A Rule 54(b) Dismissal With a Twist

June 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

We’ve talked here numerous times about the unappealability of a judgment that disposes than fewer than all of the issues pending before the court. If you type “54(b)” in that search box over there it will take you to the many posts on the subject.

The COA case of Newson v. Newson, handed down May 13, 2014, presents a scenario that just might apply in one of your cases, so you should take notice.

In May, 2011, the chancellor entered a judgment granting Lori Newson a divorce from her husband, Anthony, on the ground of adultery. On that day, Anthony’s attorney advised the court that his client had filed for bankruptcy, so the judge reserved ruling on alimony and equitable distribution until the status of the bankruptcy was clarified. 

In March, 2012, the chancellor gave the parties the go-ahead to proceed. In August, 2012, the parties submitted a partial agreement, and the court made a partial ruling. The court stated that “the responsibility of the indebtedness of the respective parties, spousal support/alimony, attorney’s fees and/or costs owed by the parties would be reserved for a final hearing. Apparently there was another hearing, because in October, 2012, the court entered an order styled or referred to as a final order, granting Lori periodic alimony, and finding that Anthony was in arrears in the sum of more than $64,000 in alimony, for which he was in contempt. The judge left the record open for Lori’s attorney to present a statement of services rendered so that he could adjudicate attorney’s fees. Anthony filed a motion asking the court to reconsider (R59, I guess, since there is no such thing as a motion for reconsideration), which the court overruled. Anthony appealed.

The COA predictably ruled that, since the chancellor had left the record open without finally adjudicating the issue of attorney’s fees, and without certifying the case, the COA was without jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal.

Now, here’s the twist …

Quite often lawyers ask the court to combine into the final hearing the contempt issues that accrue during the pendency of a divorce. It’s not unusual for the court in such a situation to adjudicate finally all of the divorce issues — grounds, custody, child support, equitable distribution, alimony, attorney’s fees on the divorce — and then to treat the contempt issues. In addressing the contempt issues, the court many times will order that the contemnor do certain things to purge himself of contempt, and for the matter to be reviewed at a later date. Sometimes there is a second or even a third review hearing. In such a case, you are stuck with an unappealable divorce judgment until the trial judge finally adjudicates everything.

Unless …

  • You file a R59 motion (within ten days of the original judgment) asking the court to add the “express determination that there is no just reason for delay,” per R 54(b), and directing entry of a final judgment on the issues of divorce, custody, equitable distribution, alimony, attorney’s fees on the divorce, leaving the contempt issues to take their own, separate course. Or …
  • You could make a motion at the conclusion of your case that the issues be severed, and that the court make the R54(b) certification to be included in the final judgment.

Of course, you could ask the court not to combine the contempt issues in with the final divorce hearing in the first place, but most clients want the hourly billing and the courtroom time to end, so it’s usually more efficient from a time and law-weariness standpoint to get it all over with in one hearing.    

This is one of those situations where you need to pay attention to where you are and how you got there. Once you realize you are faced with a judgment that may not be appealable for quite some time, you need to take steps to extricate your client from that bind.

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