Res Judicata and Subject Matter Jurisdiction — Yet Another Case

October 1, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week I posted about the Abercrombie case which relied on Burgess v. Williamson to reach the conclusion that res judicata may operate to bar raising a claim of lack of subject matter jurisdiction on appeal.

Back in April, the COA faced the same issue and reached the same conclusion.

On April 3, 2016, a chancellor granted grandparent visitation rights to Toni Lisenby-Grundy, the paternal grandmother, with her grandson, John. The defendant in that case was the maternal grandmother, Jessie Lou Price. A year later Jessie was found in contempt for not allowing Toni her visitation. Jessie never appealed either of these judgments, and she never raised the issue of lack of jurisdiction in either of them.

Again, in May, 2017, Jessie was found in contempt for the same behavior.

Following the May, 2017, contempt judgment Jessie appealed, asserting as one ground that the contempt judgment is void because the trial court never had jurisdiction in the first place to award grandparent visitation. The basis for her jurisdictional challenge is that neither her husband, Roy, nor her daughter Theresa, had been joined as required by statute. A post on who are those required parties is at this link. Jessie charged that the failure of the court to have jurisdiction over all persons required to be joined voids the original judgment and all of its subsequent judgments and renders them unenforceable. In other words, the trial court never acquired subject matter jurisdiction.

In the case of Price v. Lisenby-Grundy, an April 16, 2019, decision, the COA rejected Jessie’s position and affirmed. Judge Carlton wrote the majority opinion:

¶26. At no time did Jessie challenge the court’s jurisdiction as to Toni’s original grandparent’s visitation action; nor did Jessie appeal the April 3, 2015 visitation order. [Fn 6] The doctrine of res judicata, therefore, bars Jessie’s attempt to challenge that order on jurisdictional grounds in this appeal. We find that Burgess v. Williamson, No. 2017-CA-00788-COA, 2018 WL 4705709 (Miss. Ct. App. Oct. 2, 2018) [270 So. 3d 1031 (Miss. Ct. App. 2018)], is instructive on this issue. In that case, Burgess appealed a May 9, 2017 contempt order against her based upon the court’s determination that she failed to comply with a final judgment awarding custody and support entered on September 8, 2015. Burgess, 2018 WL 4705709, at *2 (¶¶11-12). Among other issues on appeal, Burgess asserted that the chancery court “erred in assuming jurisdiction” over the matter. Id. at *2 (¶12).

6 We also observe that at no time did Theresa Price or Roy Price object to the chancery court’s jurisdiction on any basis, and neither Roy nor Theresa Price appealed the April 2015 visitation order.

¶27. We held that “if Burgess is trying to argue that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction to enter the original (September 8, 2015) final judgment awarding custody and support, her claim is barred by the doctrine of res judicata.” Id. at *3 (¶17). In so holding, we found that Burgess had defended the original proceeding on the merits, and did not appeal the September 8, 2015 judgment. The same is true in this case. Jessie was a party to Toni’s visitation action, participated in that action on the merits, and never challenged the chancery court’s jurisdiction on any basis. Indeed, Jessie Price’s attorney agreed to the form of the final order of visitation entered in the consolidated proceeding, which specifically provides that “[the] Court has complete and plenary jurisdiction over the subject matter and the parties involved herein.” Finally, Jessie did not appeal the April 2015 visitation order.

¶28. As we explained in Burgess, 2018 WL 4705709, at *3 (¶17), “[a]ny challenge to the . . . court’s jurisdiction should have been taken up in the original proceeding or on direct appeal from the original order.” In this regard, “[o]nce a case is litigated to a final judgment, and no appeal is taken, a party who participated in the original litigation cannot collaterally attack the court’s jurisdiction in a later proceeding.” Id. (citing Phillips v. Kelley, 72 So. 3d 1079, 1084 (¶18) (Miss. 2011) (“[S]ubject matter jurisdiction . . . may not be attacked collaterally.”) (quoting Travelers Indem. Co. v. Bailey, 557 U.S. 137, 152 (2009)). See also Dep’t of Human Servs. v. Shelnut, 772 So. 2d 1041, 1045 (¶13) (Miss. 2000) (“The principles of res judicata apply to questions of jurisdiction as well as to other issues whether the questions relate to jurisdiction of the subject matter or jurisdiction of the parties.”); Restatement (Second) of Judgments §12 (1982) (“When a court has rendered a judgment in a contested action, the judgment precludes the parties from litigating the question of the court’s subject matter jurisdiction in subsequent litigation [subject to three narrow exceptions, inapplicable in this case].”). We find the same principle applies here and bars Jessie’s attempt to challenge the April 3, 2015 visitation order on jurisdictional grounds.

Not much more to say about that.

Res Judicata and Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Part III

September 25, 2019 § Leave a comment

Yesterday and the day before we looked at the COA’s decision in Abercrombie v. Abercrombie and Judge McCarty’s dissent. Today we look at the majority’s response to the dissent:

¶26. The dissenting opinion is based entirely on evidence offered at a hearing that was held in the chancery court more than a year after this appeal was filed, and the dissent’s ultimate conclusion is that the chancellor should have taken additional steps when he entered his order “vacat[ing] the original judgment of divorce in this case.” Post at ¶40. However, that order was also entered over a year after this appeal was taken, and it is not the subject of this appeal. Indeed, as discussed above, a panel of this Court previously recognized that the chancellor retained jurisdiction to address the parties’ fraud on the court precisely because that issue “was not the subject of the judgment that Faith challenges in this appeal.”

¶27. In this appeal, Faith challenges the chancery court’s July 26, 2017 order denying her April 14, 2017 motion to dismiss and set aside for lack of jurisdiction. In that motion, Faith did not allege any fraud on the court, and there was no evidence of fraud on the court when the chancellor entered his ruling. Indeed, although the dissent primarily addresses the validity of the Louisiana adoption, there was nothing to indicate any problem with the Louisiana adoption when the chancellor entered the judgment that is now before us on appeal. The only challenge that the chancellor addressed in that ruling was Faith’s claim that the court’s initial child custody determination was void because Mississippi was not Reed’s home state at the time of the original judgment of divorce. For the reasons explained above, Faith’s attack on the court’s jurisdiction to make an initial custody determination was barred by res judicata because the case had already been litigated to a final judgment three times. [Fn 5] Therefore, the chancellor properly denied Faith’s motion.

[Fn 5] To be clear, we agree with the dissent that the issue of subject matter jurisdiction “cannot be waived.” However, it can be finally decided—and beyond re-litigation—when as in this case, it has been resolved in multiple successive final judgments.

¶28. Thus, the dissent is attacking an order that simply is not before us on appeal. The order that the dissent attacks was entered more than a year after this appeal was taken, and there has been no attempt to appeal it. Nowhere does the dissent say that the chancellor committed any error in the order that is actually the subject of this appeal. [Fn 6]

[Fn 6] Although we have considered the post-appeal proceedings in the chancery court and the chancellor’s post-appeal rulings, we have done so only (1) to rule on Faith’s motion to stay proceedings in the chancery court and to stay execution of the chancellor’s orders (which we denied, see supra ¶21) and (2) to determine whether this appeal is moot (we hold that it is not, see supra n.2).

¶29. One final point: the dissent accuses this Court and the chancellor of somehow “usurp[ing] jurisdiction from Louisiana” and “infringing upon [Louisiana’s] authority to govern its own citizens.” Post at ¶48. Nothing could be further from the truth. As far as this Court is aware, no custody proceeding is pending in any Louisiana court, and no judge in Louisiana has attempted to make any custody decision pertaining to Reed. If such an action is ever filed in Louisiana, the chancellor may communicate with the Louisiana judge, the chancellor may relinquish continuing jurisdiction over Reed’s custody, and the Louisiana court may assume jurisdiction. See Miss. Code Ann. §§ 93-27-110 & -202 (Rev. 2018); La. Stat. Ann. §§ 13:1810 & :1815 (Rev. 2007). That may be an appropriate course in the future, but it has nothing to do with the ruling that is before this Court in this appeal. The ruling that is before this Court in this appeal simply rejected Faith’s challenge to the chancery court’s jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination.

Res Judicata and Subject Matter Jurisdiction

September 23, 2019 § Leave a comment

We all know that subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived or conferred on a court by consent. The court either has it or does not. And it is often said that it can be raised at any stage of the proceeding, although that is too sweeping a statement, as we will see.

But can the issue of subject matter jurisdiction become res judicata so that, if facts emerge that call it into question later, the issue cannot be raised at that point?

That question was at the center of a recent case before the COA. The procedural history is somewhat convoluted. Faith Abercrombie and her ex, Jonathan, were engaged in lengthy, contentious litigation over their adopted son, Reed. There had been prior judgments adjudicating that Mississippi had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA that had been appealed twice and were affirmed. After the chancellor ruled on March 9, 2017, on various issues, Faith filed a motion to set aside the order and all prior orders touching custody for lack of jurisdiction, claiming that Mississippi was not her son’s home state at any relevant time. When the motion was denied, Faith appealed.

In the meantime, with the appeal pending, Faith’s attorney learned that the adoption had been procured by fraud on the part of both Faith and Jonathan, and disclosed the fact to the court. On December 7, 2018, the chancellor vacated the original judgment of divorce, fined both of them, issued a writ of habeas corpus for the child, and directed the clerk to send copies of its order to the Louisiana adoption court and the district attorney. Faith filed a motion with the COA asking the court to stay execution of the order vacating the divorce, and a panel of the court denied the motion because the December, 2018, order was not the subject of the order appealed from.

In Abercrombie v. Abercrombie, handed down August 20, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Jack Wilson wrote for the 9-1 majority:

¶22. Faith argues that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to make an “initial child custody determination” under the UCCJEA, Miss. Code Ann. § 93-27-201, because Mississippi was not Reed’s home state. She further argues that all subsequent orders touching on Reed’s custody and visitation are void due to lack of jurisdiction. However, we conclude that Faith is barred from re-litigating this issue, which has been decided in at least three prior final judgments. [Fn 2]

[Fn 2] Although the chancery court set aside the original divorce judgment based on fraud on the court, we conclude that this issue is not moot for at least three reasons. First, even after setting aside the divorce judgment, the chancery court has continued to exercise jurisdiction with respect to Reed’s custody, and Faith continues to contest the court’s jurisdiction to do so. Second, Faith argues that all of the chancery court’s prior judgments and orders touching on Reed’s custody and visitation must be set aside for lack of jurisdiction, including prior orders finding her in contempt and awarding attorney’s fees. However, the chancery court’s December 7, 2018 order only set aside the original divorce judgment, not all of the court’s judgments and orders. Third, if we agreed with Faith that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction, we would also be compelled to reverse and render the award of attorney’s fees that we address below in Part II.

¶23. This Court recently addressed a similar issue in Burgess v. Williamson, 270 So. 3d 1031 (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). In Burgess, the father (Williamson) filed a petition for custody;the mother (Burgess) filed an answer and a counterclaim for custody; the chancery court found that it had jurisdiction and awarded custody to Williamson; and Burgess did not appeal from the final judgment. Id. at 1033, 1037 (¶¶4-6, 18). In a subsequent contempt proceeding, Burgess argued that the chancery court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to enter its original judgment determining the child’s custody. However, this Court held that the doctrine of res judicata barred Burgess’s argument. Id. at 1035-36 (¶¶17-18). We explained that “[o]nce a case is litigated to a final judgment, and no appeal is taken, a party who participated in the original litigation cannot collaterally attack the court’s jurisdiction in a later proceeding.” Id. at 1036 (¶17); see also Phillips v. Kelley, 72 So. 3d
1079, 1084 (¶18) (Miss. 2011) (“[S]ubject matter jurisdiction . . . may not be attacked collaterally.”); Dep’t of Human Servs. v. Shelnut, 772 So. 2d 1041, 1045 (¶13) (Miss. 2000) (“The principles of res judicata apply to questions of jurisdiction . . . whether the questions relate to jurisdiction of the subject matter or jurisdiction of the parties.”).

¶24. The same reasoning applies here. [Fn 3] Indeed, whereas Burgess involved just one prior final judgment, this case had been litigated to a final judgment three times before Faith filed the motion that is the subject of this appeal. In each of those prior judgments, the chancellor found that the chancery court had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter, and each time the court’s judgment was affirmed on appeal or was not appealed. First, the April 2015 final judgment of divorce specifically found that the court had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter. Faith appealed, but this Court affirmed the final judgment of the chancery court because there was no evidence in the record to support Faith’s assertion that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction. Abercrombie, 193 So. 3d at 683 (¶¶10, 12). Second, in June 2015, Faith filed a motion for relief from judgment in which she attacked the chancery court’s jurisdiction. The chancellor denied Faith’s motion in an August 2016 final judgment that (a) again specifically found that the court had continuing, exclusive jurisdiction and (b) clearly noted that it was a “Final Judgment” for purposes of Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 54. Faith did not appeal from that final judgment. Third, in March 2017, the chancellor entered an order on issues of custody, visitation, child support, and attorney’s fees. That order again found that the court had continuing, exclusive jurisdiction. Faith did not appeal that ruling either; instead, she waited more than thirty days and then filed yet another motion attacking the chancery court’s jurisdiction.

3 Contrary to the dissent’s assertions, Burgess is not materially distinguishable. In Burgess, this Court addressed Burgess’s argument “that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction to enter the original . . . final judgment awarding custody and support,” and we held that her claim was “barred by the doctrine of res judicata.” Burgess, 270 So. 3d at 1035 (¶17). We noted that even the issue of subject matter jurisdiction is subject to the doctrine of res judicata. Id. at 1036 (¶17). In doing so, we simply reiterated what the Supreme Court had already held in both Phillips and Shelnut, supra.

¶25. Because this case has been litigated to a final judgment three times previously, the chancery court’s jurisdiction to enter its original judgment and initial determination of custody is res judicata. Phillips, 72 So. 3d at 1084 (¶18); Shelnut, 772 So. 2d at 1045 (¶13); Burgess, 270 So. 3d at 1035-36 (¶¶17-18). Therefore, the chancellor correctly ruled that Faith’s challenge to the court’s jurisdiction is barred. [Fn 4]

[Fn 4] Although the chancellor denied Faith’s motion based on the somewhat related concepts of waiver and judicial estoppel, we may affirm on alternative grounds. See Brocato v. Miss. Publishers Corp., 503 So. 2d 241, 244 (Miss. 1987).

Judge McCarty wrote a sharp dissent that we will look at tomorrow.

Res Judicata and the Foreign Divorce

September 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

After Lisa Crew and Ellis Tillotson were divorced from each other in North Carolina, Lisa filed a complaint for equitable distribution in Mississippi, where the parties’ property was located. Following a trial the chancellor divided the marital estate.

Lisa appealed, complaining that the distribution was inequitable and erroneous. Ellis cross-appealed that the North Carolina judgment rendered the equitable distribution claims res judicata, and the chancellor erred in accepting jurisdiction.

In Crew v. Tillotson, decided August 20, 2019, the COA affirmed. Judge Tindell wrote the 6-3 decision:

¶15. With regard to the application of res judicata in divorce cases, this Court previously explained:

The doctrine of res judicata reflects the refusal of the law to tolerate a multiplicity of litigation. It is a doctrine of public policy designed to avoid the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserve judicial resources, and foster reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibilities of inconsistent decisions. Res judicata bars all issues that might have been (or could have been) raised and decided in the initial suit, plus all issues that were actually decided in the first cause of action.

Article IV, § 1 of the United States Constitution requires that full faith and credit be given to the judicial proceedings of sister states. However, those proceedings are only entitled to full faith and credit where the rendering court properly has subject matter and personal jurisdiction. The United States Supreme Court has applied the Full Faith and Credit Clause in the context of divorce actions.

Lofton v. Lofton, 924 So. 2d 596, 599 (¶¶14-15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Our caselaw further recognizes “that a divorce action involving multiple states is ‘divisible.’ That is, a divorce action involving one resident party and one foreign party may or may not be able to adjudicate personal rights, though it can sever a marriage as long as at least one party is a resident of that state.” Id. at 601 (¶27). In addition, “Mississippi law is clear that where the case in the foreign court is not decided on its merits, while suit might be barred from any other court in the state where the judgment was rendered[,] it is not res judicata in Mississippi.” Weiss v. Weiss, 579 So. 2d 539, 541 (Miss. 1991) (internal quotation mark omitted).

¶16. Here, Ellis contends the chancellor erroneously found that North Carolina did not possess personal jurisdiction over him. We agree with Ellis that the record reflects he voluntarily submitted to North Carolina’s personal jurisdiction when he entered a general appearance in the divorce proceeding. Our analysis therefore focuses on Ellis’s arguments that North Carolina statutory law required Lisa to raise equitable distribution in the divorce proceeding there and that her failure to do so barred her from asserting the issue in a subsequent action in Mississippi. Ellis relies on North Carolina General Statute Annotated section 50-11(e) (2013), which provides:

An absolute divorce obtained within this State shall destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under [North Carolina General Statute Annotated section] 50-20 unless the right is asserted prior to judgment of absolute divorce; except, the defendant may bring an action or file a motion in the cause for equitable distribution within six months from the date of the judgment in such a case if service of process upon the defendant was by publication pursuant to . . . [North Carolina General Statute Annotated section] 1A-1, Rule 4 and the defendant failed to appear in the action for divorce.

¶17. The North Carolina divorce judgment adjudicated three matters. The divorce decree granted the parties an absolute divorce under North Carolina law, allowed Lisa to resume the use of her maiden name, and allowed Lisa’s attorney to withdraw from the case. No dispute exists that Lisa’s North Carolina divorce complaint never raised the issue of equitable distribution and that the matter was therefore neither litigated in nor adjudicated by the North Carolina divorce proceeding. Lisa argues, however, that the North Carolina court lacked in rem jurisdiction to dispose of the parties’ property located outside the state. For this reason, Lisa asserts that she did not attempt to raise the issue in the divorce proceeding and that her failure to do so poses no bar to her current Mississippi action. To support her argument, Lisa cites North Carolina General Statute Annotated section 50-11(f), which states:

An absolute divorce by a court that lacked personal jurisdiction over the absent spouse or lacked jurisdiction to dispose of the property shall not destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under [section] 50-20 if an action or motion in the cause is filed within six months after the judgment of divorce is entered.

(Emphasis added).

¶18. As the United States Supreme Court has previously recognized:

[W]hen claims to the property itself are the source of the underlying controversy between the plaintiff and the defendant, it would be unusual for the State where the property is located not to have jurisdiction. . . . The State’s strong interests in assuring the marketability of property within its borders and in providing a procedure for peaceful resolution of disputes about the possession of that property would also support jurisdiction, as would the likelihood that important records and witnesses will be found in the State.

Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 207-08 (1977) (footnotes omitted).

¶19. As we have already noted, Mississippi recognizes divisible divorce actions. Lofton, 924 So. 2d at 601 (¶27). Here, during the North Carolina divorce proceeding, neither party ever raised the issue of equitable distribution of their marital property located in Mississippi. Further, as reflected by its decree, the North Carolina court never addressed the issue. Normally, under North Carolina statutory law, a party’s failure to raise equitable distribution waives the issue in a future proceeding. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 50-11(e). But as the North Carolina Supreme Court has recognized, exceptions do exist. “Chapter 50 clearly contemplates the survival of those rights[to equitable distribution and alimony] under certain circumstances[,]” and section 50-11(f) provides an exception that “applies to cases wherein the trial court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant or jurisdiction to dispose of the property.” Stegall v. Stegall, 444 S.E.2d 177, 179, 180 (N.C. 1994).

¶20. We believe that such circumstances exist in the instant case. Because the North Carolina court never exercised jurisdiction to dispose of the parties’ marital property, the grant of divorce did not destroy Lisa’s right to equitable distribution under section 50-11(f) because she filed such an action within six months of the entry of divorce. We therefore find no error in the chancellor’s determination that res judicata failed to bar Lisa’s action in Mississippi. Accordingly, we find that Ellis’s argument as to this assignment of error lacks merit.

Judge Jack Wilson, joined by Barnes and Corey Wilson, wrote a well-reasoned dissent.

It Ain’t Over ’til it’s Over

February 6, 2018 § 1 Comment

It’s a hoary. ancient maxim of the law that “There must be an end to litigation,” a principle that was called into question in the case of Sandrock v. Sandrock, handed down from the COA on January 16, 2018.

The Sandrock saga began on August 1, 2005, when Jason Sandrock and his father Fred purported to enter into an agreement via a one-page, notarized document styled “Mortgage Agreement.” The agreement was for a 3,300 square-foot home in Bay St. Louis in exchange for 300 consecutive payments of $1,000 each. Neither Jason’s wife Cassie nor Fred’s wife Joellen were parties to the agreement. Jason and Cassie had been building the structure on Fred’s and Joellen’s property since November, 2004.

Before Jason and Cassie could move into their new digs, however, Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the house on August 29, 2005. The insurance company issued a check for $148, 601, to Jason, Fred, and Joellen. Jason was listed as the insured, and Fred and Joellen were listed as Mortgagees. An MDA grant check was issued to Jason, with no lienholder listed, in the amount of $149,327. Cassie was not named on either check. Jason turned over most of the money to Fred and Joellen.

On January 15, 2009, Jason and Cassie were divorced. In the divorce judgment, the chancellor found no credible evidence that Jason owed any debt to his parents for the property, and that the funds used to build the house were a gift to Jason and Cassie from Fred and Joellen. He also found that both Jason and Cassie had devoted significant time to building the house. In making equitable distribution, the chancellor ordered that the insurance and grant funds by divided equally, and for Cassie to execute a quitclaim deed to the property in favor of Jason.

In March, 2009, Cassie filed for contempt because Jason had not paid her the sums due. Jason counterclaimed asking the court to “correct” its divorce judgment to show that Fred and Joellen were owners of the property, and, therefore, that the insurance proceeds were properly theirs. The counterclaim was denied.

In May, 2009, Fred and Joellen filed a pleading seeking to intervene in the divorce action that had been adjudicated four months previously. Their motion was denied.

At this point, none of the court’s rulings or judgments had been appealed.

After the court denied their motion to intervene, Fred and Joellen filed a petition for judicial foreclosure on the property against Jason and Cassie.

On May 9, 2011, Jason filed an MRCP 60(b) motion asking for relief from the judgment to pay Cassie.

On February 23, 2012, a different chancellor from the one handling the divorce issues entered a judgment allowing the foreclosure in favor of Fred and Joellen against Jason. Cassie was not a record title holder. The court’s decision specifically did not adjudicate what effect its decision had on either the previous divorce judgment or Cassie’s interest in the money or equitable interest in the property.

On November 7, 2013, the chancellor denied Jason’s pending R60 motion.

On December 26, 2013, Jason filed a complaint for declaratory relief and injunction again seeking relief from the judgment. Following a hearing, the court denied Jason any relief on March 23, 2015. The chancellor — yet another different from the two previous — found that the relief sought by Jason was “nearly identical” to that he had sought earlier in his R60 motion. The chancellor found that, since Jason had not appealed the 2009 judgment, it was final.

Jason filed a timely R59 motion. After hearing the matter on April 7, 22016, the court denied the motion except to amend a prior order to state that Joellen had been a witness in the divorce proceeding.

Jason appealed from the denial of his R57 claim for declaratory judgment. Predictably, the COA affirmed. Judge Barnes wrote for a unanimous court:

¶18. As to the denial of Jason’s claims, under Rule 57(a) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, “[c]ourts of record within their respective jurisdictions may declare rights, status, and other legal relations regardless of whether further relief is or could be claimed.” M.R.C.P. 57(a). On the other hand, a trial court may deny a complaint for declaratory judgment “where such judgment, if entered, would not terminate the uncertainty or controversy giving rise to the proceeding.” Id. Noting that Jason failed to appeal the 2009 divorce judgment, and Fred and Joellen did not appeal the denial of their motion to intervene, Chancellor Persons held:

Once a judgment becomes final, it is dispositive as to all issues arising from a claim that were, or could have been, asserted by the parties to the litigation. Trilogy Communications, Inc. v. Thomas Truck Lease, Inc., 790 So. 2d 881[, 885 (¶12)] (Miss. Ct. App. 2001).

With the exception of Jason’s additional claims that the divorce judgment was not properly enrolled, the relief requested by Jason in his Complaint for Declaratory Relief is nearly identical to the relief that he sought in his [c]ounter[c]laim to [c]orrect [the] judgment, and similar to the claim that he made in his Rule 60 motion, both of which were denied by the [c]ourt. In the absence of any timely[]filed notice of appeal or any pending appeal action filed on behalf of Jason Sandrock or Fred[] and Joellen Sandrock seeking relief from either the Judgment of Divorce or from the Order which denied intervention in the divorce action, the Final Judgment of Divorce, including the [s]tipulation executed by the parties, is a valid [j]udgment upon which this [c]ourt relies and upon which the parties are bound.

Subsequently, in his bench ruling denying the Appellants’ motions for reconsideration, the chancellor concluded:

The [c]ourt and the law seek[] finality. We have two judgments, both of which are final. To the extent they’re in conflict, no one appealed. In essence, you can’t do what should have been an appeal now in a declaratory judgment action, which, in essence, we have the issues [of] res judicata, law of the case, all sorts of the legal doctrines here that prohibit us – or me from reopening these things.

¶19. We find no abuse of discretion in the chancery court’s findings. The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “[a] final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties and their privies from relitigating claims that were or could have been raised in that action.” Walton v. Bourgeois, 512 So. 2d 698, 701 (Miss. 1987). “A final judgment has been defined by this Court as a judgment adjudicating the merits of the controversy [that] settles all the issues as to all the parties.” Sanford v. Bd. of Supervisors, 421 So. 2d 488, 490-91 (Miss. 1982) (citations omitted). “[A]n order is considered final if it ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.” LaFontaine v. Holliday, 110 So. 3d 785, 787 (¶8) (Miss. 2013). Jason’s complaint is, quite simply, a collateral attack on the 2009 divorce judgment, which awarded one-half of the insurance and grant proceeds to Cassie. The 2009 judgment, despite the Appellants’ argument to the contrary, is a final judgment. While not contained in the record, the chancery court noted that Jason had filed a counterclaim to correct the judgment, which was denied by the court. His Rule 60 motion was also denied. He did not appeal either decision. Thus, his request for declaratory relief is barred. The supreme court has held: “Res judicata bars all issues that might have been (or could have been) raised and decided in the initial suit, plus all issues that were actually decided in the first cause of action.” Little v. V & G Welding Supply Inc., 704 So. 2d 1336, 1337 (¶8) (Miss. 1997) (citation omitted). Additionally,

[r]es judicata is fundamental to the equitable and efficient operation of the judiciary and “reflects the refusal of the law to tolerate a multiplicity of litigation.” Little . . ., 704 So. 2d [at] 1337 [(¶8)]. . . . The courts cannot revisit adjudicated claims and “all grounds for, or defenses to recovery that were available to the parties in the first action, regardless of whether they were asserted or determined in the prior proceeding, are barred from re[]litigation in a subsequent suit under the doctrine of res judicata.” Alexander v. Elzie, 621 So. 2d 909, 910 (Miss. 1992).

Harrison v. Chandler-Sampson Ins., 891 So. 2d 224, 232 (¶23) (Miss. 2005) (emphasis added).

¶20. For res judicata to apply, four identities must be present: “(1) identity of the subject matter of the action; (2) identity of the cause of/civil action; (3) identity of the parties to the cause of/civil action; and (4) identity of the quality or character of a person for or against whom the claim is made.” Miller v. Miller, 838 So. 2d 295, 297 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002) (citations omitted). Here, the first two identities – the subject matter and the cause of action, namely the underlying facts and circumstances – are the same. In both the 2009 divorce judgment and the complaint for declaratory relief, Jason and Cassie are parties. The only difference between the two causes of action is that Jason added Fred and Joellen as defendants to the second cause. But since Jason made no claims against them, and they never acted as adverse parties to Jason (as evidenced by the fact they are now joined with him as appellants), we find the third identity requirement is met. As to the fourth identity, Cassie was named as a defendant in both causes of action. Therefore, we find all four identities are present.

¶21. Accordingly, we affirm the chancery court’s denial of Jason’s complaint for declaratory relief.

In case you hadn’t counted, 88 months — seven years and four months — after the divorce action, we finally have achieved finality. That is, we have unless Jason files something else along the lines of his earlier attempts. Stay tuned.





An End to Game-Playing

July 24, 2017 § 2 Comments

In 2007, Annie and Frederick Griffin got into a dispute with the mortgage carrier, ABN, over modified terms, and stopped paying. They then sued in federal court alleging fraud and violation of other federal laws on debt collection. ABN filed a motion to compel arbitration, but the matter returned to federal court in 2010 after the arbitrator no longer handled consumer cases. The Griffins filed a motion to declare the arbitration agreement unenforceable, and in response ABN withdrew the arbitration request, no doubt to move the case along. The court granted ABN’s motion.

The Griffins then filed an objection to the ruling, even though they had a pending motion to rule the arbitration agreement unenforceable. They filed the motion pro se, because their attorney withdrew, citing the Griffins’ proclivity for not following his advice. Finally, in February, 2012, the district court entered a sua sponte order dismissing the case for failure to prosecute, concluding that “[i]t appears to this court that the plaintiffs view this lawsuit not as something to be actually litigated, but, rather, as something to be kept alive indefinitely, even at the cost of taking a position that is fundamentally inconsistent with the one they have taken for years in this case.”

In January, 2014, the Griffins filed another complaint in chancery court raising the same legal claims and issues as in the federal suit, and based on the same set of facts. There ensued a removal to and remand from federal court, a recusal, and finally a dismissal in chancery on the ground of res judicata. The Griffins appealed pro se.

In the case of Griffin v. ABN, et al., handed down May 16, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:

¶7. “The appropriateness of application of the doctrine of res judicata is a question of law” and will therefore be reviewed de novo. Swaney v. Swaney, 962 So. 2d 105, 108 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007).

¶8. We agree with the chancellor that Griffin II [the chancery matter filed after the federal court dismissal] is properly barred under the doctrine of res judicata. The doctrine of res judicata has four identities: (1) identity of the subject matter of the action; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of the parties to the cause of action; and (4) identity of the quality or character of a person against whom the claim is made. Harrison v. Chandler-Sampson Ins., 891 So. 2d 224, 232 (¶24) (Miss. 2005).

¶9. All four identities are met in the case at hand. The factual allegations in the complaint of Griffin II were copied almost verbatim from the complaint of Griffin I, and with the exception of dropping a couple of claims (the FDCPA and TILA claims), the complaint reasserts the same claims of fraud. All parties present in Griffin I were also present in Griffin II.

¶10. In addition to those four identities, to qualify as res judicata the prior judgment must have been a final judgment on the merits. Anderson v. LaVere, 895 So. 2d 828, 833 (¶10) (Miss. 2004). Under both Mississippi and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), dismissal for failure to prosecute operates as a final judgment and dismissal is with prejudice. An exception is found in Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(d), which provides that where dismissal is made by the clerk following twelve months of docket inactivity, that dismissal is without prejudice. See Strickland v. Estate of Broome, 179 So. 3d 1088, 1094 (¶18) (Miss. 2015). But the case at hand does not fall under Rule 41(d), but rather falls under Rule 41(b). Prior to dismissal, the Griffins were put on notice by the district judge that the case would be dismissed for failure to prosecute if the litigation did not move forward in a meaningful way. The Griffins responded by shifting their legal position in order to avoid trying the merits of the case. The district court’s dismissal of the action was not only appropriate for failure to prosecute, but was also consistent with the Griffins’ new argument that the case should not be tried in court at all but rather arbitrated.

The court went on to address and reject some other issues raised by the Griffins.

Some takeaways:

  • Res judicata is all about identity of issues, facts, and parties. It matters not that the original, dismissed proceeding was in another state or federal court.
  • Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits in the dismissed action, and the COA found here that the federal court’s dismissal order was a final judgment on the merits per R41(b), and not a dismissal per R41(d).
  • Shifting your legal position is a pretty effective way to frustrate your judge. My term for it is game-playing. Courts are for serious business, not for toying with others, delaying, pettifogging, and caviling. That’s the kind of conduct that will get your case thrown out of court. The Griffins’ lawyer was wise to withdraw before he became identified with their tactics and his own credibility with the court took a hit.

An Occasion When Adjudication is not Res Judicata

July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Does the judgment closing a conservatorship (or guardianship, for that matter) bar a subsequent action to set aside transactions that could have been adjudicated within the conservatorship while it was open?

That was the question taken up by the MSSC in the case of Estate of White: White v. White, decided December 11, 2014.

In that case, Charles William White (Bill) and his son, Tommy, were partners in a convenience store operation. In 2000, Bill married Anita White. Tommy bought out Bill in 2005, and paid his father cash for his interest, but the two never exchanged deeds necessary to finalize the buyout.

By 2009, Bill was in need of a conservatorship due to declining health. Anita and Tommy disagreed strongly over the course of Bill’s care; Anita wanted to make him comfortable so he could die with dignity, and Tommy insisted on life-sustaining care. Tommy used a power of attorney (POA) to transfer Bill’s interest in the partnership properties to himself to complete the transfer.

Tommy filed a petition to be appointed conservator of his father. Anita filed a counterclaim asking that she be appointed instead, and she asked the court to set aside any and all transactions by which Tommy transferred interest in his father’s assets to himself using Bill’s POA.

The chancellor found a conservatorship to be in Bill’s best interest, but rather than appointing either Anita or Tommy, he appointed a third party.

When Bill died in 2009, the conservator petitioned to the court to be discharged and to distribute the assets of the conservatorship to Bill’s estate. Both Anita and Tommy agreed to an order to that effect. The order waived accounting, but did not mention Anita’s claim to set aside the POA transactions.

In 2010, Anita filed a complaint to set aside the POA transactions. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The court sustained Tommy’s motion, ruling that the order closing the conservatorship barred Anita’s subsequent action, because she had brought the action within the conservatorship, which had been closed.

Anita appealed, and the COA affirmed, finding that the four identities of res judicata were present, and that, therefore, her action was barred.

The MSSC granted cert, and reversed both the COA and the chancellor. Here is how Justice Dickinson addressed the issue for a unanimous court (Justice Lamar not participating):

¶9. We conduct a de novo review of a trial court’s grant of summary judgment. A civil defendant may raise res judicata in a motion for summary judgment where a plaintiff’s suit centers around issues decided in a previous lawsuit. But for res judicata to apply, the defendant must show that the judgment rendered in the previous action was a final judgment on the merits.

¶10. A final judgment on the merits is “[a] judgment based on the evidence rather than on technical or procedural grounds.” While our prior cases have considered whether a judgment constituted a “final judgment on the merits” on a case-by-case-basis, a judgment generally will not be considered a “final judgment on the merits” when the first case was dismissed for a procedural defect or some other technical ground that prevented the court from reaching the merits of the case. If, in the previous case, the court did render a final judgment on the merits, res judicata will apply if both cases share four common identities.

¶11. In granting Tommy’s motion for summary judgment, both the chancellor and Court of Appeals thoroughly analyzed the four common identities necessary for res judicata to apply, but both courts failed to analyze the threshold requirement of a final judgment. Absent a final judgment, the alignment of the four identities is irrelevant.

¶12. The chancellor’s order discharging the conservator did not address any of the contested issues. As our precedent shows, a judgment based on technicalities or procedural issues generally will not be considered a final judgment on the merits. In his order discharging the conservatorship, the chancellor could have rendered a judgment on the contested claims between Tommy and Anita, but he did not.

¶13. The record indicates that the conservatorship was opened in early 2009 and closed when Bill died in June 2009. Far from a final judgment concerning the merits of the contested issues, the final judgment discharging the conservator was based solely on Bill’s death. The chancellor considered no other evidence when entering his order. Although Tommy correctly points out that Anita requested the court set aside the deed transfers in the conservatorship proceeding, the chancellor never addressed the issue.

[NOTE: Authority supporting the above language was set out in footnotes that were omitted in this post because they are too tedious to copy and paste. You can click on the link above to access the full opinion.]

You can take away from this that an order or judgment closing a conservatorship or guardianship does not extinguish the claims that were raised during the time that it was opened.

What would have been the outcome if Anita had not filed her claim to set aside the transactions while the conservatorship was open? My thinking without research is that she would have had a viable claim if she filed within the statute of limitations. What do you think?

More on Evidence of Prior Conduct in a Modification Case

September 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

As a rule, in a modification the chancellor is prohibited by the principle of res judicata from considering evidence of conduct that predates the judgment sought to be modified. It’s a concept that we have talked about here before

The COA case of Summerlin v. Eldridge, handed down August 19, 2014, is the most recent case to deal with the issue.

In their divorce in May, 2011, Mike and Tamara Summerlin agreed to a custody arrangement under which Mike would have custody of daughter Madison, and Tamara would have custody of the two younger children, Haley and Grace.

In August, 2011, Tamara filed for modification, seeking custody of Madison, and, apparently, asking for MIke to have custody of Haley. An agreed judgment was entered changing custody of Madison from Mike to Tamara, and custody of Haley from Tamara to MIke.

After that the parties swapped salvoes of pleadings for contempt and modification, and, in February, 2012, the chancellor left custody as the parties had previously agreed. They subsequently agreed that Mike would regain custody of Madison. That left only custody of Grace as a contested issue.   

The case came to trial, and the chancellor, in October, 2012, awarded custody of all three children to MIke. 

Tamara appealed, arguing that the chancellor erred in considering conduct of hers that predated the August, 2011, order, which had been the last modification order entered before the final modification judgment resulting from the trial.

The COA found no error. Here’s what Judge Fair’s opinion stated:


¶8. Tamara argues the chancellor erred in allowing testimony concerning matters that occurred prior to the August 19, 2011 order. According to Lackey v. Fuller, 755 So. 2d 1083, 1086 (¶13) (Miss. 2000), this practice is not permissible because of the res judicata principle. Tamara is correct that res judicata prohibits the chancellor from considering circumstances that occurred prior to the decree being considered for modification. Id. However, in this instance, the order awarding the custody of Grace to Tamara was entered on May 24, 2011, and not on August 19, 2011. The August 19, 2011 order changes custody of Madison and Haley but does not mention Grace.

¶9. Furthermore, in denying Tamara’s motion to reconsider, the chancellor noted that the only “evidence of events predating the original divorce decree was considered as impeachment evidence to [Tamara’s] and Del’s testimony.” The chancellor found the facts distinguishable from those in Lackey. Our review of a chancellor’s decision to admit evidence falls under the familiar abuse-of-discretion standard. Id. at (¶10). In this instance, we find no abuse of discretion by the chancellor. This issue is without merit.

So, two points:

  • In order for the bar of res judicata to operate, the four identities must be present. In this case, the prior modification judgment(s) did not create a bar as to testimony involving custody of Grace, because Grace was not part of the subject matter of the prior judgment(s). The bar does not exist from the date of the last order or judgment entered, but rather exists when the four identities come together in one order or judgment. In this case, the last order or judgment in which the four identities were present as to Grace was the divorce judgment, and the testimony at trial to which Tamara objected was post-divorce-judgment.
  • The reason why the testimony is offered appears to make a difference. Here it was not considered substantively by the trial judge, but was only considered as impeachment of Tamara’s and her current husband’s testimony. The COA did not cite any case specifically so holding, but you may want to cite this decision to support such an argument next time you have this issue come up. 



Evidence of Pre-Divorce Conduct in a Modification

July 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

The chancellor granted Marquis Stevenson’s petition for modification of custody, taking the child from his ex-wife Tanisha Martin. Tanisha appealed. One assignment of error was the chancellor’s exclusion of evidence of Marquis’s past domestic violence.

The COA, in Martin v. Stevenson, decided February 11, 2014, found no error. Judge Carlton, for the majority, said this:

¶32. We review a trial judge’s decision of whether to admit or exclude evidence under an  abuse-of-discretion standard of review. Rushing v. Rushing, 724 So. 2d 911, 914 (¶11)  (Miss. 1998) (citations omitted).  In Lackey v. Fuller, 755 So. 2d 1083, 1085 (¶¶6-7) (Miss.  2000), the parties obtained an irreconcilable-differences divorce, and the wife later asked for  modification of the final judgment.  At the hearing, the chancellor allowed into evidence  testimony regarding the wife’s predivorce conduct. Id. at 1086 (¶11). In its discussion of
res judicata as it applies to divorce proceedings and child-custody issues, the Mississippi  Supreme Court stated:

We begin with the principles of res judicata[,] which command that a final judgment preclude[s] thereafter all claims that were or reasonably may have been brought in the original action.  The familiar rule that a judgment for alimony, custody[,] or support may be modified only upon a showing of a post-judgment material change of circumstances is a recognition of the force of res judicata in divorce actions.

Id. at (¶13) (citations omitted). The supreme court concluded that the wife’s predivorce  conduct was res judicata and that the only evidence the chancellor should have admitted was evidence pertaining to post-judgment conduct. Id. at 1087 (¶18).

¶33. In the present case, the record shows that at the September 28, 2011 hearing, Tanisha’s attorney tried to question Marquis about charges that arose prior to the divorce proceeding. Upon the objection of Marquis’s attorney, the chancellor asked Tanisha’s  attorney whether there had been any continuation of Marquis’s conduct since the divorce decree and stated: “[U]nless you can tie some current conduct to that past conduct, I’m going to have to sustain the objection.” Because Tanisha’s attorney could not provide any evidence
of domestic violence by Marquis since the divorce, the chancellor found the evidence not relevant and sustained the objection. The issue arose again during Tanisha’s testimony, and the chancellor again explained that he would sustain the objection as to any matters that occurred prior to the divorce decree but would allow testimony regarding any actions since that time.

¶34. Based on the record and applicable law, we find no abuse of discretion in the s past acts of domestic violence.  At the hearing for modification of custody, Tanisha was only able to offer proof of acts that divorce. Tanisha failed to offer any evidence of current conduct occurring since the divorce. Because Tanisha failed to properly raise this claim for consideration in the original divorce decree, she is barred from raising the issue now. This assignment of error therefore lacks merit.

This is a fairly common situation in modification cases, and this case is a helpful guide to how the chancellor should address it.

This case is also an interesting wrinkle on application of the statutory principle that a history of domestic violence may be a basis to deny custody. A previous post on that subject is here.

Subjecting One’s Self to the Jurisdiction of the Court

March 12, 2014 § 2 Comments

The MSSC case of Pierce v. Pierce, handed down February 20, 2014, includes a couple of pretty important points of law that you should be aware of in your chancery practice.

Martin and Star Pierce were married in 2000, and lived in Harrison County, Mississippi. They separated, and Martin filed for divorce in the State of Washington in 2007. Since the Washington court had no personal jurisdiction over Star, it granted a divorce only.

Martin later filed an action in Harrison County seeking partition of the parties’ jointly-owned home and settlement of the parties’ financial obligations incurred during the marriage. Star counterclaimed for equitable distribution, alimony, and attorney’s fees.

The chancellor equitably divided the marital estate, including Martin’s military retirement, and awarded Star alimony and attorrney’s fees.

Martin appealed, complaining (1) that the Washington judgment was res judicata as to Star’s claims for equitable distribution and alimony, and (2) that, since he had only requested partition, he had not consensually submitted himself to Mississippi jurisdiction for division of his military retirement.

As for the issue of res judicata, the MSSC said, at ¶ 19, that although the Washington court properly had subject matter jurisdiction over Martin’s divorce action, it lacked personal jurisdiction over Star. A court with personal jurisdiction over only one of the parties in a divorce may not divide the parties’ assets. Therefore, the issues of property division and alimony were not res judicata by virtue of the Washington judgment, and the Mississippi Chancery Court had jurisdiction over those issues.

Note: It happens from time to time that a party, unhappy with a Mississippi temporary order or separate maintenance order, or with the slow progress of his case, or lacking viable grounds, moves to another state or jurisdiction and obtains a divorce. That does not deprive Mississippi of jurisdiction to adjudicate all of the other issues within its territorial jurisdiction that are pendant to a divorce, such as equitable distribution, alimony, child custody, child support, and so on, if the court obtains personal jurisdiction. In this case, Martin submitted himself to the personal jurisdiction of the court, and thus opened the door to the court’s adjudication of all those pendant issues.

A previous post on exactly what constitutes res judicata is at this link.

With respect to Martin’s assertion that his partition suit did not open him to other relief via counterclaim, the MSSC disagreed at ¶ 23: “It is well-established ‘that by filing suit a plaintiff automatically waives any objections he might otherwise have on grounds of personal jurisdiction to counterclaims presented against him in the suit'” [Citations omitted]

Note: Not a whole lot needs to be said about this particular point. When you invoke the jurisdiction of the court, you open yourself to any and all claims and actions that the other party has against you, both arising out of the same subject matter as the original suit (MRCP 13(a)), as well as any not arising out of the subject matter of the original suit (MRCP 13(b)).

You should read the court’s opinion. Its rationale and the authority are both something you can use in your library of helpful authority.

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