The Phantom Judgment
December 10, 2018 § 3 Comments
When is a final judgment not final … and not even a judgment?
That riddle was at the heart of the divorce case between Harold and Margie Arrington. On May 15, 2012, the chancellor signed a divorce judgment granting an irreconcilable differences divorce. For some reason the judgment was not filed with the chancery clerk until June 3, 2014. That’s 25 months after the judge signed it.
In the meantime, on August 23, 2013, Harold filed a withdrawal of his agreement to the divorce, following which he filed an amended complaint on the ground of desertion. After Margie filed an answer and counterclaim, Harold filed a motion to set aside the original judgment. The chancellor denied the motion noting that the divorce judgment was signed a year before the objection was filed. Harold appealed.
In Arrington v. Arrington, decided September 11, 2018, the COA reversed and remanded. Judge Griffis wrote for a unanimous court:
¶11. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 58, titled “Entry of Judgment,” 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).
(Emphasis added). The Advisory Committee Notes to Rule 58 add that “[t]he ‘entry’ of the judgment is the ministerial notation of the judgment by the clerk of the court pursuant to Rules 38 and 79(a); however, it is crucial to the effectiveness of the judgment and for measuring time periods for appeal and the filing of various motions.” (Emphasis added).
¶12. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 79, titled “Books and Records Kept by the Clerk and Entries Therein,” provides:
(a) General Docket. The clerk shall keep a book known as the “general docket” of such form and style as is required by law and shall enter therein each civil action to which these rules are made applicable. The file number of each action shall be noted on each page of the docket whereon an entry of the action is made. All papers filed with the clerk, all process issued and returns made thereon, all appearances, orders, verdicts, and judgments shall be noted in this general docket on the page assigned to the action and shall be marked with its file number. These entries shall be brief but shall show the nature of each paper filed or writ issued and the substance of each order or judgment of the
court and of the returns showing execution of process. The entry of an order or judgment shall show the date the entry is made. In the event a formal order is entered, the clerk shall insert the order in the file of the case.
(b) Minute Book. The clerk shall keep a correct copy of every judgment or order. This record shall be known as the “Minute Book.”
¶13. The Advisory Committee Note to Rule 79 adds [Fn omitted]:
Rule 79(a) specifies that the docket entries reflect the date on which entries are made in the general docket. Since several important time periods and deadlines are calculated from the date of the entry of judgments and orders, these entries must accurately reflect the actual date of the entries rather than another date, such as the date on which a judgment or order is signed by the judge. See, for example, Rule 58 mandating that a judgment is effective only when entered as provided in Rule 79(a), and Rule 59 which requires that motions to alter or amend judgments be filed within ten days after the entry of judgment.
¶14. Rule 58 clearly provides that “[a] judgment shall be effective only when entered as provided in Rule 79(a).” (Emphasis added). Rule 79(a) requires the clerk to keep a “general docket” and to enter “all . . . judgments.” Thus, we may conclude that a judgment is not final until it is recorded in the clerk’s general docket. M.R.C.P. 58, 79(a). See, e.g., Cleveland Nursing & Rehab. LLC v. Estate of Gully, 206 So. 3d 516, 521 (¶17) (Miss. 2016) (“Because the docket entry did not comply with Rule 79(a), the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that no judgment had been properly entered.”); Thompson v. City of Vicksburg, 813 So. 2d 717, 719-20 (¶11) (Miss. 2002) (Summary judgment was not a final appealable order because trial court did not enter a document styled “Final Judgment.”).
¶15. We find that, under Rules 58 and 79(a), the final decree signed by the chancellor was not final until it was entered by the chancery clerk on June 3, 2014.
Punch line: the judgment here was not effective as a judgment unless and until it was filed with the clerk per R79.
One quibble: In the Thompson v. City of Vicksburg case, the reversal was not due to the non-filing of a document styled “final judgment;” the reversal was due to the fact that there was no indication in the summary judgment that it was a final adjudication, and there was no other judgment in the record that appeared final. Remember that under R58, ” … a judgment which fully 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 even it is not properly titled.” In other words, by the express language of the rule, the court is supposed to look to substance rather than form.