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, Continued

September 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

Yesterday we visited the COA’s decision in Abercrombie v. Abercrombie, in which the majority rejected Faith Abercrombie’s argument that the trial court’s order should be set aside for lack of UCCJEA subject matter jurisdiction. The COA ruled that the issue was precluded by operation of res judicata.

Judge McCarty lodged a strong dissent that bears reading. Here it is:

¶36. The revelation of the extensive fraud that both parents purportedly committed destroys jurisdiction because we have learned for a fact that this case is centered in Louisiana. Since subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and cannot be achieved through deception or fraud, I believe we are required to reverse for lack of jurisdiction.

¶37. Our Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act decrees that “[n]o infant shall be adopted to any person if either parent, having been summoned, shall appear and object thereto before the making of a decree for adoption . . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-17-7 (Rev. 2014). The Act establishes that both parents are necessary parties to an adoption proceeding. Id. We know for a fact that this prerequisite of the Act was not complied with because the slow [sic] reveal that the natural father was not made aware of (much less provided consent for) the child’s adoption.

¶38. This was fraud, as even the parties have now belatedly conceded. “When consent for a supposedly ‘uncontested’ adoption is gained by intentionally concealing the identity of a known natural parent from the chancellor, a fraud is perpetrated upon the court.” Doe v. Smith, 200 So. 3d 1028, 1030 (¶1) (Miss. 2016). There was fraud in Doe too, where the natural mother falsified her son’s birth certificate to facilitate his adoption, and this “deception caused the court to grant an adoption to a third party based on false, material representations.” Id.

¶39. Such a fraud thwarted the whole purpose of the Act and the court’s role in following it because “an intentional fraud aimed solely to circumvent a natural parent’s statutorily mandated consent to an adoption undermines the effective administration of justice.” Id. at 1033 (¶17).

¶40. Because the adoption is void based upon fraud, neither of those two people who committed the fraud should have standing. “[A] lack of standing robs the court of jurisdiction to hear the case.” In re Estate of Ivy, 121 So. 3d 226, 243-44 (¶88) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012). Therefore, “any ruling on a case brought by someone who lacked standing is void ab initio.” Id. When a divorce decree is invalidated on grounds of fraud related to child custody and adoption, it follows that all subsequent custody determinations should be deemed void ab initio. We have previously held that “when a divorce is invalidated, all matters decided as a result of the divorce decree are null and void and should be brought in another hearing.” Clark v. Clark, 43 So. 3d 496, 502 (¶25) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). Such matters to be reversed include the award of “alimony, child custody, and child support.” Id. (emphasis added). When the chancery court vacated the original judgment of divorce in this case, as it was required to do, it should have also vacated all custody determinations stemming from the divorce.

¶41. Our inquiry should end there. A court cannot find that it has jurisdiction over a custody dispute between two adoptive “parents” when the validity of the adoption itself has been shown to be fraudulent. For our courts to assert jurisdiction over a child born to a Louisiana resident, “adopted” by pretense in Louisiana, and who has resided in Louisiana at all times following the so-called adoption, would directly contradict the very purpose of the Act. The UCCJEA, now nearly universal, was enacted among the separate states in part to prevent exactly this forum-shopping.

¶42. The fact that the issue of jurisdiction arises at this late date does not matter because subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived. Ridgeway v. Hooker, 240 So. 3d 1202, 1208 (¶23) (Miss. 2018). Nor can subject matter jurisdiction be acquired through the passage of time because a party may raise the issue of subject matter jurisdiction at any point, including on appeal. Pierce v. Pierce, 132 So. 3d 553, 560 (¶14) (Miss. 2014). Our Supreme Court has long been blunt that we must examine whether we have jurisdiction because “[s]ubject matter jurisdiction, which is succinctly defined as the authority of a court to hear and decide a particular case, depends on the type of case at issue, and we have the primary duty [to
determine sua sponte] whether a particular case lies within our jurisdiction.” Common Cause of Miss. v. Smith, 548 So. 2d 412, 414 (Miss. 1989).

¶43. The United States Supreme Court agrees this is a core duty of courts. “When a requirement goes to subject-matter jurisdiction, courts are obligated to consider issues [sua sponte] that the parties have disclaimed or have not presented.” Gonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U.S. 134, 141 (2012). This can be frustrating to the Judiciary, as the Court points out, because “[t]he objections [to jurisdiction] may be resurrected at any point in the litigation, and a valid objection may lead a court midway through briefing to dismiss a complaint in its entirety.” Id. As a result “months of work on the part of the attorneys and the court may be wasted.” Id.

¶44. This is unfortunately one such case—where months of effort by the lawyers and the court system end up with a dismissal. Yet we must reverse, and since when we do not have jurisdiction, we should not rule. Accord Common Cause of Miss., 548 So. 2d at 418 (dismissing the appeal sua sponte for lack of jurisdiction because contempt was criminal, not civil); Dudley, 979 So. 2d at 693 (finding a lack of jurisdiction sua sponte due the notice of appeal being filed untimely); Cotton v. Veterans Cab. Co., 344 So. 2d 730, 731 (Miss. 1977) (finding a lack of jurisdiction sua sponte because there was not a final judgment); Bolivar v. Waltman, 85 So. 3d 335, 339 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (finding a lack of jurisdiction because necessary parties were not included).

¶45. Our prior rulings related to this point do not result in a procedural bar either. In the case addressed supra, we reviewed the nonpayment of child support, not custody, making the issue of jurisdiction under the UCCJEA inapplicable. Burgess v. Williamson, 270 So. 3d 1031, 1035 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). More importantly, the mother’s challenge of subject matter jurisdiction was deemed res judicata because she “answered [the] original petition for custody and child support, she filed a counterclaim, the case proceeded to trial, and the chancery court entered a final judgment.” Id. at 1036 (¶18). The mother in this case took none of these procedural steps taken by the mother in the prior litigation.

¶46. Even if the mother’s claim was barred under the doctrine of res judicata, the law recognizes three exceptions to allow a party to litigate the issue of subject matter jurisdiction after a judgment has been rendered:

(1) The subject matter of the action was so plainly beyond the court’s jurisdiction that its entertaining the action was a manifest abuse of authority; or

(2) Allowing the judgment to stand would substantially infringe the authority of another tribunal or agency of government; or

(3) The judgment was rendered by a court lacking capability to make an adequately informed determination of a question concerning its own jurisdiction and as a matter of procedural fairness the party seeking to avoid the judgment should have opportunity belatedly to attack the court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 12 (1982).

¶47. In the present case, the subject matter was so plainly beyond Mississippi’s jurisdiction that it was an abuse of authority for the chancery court to hear the case. The only connections between the child and Mississippi are that he was born in Mississippi and his “adoptive” father currently resides in Mississippi. Both points fail to secure jurisdiction: the child has lived in Louisiana since shortly after his birth, and because the validity of the “adoption” has been brought into question, we cannot assume jurisdiction based on this fact.

¶48. For Mississippi to assert jurisdiction over this case would be to usurp jurisdiction from Louisiana, infringing upon the State’s authority to govern its own citizens. The child in question was born to a Louisiana resident, was allegedly “adopted” in Louisiana, and domiciled in Louisiana at all times following the “adoption.”

¶49. Further, the Abercrombies’ actions of defrauding and concealing facts from the chancery court deprived the court of the ability to properly make an adequate and informed decision regarding whether it had jurisdiction to hear the case. With the truth concerning the alleged adoption now unearthed, it is clear that our State does not and could not have jurisdiction over the matter.

¶50. Our courts do have continuing jurisdiction over the misrepresentations the parties made in this case because they were submitted to our courts and made within our State. See M.R.C.P. 11. It is a felony to “willfully and corruptly swear, testify, or affirm falsely to any material matter . . . in any court of law or equity . . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 97-9-59 (Rev. 2014) (emphasis added); see also Miss. Code Ann. § 97-9-61 (Rev. 2014) (penalty of perjury in a non-felony trial not to exceed ten years). While this case should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, that does not mean the repeated fraud on our court system should go without penalty.

¶51. For these reasons I must respectfully dissent.

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.

When Another State has Jurisdiction Over Your Custody and Support Case

March 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

John Hamilton and Kidron Young were divorced from each other in Muskingham County, Ohio. The 2010 judgment granted custody of the parties’ daughter to Young.

Young moved to Mississippi with the child and registered the Ohio divorce judgment with the Lee County Chancery Court per MCA 93-25-81 and 83, as a prelude to making the Ohio judgment enforceable to the same extent as a Mississippi judgment. The July 30, 2013, nunc pro tunc to July 15, 2013, court order accepting the Ohio judgment recited that the court took jurisdiction “of all matters relating to the minor child, including, but not limited to: custody, visitation and support, pursuant to Section 93-25-101.” The order directed that it was to be “spread upon the minutes” of the Ohio court.

Hamilton, meanwhile, had filed an action to modify aspects of custody in the Ohio court. On August 21, 2013, that court entered an order ruling that, because Hamilton still resided in Muskingham County, Ohio, that court retained jurisdiction over the custody issues. The court approved an agreed judgment between the parties.

In November, 2014, the court amended the judgment again on recommendation of the Muskingham County Department of Job and Family Services to reduce Hamilton’s child support.

Young then filed a complaint in Lee County Chancery Court for modification of the September, 2013, and November, 2014, Ohio judgments. Hamilton responded with a timely motion to dismiss based on Ohio’s exercise of continuing, exclusive jurisdiction and his continued residence in that state. Following a hearing the chancellor ruled against Hamilton because: (1) the chancellor had had a conversation with an Ohio judge prior to entry of the July, 2013, order in which the Ohio judge had relinquished jurisdiction; (2) Lee County had granted full faith and credit and assumed jurisdiction based on the conversation; and (3) the Ohio court’s August, 2013, ruling that it continued to have jurisdiction was undated, and, therefore, not proper.

Hamilton filed for an interlocutory appeal. In Hamilton v. Young, decided February 16, 2017, the MSSC reversed and rendered, sending the case for adjudication back to Ohio.

You can read Justice Beam’s decision, which is an excellent exposition of the law of jurisdiction in these cases, for yourself.

I just want to make a few points:

  • Jurisdictional issues in custody and child support cases can be complex and confusing. My advice is to (1) read the statutes, and (2) Go to a source such as Bell on Mississippi Family Law for enlightenment. Although the law is fairly clear, how to apply it to the facts at hand is often anything but clear.
  • To make a long story short, UIFSA provides that, if one of the parents continues to reside in the state that issued a child-support order, that state has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction as long as the parent continues to live there, unless the parties agree to let the state of the other parent assume jurisdiction. In this case, since there was no agreement, Ohio retained jurisdiction, even though the child no longer resided there.
  • As for the UCCJEA, Ohio continued to have jurisdiction to modify its own judgments because Hamilton continued to live there. In order to have jurisdiction in Mississippi, the Ohio court would have had to have determined that Mississippi was the more convenient and proper forum, considering the factors in Ohio Code § 3127.21 (counterpart to MCA 93-25-207). Since that was never done, it was not proper for Mississippi to unilaterally assume jurisdiction.
  • What about that conversation between the two judges alluded to by the chancellor in his ruling? At ¶21, the court points out that there is nothing in the record recording that conversation, and written findings are required by MCA 93-25-101(b). That sort of informal discussion without the proper, written findings is simply not enough. Hint: if the judge doesn’t do it, you need to volunteer to do it for him or her.
  • The mere fact that you record a foreign judgment, even if no contest to the recording is made, is not enough to confer jurisdiction (¶¶22-25).

No Place Like Home

November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

UCCJEA jurisdiction begins with a determination of the home state of the child. MCA 93-27-102(g) says:

“Home state” means the state in which a child lived with a parent or person acting as a parent for at least six (6) consecutive months before commencement of a child custody proceeding … A period of temporary absence of any of the aforementioned oersons is part of the period.

And most folks stop right there. If the child has been here six months, Mississippi must have jurisdiction. Most cases, however, are not so clear-cut. What about the familiar scenario where the child is taken from Mississippi to another state? How does that affect home state status? 

Consider this language from MCA 93-27-201(1)(a):

[A] court of this state has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if:

This state is the home state of the child on the date of commencement of the proceeding, or was the home state of the child within six (6) months before commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from the state but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in this state … 

So, if …

  1. It’s an original custody proceeding, and
  2. Mississippi is the child’s home state on the day the action is filed, or
  3. Mississippi was the home state of the child within six minths before the action is filed, and the child is absent from Mississippi, but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in Mississippi, then …

Mississippi does have jurisdiction. And, remember that UCCJEA jurisdiction is subject matter jurisdiction.

In the COA case of Jones v. McQueen, handed down November 12, 2013, the court affirmed the chancellor’s finding that Mississippi, not Alabama, had UCCJEA jurisdiction because Mississippi was where the mother and father had lived together with the child, and had been the home state of the child within six months before the action is filed. Although the child had been removed from Mississippi to Alabama by the mother, the father of the child continued to reside in this state. The facts of the case also established that the mother had periods of absence in Alabama during the six months, but that they were temporary absences, and she actually moved her personal effects out of the father’s Mississippi home when the parties finally separated.

The UCCJEA has many complexities. If you are not thorough in studying the code sections that apply, you might find yourself on the short end of the jurisdictional stick — which is a bad place to be.

A UCCJEA TUG-OF-WAR

March 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many lawyers believe that the six-month provision of the UCCJEA fixes jurisdiction in the home state of the child. That’s not always the case, though.

Take, for instance, the case of Clifton v. Shannon, decided by the COA June 26, 2012.

Thomas and Dawn Clifton were divorced in DeSoto County in 1999. Dawn was awarded physical custody of their three-year-old daughter, Ashley, and they were to share joint legal custody. Thomas had reasonable visitation.

In December, 2005, Dawn moved to Colorado and remarried. In 2006, they entered into an agreed judgment adjusting visitation to accommodate the move.

In 2010, Thomas filed a petition in the Chancery Court of DeSoto County seeking modification of custody an an adjudication of contempt.

Dawn objected to jurisdiction, pointing out that Ashley’s home had been in Colorado for the preceding four-and-one-half years, and that there were no significant connections to Mississippi that would justify exercise of jurisdiction.

The chancellor took jurisdiction and awarded Thomas custody, based primarily on Ashley’s preference, and Dawn appealed. She challenged both jurisdiction and the chancellor’s substantive ruling.

On the issue of jurisdiction, here’s what Judge Fair’s opinion stated:

¶7. “Whether a court had jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to hear a child-custody dispute is a question of law, which we review de novo.” Miller v. Mills, 64 So. 3d 1023, 1026 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Yeager v. Kittrell, 35 So. 3d 1221, 1223 (¶¶12, 14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009)). However, the factual findings underpinning the jurisdiction question are reviewed under the familiar substantial evidence and abuse of discretion standard. See White v. White, 26 So. 3d 342, 346-48 (¶¶10, 14) (Miss. 2010).

¶8. In Yeager, this Court stated “[a] court issuing an initial determination has continuing jurisdiction over the parties; no other court may modify the decree.” Yeager, 35 So. 3d at 1224 (¶16) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 93-27-201 (Supp. 2009)). However, even if only one party remains in the state, a second state may modify the order if the issuing court finds that neither the child, nor the child and one parent, have a significant connection with the state, and that substantial evidence is no longer available in the issuing state. Only the issuing state may make this determination. Id. (internal citation omitted).

¶9. There was sufficient evidence that Ashley still maintained a significant connection to Mississippi because her father and extended family reside here. In a recent opinion addressing a chancery court’s jurisdiction over a proceeding for modification of custody, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that since the father had continuously resided in Mississippi:

[I]t was within the chancellor’s discretion to determine that both the child and [the father] had a “significant connection with this state.” Therefore, the chancery court properly has retained continuous, exclusive jurisdiction over [the] matter . . . . White v. White, 26 So. 3d 342, 347-48 (¶14) (Miss. 2010).

¶10. The DeSoto County Chancery Court was the court of original jurisdiction. Nothing in the record suggests that the chancellor erred in retaining jurisdiction. In fact, the Colorado court, where Dawn filed another custody action, had declined jurisdiction on the emergency relief that was requested and did not assume jurisdiction.

¶11. Dawn further contends that Mississippi is an inconvenient forum, as “the overwhelming abundance of substantial evidence and witnesses” with regard to the child’s home life are located in Colorado. She cites Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-27-207, which states in pertinent part:

(1) A court of this state which has jurisdiction under this chapter to make a child custody determination may decline to exercise its jurisdiction at any time if it determines that it is an inconvenient forum under the circumstances and that a court of another state is a more appropriate forum. The issue of inconvenient forum may be raised upon motion of a party, the court’s own motion, or request of another court.

(2) Before determining whether it is an inconvenient forum, a court of this state shall consider whether it is appropriate for a court of another state to exercise jurisdiction. For this purpose, the court shall allow the parties to submit information and shall consider all relevant factors, including:

(a) Whether domestic violence has occurred and is likely to continue in the future and which state could best protect the parties and the child;

(b) The length of time the child has resided outside this state;

(c) The distance between the court in this state and the court in the state that would assume jurisdiction;

(d) The relative financial circumstances of the parties;

(e) Any agreement of the parties as to which state should assume jurisdiction;

(f) The nature and location of the evidence required to resolve the pending litigation, including testimony of the child;

(g) The ability of the court of each state to decide the issue expeditiously and the procedures necessary to present the evidence; and

(h) The familiarity of the court of each state with the facts and issues in the pending litigation.

(Emphasis added.)

¶12. While Colorado may have been a more convenient forum for Dawn, the chancery court is endowed with the discretion to make that decision. Prior custody proceedings were conducted in Mississippi, and Ashley spent several weeks in Mississippi during the year visiting her father and family. We find that Mississippi was an appropriate forum and that the chancery court properly retained exclusive jurisdiction.

What you can draw from this aspect of the case is that the chancellor will have broad discretion in making a determination whether as the court of original jurisdiction it should take jurisdiction. You would be wise to make a record invoking as many of the factors set out in 93-27-207 as are applicable and favorable to your client’s side of the case. That discretion is not unfettered; there should be some basis in the record to support it. It seems to me that “The nature and location of the evidence required to resolve the pending litigation …” and “The ability of the court of each state to decide the issue expeditiously and the procedures necessary to present the evidence …” would be the key factors on which to focus your efforts.

Another lesson: don’t stop your analysis with where the home state of the child is located. That’s only one of a number of factors.

Remember that only the issuing state may determine whether it should continue to exercise jurisdiction. And MCA 93-27-202(1) provides that the original state no longer has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction after both parents have moved from the original state.

NO UCCJEA ALLEGATIONS = NO JURISDICTION? NO.

August 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

Lawyers are all over the ballpark when it comes to the UCCJEA allegations required by MCA § 93-27-209. Some still use the old and now-repealed UCCJA provisions that have apparently fossilized in their computers. Some omit them entirely. Some use a hybrid. And some even plead the proper provisions.

What happens when you fail to plead the UCCJEA provisions either completely or inadequately? Does the court have jurisdiction?

The MSSC answered the question in White v. White, 26 So.3d 342, 346 (Miss. 2010), where the court said:

First, the chancery court’s jurisdiction is set by the Mississippi Constitution, and cannot be diminished by statute. See Miss. Const. art. VI, § 159. Second, the plain language of Section 93-27-209(2) provides that, in the event the required disclosures are not filed, the court may stay the proceeding.

This issue is not jurisdictional, was within the sound discretion of the chancellor, and this argument is without merit.

The court rejected the appellant’s reliance on Marr v. Adair, 841 So.2d 1195, 1202 (Miss. App. 2003), because that case was decided under the repealed UCCJA.

Remember that under White, although the recitation of the jurisdictional language is not mandatory for the court to exercise jurisdiction, you still have to prove that the court has jurisdiction under the UCCJEA. When the MSSC said that “This issue is not jurisdictional,” it was referring to the matter at hand, which was the sufficiency of the pleadings, and not to the substance of jurisdiction in the case. It’s an important distinction. See, Miller v. Mills, decided by the COA May 3, 2011; you can read a post about the case here.

I have had lawyers move to dismiss at the outset of trial for incomplete or missing UCCJEA affidavit. I always overrule that motion and offer a continuance for the purpose of filing one, but I’ve never had anyone take me up on it.

A JURISDICTIONAL BOOMERANG

May 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

We sometimes are not as attentive to the requirements of the UCCJEA as we should be.  Take the following case, for example:

Delisa Miller and Ryan Mills began living together in Madison Parish, Louisiana, in 2005.  They had two children, a son born in 2007, and a daughter born in 2008.  Ryan went to prison in December 2008, at which time Delisa and the children moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, according to Ryan’s pleadings. 

On July 14, 2009, after he was released, Ryan filed pleadings in Louisiana to establish parentage, for custody, and for visitation.  His pleading recited that, although Delisa was residing in Mississippi, her domicile remained in Louisiana.  On July 23, 2009, Delisa filed a petition for custody in the County Court of Warren County, Mississippi.  Her case was referred to Warren County Youth Court, which dismissed it on the basis that Louisiana already was exercising jurisdiction.   

On August 3, 2009, the Louisiana court held a hearing in Delisa’s absence, finding that it had jurisdiction under Louisiana’s long-arm statute, and granted Ryan visitation.

Ryan filed pleadings in the Chancery Court of Warren County seeking to register the Louisiana judgment, which Delisa opposed, and the chancellor ruled on October 23, 2009, that the judgment was lawful and binding, and that it should be registered and enforced.  Delisa appealed.

In Miller v. Mills, decided May 3, 2011, the COA noted that the Mississippi courts are required by MCA § 93-27-203(l) to enforce another state’s child custody determination if the other state “exercised jurisdiction in substantial conformity with [the UCCJEA].”  The COA held that the record did not support a finding that Louisiana was the children’s home state within the meaning of the UCCJEA at the time that Ryan commenced his Louisiana action, and that, as a result, Louisiana did not exercise jurisdiction in substantial conformity with the UCCJEA.  The court held that registration of the Louisiana order in Mississipi was void.  The trial court’s ruling was reversed and rendered.

Ryan had argued that, since the Louisiana court had obtained jurisdiction over Delisa through that state’s long-arm statute, he had the right to proceed.  Judge Maxwell’s opinion brushed aside that argument and pointed out that UCCJEA jurisdiction is subject matter jurisdiction that may not be waived or conferred by consent.    

This case stands for the proposition that the UCCJEA’s provisions are absolutely jurisdictional, and unless a jurisdictional basis exists pursuant to its provisions, jurisdiction may not be acquired by some other means.

I have seen many cases where the lawyers take a somewhat relaxed approach to the UCCJEA requirements.  You do so at your own peril.  The case you thought you had dealt with so deftly could come boomeranging back in quite unwelcome fashion.

MORE ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE ON PRO SE PROBLEMS

September 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the past week, I have three pro se divorces presented to me that illustrate some of the problems that people can create for themselves when they undertake to represent themselves.

Case 1.  A fairly standard no-fault divorce with no children, no joint debts, no joint property.  Husband gets the homestead that he owned before the marriage, and will pay wife for her marital equity.  The wrinkle is in a paragraph that provides that the parties will divide the husband’s “retirement annuity,” and allocating the tax liability between them.  When I asked the husband how he expected to accomplish it without a QDRO, he replied, to my surprise, that the plan administrator had already disbursed the money to the parties, and that his accountant had told him he could avoid the 10% penalty by addressing it in the property settlement agreement.  The agreement did include the phrase “Qualified domestic order,” but did not include any of the ingredients required to constitute a true QDRO within the meaning of the law.  I have no idea how the IRS will treat the parties’ home-made paperwork, but if they end up having to pay the 10% penalty, I would bet both of the following will be true:  (1)  Both parties will be unhappy; and (2) It would have cost a lot less to hire an attorney to ensure that it was either done right or the liability shifted to the attorney.

Case 2.  Property settlement agreement with no provision for custody at all, although a child is identified.  When I asked why there was no custody provision, the response was that the child is 18 and in college, and there does not need to be a custody arrangement, a statement with which I disagreed.  When I asked about the lack of any support provision, the response was that there was no need for support because the child is in college, another statement with which I disagreed, especially based on my own personal experience.  I did not bother to read the rest of the agreement, but if the property division was as incomplete as the child custody and support provisions were, I doubt it would have been “adequate and sufficient.”

Case 3.  A well-dressed young couple approached the bench.  Dad is holding a 2-year-old child, whom he is feeding with a baby bottle.  I find three shortcomings in the agreement.  First, although they agree to joint legal custody, there is no tie-breaker; you can’t have a committee of two, so who will have final decision-making authority?  Second, the agreement states that “both parties shall claim the children as tax exemptions.”  How will that work?  Do they mean that both claim both children in the same year, or that the exemptions will be divided between them somehow?  Sounds like another trip back to court to me.  And third, there is no provision for child support for the two children, ages 2 and 4.  When I ask mom about it, she says “I am not asking for any support.”  Well, I can’t approve it no matter what you want because I have to watch out for the children.   The husband proposed that the 3 of us should sit down and I could point out ways to fix their paperwork, but I demurred on the basis that I am prohibited from giving them legal advice, and even if I could, I could not advise both of them in the same case because of their competing interests.               

Neither of the cases with children had UCCJEA affidavits.

I previously posted on the problems of pro se litigation here.

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