Chancery Judge Larry Primeaux has another excellent post today entitled, “Sweeping Dustbunnies.” I’m reposting it here because I think you need to read the whole thing to get the full picture and the judge as previously indicated he doesn’t mind me lifting his material. I recommend that any paralegal interested in understanding practice before a court to put his blog on their RSS. It is worth it for the checklists alone.
My only contribution will be this foreword to the post, partly addressed to attorneys and partly to paralegals:
Attorneys: A good, professional paralegal can save you a lot of grief. They are not maids, butlers, super-secretaries, who clean up the office. But as an effective member of the legal team they can greatly assist in preventing dustbunnies of the type depicted by the judge. For this to happen it is important that you understand, respect, and properly use the special skills a good paralegal brings to the legal team. Support your paralegals in this regard by providing them with the time and means to obtain appropriate CLE and membership in professional associations. Talk to your paralegals about what can be done to improve their skills in this regard, to improve the office to more effectively utilize those skills, and to improve the working relationship of the legal team. Together you can make a plan to manage the chaos.
Paralegals: It is, indeed, part of your role on the legal team to use effective and professional time, workload, workspace, docket, and client management skills, to prevent the accumulation of dustbunnies. Use examples such as this case to do a self-assessment and an assessment of your office systems. How many of these dustbunnies would have been prevented in your office and how many would likely have begun gathering in the small spaces between the files piled on the legal team members’ desks? Talk to your attorneys about what can be done to improve your skills in this regard, to improve the office to more effectively utilize those skills, and to improve the working relationship of the legal team. Together you can make a plan to manage the chaos.
OK, homily over, here’s the judge’s post:
Have you ever noticed that mistakes and missteps seem to pile up in some cases despite your best efforts, just like those dustbunnies that pile up under that buffet in your dining room no matter how hard you try?
The case of Estate of Bellino v. Bellino, decided by the Court of Appeals on November 2, 2010, is one of those “dustbunny” cases, and it merits your attention. For ease of following this, we’ll mark the dustbunnies as they accrue with the international dustbunny symbol: ¤.
Stephen and Margaret Bellino were married in 1974. During the marriage, Stephen inherited $200,000 and opened a securities account with A. G. Edwards (AGE). In 1995, he and Margaret executed a joint account agreement declaring the account to be a joint tenancy with right of survivorship.
Alas, the marriage foundered, and the erstwhile blissful couple faced off in court. Their marriage ended May 2, 2006, with entry of a final judgment of divorce.
And that is when the discombobulating deluge of dustbunnies (¤) began to develop.
It seems that the divorce judgment made no mention of the AGE account. That would be the first ¤.
Stephen became aware of the problem when he tried to make a withdrawal and was refused by AGE, which took the position that it could not allow any withdrawals until the court addressed the ownership issue. Another ¤.
Stephen filed an MRCP Rule 59 motion to alter or amend the judgment to address the oversight. Only problem is that he waited until May 15, 2006. That would be a major ¤ because it was filed more than ten days after entry of the judgment, and so the motion was time-barred.
In all the hubbub surrounding the issue, Stephen never got around to changing ownership of the account. This is one of those ¤’s that spawns lots of other ¤’s.
Before the issue could be resolved by the judge, Stephen died on June 18, 2006. Regrettable as it is, this development was also a ¤.
Stephen’s estate was duly opened in July. There is no mention of the estate being substituted as a party in the divorce action under MRCP 25. Probably a ¤.
In November, the attorney for the estate approached the chancellor and, without any notice to Margaret or her attorneys, obtained an order directing AGE to pay the funds to the estate. No question this was a ¤.
To compound matters, the attorney for the estate never filed the order (or, it appears, any motion therefor) in either the estate or divorce file, and never served it on Margaret’s attorneys. That would be ¤ ¤ ¤.
They’re beginning to pile up, aren’t they?
At this point the attorney for the estate realized that the dustbunnies were getting out of hand, so he started trying to sweep them up. The problem is that when you sweep dustbunnies it tends to scatter them and they seem to proliferate, which is exactly what they did.
The attorney for the estate filed an appeal. Now, this is really a dustbunny because the issues are fairly straightforward and not really in doubt. Score another ¤.
Right off the bat the court of appeals criticized the attorney for the estate for not filing a statement of issues after being asked not once but several time by the appellate court to do so. That would be another ¤ ¤ ¤. The court even thought about not considering his brief, which is, of course a ¤.
The court of appeals ruled that Margaret got the money because Stephen never changed the account and it was hers by survivorship. A predictable ¤.
Stephen’s estate will be stuck with the cost of cleaning up all these dustbunnies, and will have nothing to show for it. That’s a ¤ right there. In the alternative, the estate could insist that its attorney bear the cost of the appeal, which would be his own personal ¤.
So there you have it. Too many dustbunnies and before you know it you have a mess too big to clean up.