When a Judgment Isn’t a Judgment

September 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

If a chancellor finally adjudicates a case with an instrument entitled “Order,” is that a final, appealable judgment?

Check out MRCP 58:

Every judgment shall be set forth on a separate document which bears the title of “Judgment.” However, a judgment which finally adjudicates the claim as to all parties and which has been entered as provided in MRCP 79(a) shall, in the absence of prejudice to a party, have the force and finality of a judgment even if it is not properly titled … [my emphasis]

That language came into play in the recent COA case, Bray, et al. v. Wooten, et al. handed down August 22, 2017.

In that case, on May 12, 2014, the chancellor rendered a final ruling following a hearing, and entitled it “Opinion and Order.” The order was filed the same day in the office of the chancery clerk. Later, on July 11, 2014, a document entitled “Final Judgment,” that had been drafted by one of the attorneys and signed by all counsel, was erroneously presented to the other chancellor in the district. He signed it that day, no doubt not taking time to study it in detail because it was signed off on by all counsel, and it was entered by the clerk on July 15, 2014. A motion for new trial was filed within ten days of entry of the July judgment, and was overruled ruled by the original chancellor in January, 2015. The appeal was filed within thirty days of the chancellor’s January, 2015, ruling, which came eight months after the May, 2014, final order. Here’s what the COA said about it:

 ¶17. We begin with the jurisdictional issues. [One of the appellants] argues that the Bray’s notice of appeal was untimely. It claims that the final judgment was Chancellor Kilgore’s Order and Opinion dated May 12, 2014. Thus, since the Bray’s notice of appeal was not filed until February 10, 2015, it was almost seven months late, and this appeal should be dismissed.

¶18. “[W]e review questions of law, such as jurisdiction, utilizing a de novo standard of review.” Weeks v. State, 139 So. 3d 727, 729 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Whetstone v. State, 109 So. 3d 616, 618 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013)). Mississippi Power argues that Chancellor Kilgore’s January 14, 2015 order stated that his final order was the May 12, 2014 order. Thus, Mississippi Power contends that Bray did not timely perfect the appeal. Bray counters that Mississippi Power did not join Wooten’s motion for summary judgment or move separately for summary judgment, meaning the chancellor’s judgment was not final. We address both of these arguments.

¶19. “A final, appealable, judgment is one that adjudicates the merits of the controversy and settles all the issues as to all the parties and requires no further action by the lower court.” Jennings v. McCelleis, 987 So. 2d 1041, 1042 (¶4) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Walters v. Walters, 956 So. 2d 1050, 1053 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007)). “Generally, only final judgments are appealable.” Walters, 956 So. 2d at 1053 (¶8) (quoting M.W.F. v. D.D.F., 926 So. 2d 897, 899 (¶4) (Miss. 2006)).

¶20. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 58 provides:

Every judgment shall be set forth on a separate document which bears the title of “Judgment.” However, a judgment which fully adjudicates the claim as to all parties and which has been entered as provided in M.R.C.P. 79(a) shall, in the absence of prejudice to a party, have the force and finality of a judgment even if it is not properly titled. A judgment shall be effective only when entered as provided in M.R.C.P. 79(a).

In his January 14, 2015 “Opinion and Order,” Chancellor Kilgore ruled:

This order was filed in the office of the Chancery Clerk on May 12, 2014. Although this judgment was styled “Opinion and Order” and was clearly intended to be a final resolution to the action, counsel for Wooten acknowledged that he drafted a document entitled “Final Judgment”’ and mistakenly submitted same to the other Chancery Judge in the district, who signed this order on the 11th day of July, 2014.

¶21. The chancellor’s May 12, 2014 order was entitled “Opinion and Order.” It did not comply with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 58, which clearly requires that a final judgement [sic] be titled “Final Judgment” in order to be considered one. A further analysis through Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 79(a) does not support the chancellor’s ruling.

¶22. Therefore, we find that the chancellor’s May 12, 2014 Opinion and Order was not a final, appealable judgment, and it did not have the force and finality of a judgment. The fact that the parties’ attorneys prepared and signed a “Final Judgment” supports our decision. Had it been submitted to the correct chancellor, there would be no argument that the notice of appeal was untimely. Regardless, the earliest possible appealable “final judgment” in this case was the Final Judgment that was signed on July 11, and entered on July 15, 2014. The motion for a new trial was filed on July 25, 2014, which was within ten days as required by Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 59(b). Because the notice of appeal was filed within thirty days of the chancellor’s January 14, 2015 “Opinion and Order,” we find no merit to this issue.

If the COA is trying to say that the labelling of the May ruling worked prejudice on the appellant that was compounded by his submission of the “Final Judgment” to the wrong judge, okay. That makes sense under R 58, which specifically says that mislabelling of a final judgment is only fatal to its finality if it creates a prejudice to a party.

But the COA’s language at ¶21 is too sweeping to me when it says, “[The May Order] did not comply with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 58, which clearly requires that a final judgment be titled “Final Judgment” in order to be considered one.” On the contrary, under R 58, the chancellor could have tiled it “Laundry List,” and, if it finally adjudicated all claims as to all parties, it would be a final, appealable judgment if no one could show prejudice. The language of the opinion, which may be quoted as authority, can be taken to mean something contrary to the express language of the rule.

The wrinkle here was the submission to and signing of counsel’s “Final Judgment” by a busy chancellor who was likely interrupted in other matters to accommodate the request. Had the document been submitted to the proper chancellor, I believe he would have declined to sign it on the basis that he had already issued a final ruling in the case. He said as much in his January, 2015, ruling on the R 59 motion.

 

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