October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Judges’ Fall Meeting.

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Judges’ Fall Meeting.

October 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Judges’ Fall Meeting.

Does MRCP 4(h) Apply to R81 Cases?

October 21, 2014 § 1 Comment

R4(h) states:

If a service of the summons and complaint is not made upon a defendant within 120 days after the filing of the complaint and the party on whose behalf such service was required cannot show good cause why such service was not made within that period, the action shall be dismissed as to that defendant without prejudice upon the court’s own initiative with notice to such party or upon motion.

In the case of Roberts v. Lopez, decided September 23, 2014, the COA said this:

[¶9]  Notwithstanding the provisions of Rule 4(h), Rule 81(a)(9) provides, in pertinent part:

Applicability in General. These rules apply to all civil proceedings but are subject to limited applicability in the following actions which are generally governed by statutory procedures [:] . . . Title 933 of the Mississippi Code of 1972.

(Emphasis added).

¶10. Rule 81(d)(2) provides that modification of custody matters “shall be triable 7 days after completion of process in any manner other than by publication . . . .” Rule 81(d)(5) provides in part:

Upon the filing of any action or matter listed in subparagraphs (1) and (2) [of Rule 81(d)], summons shall issue commanding the defendant or respondent to appear and defend at a time and place, either in term time or vacation, at which the same shall be heard. Said time and place shall be set by special order, general order[,] or rule of court.

David was served with a Rule 81 summons commanding him to appear at the August 24, 2012 hearing. Therefore, it is of no moment that Liza’s initial complaint and amended complaint, which sought to set aside or modify previous custody orders, were filed more than 120 days prior to David being served with the Rule 81 summons. The modification of custody orders that Liza sought was governed by Rule 81(d), not Rule 4(h) as David contends …

This is a novel rationale. The court did not cite, nor have I been able to find, a prior case that supports this assertion. There is nothing in the language of R4(h) that excepts R81 matters. I had always understood the limitation language of R81(a) as applying to statutory provisions that set out specific deadlines such as some estate and guardianship matters.

As a practical matter, R4(h) is usually applied in circuit court actions where its application has statute-of-limitations ramifications. In chancery, since statutes of limitation seldom apply, the 4(h) dismissal is without prejudice, and one can simply shrug it off and refile. David, in his case, tried to use 4(h) as a sword to set aside the trial court’s judgment. He failed, though, based on the court’s reasoning above, but most importantly due to this:

Moreover, David appeared and participated generally in the August 24, 2012 hearing. So even if process were defective, which it was not, David waived the defect by his appearance and general participation in the hearing. See Isom v. Jernigan, 840 So. 2d 104, 107 (¶9) (Miss. 2003). Thus, this issue is without merit.

As we all know, a voluntary general appearance waives any objection to personal jurisdiction.

So, does Roberts v. Lopez establish the rule that R4(h) simply does not apply to R81 matters based on the language quoted above? I think I’m going to treat that language as dicta, since the dispositive fact here was that David waived the objection. It was unnecessary for the court to go into that R4 vs. R81 analysis when all that had to be said was that David’s general appearance subjected him to personal jurisdiction regardless of any defect of process. Your chancellor may see it differently.

Custody as Punishment

October 20, 2014 § 3 Comments

The MSSC’s decision in Borden  v. Borden, handed down October 9, 2014, is a reminder of the principle that fault should not be used as a sanction in child custody awards.

You can read the decision for yourself. The upshot of it is that the chancellor found against the mother in a custody fight, based on her inappropriate conduct. The chancellor found against the mother on three Albright factors: parenting skills; moral fitness; and stable home environment. The evidence established that the woman had inappropriate extramarital contacts, none of which amounted to adultery. She posted sexually explicit Facebook communications, socialized with men at bars and even met one at a hotel (until interrupted by the man’s wife), and re-established contact with men with whom she had had previous adulterous relationships (her husband claimed).

The MSSC found that the chancellor correctly found her conduct weighed against her on the factor of moral fitness, but the court held that the chancellor erred in finding that the same behavior weighed against her on the factors of parenting skills and stability of home environment.

It’s clear that the high court felt that the chancellor in this particular case was using the denial of custody as punishment in this case, which is a well-established no-no.

What is not so clear is how this case seems to say that the same behavior or misbehavior can not sound in two, three, or more factors. For instance, if a father customarily left the young children alone at night to go out and make drug buys while the mother worked, does that not show that he: has poor parenting skills; is maintaining an unstable home environment; and is not morally fit? Or must the chancellor limit his finding to one of the above? That makes no sense.

I may be reading the case too narrowly, but I hope it does not signal a too-limited scope of inquiry in these cases. Too formulaic an approach does not serve the best interest of the children.

Reprise: The Futility of Objecting to the Form of the Question

October 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Reprise replays posts from the past that you might find useful today.

AN OBJECTIONABLE OBJECTION

September 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

One of the most baffling objections is “Object to the form of the question.” It’s baffling because it doesn’t tell the judge what the real problem is.

It’s actually a lazy objection because it is several objections in one. Problems with the form of the question arise from nine distinct sources, each of which is a separate objection in its own right.

These are the real objections to the form of the question:

  • Leading. MRE 611(c) says that “Leading questions should not be used on the direct examination of a witness except as may be used to develop his testimony.” Which means that the judge may grant some leeway in order to ensure that testimony is developed. Leading is, of course, permitted on cross examination, for hostile or adverse witnesses, and for preliminary matters.
  • Compound question. You can ask only one question at a time. Often the witness answers only one of multiple questions, not always making it clear which one she is answering.
  • Argumentative and Harrassing. This is really two different things. A question is argumentative when it is merely a comment on the evidence, or a legal argument, or an attempt to get the witness to adjudge his own credibility. A question is harassing when the probative weight of the information sought is outweighed by the embarassment to the witness or its outrageous nature. UCCR 1.01 states that “The counsel, parties, and witnesses must be respectful to the court and to each other,” and “Bickering or wrangling between counsel or between counsel and witness will not be tolerated.”
  • Asked and answered. You enjoyed the answer so much the first time that you just can’t resist doing it again.
  • Assumes facts not in evidence. You have broad scope within the bounds of relevance to develop new facts, but not by framing your questions in such a way that they take as true facts that have not been established. In chancery, with no jury, this is a touch-and-feel objection that the judge may overrule and then disregard the answer.
  • Ambiguous and confusing. A question is ambiguous when it is susceptible to more than one interpretation. A question is confusing when it is phrased in such a way that it can be misunderstood.
  • Misleading. Misstatement of the witness’s or another witness’s prior testimony.
  • Narrative. The question calls for a recitation of the whole story, which may or may not include objectionable material.
  • Repetitious. You already made that point. Move on to something else.

Unless you’re objecting just to hear yourself talk, you want your objections to accomplish something for the benefit of your client. General objections like “Object to the form of the question” are an objectionable waste of time. Your chances of getting your objection sustained go up when you make a specific objection.

Retirement and Modification of Alimony

October 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Leo and Gracie Russell were divorced in 1978. Leo was ordered in the divorce to pay Gracie $2,500 a month in periodic alimony.

In 2006, Leo filed a petition to terminate or reduce his alimony obligation, which the chancellor dismissed without prejudice.

In 2011, Leo filed again to terminate or reduce alimony. In May, 2012, the chancellor reduced Leo’s obligation to $1,533, based on the fact that Gracie was receiving $947 a month in Social Security benefits based on Leo’s earnings. After hearing all of the evidence, the judge found that Leo had failed to prove a material change in circumstances or inability to meet his alimony obligation. Leo appealed.

The COA affirmed the chancellor’s ruling in Russell v. Russell, handed down October 7, 2014. Judge Carlton, writing for the majority, said this:

¶5. In his first assignment of error, Leo argues that the chancellor erred by denying his petition to terminate or modify his monthly alimony payments. Leo asserts that the chancellor erroneously found no material change in his circumstances and that his retirement and reduction of income were foreseeable at the time of the parties’ divorce.

¶6. With regard to our review of a chancellor’s award of alimony, this Court has previously stated:

An award of alimony, if allowed, should be reasonable in amount, commensurate with the wife’s accustomed standard of living, minus her own resources, and considering the ability of the husband to pay. The amount of an alimony award is largely within the discretion of the chancellor. Unless the chancellor is in manifest error and abused [his] discretion, we will not reverse.

Peterson v. Peterson, 129 So. 3d 255, 256-57 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

¶7. “The general rule has been that periodic alimony terminates upon death or remarriage.” Skinner v. Skinner, 509 So. 2d 867, 869 (Miss. 1987) (citing Wray v. Wray, 394 So. 2d 1341, 1344 (Miss. 1981)). When considering a party’s petition to modify or terminate an award of periodic alimony, a chancellor must first determine whether “an unforeseeable and material change in circumstances occurred since entry of the initial divorce decree.” Peterson, 129 So. 3d at 257 (¶7) (citing Holcombe v. Holcombe, 813 So. 2d 700, 703 (¶11) (Miss. 2002) (“The change in circumstance must not be anticipated by the parties at the time of the original decree.”). If no unforeseeable and material change has occurred, then a modification of the alimony award is improper. Id. However, where a substantial unanticipated change has occurred, the chancellor should consider the Armstrong factors to determine the proper amount of alimony. Id. at (¶8).

¶8. In the present case, Leo argues that his retirement and the resulting reduction in his income were unanticipated at the time the parties divorced in 1978. In his brief, Leo asserts the following:

[T]hough it may have been anticipated that at some time in the future [he] might retire and discontinue working, such an event is not an event that the [c]ourt can hold [him] to with respect to [the] same being a “foreseeable future event” that will preclude a termination of alimony or a reduction of alimony at the time of retirement.

¶9. In denying Leo’s petition to terminate or reduce his alimony payments, the chancellor found that retirement, by itself, proved insufficient to justify a modification. Although Leo had retired since the parties’ divorce, the chancellor found that Leo still possessed sufficient assets and income to satisfy his alimony obligation. The chancellor noted that Leo’s living expenses were approximately $10,000 a month and that Leo bought a new home about seven years earlier. Other than the remaining home payments, the chancellor found that Leo had finished paying all other significant debt.

¶10. The chancellor also noted that Leo’s other financial obligations resulting from the divorce, such as child support, had long since been fulfilled. In addition, the chancellor stated that Leo had received proper credit for the Social Security benefits Gracie received from his past employment earnings. Therefore, based on the evidence presented by the parties, the chancellor found that Leo failed to demonstrate a substantial and material change in his circumstances.

¶11. The chancellor also discussed whether any changes in Leo’s circumstances were unanticipated, stating, “There was no mention [made] at the time [of the parties’ divorce] . . . of what would transpire when one or the other party retired. Certainly it was foreseeable that [Leo] would retire, [but] it’s not mentioned.” As the record reflects, Leo retired in 2010 after turning seventy-five. Although he found that Leo’s retirement was a reasonably foreseeable event at the time the parties divorced, the chancellor still considered the Armstrong factors. Concluding his analysis, the chancellor stated:

There has been no substantial and material change. The fact that [Leo] is retired was foreseeable. And even if you do a—well, it’s impossible to do much of an analysis because we don’t have beginning information [for 1978,] . . . but if you do an analysis under Armstrong and you look at the assets and the income[s] of the parties, not only today but over the years, no reduction in alimony is warranted.

¶12. After reviewing the record and relevant caselaw, we find no abuse of discretion by the chancellor’s denial of Leo’s petition for modification of his alimony payments. See Peterson, 129 So. 3d at 256-57 (¶5). The chancellor found that no material change occurred and that Leo possessed sufficient financial resources to continue paying his monthly alimony obligation. The chancellor also found that no unanticipated event occurred since Leo’s retirement was reasonably foreseeable at the time of the parties’ divorce. Because the record contains substantial evidence to support the chancellor’s findings, we find no merit to this assignment of error.

The outcome should shock no one because retirement is always foreseeable. The real issue is what financial impact the retirement has on the ability to pay. And that latter statement is the unspoken, hidden issue in the question of foreseeability: isn’t it reasonably foreseeable that there will be a reduction in income resulting from retirement? That is something the cases just don’t seem to address in any meaningful way.

There was no baseline in this case for the judge to go back to in the 1978 judgment. The judge could not tell from the previous judgment what the parties’ situations were in 1978 compared to 2012 (34 years later). In my opinion, it’s always a good idea to include that kind of information in your PSA’s. This case illustrates one major reason why that is a good idea.

The chancellor’s action in reducing alimony to take into account the wife’s receipt of Social Security benefits is pretty much common practice when the benefits are based on the alimony-payer’s earning history. See, e.g., Spaudling v. Spaudling, 691 So.2d 435, 439 (Miss. 1997). I am not aware of any case law supporting a reduction or termination of alimony based on the ex-spouse’s receipt of Social Security due to that spouse’s earnings history.

How to Address the GAL Report

October 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

There are three types of cases in which a chancellor is required to appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL):

  • MCA 93-5-23 requires appointment of a GAL “when a charge of abuse or neglect arises in the course of a custody action.”
  • MCA 93-15-107 requires a GAL for the child(ren) in termination of parental rights (TPR) cases.
  • MCA 93-17-8 requires a GAL for the child(ren) in a contested adoption.

In other cases the court may appoint a GAL whenever the court deems it necessary to protect the interests of a child or vulnerable adult.

The chancellor is never required to follow or adopt the recommendations and findings of a GAL, but when she does not do so there are certain requirements that the judge must meet in rendering her opinion.

In the October 9, 2014, MSSC case, Borden v. Borden, Chief Justice Waller, for the unanimous court, spelled it out:

¶11. In child-custody cases where there are allegations of abuse or neglect, courts must appoint a guardian. Miss. Code Ann.§ 93-5-23 (Rev. 2013); Floyd v. Floyd, 949 So. 2d 26, 28 (Miss. 2007). And when the appointment is mandatory, chancellors, in their findings of fact, must include at least a summary of the guardian ad litem’s recommendations. Id. While a chancellor is not bound by the guardian ad litem’s recommendations, “if the court rejects the recommendations . . . , the court’s findings must include its reasons for rejecting the guardian’s recommendations.” Id.; S.N.C. v. J.R.D., Jr., 755 So. 2d 1077, 1082 (Miss. 2000).

¶12. In the current case, Mary Jane raised her concerns that the children might have been sexually abused. Accordingly, the chancellor appointed a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem conducted an investigation into the child-abuse claims and prepared a recommendation regarding custody of the children. The guardian ad litem found no evidence of abuse, and after an Albright analysis, determined that Mary Jane should be awarded custody.

¶13. When the guardian ad litem’s appointment is mandatory, as in this case, the chancellor must include a summary of the guardian ad litem’s recommendations in his or her findings of fact and conclusions of law. S.N.C., 755 So. 2d at1082. And “when a chancellor’s ruling is contrary to [that] recommendation . . .” the court must state “the reasons for not adopting the . . . recommendation . . . in the findings of fact and conclusions of law.” Id. While the chancellor in the current case acknowledged the guardian ad litem’s recommendation, he did not provide a summary of the report or a summary of his reasons for rejecting the guardian ad litem’s recommendation. Therefore, we find the chancellor erred in failing to do so.

The court reversed on this and another ground, and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with the opinion.

If you have a case involving a GAL, and the judge rules contrary to the GAL’s recommendations, be sure that the court’s findings include both a summary of the GAL’s findings and the court’s reasons for not following the GAL’s recommendations. Whether the appointment was mandatory or not, I think it’s the best practice. If the judge neglected to do that in his opinion, file a timely R59 motion and ask the court to add his findings. Don’t do it and you might just get a free pass for a retrial after a brief detour to the COA.

No Judgment of Modification = No Modification

October 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

You’re going to have to read for yourself the MSSC’s decision in Shumake v. Shumake, handed down September 18, 2014. It’s a dizzying scenario involving a divorce judgment ordering payment of alimony, bankruptcy, petition to modify, contempt hearing, a temporary reduction of alimony, and subsequent contempt. The Special Chancellor ultimately found that ex-husband Leslie Shumake owed his ex-wife Katarina Shumake $58,550, plus interest, in alimony arrearage. Leslie appealed.

The case was first assigned to the COA. The court noted some confusion arising from language that the special chancellor had used in effecting a temporary reduction in alimony while bankruptcy payments were being made. In its November 23, 2013, opinion, the COA held, among other things, that on the unique facts of this case, it ” … would be fundamentally unfair to charge Leslie with a $58,550 arrearage …” and reversed and rendered that part of the judgment.

The COA granted cert and reversed the COA. Here’s what Justice King said for the unanimous court (Lamar not participating):

¶11. Originally, the chancellor ordered Leslie to pay Katarina $5,750 per month in periodic alimony. Leslie never met this obligation. Instead, he paid Katarina $650 per week in alimony. Katarina filed a contempt complaint asking the chancellor to require Leslie to comply with the divorce judgment. In response to Katarina’s contempt complaint, Leslie requested a modification, claiming that his extreme economic hardship had resulted in a substantial and material change in his circumstances. The chancellor then entered an order requiring Leslie to transfer his interest in the marital home to Katarina to cover part of the arrearage at that time. Leslie was to pay the remaining amount of the arrearage from cash. Of particular note, the chancellor did not modify the alimony or specifically address Leslie’s request for modification. Moreover, the order states that the chancellor “reserves the right to make a ruling regarding any arrearage and/or future arrearage . . . .”

¶12. According to the parties, the chancellor entered another order in November 2010 which required Leslie to pay Katarina $750 per week. This order is not in the record, although it was discussed at length at an April 2011 hearing, and the docket reflects that the chancellor entered an order at that time. At the hearing, Leslie argued that the November 2010 order temporarily modified the alimony. Katarina, on the other hand, maintained that Leslie was still required under the divorce judgment to pay $5,750 per month in alimony. Thus, Katarina claimed that Leslie owed $58,550 in arrears.

¶13. The [special] chancellor, who was not the chancellor who entered the divorce judgment or prior orders in the case, ultimately found that the previous chancellor never entered an order permanently modifying the original divorce judgment which required Leslie to pay $5,750 per month in alimony. Thus, the chancellor found that Leslie was in arrears for $58,550 to Katarina. The chancellor ordered that Leslie, upon completion of his bankruptcy payments, pay Katarina for the arrearage in monthly payments of $1,500.

¶14. After reviewing the record in today’s case and considering our law with respect to alimony modification, we cannot find that the chancellor abused his discretion. An alimony payment vests on the day it is due. Bowe [v. Bowe], 557 So. 2d [793] at 794 [(Miss. 1990)]. And a court order is required to modify alimony. Id. Because no order expressly modified Leslie’s alimony obligation, the [special] chancellor in today’s case did not abuse his discretion in ordering Leslie to pay the arrearage.

¶15. Further, the Court of Appeals’ statement that it would be “fundamentally unfair and unjust” to require Leslie to pay the arrearage is supported by neither our caselaw nor the chancellor’s order. The order considers – and provides some allowance for – Leslie’s bankruptcy by allowing him to pay the arrearage when the bankruptcy is complete. Our caselaw addressing the effect of bankruptcy on alimony payments is consistent with this approach. See Varner, 666 So. 2d at 497-98. Finally, the chancellor’s decision not to punish Leslie through contempt does not absolve Leslie’s arrearage. See Hand, Mississippi Divorce, Alimony, and Child Custody § 14-6 (“If the responding party is found to be in contempt and refuses or fails without justification to pay the arrearages as previously required by the court, he may be punished by civil or criminal sanctions, or both.”) (emphasis added). Put simply, Leslie’s alimony payments vested on the day they were due and the record does not support a finding that the vested payments were or should have been modified. The chancellor did not abuse his discretion in ordering Leslie to pay the arrearage. [Emphasis added]

There is a handful of lessons here:

  • Never walk away from a case until you are sure that every order that should have been entered has gotten entered. You can not rely on opposing counsel to agree with you to the terms of a missing order so as to reconstruct it. Even if counsel opposite wants to “do the right thing,” memories fade with the passage of time, and two honest people can remember the same event in quite different ways.
  • Without an order in which to rely, your client has no cover for his actions. That November order might have saved Leslie a lot of money because alimony payments become vested when they are due, and they can not be modified except by express order of the court.
  • Note the language about bankruptcy. In ¶10, the court points out that bankruptcy does not in all cases rise to the level of substantial change in circumstances that would warrant modification.

 

The Valuation Bugaboo — Again

October 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

It’s a never-ceasing source of wonderment to me how some lawyers devote so little attention at trial to valuation of assets when that proof is crucial to the outcome of the equitable distribution.

The latest object lesson on point is in the COA’s decision in Ilsley v. Ilsley, decided October 7, 2014. In that case, Susan and Timothy were in the throes of a divorce. Mediation had failed, and the two unhappy spouses appeared at trial as the only two witnesses.

The main equitable distribution battle ground was over an ING account with 21,225 vested (and some additional unvested) shares that Timothy had as part of his employment compensation with the Isle of Capri Casino. The COA opinion says that the “primary testimony and evidence presented at trial regarding the value per share” was Timothy’s testimony that it was worth $7.06 per share. A few months later, in his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, Timothy stated the share value as $5.30.

Before we go any further, take a minute to absorb what I just laid out: the evidence that the court had to rely on came from one of the parties. No expert, no agreed statement from a stock brokerage or the plan administrator, nothing other than the testimony of one of the parties.

Now, I am not taking the lawyers in the trial to task. It may be that the figures thrown out were what was developed in discovery and no further effort was needed. The end result though, is that the two figures injected into the record were the ones upon which the judge relied.

The chancellor concluded from the proof that the value of the vested shares in the ING account was $143,089, and awarded Susan $75,000, to be paid by Timothy as lump-sum alimony. The judge did not explain the value of the shares he applied to arrive at those figures, or the total number of shares he found. Susan appealed.

Judge Roberts, for the majority of the COA, said this:

¶10. Susan first argues that the chancery court erred in valuing and classifying stocks Timothy received as part of his compensation package from Isle of Capri. As part of his compensation package, Timothy was granted shares of stock each year that vest randomly over a three-year period and, once vested, are invested in an ING account. At trial, the parties stipulated that the number of vested shares in the ING account was 21,225 shares. In addition, there were 9,511 shares that granted after the date of the temporary order, but these shares had not yet vested. The chancery court found that these shares were marital, but awarded them to Timothy, as the shares had not yet vested. Timothy testified at trial that the value per share was approximately $7.06. This was the primary testimony and evidence presented at trial regarding the value per share. In his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, Timothy offered the value per share of $5.30. In its corrected final judgment of divorce, the chancery court found the total value of the ING account to be $193,497, and the value of the vested shares to be $143,089. The chancery court did not include in its judgment what the total number of shares or the price per share was in determing [sic] the total values.

¶11. As explained above, the two pieces of evidence presented to the chancery court as to the price per share were $7.06 as testified to at trial, and $5.30 as contained in Timothy’s proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law submitted several months after trial. “Where parties provide inadequate proof of an asset’s value, a chancellor’s valuation with ‘some evidentiary support’ will be upheld.” Dunn v. Dunn, 911 So. 2d 591, 597 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (quoting Dunaway v. Dunaway, 749 So. 2d 1112, 1121 (¶28) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999)). In Dunaway, we held:

To the extent that the evidence on which the chancellor based his opinion was less informative than it could have been, we lay that at the feet of the litigants and not the chancellor. The chancellor appears to have fully explored the available proof and arrived at the best conclusions that he could, and we can discover no abuse of discretion in those efforts that would require us to reverse his valuation determinations.

Dunaway, 749 So. 2d at 1121 (¶28). Without having additional evidence provided by the parties, the chancery court was in the position to select a value for the shares and determined the total values for distribution. Additionally, the chancery court found that each party “will be entitled each to one-half of those [vested] shares.” Thus, the actual value per share fluctuates based upon the market, so the total value of the shares would vary based upon the market price.

¶12. We find that the chancery court did not abuse its discretion.

In other words, if you want a shot at overcoming a bad trial result, you’d better make it your business to make an adequate record at trial. Susan in this case in essence left the judge no choice but to rely on the figures offered by Timothy, and she ineffectively argued that it cost her, because she offered no proof to the contrary.

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