Edwards v. Roberts, No. 98-CA-00735-COA.

Citation771 So.2d 378
Decision Date07 November 2000
Docket NumberNo. 98-CA-00735-COA.
PartiesLuke EDWARDS and Reach, Inc., Appellants, v. Charles L. ROBERTS and Gloria H. Roberts, Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Mississippi

Craig Geno, Jackson, Attorney for Appellants.

Harvey Christopher Frelon, Attorney for Appellees.


SOUTHWICK, P.J., for the Court:

¶ 1. In 1991 the plaintiffs received a favorable jury verdict in their suit for personal injuries. Judgment was then entered. Almost a year later, the circuit judge denied all post-trial motions. Three days after that, another order was entered that granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Neither party did anything about these conflicting orders until 1996 when this suit was brought in the same court to determine the effect of the inconsistent rulings. The court found that the initial denial of the post-trial motions was the valid order and the three-day later order was held for naught. We find no reversible error and affirm.


¶ 2. A jury found defendants Luke Edwards and REACH, Inc. liable to the plaintiffs Charles and Gloria Roberts for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Compensatory damages of $250,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $400,000 were awarded. The merits of the judgment are not before us, making further details about the personal injury itself irrelevant to the decision that we are called on to make. The appellate issues revolve around the procedural rules regarding orders on post-trial motions. We detail chronologically the proceedings after the jury verdict:

1) January 31, 1991. Judgment entered based on jury verdict for $250,000 in actual damages and $400,000 in punitive, with Edwards and REACH jointly liable.
2) February 8, 1991. Edwards and REACH filed a motion for JNOV or for a new trial.
3) March 15, 1991. A hearing on this motion was held.
4) February 24, 1992. The circuit court denied the motion. The order noted that the March 1991 hearing had been held, but found that under then-Uniform Circuit Court Rule 2.06 the motion had been abandoned because the defendants had not "pursued the motion to decision" for more than two terms of court.
5) February 27, 1992. The circuit court without referring to its order three days earlier, stated that based on the hearing held on March 15, 1991, and on the briefs, pleadings, and testimony, the motion for a JNOV was granted as to REACH who was thereby found to have no liability. As to Edwards, the award of punitive damages was set aside, but the actual damages remained assessed. This order if effective left a judgment of $250,000 solely against Edwards.
6) No appeal or further action on that judgment occurred until 1996.
7) May 21, 1996. A complaint for declaratory judgment was filed by REACH and Edwards, seeking an interpretation of the events just described.
8) March 24, 1998, filed April 1, 1998. The same circuit judge entered the following order, which is complete except as to the formal parts of the document:
This cause came on to be heard on February 27, 1998, on Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Answer thereto, and the Court, having considered the Complaint, the Answer and the Exhibits and having heard from counsel for the Plaintiffs and the Defendants, finds that the Order dated February 27, 1992, should be set aside and held for naught.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the February 27, 1992, Order entered in this cause is hereby set aside and the order dated February 24, 1992, which denied Defendants' Motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative, for a new trial, or in the alternative, for remittitur, be and is the final order of the Court.
9) May 1, 1998. Edwards and REACH appealed to the Supreme Court and the cause was deflected here.
10) April 12, 2000. After a remand from this Court for fact-findings explaining its 1998 ruling, the trial court found that the February 27, 1992 order was "inadvertently entered" and that the February 24 order remained the correct final judgment.

¶ 3. With this as the background, we proceed to analyze the legal effect.


1. Applicability of Declaratory Judgment Procedures

¶ 4. We first determine whether declaratory judgment procedures were appropriate in 1996 regardless of the merits of the decision reached. Left ambiguous from 1992 was the effect of two orders entered three days apart that resolved a dispositive motion in opposite ways.

¶ 5. A court may "declare rights, status, and other legal relationships regardless of whether further relief is or could be claimed." M.R.C.P. 57(a). Creditors of REACH, Inc., one of the defendants in the 1992 judgment, wished to have declared which of these dueling orders was effective so that claims in bankruptcy could be resolved. Determining the effect of a prior court order is not expressly within the examples given in the rule. See M.R.C.P. 57(b). The Rule states that the "enumeration... does not limit or restrict the exercise of the general powers stated in paragraph (a) in any proceeding where declaratory relief is sought in which a judgment will terminate the controversy or remove an uncertainty." M.R.C.P. 57(b)(4). We find no precedent in which Rule 57 was used to seek clarification of a court order.

¶ 6. What determines the issue finally is found in the comments following the Rule.

The purpose of Rule 57 is to create a procedure by which rights and obligations may be adjudicated in cases involving an actual controversy that has not reached the stage at which either party may seek a coercive remedy, or in which the party entitled to such a remedy fails to sue for it.

M.R.C.P. 57 cmt. There certainly is an actual controversy here, one that existed even before the declaratory judgment action as an issue in bankruptcy proceedings involving REACH, Inc. The Roberts's apparently filed a claim in that bankruptcy and a decision was there made to seek an answer from the Hinds County Circuit Court as to which order was operative. The just-quoted comment speaks of using declaratory judgment proceedings when the controversy is not yet ripe for any other judicial decision. That was not the situation here, as the bankruptcy court was not only available in the abstract but had its jurisdiction already invoked.

¶ 7. It might be said that the Hinds County Circuit Court was in a better position to answer which order should be considered effective. That is likely true regarding an order of any court that creates ambiguity in the minds of parties who later need to know what the order means. Yet we fail to see the benefits to the judicial system and ultimately to the law to use Rule 57 as a general warrant to ask a court "what did you mean?" There is some level of clarity that each pronouncement by a court attains, with the range extending from absolute opaqueness to complete transparency. Lengthy judicial documents, such as some appellate court opinions, can vary widely in lucidity from paragraph to paragraph. The civil rules permit litigants at the trial and appellate level to seek an immediate clarification of a judgment. M.R.C.P. 59(a) (includes requests to amend judgments); M.R.A.P. 27 (M.R.A.P. 40 cmt. states that Rule 27 is used to request a clarification of an appellate opinion). There can also be an appeal to the next level court.

¶ 8. Once litigation is complete, though, judgments and opinions "speak for themselves," an overused phrase that means nothing more than an order is a completed formal document and cannot be embellished or amended after-the-fact because of what a court later concludes should have been said. What one or a combination of orders means must be based on general principles of law and not on asking the issuing court years later to clarify. A suit to collect on the debt of the former judgment is one frequent place that the order may need to be interpreted. Because of REACH's bankruptcy, a similar argument could be made in those proceedings as to what to make of all this.

¶ 9. We conclude that this was not a controversy that absent a declaratory judgment action could not be timely resolved. Accordingly, it cannot be resolved as a declaratory judgment. The Roberts plaintiffs and REACH were in a court— bankruptcy. That a federal bankruptcy judge would be amenable to having the circuit court resolve this issue is understandable, but a Rule 57 declaratory judgment is the wrong procedure.

¶ 10. For these reasons we hold that a declaratory judgment proceeding was inappropriate. If ever this Rule could be used for purposes of seeking a clarification from a court of its own order, a matter of some doubt, there was no right to resort to these procedures here.

2. Alternative Procedures

¶ 11. Still, even though the parties have been traveling under the name of a suit for declaratory relief, if we find that the only defect is in labels, we can still consider the claim that the February 27, 1992 order is invalid. Recasting of pleadings is not unusual. A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is by the Rules themselves transformed into a Rule 56 motion if evidence outside the pleadings is considered. M.R.C.P. 12(c). Under Supreme Court analysis whether a motion is one under Rule 59 or Rule 60 does not depend on its heading but instead on its function: if it is filed within ten days from judgment and calls into question the correctness of the judgment, "we will presume that the motion has been filed under Rule 59 without regard to how it may be styled." Bruce v. Bruce, 587 So.2d 898, 904 (Miss.1991).

¶ 12. Outside of the civil rules, the Supreme Court has recognized that using the wrong name on complaints is not necessarily fatal. A party with a claim against an estate filed a answer and counterclaim to the petition for letters of administration, but never filed a claim for probate as she should. Williams v. Mason, 556 So.2d 1045, 1050 (Miss.1990). The Court held that with the "exception of the label on her pleading, Mason did all that our...

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