The Equitable Power of the Circuit Court

June 5, 2019 § 1 Comment

When Trustmark Bank foreclosed on Odell and Renodda Dorman’s property, it was discovered that the property description of the Dorman’s 6-acre residence was not included. With that discovery, the Dormans moved back home. The bank filed suit in circuit court for a deficiency judgment, and the Dormans counterclaimed for wrongful foreclosure on their residence. In turn, the bank moved to amend to plead mutual mistake, which the court granted. The bank moved for summary judgment, in the course of which the bank somehow requested reformation of the deed for mutual mistake. The court ordered reformation of the deed and granted summary judgment. The Dormans appealed.

Before we go to the next step, the point needs to be made that reformation of an instrument is a quintessentially equitable process. If you were going to file an original action for reformation, you would file it in chancery court. So was the circuit judge in error by granting equitable relief in this case? The argument that the Dormans made before the COA was that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, and so the judgment was void.

In Dorman v. Trustmark, decided May 7, 2019, the COA affirmed on the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. Chief Judge Barnes wrote for the unanimous court:

¶9. Before addressing the substantive issues raised on appeal, we first consider the Dormans’ claim that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. Trustmark’s complaint requested recovery of a deficiency judgment on a loan, which the Dormans acknowledge was properly before the circuit court as a matter of law. However, the circuit court allowed Trustmark to amend its answer to the Dormans’ counterclaim to assert reformation and mutual mistake as a defense. At the motions hearing, the circuit judge questioned whether he had the power to reform the deed, noting: “It’s just I think that the place for that correction is in front of a chancellor.” After briefing by the parties on the issue, the court determined in its final judgment that it had subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims. The Dormans now argue that Trustmark tried to “back door” the issue of reformation by filing the complaint for the deficiency judgment and that the bank “should have sought reformation in chancery court.”

¶10. “To determine whether a court has subject[-]matter jurisdiction, we look to the face of the complaint, examining the nature of the controversy and the relief sought.” RAS Family Partners LP v. Onnam Biloxi LLC, 968 So. 2d 926, 928 (¶11) (Miss. 2007) (emphasis added). “If the complaint seeks legal relief, even in combination with equitable relief, the circuit court can have proper subject[-]matter jurisdiction.” Id. “[E]quitable claims are more appropriately brought before a circuit court when they are connected to a contractual relationship or other claims tied to questions of law.” Era Franchise Sys. Inc. v. Mathis, 931 So. 2d 1278, 1283 (¶14) (Miss. 2006).

¶11. As the court noted, Trustmark’s complaint asserted a legal claim for a deficiency judgment; the issue of mutual mistake later arose as an affirmative defense to the counterclaim. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that once a circuit court acquires subject-matter jurisdiction of an action at law, “it may hear and adjudicate in that action all claims, including those with an equitable smell, arising out of the same transaction and occurrence as the principal claim.” Hall v. Corbin, 478 So. 2d 253, 255 (Miss. 1985). This includes “other claims (whether asserted by the one or more of the original parties or by new or intervening parties), ancillary or pendent to the original claim,” even if those claims “standing alone may have been beyond the court’s jurisdiction.” Id. Because Trustmark’s equitable claim was raised as a defense to the Dormans’ counterclaim, we find no error in the circuit court’s determination that it had subject-matter jurisdiction of Trustmark’s claim for reformation of the DOT.

The COA reversed the grant of summary judgment because there was a fact issue of mutual mistake and remanded for further proceedings.

Some years ago an attorney told me that he wanted to file a 2-count complaint: Count I for alienation of affection against the defendant and his paramour; and Count II for divorce against the defendant for divorce and related relief. I told him that, if he did I would transfer the case to circuit court; our law is that once a case is transferred it can not be transferred back to the transferring court. We had a good laugh over that. The idea of a circuit judge (and possibly a jury) having to grope their way through a divorce was rife with comedic possibilities. When I mentioned it to a circuit judge, though, he simply smiled and said, “No problem; I would just appoint you as special master to hear the divorce.” That put an end to that.

Rules of Reformation

March 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

A 1979 deed included the language that “Grantee herein retains all mineral rights on said land and property.”

After Michael and Amy Ward had entered into a gas, oil, and mineral lease in 2007, they discovered to their chagrin that the royalties they had contracted for were not being paid to them, but rather to Carolyn Harrell, a successor in title to the grantor of the 1979 deed. The Wards were successors in title to the grantees.

The Wards filed suit to quiet and confirm and remove cloud from title, and to recover the payments made to Harrell. Harrell counterclaimed to remove cloud, and to cancel the Wards’ mineral lease.

At trial, the Wards argued that the 1979 deed must be construed according to its plain meaning. Harrell countered that the 1979 deed should be reformed to state that Grantor retains, due to mutual mistake and scrivener’s error. The chancellor applied the three-tiered rules of contract construction of an ambiguous instrument set out in Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So.2d 349, 352-53 (Miss. 1990). The Wards appealed.

In Ward v. Harrell, handed down February 23, 2016, the COA affirmed the chancellor, holding that, although the trial court applied the wrong legal standard, it reached the correct result. Judge Lee writing for the court, distinguished between contract construction and reformation:

¶13. In reforming the 1979 warranty deed, it appears that the chancellor relied solely on Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So. 2d 349 (Miss. 1990). In that case, our supreme court set out a three-tiered approach for construing and interpreting written instruments when an ambiguity exists. [Fn 5] Id. at 351-53.

[Fn 5] (1) The court is to look solely to the language contained within the “four corners” of the instrument; (2) if the language within the instrument’s “four corners” is ambiguous, the court applies the relevant canons of construction in a discretionary manner; and (3) if the intent of the parties is still unknown, the court looks to extrinsic evidence. Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So. 2d 349, 352-53 (Miss. 1990).

¶14. However, contract construction, or interpretation, is distinguishable from contract reformation. Essentially, reformation is a remedy—the changing of words—to a contract- formation defense. In contrast, rules of construction, or interpretation, do not change the actual words of the contract but determine the meaning of those words.

¶15. Although an ambiguous deed may be reformed, [Fn 6] when a deed is unambiguous, “the party asserting reformation must prove (1) a mistake on the part of both parties; or (2) a mistake on the part of one party with fraud or inequitable conduct on the part of the other party; or (3) an error on the part of the scrivener.” In re Estate of Summerlin, 989 So. 2d 466, 480 (¶47) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting Bacot v. Duby, 724 So. 2d 410, 417 (¶35) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)). “Moreover, the mistake must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id.

[Fn 6] Estate of DeLoach v. DeLoach, 873 So. 2d 146, 150 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004).

¶16. Here, we do not find the language at issue in the 1979 warranty deed to be ambiguous. See Cypress Springs LLC v. Charles Donald Pulpwood Inc., 161 So. 3d 1100, 1104 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (finding an instrument is ambiguous if one or more terms or provisions are susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning). Therefore, the chancellor’s reliance on the standard set forth in Pursue Energy Corp. was erroneous. See 17A C.J.S. Contracts § 386 (2011) (The “[r]ules of construction may be used only where the language of the contract, or a portion of it, is ambiguous.”).

¶17. As such, we do not give deference to the chancellor’s findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Brooks [v. Brooks], 652 So. 2d [1113,] at 1118 [(Miss. 1995)]. Instead, we review the record de novo. See id.

The court went on to find that there was a scrivener’s error because only a grantor can make a reservation out of the estate granted (citing Thornhill v. Ford, 213 Miss. 49, 56 So.2d 23,29 (1952), and MCA 27-31-77.

The main things to take away here are that: (1) there are specific rules governing reformation of a deed; and (2) the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.


To Err is Human … to Fix it is the Chancellor’s Job

June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Shelly Kelly wanted to rent a house in Greenville. She approached Harrison Barry, who owned some rental property. Instead of a rental, they struck a deal for Shelly to buy some property for $5,000.

Barry asked Edward Lueckenbach, a Greenville attorney, to prepare the deed, but he was not asked to do a title opinion. The attorney went to the Washington County Courthouse, where he got the legal description for “Lots 51 and 52” in Shelton Subdivision, and he prepared a warranty deed.

Kelly bought her property and moved in at 330 Lake Street.

Barry renovated the neighboring property at 332 Lake Street, converting it from a single-family dwelling into a boarding house. He paid for air-conditioning, painting, and plumbing work. He installed a new water heater, furnace, closet, door locks, and doors, including paying for all the necessary materials. Barry allowed Kelly to screen the tenants, based on a complaint she made about noise, and Kelly collected the rent, which she turned over to Barry.

When Kelly received a tax bill for the 332 property, she called Barry to inquire, and he went to the attorney’s office, who advised him that the Lots 51 and 52 on the deed were for two different dwelling houses, one at 330, and one at 332. The attorney contacted Kelly, who refused to sign a corrective quitclaim deed. Barry filed suit to have the deed reformed to reflect the actual intent of the parties, and the chancellor ruled in Barry’s favor. Kelly appealed.

In Kelly v. Barry, decided May 21, 2013, the COA affirmed. Judge Roberts’ opinion sets out the basis for the ruling:

¶12. “A deed may be reformed where it is shown to [have] result[ed] from the mutual mistake of the parties in contracting for it.” Olive [v. McNeal], 47 So. 3d at 739 (¶12) (citing Brown v. Chapman, 809 So. 2d 772, 774 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002)). As stated in Brown:

The law permits reformation of instruments to reflect the true intention of the parties when . . . the erroneous part of the contract is shown to have occurred by a mutual mistake, i.e., the party seeking relief is able to establish to the court’s satisfaction that both parties intended something other than what is reflected in the instrument in question[.]

Brown, 809 So. 2d at 774 (¶9). “The party seeking reformation of a deed on a mistake theory bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Olive, 47 So. 3d at 739-40 (¶13) (citing McCoy v. McCoy, 611 So. 2d 957, 961 (Miss. 1992)).

¶13. Kelly notes that in Olive, this Court affirmed a chancellor’s decision that a litigant had failed to demonstrate mutual mistake because: (1) the document at issue in Olive was titled as a warranty deed; (2) the grantor was literate; (3) the grantor had several opportunities to review the warranty deed; (4) the grantor had some experience in real-estate transactions; and (4) the grantor had an opportunity to discuss the warranty deed with his attorney. Olive, 47 So. 3d at 740 (¶17). Kelly argues that the circumstances in this case are similar to the circumstances in Olive. We disagree.

¶14. Without question, the document at issue in this case was styled as a warranty deed. However, the property description merely indicated that Kelly was acquiring “Lots 51 & 52.” The property description does not indicate that Barry was selling Kelly 330 Lake Street and 332 Lake Street. In preparing the warranty deed, Lueckenbach could have mistakenly believed that “Lots 51 & 52” both applied to a single street address. Barry testified that he did not read the property description. Even if he had, no portion of the property description would have placed him on notice that he was mistakenly transferring title of two separate street addresses.

¶15. Furthermore, Barry’s behavior after the transaction indicated that he believed he never transferred title to 332 Lake Street. He paid for substantial repairs to 332 Lake Street and converted it to a boarding house. And he continued to pay the utility bills, taxes, and insurance premiums that related to the property.

And Kelly collected the rent for Barry and turned it over to him.

Who among us has not had a similar experience? I know I had a scarily similar experience once in Neshoba County where I would have faced litigation at my expense to correct a misdeeded parcel, but for the intervention of a young attorney with a sense of honor and equity, who prevailed upon his client to agree to fix the screw-up that had been the mutual error of two attorneys who put haste ahead of accuracy in drafting the judgment and deeds necessary to settle an estate.

Cases like this one are at the very core of what chancery courts are for.

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