Justia Mississippi Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics
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Timothy Robert Ronk, who was convicted of armed robbery and capital murder and sentenced to death, sought post-conviction relief for a second time. He claimed his post-conviction counsel was ineffective. The State of Mississippi, in response, requested an overruling of Grayson v. State, which held that ineffective-assistance-of-post-conviction-counsel claims are an exception to the bars in the Mississippi Uniform Post-Conviction Collateral Relief Act (UPCCRA). The Supreme Court of Mississippi agreed with the State, citing a recent decision (Howell v. State) which invalidated all cases in which Mississippi courts had applied a "judicially crafted fundamental-rights exception" to the UPCCRA’s bars. Therefore, the court partially overruled Grayson and denied Ronk's request for post-conviction relief. The court determined that Ronk's claims, including that his trial counsel failed to investigate his case thoroughly and that the State suppressed evidence, lacked arguable basis, were insufficient to overcome the statutory bars, and did not meet the "newly-discovered-evidence" exception. View "Ronk v. State of Mississippi" on Justia Law

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In this legal malpractice claim, Rachel Breal sued her former attorneys, the Downs Law Group and others, for allegedly negligent representation in a dismissed BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill claim. The case was filed in the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County, Mississippi, but was then removed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi by Downs Law. The case was later remanded back to the Hinds County Circuit Court. During a hearing, the trial court raised, on its own initiative, a forum-selection clause in Breal's retainer agreement with Downs Law, which stated that the proper forum and venue for any litigation relating to the agreement should be in the court of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Miami-Dade County. Based on this clause, the trial court dismissed the case for improper venue, and Breal appealed.The Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed the trial court's decision, holding that the trial court could not sua sponte enforce the forum-selection clause a year into the litigation. The court reasoned that improper venue could be waived if not timely raised, and therefore, the trial court could not enforce the forum-selection clause when Downs Law had failed to do so. The court found that Downs Law had waived any claim of improper venue by actively participating in the litigation in both federal and state courts in Mississippi without ever raising the issue of the forum-selection clause until prompted by the trial court. Therefore, the court concluded that the trial court erred by dismissing the case due to improper venue and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Breal v. The Downs Law Group" on Justia Law

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Attorney Ali Muhammad Shamsiddeen appealed a trial court’s Order of Contempt and Order Denying Motion for Recusal. Michael Sorrell was convicted of one count of first degree murder and one count of felon in possession of a firearm. The Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed Sorrell’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. After numerous continuances, Sorrell’s new trial was scheduled for April 5, 2021. On the morning of trial, Sorrell’s then-counsel, Kevin Camp, failed to appear. Camp was terminated as defense counsel. On April 13, Shamsiddeen entered an appearance as counsel for Sorrell. By agreement of all parties, the trial was rescheduled for September 27. The trial court advised that no further continuances would be granted and that the case would proceed to trial on the 27th. On August 18, Shamsiddeen moved ore tenus for a continuance, which was denied. On August 31, Shamsiddeen filed a motion to continue trial. At the pretrial motion hearing on September 1, Shamsiddeen reasserted his motion to continue. The trial court denied the motion. On September 21, Shamsiddeen contacted the court administrator and advised that he had the coronavirus and would not be able to appear at the pretrial conference scheduled for September 22. Shamsiddeen was instructed to provide to the trial court documentation “from a healthcare provider that counsel [wa]s infected with the coronavirus and that he [wa]s symptomatic not asymptomatic.” On the morning of September 22, Shamsiddeen did not appear in person or virtually at the pretrial conference. Later that morning, Shamsiddeen emailed the court administrator a statement from a medical provider dated September 21. The statement not include a diagnosis or confirm any medical condition, only that the nature of the illness or injury was “medical” and that Shamsiddeen would “be able to return to work/school on 10-11-21.” On the day before trial, Shamsiddeen sent an email to the trial court noting that he was quarantining; he did not appear in court for trial. Before the jury panels were released, Shamsiddeen had someone from the City of Jackson’s legal department hand deliver a medical statement, dated September 27, identical to the September 21 medical statement with the exception of the word “quarantine” added to the nature of the illness or injury. The trial court thereafter entered the orders of contempt at issue here. The Mississippi Supreme Court found no reversible error in the orders and affirmed them. View "In Re: Ali M. Shamsiddeen" on Justia Law

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Judge Carlos Moore was a municipal court judge for the Mississippi cities of Grenada and Clarksdale. He also practiced law with The Cochran Firm. The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance filed a formal complaint against Judge Moore, alleging that he improperly summoned two local police officers to the municipal courtroom in Grenada and criticized them publicly concerning a discussion about a private client of Moore’s that had occurred several days earlier at Judge Moore’s private law office. The Commission and Judge Moore asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to accept the stipulated findings of fact and to approve the recommended sanctions of a public reprimand and fine of $1,500. After careful consideration of the judicial misconduct at issue, the Supreme Court was unable to agree fully with the recommendation of the Commission. "Because Judge Moore abused the power of his office to chastise and embarrass police officers in open court concerning a matter related to the judge’s private law practice, we order a 60-day suspension from judicial office without pay in addition to the recommended sanctions." View "Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Moore" on Justia Law

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Kimberlyn Seals and her counsels of record, Felecia Perkins, Jessica Ayers, and Derek D. Hopson, Sr., appealed a chancery court's: (1) Contempt Order entered on April 8, 2020; (2) the Temporary Order entered on April 28, 2020; (3) the Jurisdictional Final Judgment entered on June 16, 2020; (4) the Final Judgment on Motion for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law entered on June 18, 2020; and (5) the Amended Final Judgment entered on June 18, 2020. Seals argued the chancellor lacked jurisdiction and erroneously found them to be in contempt of court. These orders arose out of a paternity suit filed by the father of Seals' child, born 2017. A hearing was set for April 7, 2020, but Seals sought a continuance. The motion was deemed untimely, and that the court expected Seals and her counsel to appear at the April 7 hearing. When Seals and her counsel failed to appear, the court entered the contempt orders at issue before the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court: (1) affirmed the chancellor’s finding that Perkins and Ayers were in direct criminal contempt for their failure to appear at a scheduled April 7 hearing; (2) vacated the $3,000 sanction because it exceeded the penalties prescribed by statute; (3) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees to opposing counsel; (4) found the chancellor erred in finding Hopson to be in direct criminal contempt for failing to appear - "Constructive criminal contempt charges require procedural safeguards of notice and a hearing;" and (5) found the chancellor erroneously found the attorneys to be in direct criminal contempt for violation of the September 2019 Temporary Order. "If proved, such acts are civil contempt." The matter was remanded for a determination of whether an indirect civil contempt proceeding should be commenced. View "Seals, et al. v. Stanton" on Justia Law

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While driving a forklift at work, Lori Chandler was hit by another forklift and injured. She retained Turner & Associates to file a workers’ compensation claim. But Turner & Associates failed to file her claim within the statute of limitations. Adding to that, the firm’s case manager engaged in a year-and-a-half-long cover-up, which included false assurances of settlement negotiations, fake settlement offers, and a forged settlement letter purporting to be from Chandler’s former employer. Because of this professional negligence, Chandler filed a legal malpractice action. The only issue at trial was damages. The trial judge, sitting as fact-finder, concluded that Chandler had suffered a compensable work-related injury—an injury that caused her to lose her job and left her unemployed for nearly two years. Based on her hourly wage, the trial judge determined, had Turner & Associates timely filed Chandler’s workers’ compensation claim, Chandler could have reasonably recovered $50,000 in disability benefits. So the trial judge awarded her $50,000 in compensatory damages. The trial judge also awarded Chandler $100,000 in punitive damages against the case manager due to her egregious conduct. The Court of Appeals affirmed the punitive-damages award. But the court reversed and remanded the compensatory-damages award. Essentially, the Court of Appeals held that Chandler had failed to present sufficient medical evidence to support a $50,000 workers’ compensation claim. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the appellate court: "Were this a workers’ compensation case, we might agree with the Court of Appeals. But this is a legal malpractice case. And part of what Chandler lost, due to attorney negligence, was her ability to prove her work-related injury led to her temporary total disability. ... the Court of Appeals erred by applying exacting statutory requirements for a workers’ compensation claim to Chandler’s common-law legal malpractice claim." The Court reversed on the issue of compensatory damages and reinstated the trial judge’s $50,000 compensatory-damages award. Because this was the only issue for which Chandler sought certiorari review, it affirmed the remainder of the Court of Appeals’ decision, which affirmed the punitive-damages award but reversed and remanded the grant of partial summary judgment against attorney Angela Lairy in her individual capacity. View "Turner & Associates, PLLC, et al. v. Chandler" on Justia Law

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After losing their bids for the November 2019 elections for Quitman County Chancery and Circuit Clerk, Shirley Smith Taylor and Tea “Windless” Keeler, respectively, filed election contests. In July 2020, following a two-day trial of the consolidated contests, the court entered its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, dismissing the election contests with prejudice and finding that six enumerated claims brought by Taylor and Keeler were frivolous.Further, the court denied Brenda Wiggs’s and T.H. “Butch” Scipper’s requests that Taylor and Keeler be sanctioned, and that Wiggs and Scipper be awarded attorneys’ fees under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 11(b) and the Litigation Accountability Act of 1988 (LAA). The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed in part the circuit court’s denial of an award of attorneys’ fees under Rule 11(b) since the court’s decision was not an abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded in part the circuit court’s decision to deny the imposition of sanctions and award of attorneys’ fees under the LAA in light of its finding that six of Taylor’s and Keeler’s claims were frivolous. View "In Re: Contest of the November 5, 2019 General Election for the Chancery Clerk of Quitman, Mississippi" on Justia Law

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A jury returned a $4 million verdict in favor of Plaintiff Jana Bracewell, Administratix of the Estate of Cameron Chase Hill, in a medical negligence/wrongful-death suit against Defendants, B. Michael Weber, M.D., and The OB-GYN Group of Laurel, P.A. Defendants appealed the judgment, claiming the trial court erred by denying their posttrial motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or, in the alternative, a new trial. Plaintiff cross-appealed, claiming the trial court erred by reducing the jury’s noneconomic-damages award. Dr. Weber’s partner, Dr. Robert DeSantis, was Erica Shae Hill’s primary OB-GYN throughout her pregnancy. On November 23, 2001, Hill went into labor around 2:30 a.m.; she went to South Central Regional Medical Center in Laurel, Mississippi. Dr. Weber, who was on call for Dr. DeSantis that night, managed Hill’s care throughout labor, and he delivered Cameron Chase Hill by vaginal delivery at approximately 1:10 p.m. that afternoon. Cameron and Hill were discharged on November 25, 2001. The next day, Cameron was taken to Forrest General Hospital because he was not eating. Cameron ultimately was diagnosed with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), a neurological injury resulting from lack of oxygen to the brain. According to Defendants, Cameron’s Forrest General Hospital records for his admission shortly after birth included a secondary diagnosis of “viral meningits – NOS.” Cameron lived only to age five. Plaintiff filed a complaint in December 2002 on behalf of Cameron, alleging negligence on the part of Dr. Weber and The OB-GYN Group of Laurel. The complaint claimed that Dr. Weber breached the applicable standard of care by failing to recognize, appreciate, and respond to the signs and symptoms of fetal distress, ischemia, and/or hypoxia during the labor and delivery of Cameron. The Mississippi Supreme Court found no error in the trial court’s decision to deny Defendants’ motion for a JNOV or a new trial. As to Plaintiff’s cross-appeal, the Court agreed that the trial court erred by reducing the jury’s noneconomic-damages award, given that this action was filed before September 1, 2004, the date the amended version of Section 11-1-60(2)(a) went into effect. View "Weber, et al. v. Estate of Hill" on Justia Law

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Judge Mark Watts of Jackson County, Mississippi acknowledged he made appearances or filed motions in nine cases in Jackson County Chancery Court more than six months after assuming office. He joined in the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance’s motion recommending a public reprimand and a fine of $2,500. To this, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and granted the Commission’s recommendation. View "Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Watts" 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