No Appeal from an “Interim” Judgment
March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
Frank Lewis is a name you might recall from a previous post. I posted about his case in a post entitled Guardian or Conservator?, back in 2011. Mr. Lewis was the indoividual for whom an adult guardianship was established in chancery court, and the COA reversed for failure to comply in all respects with the statute vis a vis joinder of relatives. The case was remanded for further proceedings to cure the defects and then to determine the need for a guardianship.
Mr. Lewis died, however, during the pendency of the appeal, which was not taken into account by the COA opinion, although a suggestion of death had been filed. His death, however, did not end the family- controversy-riddled matter.
The executor of Lewis’s estate filed a petition with the trial court to recover all of the attorney’s fees that had been paid out by the guardianship, totalling some $15,000, since the guardianship had been reversed on appeal. The attorneys against whom the petition was filed responded with a counterclaim under the Litigation Accountability Act (LAA) asking for attorney’s fees incurred in defending the executor’s action.
The chancellor ruled that the guardianship had, indeed, been necessary to tend to Mr. Lewis’s business. All parties then agreed that the court’s ruling rendered the executor’s claim for recovery of attorney’s fees moot.
That left the LAA counterclaim. The chancellor deferred a decision on the LAA to determine whether the executor’s action had been frivolous, and to consider proof of the actual damages incurred in defending it. He set the hearing for a future date.
The executor asked for an interlocutory appeal, and the court granted a recess to allow the parties to discuss it, without any result of record.
Several days later, the chancellor entered a two-page judgment entitled “Interim Judgment,” adjudicating the necessity of the guardianship and ruling the executor’s claims moot, but not adjudicating the LAA counterclaim. On the face of the Interim Judgment, the words “THIS IS A FINAL JUDGMENT” had been stricken through in ink [Note: The court in that district requires the stricken language to appear on the face of all final judgments].
The executor (referred to by the COA as “Junior”) appealed. In the case of Estate of Frank Lewis: Lewis v. Harvey and Logan, handed down March 18, 2014, the COA found that it lacked jurisdiction on familiar grounds. Judge Maxwell wrote for the court:
¶13. We employ a de novo standard in reviewing jurisdictional issues. R.A.S. v. S.S., 66 So. 3d 1257, 1259 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Calvert v. Griggs, 992 So. 2d 627, 631 (¶9) (Miss. 2008)). Although not raised by either party, we must examine the finality of a judgment on our own initiative. Id. (citing M.W.F. v. D.D.F., 926 So. 2d 897, 899 (¶4) (Miss. 2006)).
¶14. “As a general rule, only final judgments are appealable.” Maurer v. Boyd, 111 So. 3d 690, 693 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). See also Miss. Code Ann. § 9-3-9 (Rev. 2002); Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-3 (Rev. 2012); M.R.A.P. 5. “A final, appealable judgment is one that ‘adjudicates the merits of the controversy [and] settles all issues as to all the parties’ and requires no further action by the trial court.” Maurer, 111 So. 3d at 693 (¶11) (quoting Walters v. Walters, 956 So. 2d 1050, 1053 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007)). “When all the issues in a case or claims against all the parties are not resolved in a judgment, no appeal of right can be taken.” Thompson v. True Temper Sports, Inc., 74 So. 3d 936, 938 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Williams v. Bud Wilson’s Mobile Home Serv., 887 So. 2d 830, 832 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004)).
¶15. It really cannot be argued that an order labeled “Interim Judgment” is a final, appealable judgment—particularly when the language “THIS IS A FINAL JUDGMENT” has been scratched out and initialed by the judge, and the judge has apparently not ruled on a pending issue. While there are exceptions to the final-judgment rule—including obtaining permission to pursue an interlocutory appeal under Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 5 or appealing from a Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b)-certified final judgment—none are applicable here. [Foontnote omitted]
¶16. Because there is no record evidence that the issue of attorneys’ fees incurred defending Junior’s allegedly frivolous petition was ever resolved, the “Interim Judgment” is not final and appealable. So we must dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.
Nothing really earth-shattering here. It’s just a different spin on a theme we’ve visited fairly frequently over the past couple of years: that a judgment disposing of fewer than all of the issues is not a final, appealable judgment.
Nobody asked me, but I’m going to offer my view that if the document had been styled merely “Judgment,” and the words “THIS IS A FINAL JUDGMENT” had not been stricken, the same result would apply. And that’s so even if the chancellor had given the green light for an interlocutory appeal. All of that is so because the order entered disposed of fewer than all of the pending issues, and the court did not make any specific findings as to why there was no just reason for delay in entry of a judgment, as required by R54(b). You might see it differently.