Justia Mississippi Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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This case arose from a two-car accident in Mississippi in which a Hyundai Excel was traveling southbound at a closing speed of 68 to 78 mph and, for reasons unknown, crossed the center line into the oncoming lane of traffic, striking a Lincoln Continental passenger car traveling northbound. None of the three Excel occupants survived the collision. This case made it to the Mississippi Supreme Court after an earlier appeal and remand for a new trial. During the remand proceedings, multiple discovery disputes ensued before the trial court ultimately held two 606(b) hearings on October 30, 2018, and January 23, 2019 (nearly four years after the trial court’s original denial of relief). The trial court expressly found that one of Applewhite’s counsel, Dennis Sweet, III, misrepresented his relationship with a witness, Carey Sparks, during the April 2015 hearing. It was not until a January 25, 2018 hearing, that Sweet admitted that he had paid Sparks to perform services during the Applewhite trial. This admission was made only after documents evidencing multiple payments to Sparks by Sweet surfaced in the discovery ordered by the Supreme Court. During discovery, multiple witnesses, including six attorneys, testified that Sparks stated that he had knowledge of discussions of the jurors during the trial. Following the 606(b) hearings, the trial court issued a one-paragraph order, finding that the posttrial testimony of the jurors offered no evidence supporting Defendants’ allegations. Reviewing the trial court proceedings, the Mississippi Supreme Court concluded "a fair and impartial trial was not had." The Court found "overwhelming evidence of actual impropriety, which destroys any confidence in the jury verdict. The facts developed in this record threaten the public’s confidence in our system of justice. We find that this case is permeated by actual deception upon the trial court, which led to Plaintiffs’ obtaining a favorable ruling. Such improper acts of misconduct leave a indelible stain on these proceedings. We are loathe to overturn jury verdicts, yet justice dictates a reversal and a retrial, unencumbered by extraneous assaults on our justice system. We considered the ultimate sanction of dismissal of this case with prejudice. We decline to impose such a severe sanction, for no evidence suggests that any Plaintiff employed Sparks or had knowledge of Sparks’s actions. But the judgment must be reversed." This case was remanded for a new trial. View "Hyundai Motor America, et al. v. Applewhite, et al." on Justia Law

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Linda Battise was the mother of Joseph Aucoin, deceased. Joseph and Sheila Aucoin were married and had two daughters. After Joseph’s death, Sheila began restricting Linda’s visitation with the children because Linda was not abiding by Sheila’s parental decisions. Through counsel, Linda petitioned for grandparent visitation. The chancellor encouraged the parties to confer because Sheila made some statements showing that they could come to a visitation agreement without court involvement. Linda and Sheila reached an agreement; however, the chancellor declined to sign the agreed order. The chancellor advised Sheila to retain an attorney because she did not believe that Sheila fully understood the implications of the agreement. Furthermore, the chancellor told Sheila that she was entitled to attorney’s fees. Shiela hired an attorney, and filed a motion to dismiss or stay proceedings until fees were paid in advance. The chancellor denied Linda’s motion to recuse, and ordered Linda to pay $3,500 to Sheila for attorney’s fees within thirty days or else she could not proceed with her case. Linda appealed, arguing that: (1) the chancellor erred by requiring her to prepay attorney’s fees to Sheila before Linda’s case could be heard; (2) the chancellor erred by not entering a final judgment; and (3) the chancellor erred by not recusing. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the chancellor's denial of the motion to recuse. The Court reversed the prepayment order, and remanded for further proceedings on the merits. View "Battise v. Aucoin" on Justia Law

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In 2016, an unidentified driver struck a flagpole owned by 100 Renaissance, LLC, causing $2,134 in damage. Renaissance filed a claim with its insurance company, Travelers Property Casualty Company of America. Renaissance sought coverage under its automobile liability-insurance policy, which included uninsured-motorist(UM) coverage. Travelers denied the claim, determining there was no coverage under the UM policy because the flagpole was not a covered "auto." Renaissance's attorney sent an email to Travelers' claims handler, setting forth the Renaissance's legal arguments as to why coverage should be afforded under Mississippi's UM statute. The claims handler forwarded the email to Travelers' in-house counsel. When the claim was still denied, Renaissance filed suit on a bad-faith failure-to-pay theory. Renaissance took the claim handler's deposition, and asked her to explain the reasons Travelers denied the claim. In an effort to resolve the matter, Travelers paid the full amount for damage to the flagpole. Renaissance, however, continued to litigate its bad-faith claim. Travelers moved for summary judgment. Renaissance responded by asking for a continuance to conduct additional discovery. The additional discovery Renaissance claimed it needed was a production of the emails between the claims handler and the in-house counsel. The trial court granted the request for Travelers to produce the emails for in camera review. After that review, the trial court found that “Travelers ha[d] waived the attorney-client privilege as it relates to attorney Jim Harris.” The trial court ordered Travelers to produce the emails and to produce Harris (in-house counsel) for a deposition. Travelers filed a petition for interlocutory appeal, which the Mississippi Supreme Court granted. The Supreme Court did not disagree with the trial court's determination that the privilege was waived, and affirmed its judgment. View "Travelers Property Casualty Company of America v. 100 Renaissance, LLC" on Justia Law

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Following an investigation, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance determined that Copiah County Justice Court Judge Teresa Bozeman had violated Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(2), 3B(7), and 3C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct as well as Mississippi Code Section 9-11-9 (Rev. 2019). During her tenure on the bench, Judge Bozeman’s conduct resulted in violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and Mississippi Code Section 9-11-9. Specifically, Judge Bozeman (1) initiated improper ex parte communications to investigate a pending civil matter, (2) failed to comply with the statutory limitations of money judgments in justice court, and (3) retaliated against a complainant who filed a complaint with the Commission. The Commission found that Judge Bozeman’s conduct constituted willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brought the judicial office into disrepute, actionable under article 6, section 177A, of the Mississippi Constitution. The Commission recommended that Judge Bozeman be suspended from office without pay for thirty days, be publicly reprimanded, and be fined $1,000. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court found the agreed recommendation was appropriate and commensurate with similar cases of misconduct. Thus, the joint motion was granted, and Judge Bozeman was suspended from office without pay for thirty days, was publicly reprimanded, and fined $1,000. View "Mississippi Comm'n on Judicial Perf. v. Bozeman" on Justia Law

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Vernon Walters was injured in a work-related incident in October 2006; the vehicle he was driving was struck by an oncoming train. After receiving workers’ compensation benefits, he and his wife, Donyell Walters, filed a third-party claim against the company operating the train involved in the collision, Kansas City Southern Railway Company (KCSR). The Walterses hired the Parsons Law Firm to represent them in their suit, and Tadd Parsons took the case. The Walterses’ lawsuit against KCSR was ultimately dismissed with prejudice in September 2010 for, among other reasons, failure to prosecute, failure to comply with discovery obligations and fraud upon the court. Tadd never told the Walterses that their case had been dismissed and led them to believe their case was ongoing. Three years after the case had been dismissed, Tadd admitted he fabricated a settlement offer from KCSR in the amount of $104,000 and advised the Walterses to accept the offer, which they did. When eight months passed after Tadd informed the Walterses about the fabricated settlement, the Walterses demanded to meet with Jack Parsons, the other general partner at the Parsons Law Firm. Jack offered the Walterses $50,000 to settle any claims they may have had against Tadd based on his conduct in representing them in the KCSR lawsuit. The Walterses refused Jack’s offer and then filed a claim against Tadd, Jack and the Parsons Law Firm, alleging claims of fraud, defamation, negligent representation, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages. The trial court granted partial summary judgment for the Walterses on the matter of liability, finding that Tadd and the Parsons Law Firm were liable for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court then held a jury trial on damages. The jury verdict awarded the Walterses $2,850,002 in compensatory damages, which exceeded what the Walterses had demanded in compensatory damages in their complaint and in their motion to set damages. Finding the jury’s verdict shocked the conscience, the court remitted the damages to $1,034,666.67 in a second amended final judgment. Parsons appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, and the Walterses cross-appealed. The Supreme Court determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding irrelevant evidence about the underlying KCSR lawsuit because the value of the lawsuit had no bearing on the damages the Walterses sustained due to Tadd Parsons’s and the Parsons Law Firm’s fraud and IIED. Further, the Court determined the remitted verdict’s award of damages was excessive and not supported by substantial evidence. The trial court was therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the matter remanded for a new trial on damages. View "Parsons v. Walters" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Mississippi Supreme Court’s review involved the first-to-file rule. Most of the claims were properly transferred, but all parties to this appeal agreed it was error to transfer the claims against two of the defendants, Michele Biegel and Bettie Johnson. The underlying controversy was a fee dispute between attorneys Seth Little, Barry Wade Gilmer, and Chuck McRae. McRae sued Gilmer in the Hinds County Chancery Court, claiming unjust enrichment and seeking an accounting. Gilmer later filed this suit in the Madison County Circuit Court against McRae’s attorneys in the fee dispute, Michele Biegel and Bettie Ruth Johnson. Biegel and Johnson filed a special entry of appearance and a motion to dismiss the complaint against them. McRae requested that the claims against him be transferred to Hinds Chancery Court, in which McRae previously filed suit against Gilmer. The Madison County Circuit Court ordered the entire suit, including claims against Biegel and Johnson, transferred, and denied Biegel and Johnson’s motion to reconsider. The Supreme Court concurred the transfer of the entire case was made in error, and therefore reversed transfer of claims from the Madison County Circuit Court to the Hinds County court. View "Biegel v. Gilmer" on Justia Law

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Gulfport OB-GYN was a professional association of physicians specializing in obstetrical and gynecological care. In 2008, it hired the law firm Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A., to assist in negotiating the hiring of Dr. Donielle Daigle and to prepare an employment agreement for her. Five years later, Dr. Daigle and another physician left Gulfport OB-GYN to establish their own practice. They sued Gulfport OB-GYN for unpaid compensation and sought a declaratory judgment that the noncompetition covenant was unenforceable. The departing physicians ultimately prevailed, with the chancery court holding the noncompetition covenant not applicable to Dr. Daigle because she left voluntarily and was not “terminated by the Employer.” The chancery court decision was initially appealed, but the dispute was later settled through mediation when Gulfport OB-GYN agreed to pay Dr. Daigle $425,000. Gulfport OB-GYN then filed this legal-malpractice suit against the attorney who drafted the employment agreement and her firm. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the defendants after finding Gulfport OB-GYN had failed to produce sufficient evidence that it would have received a better deal but for the attorneys’ alleged negligence, i.e., Gulfport OB-GYN failed to prove that the alleged negligence caused it damages. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and affirmed. View "Gulfport OB-GYN, P.A. v. Dukes, Dukes, Keating & Faneca, P.A." on Justia Law

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The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance (the “Commission”) recommended that the Mississippi Supreme Court publicly reprimand and assess a $500 fine against Judge Frank Sutton, a justice court judge for Post Three in Hinds County, Mississippi. Based on complaints against Judge Sutton, the Commission initiated an inquiry into his role in two matters. This investigation led to the Commission’s filing a formal complaint. Judge Sutton did not file an answer to the complaint; instead, he and the Commission stipulated to agreed facts. The Commission then unanimously adopted those facts in its findings of fact and recommendation. The Commission made this recommendation after finding by clear and convincing evidence that Judge Sutton’s conduct constituted misconduct in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct as well as Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. The Supreme Court agreed with the Commission that Judge Sutton’s conduct constituted misconduct. The Court disagreed, however, with the Commission’s imposition of sanctions. Instead, the Supreme Court ordered a public reprimand, fined Judge Sutton $500 and suspended Judge Sutton for thirty days without pay. View "Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Sutton" on Justia Law

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A standing order in the Third Chancery Court District (Mississippi) set motion days in advance and assigns the particular judge who will preside that day. H. R. Garner, a practitioner in the Third Chancery Court District, knew the directives of this standing order. Yet Garner still claimed that his opposing counsel was judge shopping by filing a contempt petition against Garner’s client and issuing a Rule 81(d) summons that noticed a hearing before a judge who had not been assigned the case. Although his opponent’s actions were authorized by Rule 1.06(C) and the District’s standing order, Garner filed what amounted to a hopeless motion to quash and for sanctions against him. In a twist, the Honorable Vicki Daniels, the judge actually assigned the contempt case, heard Garner’s motion to quash and request for sanctions, which Garner continued to pursue even though he was in front of his preferred judge. After reviewing the motion, Judge Daniels found what Garner’s opposing counsel had done was a “common practice” and was not improper. This prompted Garner’s opposing counsel to urge Judge Daniels to instead sanction Garner for filing a hopeless and frivolous motion, which she did: Garner and his client were sanctioned $1,000 under Rule 11 and the Litigation Accountability Act. Finding no abuse of discretion in Judge Daniels awarding sanctions against Garner, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the sanction. View "Garner v. Smith" on Justia Law

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Judge Jesse Burton of the Southern District of Coahoma County, Mississippi Justice Court, filed an affidavit claiming his former girlfriend had stolen money and personal property from him. Based on this affidavit, another justice court judge issued an arrest warrant for Judge Burton’s girlfriend, Regina Burt. But before the warrant was served, Judge Burton changed his mind and instructed the clerk’s office to rescind the warrant that the other judge had issued. As directed, the deputy clerk replaced Judge Burton’s girlfriend’s name on the warrant with Jane Doe and instructed the sheriff’s office not to execute it. Acting on a complaint from Burt, on August 29, 2018, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance filed a formal complaint against Judge Burton, who cooperated and entered an agreed stipulation of facts with the Commission: Judge Burton agreed he committed misconduct when he ordered a deputy clerk to rescind his former girlfriend’s arrest warrant, and agreed he violated Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(1), 3B(2), and 3E(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi and Mississippi Code Section 97- 11-1. The parties’ agreement included the Commission’s recommended sanction of a public reprimand and $500 fine. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the Commission’s findings and recommended sanction. View "Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Judge Jesse Burton" on Justia Law