Tillotson v. Anders

Decision Date16 August 1989
Docket NumberNo. 89-IA-00013,89-IA-00013
Citation551 So.2d 212
PartiesRandolph C. (Dolph) TILLOTSON, Natchez Newspaper, Inc. and Susan Willey v. J. Odell ANDERS.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

R. Kent Hudson, Gwin, Lewis, Punches & Hudson, Natchez, for appellant.

John E. Mulhearn, Jr., Mulhearn & Mulhearn, Natchez, for appellees.

En banc.

ROBERTSON, Justice, for the Court:


This is a libel action wherein a former chancery clerk has sued his hometown newspaper and two of its reporters, complaining of articles and editorials about his conduct of his office and demanding actual and punitive damages. The former clerk attempted to disguise his action as one for an accounting and then filed it in the chancery court. The newspaper moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. When the Court below denied the motion, we accepted the newspaper's interlocutory appeal. We reverse.


The parties to this appeal are as follows:

J. Odell Anders is an adult resident citizen of Adams County, Mississippi. He served as Chancery Clerk of Adams County from November of 1974 until January of 1988. Anders was the plaintiff below and is the appellee here.

Natchez Newspapers, Inc., is a Mississippi corporation and is the publisher of a daily newspaper known as The Natchez Democrat, which at all times relevant has had a general circulation in Adams County, Mississippi, and in surrounding areas.

Randolph C. (Dolph) Tillotson and Susan Willey were at all relevant times employees of Natchez Newspapers, Inc., serving as reporters for The Natchez Democrat. Natchez Newspapers, Inc., Tillotson and Willey were the defendants below and are the appellants here. They are hereafter collectively referred to as "the Newspaper".

Between May 30, 1987, and June 21, 1987, the Newspaper published a series of articles and editorials regarding Anders' conduct of the office of Chancery Clerk. These articles and editorials were critical of Anders for the substantial income his family derived from his service in office, commenting upon the fact that Anders had hired his wife and his two daughters as deputy clerks and had paid them allegedly handsome salaries. The Newspaper was generally critical of the system provided by state law for compensating chancery clerks and their deputies.

On October 19, 1987, Anders commenced this civil action by filing his complaint in the Chancery Court of Adams County, Mississippi. Anders charged that the articles were false, and maliciously so, and then charged that the proof in this case would be "extremely complex and complicated and present issues of accounting that could only be resolved by the Chancery Court because of the complex nature thereof." Anders demanded a declaratory judgment that all receipts and disbursements of funds discussed in the articles were in strict conformity with law and then demanded of the Newspaper actual damages in the amount of $500,000.00 and punitive damages in the amount of $8,000,000.00, plus attorneys fees and court costs.

On November 2, 1987, the Newspaper filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, to transfer the case to the Circuit Court of Adams County. The Newspaper charged that Anders' suit was a garden variety libel action which lay outside Chancery Court subject matter jurisdiction. The Newspaper also invoked its right to trial by jury, Miss. Const. Art. 3, Sec. 31 (1890), and argued that this right would be denied if the matter remained in the Chancery Court.

On June 28, 1988, the Chancery Court denied the motion, holding that the action lay within chancery court subject matter jurisdiction because it is one "which requires a complex accounting and several issues upon which a multiplicity of suits could arise." On July 25, 1988, the Court entered its order denying the motion to dismiss or transfer.

Having found that there are substantial grounds for believing that the Chancery Court erred on the legal question of subject matter jurisdiction and that an interlocutory appeal might materially advance the termination of the litigation and protect the Newspaper from substantial and irreparable loss of its right to trial by jury, we granted the Newspaper's interlocutory appeal. See Rule 5(a), Miss.Sup.Ct.Rules.; American Electric v. Singarayar, 530 So.2d 1319, 1321-24 (Miss.1988).


That this is a libel suit ordinarily cognizable as an action at law does not inexorably preclude its being heard in chancery court. Where there appears from the face of the well-pleaded complaint an independent basis for equity jurisdiction, our chancery courts may hear and adjudge law claims. Penrod Drilling Co. v. Bounds, 433 So.2d 916 (Miss.1983); Tideway Oil Programs, Inc. v. Serio, 431 So.2d 454, 464 (Miss.1983); Burnett v. Bass, 152 Miss. 517, 521, 120 So. 456 (1929). In such circumstances we consider that the legal claims lie within the pendent jurisdiction of the chancery court.

Anders proclaims independent equity grounds threefold. Foremost, he insists that this is an action for an accounting, noting that our chancery courts have historically enjoyed jurisdiction over suits for accounting. See Dunagin v. First National Bank, 118 Miss. 809, 80 So. 276 (1919); Evans v. Hoye, 101 Miss. 244, 252-53, 57 So. 805, 806 (1912); see also Miss. Const. Art. 6, Sec. 159(f) (1890) (jurisdiction over all cases of which the chancery court had jurisdiction under the laws in force when the Constitution was adopted and put into operation); Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 9-5-81 (1972); Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, Sec. 24 (2d ed. 1950); Pomeroy, Equity Jurisprudence, Secs. 1420 & 1421 (5th ed. 1941).

One fallacy in Anders' point is that his complaint does not seek an accounting as between himself and the Newspaper. When the question whether an action lay within chancery court subject matter jurisdiction has been raised, our cases have consistently held

It is the substance of the action that should be controlling on this issue, not its form or label.

Thompson v. First Mississippi National Bank, 427 So.2d 973, 976 (Miss.1983). In Dixie National Life Insurance Co. v. Allison, 372 So.2d 1081 (Miss.1979), we rejected a plaintiff's characterization of his action as one for specific performance, noting that

it was nothing more than a suit for breach of contract and should have been brought in the circuit court.

Dixie National, 372 So.2d at 1085. We repeated the point in Thompson and urged that our lower courts

be wary of attempts to camouflage as a complicated accounting what is in essence an action at law for breach of contract.

Thompson, 427 So.2d at 976. More recently, in Blackledge v. Scott, 530 So.2d 1363 (Miss.1988), we rebuffed a plaintiff's effort to bring in chancery court what was clearly a common law tort action.

Love v. Dampeer, 159 Miss. 430, 439, 132 So. 439, 442 (1931) affords Anders no succor, for that case involved liquidation of a bank, a matter within chancery court jurisdiction by statute. Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 3817 (1930). The same may be said of Anders' citation of State of Mississippi ex rel. King v. Harvey, 214 So.2d 817 (Miss.1968), a suit on the bond of a public official. See Miss. Const. Art. 6, Sec. 161 (1890).

Anders next argues that this is a suit to prevent a multiplicity of suits at law, and, indeed, the court below so held. To be sure, this is another of the historical grounds for equity jurisdiction. Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice Secs. 24, 439 (2d Ed.1950). How the notion applies here escapes us. True, Anders complains of a series of articles and editorials. Perhaps theoretically each could be made the subject of a separate action, but they have not been and we have no doubt of the propriety of their being joined in a single action at law before the circuit court. Conceivably, the state auditor or some public authority might proceed against Anders, but that would involve, at least in part, different legal theories than today's action. There is a marked difference between a multiplicity of suits and a multitude of suits. See Gulf & Ship Island Railroad Co. v. Barnes, 94 Miss. 484, 512, 48 So. 823, 829 (1909).

Finally, Anders suggests, if we understand him correctly, that his prayer for declaratory judgment makes his suit cognizable in chancery. The short answer is that our law's authorization of the declaratory judgment procedure in Rule 57, Miss.R.Civ.P., is jurisdictionally neutral. Rule 57 empowers the trial court to grant a procedural remedy not thought available in our practice prior to January 1, 1982. That new remedy may be sought only in a court of otherwise competent jurisdiction. Indeed, nothing in the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure may be construed to extend or limit the subject matter jurisdiction of our trial courts. 1 Rule 82(a), Miss.R.Civ.P.

There is good reason why we ought heed the Newspaper's arguments, and do so interlocutorily. The Newspaper has demanded its right to trial by jury. If this action is allowed to remain in chancery court, there will be no trial by jury, this notwithstanding the command of our constitution that "the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate." 2 Miss. Const. Art. 3, Sec. 31 (1890). See Penrod Drilling Co. v. Bounds, 433 So.2d 916, 931-32 (Miss.1983) (Robertson, J., concurring); Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. v. Hasty, 360 So.2d 925 (Miss.1978), McLean v. Green, 352 So.2d 1312 (Miss.1977). And, if the case should proceed to final judgment in chancery and there appear in the record no error other than the point of subject matter jurisdiction, we would be without power to reverse. Miss. Const. Art. 6, Sec. 147 (1890); Talbot and Higgins Lumber Co. v. McLeod Lumber Co., 147 Miss. 186, 113 So. 433 (1927).

We hold that this case lies outside the limited subject matter jurisdiction of the chancery court. If that be so, it must perforce be within the subject matter jurisdiction of the circuit court, a court of general jurisdiction. See Hall v. Corbin, 478...

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