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Mitchell v. Moore

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

November 30, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/20/2015





          BEAM, JUSTICE

         ¶1. This appeal arises from a January 2016 order by the Lincoln County Chancery Court adjudicating Kevin Earl Moore, a minor, the heir of Travis Lynn Weems, who died in an automobile accident in July 2014. Dauwanna Mitchell, Weems's mother, appeals from that judgment, claiming it is invalid because Weems was never adjudicated to be Moore's natural father due to a paternity action filed in 2007 that was dismissed and, as Mitchell claims, never reinstated. Mitchell also claims a final judgment entered in February 2011 terminating Weems's parental rights was improperly revised by the chancery court in October 2015 under Rule 60 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.

         ¶2. Consolidated with this appeal (2015-CA-01651) is another appeal by Mitchell (2016- CA-00177) concerning the chancery court's 2014 judgment granting letters of administration based on an administrative-letters petition filed by Tilmon Bishop, Chancery Clerk of Lincoln County. Summons thereafter were issued to unknown heirs at law and wrongful-death beneficiaries of Weems.

         ¶3. Both appeals submit the same claims of error, that the chancery court's order adjudicating heirship is invalid because paternity never was adjudicated, and the chancery court erred in revising the February 2011 termination judgment.

         ¶4. Finding no merit in Mitchell's assignments of error, we affirm the chancery court's judgment adjudicating Kevin Moore the heir of Travis Weems.


         A. Paternity Adjudication and Child-Support Action Against Travis Weems

         ¶5. On August 7, 2007, the Mississippi Department of Human Services ("DHS") filed a complaint in the Lincoln County Chancery Court against Travis Weems. The complaint sought to determine paternity of a minor child named Kevin Earl Weems, born out of wedlock to Tabitha Moore. The chancery court dismissed the complaint without prejudice on October 14, 2008, due to nonservice of process.

         ¶6. DHS filed a new complaint on November 6, 2008, again alleging that Travis was Kevin's father. This complaint was filed under the same cause number as the previously dismissed complaint. Travis was served with process on December 7, 2008, and he appeared before the court and signed an agreed order for genetic paternity testing to be performed on in February 2009 to determine paternity. But Travis never submitted to any paternity test.

         ¶7. On May 19, 2009, the chancery court entered a judgment for support and other relief, stating:

[Travis] is the parent of [Kevin] and is therefore under a legal duty to provide for [his] support . . . . The defendant[, Travis] refused to submit to genetic testing in this action. Paternity was previously established pursuant to voluntary acknowledgment of [Kevin].

         B. Termination of Parental Rights Action Against Travis Weems

         ¶8. On September 3, 2010, Tabitha Moore filed a petition in the chancery court seeking termination of Travis's parental rights. Travis was served with process and appeared before the court on February 10, 2011, at which time a final hearing was held in the termination matter. The court entered its final judgment on February 25, 2011, terminating Travis's parental rights to Kevin, stating:

that the parental rights of Travis Lynn Weems of and to Kevin Earl Weems are hereby terminated, including the rights of inheritance of and from the child [.]"

(Emphasis added.)

         ¶9. On May 29, 2015, Tillmon Bishop (Kevin's state-appointed guardian) filed a motion to revise the chancery court's February 2011 final judgment pursuant to Rule 60(b)(4) and/or (6) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. The motion claimed that no relief affecting Kevin's inheritance rights was prayed for, and there was no mention of such rights during the February 2011 termination proceedings. The motion submitted that the February 2011 judgment should be rendered "void as to the child's rights of inheritance as equity demands those rights to remain intact for the benefit of this child unless specifically and intentionally eliminated by the [c]ourt." The motion further submitted that the "finality of the language erroneously included in the Final Judgment is greatly outweighed by the inequality manifested upon the minor child by the [c]ourt, unintentionally terminating the rights of inheritance of the minor child from his natural father." On July 15, 2015, Mitchell filed a response in opposition to the motion filed by Bishop.

         ¶10. The chancery court held a hearing on the matter on August 27, 2015. On October 22, 2015, the chancery court entered an order revising the February 2011 final judgment, finding that the language was included based on a clerical mistake, arising from an oversight in the chancery court's original decision. Therefore, it should be struck from the February 2011 final judgment. The chancery court described the change as follows:

The change is not made to reflect any change in mind by this Judge, based upon the fact that no relief affecting rights of inheritance was prayed for by the Petitioner or Guardian Ad Litem, or included in the Bench Ruling made at the conclusion of the trial. This correction is made solely to correct an Order that failed to accurately reflect this Judge's original decision as manifested by the Transcript of the Bench Ruling, and pursuant to Rule 60(a) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.

         C. Administration Action in the Matter of the Estate of Travis Weems

         ¶11. Travis Weems died on July 12, 2014, from injuries he sustained when he was a guest passenger in an automobile during an accident. The Lincoln County Chancery Clerk filed a petition for Letters of Administration on November 3, 2014. On November 4, 2014, the chancery court entered a judgment granting the petition, and said letters were issued on November 17, 2014. Summons were then issued to Unknown Heirs at Law and Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Travis in the time and manner required by law.

         ¶12. On January 5, 2016, an heirship proceeding was held in the chancery court. Tabitha Moore was the only person who appeared before the court, and she provided sworn testimony supporting Kevin's heirship to Travis.

         ¶13. The chancery court thereafter adjudicated Kevin to be the heir of Travis. The court based its determination on the May 2009 paternity judgment, in which the court found Travis to be Kevin's natural father.

         ¶14. Mitchell appeals, claiming the January 2016 order is invalid because Travis was never adjudicated Kevin's natural father because the 2007 paternity action was dismissed and never reinstated. Mitchell also claims the chancery court improperly revised, under Rule 60, the court's February 2011 judgment, which had terminated Travis's parental rights and Kevin's right to inherit from Travis.


         ¶15. This court will not disturb a chancery court's decision unless the chancery court's findings are manifestly wrong; not supported by substantial, credible evidence; or the chancery court has applied an erroneous legal standard. Norton v. Norton, 742 So.2d 126, 128-29 (Miss. 1999). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. Smith v. Dorsey, 599 So.2d 529, 533 (Miss. 1992).

         I. Whether the 2009 paternity action, adjudicating Travis to be Kevin's father, is valid.

         ¶16. Mitchell contends that, because the first paternity complaint was dismissed, the second complaint was void for lack of jurisdiction. Mitchell's argument is predicated on the belief the two complaints are actually the same single action, as evinced by the fact the same cause number was used for each action.

         ¶17. The chancery court found no merit in this claim, explaining that it constituted nothing but "form over substance" and noting that Mitchell's counsel even agreed that if these two actions had used separate cause numbers, there would be "zero merit" to this argument.

         ¶18. We agree. The fact the same cause number was used in both the first and second complaints is of no matter in this case. The record clearly shows that the first paternity complaint was dismissed without prejudice due to insufficient service of process, and a new complaint thereafter properly was instituted by DHS. The dismissal of the first action without prejudice was not a jurisdictional bar to the second action.

         ¶19. Secondly, as to the chancery court's finding(s) and ruling(s) in the second paternity action, Mississippi Code Section 93-9-21(1)(b) instructs:

If the putative father does not submit to genetic testing, the court shall, without further notice, on the date and time previously set through the notice for hearing, review the documentation of the refusal to submit to genetic testing and make a determination as to whether the complaint to establish paternity should be granted. The refusal to submit to such testing shall create a rebuttable presumption of an admission to paternity by the putative father.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-9-21(1)(b) (Rev. 2011).

         ¶20. The record illustrates that Travis agreed to undergo genetic testing to determine paternity, but he ultimately did not submit to testing. Later, during the proceedings pertaining to the termination of Travis's parental rights, Travis told the chancery court the reason he did not submit to testing was because he could not afford it, and he never actually believed he was not Kevin's father. Travis stated to the record: "I thought it would be best just to make sure he was mine, just to be straight up and honest."

         ¶21. The chancery court also found that Weems voluntarily had acknowledged his paternity, as evidenced by his having signed Kevin's birth certificate.

         ¶22. These factors, according to the chancery court, constituted a presumption of admission by Travis that he was Kevin's father. This presumption was never rebutted by Travis and was actually reaffirmed by Travis at the February 2011 parental-rights termination proceeding.

         ¶23. For these reasons, we find the chancery court did not err in adjudicating Travis to be the natural father of Kevin. This issue is without merit.

         II. Whether the Order Terminating Parental Rights was improperly revised.

         ¶24. The chancery court found the language "including the rights of inheritance of and from the child" contained in the February 2011 judgment terminating Travis's parental rights constituted a clerical mistake. The court ordered the language struck from the judgment pursuant to Rule 60(a).

         ¶25. Mitchell argues this was error because the purpose of Rule 60(a) is to correct insubstantial clerical errors. She contends that relief from more substantial errors requires use of Rule 60(b). Specifically, Mitchell points to Rule 60(b)(2), which affords relief based on an accident or mistake, but requires such relief be sought within six months after entry of the judgment. M.R.C.P. 60(b)(2). Mitchell also points to Stringfellow v. Stringfellow, where this Court, in speaking to Rule 60(b)(2), said "neither ignorance nor carelessness on the part of an attorney will provide grounds for relief." Stringfellow v. Stringfellow, 451 So.2d 219, 221 (Miss. 1984) (citing Hoffman v. Celebrezze, 405 F.2d 833 (8th Cir. 1969)).[1]

         ¶26. Motions for relief under Rule 60 in general are addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court, and appellate review is limited to whether that discretion has been abused. R.K. v. J.K., 946 So.2d 764, 776 (Miss. 2007).

         ¶27. Rule 60(a) allows the court to correct "clerical mistakes" arising from oversight or omission for the goal of "mak[ing] the judgment or other document speak the truth." M.R.C.P. 60(a) cmt. Rule 60(a) reads:

Clerical Mistakes. Clerical mistakes in judgments, orders, or other parts of the record and errors therein arising from oversight or omission may be corrected by the court at any time on its own initiative or on the motion of any party and after such notice, if any, as the court orders up until the time the record is transmitted by the clerk of the trial court to the appellate court and the action remains ...

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