, the COA actually had occasion to address the same principle raised in an appellant’s assignment of error.

In Stallings v. Allen, handed down February 9, 2016, Kenneth Stallings appeared pro se in response to a R81 pleading filed by Meeka Allen charging him with contempt and requesting an upward modification of child support. The chancellor rejected his request for a continuance and let the hearing go forward. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge ordered both sides to present proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which they did.

The chancellor adopted Meeka’s proposed findings, and, as a result, Kenneth was: found in contempt; ordered to provide dental insurance for his child; ordered to pay medical expenses; had judgments in excess of $6,500 assessed against him; and was ordered to pay attorney’s fees; and had his child support increased. All in all, it was not a particularly good day for Kenneth in court that day.

Kenneth appealed — again pro se — raising several issues, one of which was that it was error for the chancellor to adopt the other side’s proposed findings. Judge Barnes addressed Kenneth’s homemade argument:

¶11. Kenneth cites in support of his argument Rice Researchers Inc. v. Hiter, 512 So. 2d 1259 (Miss. 1987); [Fn 1] however, this case held, and the Mississippi Supreme Court has repeatedly reiterated, that “a trial court may adopt verbatim, in whole or part, the findings of fact and conclusions of law of a party.” Id. at 1266; Chamblee v. Chamblee, 637 So. 2d 850, 858 (Miss. 1994); Omnibank v. United S. Bank, 607 So. 2d 76, 82-83 (Miss. 1992). Such action is within the trial court’s discretion and is not “reversible error in and of itself.” Hiter, 512 So. 2d at 1265 (citations omitted). The usual standard of review applies: “This Court will not disturb the findings of the chancellor when supported by substantial evidence unless the chancellor has abused his discretion, was manifestly wrong, clearly erroneous, or an erroneous legal standard was applied.” Thomas v. Scarborough, 977 So. 2d 393, 397 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (quoting Sanderson v. Sanderson, 824 So. 2d 623, 625-26 (¶18) (Miss. 2002)). Further, the “heightened scrutiny” standard cited by Meeka no longer applies. The supreme court has held “our duty requires us in every case to be as careful and as sensitive to error as we can be, and we cannot condone a standard that allows us to be less sensitive to error in one case than another.” Bluewater Logistics LLC v. Williford, 55 So. 3d 148, 156 (¶27) (Miss. 2011). The trial court’s reliance on the party’s findings will not be deemed error if substantial evidence exists to support those findings. Thomas, 977 So. 2d at 396 (¶10) (citing Sanderson, 824 So. 2d at 625-26 (¶8)).

[Fn 1] Kenneth also cites in support Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-7-87 concerning “circuit court” practice, but that code section was repealed in 1991.

¶12. Here, there was no procedural error for the chancery court to adopt verbatim Meeka’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. As stated in the past, “[t]his Court recognizes the complexities and nuances of individual cases, which in addition to crushing trial court caseloads necessitate substantial reliance upon the on submissions of trial counsel. Id. (citing Hiter, 512 So. 2d at 1266).

Aside from the fact that proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law are more work, I wonder why more lawyers don’t offer to do them. As I have posted here before, it can be an unequalled opportunity to write the final judgment in the case.

PROTECTING YOUR ATTORNEY’S FEES AWARD IN A DIVORCE CASE

April 9, 2012 § 5 Comments

When you have worked hard on a case and prevailed, you’d like to be adequately compensated. You put on your proof of attorney’s fees and the judge makes a handsome award. Only problem is, the other side appeals and the COA tosses out your award, much to your chagrin. How should you have bulletproofed that award?

In the case of Alexander v. Alexander, decided March 27, 2012, the chancellor had awarded Amanda Alexander a judgment for nearly $32,000 in attorney’s fees in a divorce action against her husband, Khari. The COA reversed the special chancellor’s decision for failure of to make any findings of inability to pay or about the reasonableness of the request. Here’s what the opinion said on the point:

“An award of attorney[’s] fees is a matter largely within the sound discretion of the chancellor.” Dickerson v. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d 637, 648 (¶43) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (citing Smith v. Smith, 614 So. 2d 394, 398 (Miss. 1993). “Attorney[’s] fees should only be awarded in an amount that compensates for services rendered.” Id. at (¶44) (citing McKee v. McKee, 418 So. 2d 764, 767 (Miss. 1982)). The factors to be analyzed in determining whether to award attorney’s fees include: (1) “the relative financial ability of the parties;” (2) “the skill and standing of the attorney employed,” (3) the novelty and difficulty of issues in the case, (4) the responsibility required in managing the case, (5) “the time and labor required,” (6) “the usual and customary charge in the community,” and (7) whether the attorney was precluded from undertaking other employment by accepting the case. McKee, 418 So. 2d at 767.

¶15. The testimony showed Khari earned approximately $90,000 a year; however, Khari did not file a financial statement pursuant to Uniform Chancery Court Rule 8.05. Amanda asserts that her inability to pay her attorney’s fees was proven because the chancellor found her household expenses exceeded her income. The chancellor made no findings of fact on the issue of her inability to pay or Khari’s ability to pay. An itemized bill from Amanda’s attorney is included in the record; however, the chancellor did not examine the reasonableness of the fees. Before attorney’s fees are awarded, the chancellor must determine if the fees were fair, reasonable, and necessary. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d at 648 (¶44) (citing McKee, 418 So. 2d at 767). Since the chancellor failed to make findings pursuant to the McKee factors, we also reverse and remand on this issue.

In a divorce case, the party seeking an award of attorney’s fees must prove inability to pay. Deen v. Deen, 856 So.2d 736, 739 (Miss.App. 2003); Duncan v. Duncan, 915 So.2d 1124, 1128 (Miss.App. 2005); Sullivan v. Sullivan, 43 So.3d 536, 541 (Miss. App. 2010). Ability of the opposing party to pay must also be considered. Sarver v. Sarver, 687 So.2d 749, 756 (Miss. 1997).

Interestingly, the COA decision had already reversed and set aside the divorce in Alexander for failure to prove grounds before it addressed the award of attorney’s fees. There is no mention of the effect of that reversal on the fee award.

So what could counsel here have done to protect the attorney’s fees? Here are a few suggestions:

  • It’s axiomatic that if you don’t put on the proper proof, the chancellor will not have the basis to make an adequate ruling. Print out the McKee factors and address every single one of them in your testimony. Don’t skip or skimp on anything! There is case law to the effect that, even if the chancellor never mentions McKee, he will presumed to have considered the factors IF there is evidence in the record that supports the award.
  • Make sure you have adequate time records or other documentation in support of your testimony as to time spent, expenses, work done, and put your records into evidence. Here is a link to a helpful post on what you need to prove to get that award of attorney’s fees.
  • If you feel that the chancellor has not made sufficient findings, file a Rule 59 motion and ask the judge to supplement his findings. Better yet, provide him or her with proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on the point that address every applicable McKee factor.

When you have worked hard on a case, you want and deserve to be paid. Sometimes your client won’t be able to pay you, and your only realistic option is to look to the other party. Don’t leave it to chance. Make a bulletproof record.

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