Estep v. Georgetown Leather Design, 46

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Citation320 Md. 277,577 A.2d 78
Docket NumberNo. 46,46
PartiesKathleen Robin ESTEP v. GEORGETOWN LEATHER DESIGN et al. Sept. Term 1988.
Decision Date03 August 1990

Joseph J. D'Erasmo (Deane A. Shure, D'Erasmo, Shure & Perez, Rockville, on brief), for petitioner.

James F. Lee, Jr. (William J. Carter, Carr, Goodson, Lee & Foret, P.C., Rockville, Michael D. Sendar, Michael D. Sendar, P.C., Washington, D.C., on brief), for respondent.


COLE, Judge.

In this case we are asked to determine whether the Court of Special Appeals failed to follow and apply the specific tests for the finality of judgments contained in Maryland Rule 2-601 and Maryland Rule 2-602, and substituted instead a new test for finality depending upon the viability of a third-party claim pending in the trial court.

Petitioner, Kathleen Robin Estep, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County against Georgetown Leather Design, Inc. (Georgetown) for injuries she received from a fall at the Georgetown Leather Design Store in White Flint Mall. Georgetown filed a third-party complaint against Harlan Hadley, the architect, who designed the area of the store where the fall occurred. Petitioner then amended her complaint to include Hadley as a defendant. Georgetown and Hadley filed cross-claims against each other.

On June 12, 1986, the trial court granted Hadley's motion for a directed verdict in the cause of action filed by Petitioner. The following day, June 13, 1986, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Georgetown against Petitioner. When the clerk questioned the jury regarding the verdict on the third-party claim, Judge William C. Miller responded, "I think the Court will enter a verdict for the defendant in this case." The clerk entered on the docket the judgments in favor of defendants in the claim by Petitioner, but nothing was noted on the docket regarding the third-party claim. Petitioner's motion for a new trial was denied on September 25, 1986, and notice of appeal to the Court of Special Appeals was filed on October 22, 1986.

At a pre-hearing conference on December 11, 1986, Judge Rosalyn Bell of the Court of Special Appeals noticed the lack of a judgment on the third-party claim and hence the issue of whether a final judgment had been issued in the case was raised. Petitioner then voluntarily dismissed her appeal and filed a motion for Entry of Final Judgment on the third-party claim in the trial court. The trial judge granted the motion over Respondent's objection, and ordered that judgment be entered in favor of Hadley on the third-party claim. The order was filed on July 31, 1987. On August 11, 1987, Petitioner filed her second appeal, and the Court of Special Appeals held that the second appeal was not timely filed. Estep v. Georgetown Leather Design, Inc., 74 Md.App. 451, 538 A.2d 335 (1988). Specifically, the intermediate appellate court held that the judgment entered by the trial court on June 13, 1986, reflecting the jury's verdict, was a final order disposing of all the claims in the case. Hence, Petitioner's appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, filed within thirty days of the denial of Petitioner's motion for a new trial, should not have been withdrawn. We granted Petitioner's writ of certiorari to address the important issue raised.

Petitioner maintains that the Court of Special Appeals applied an incorrect test to determine the finality of the judgment entered on June 13, 1986. According to Petitioner, a two-step process is required to make a judgment final and appealable in Maryland: (1) the judgment must be entered on the docket 1 and (2) the judgment must dispose of all the claims which were before the trial court. 2 Because no entry regarding the third-party claim was made on the docket, Petitioner maintains that the judgment of June 13, 1986, failed to qualify as a final, appealable judgment. To support the argument that the June 13, 1986, judgment was not final, Petitioner directs this Court's attention to the order signed by the trial judge on July 31, 1987, entering a judgment on the third-party claim. Petitioner argues that the trial judge would not have signed such an order if there had been a final disposition of the third-party claim on June 13, 1986. Petitioner attempts to distinguish the cases from other jurisdictions relied on by the Court of Special Appeals, and urges us to disapprove the test which examines the mootness and viability of related claims to determine the finality of judgments.

Respondents urge this Court to adopt a less mechanical reading of the applicable rules than that espoused by Petitioner. Respondents point to the fact that the third-party complaint would have required a finding by the jury only if Petitioner had been successful at trial. The reality of the situation, as perceived by Respondents, is that when Petitioner lost at trial, all of her claims were adjudicated, as were all the claims between Respondents. Since the jury verdict effectively disposed of the third-party claim, Respondents assert that the judgment entered on June 13, 1986, was final and appealable as to all claims before the trial court, even though each claim was not specifically noted on the docket. Respondents claim that the decision of the Court of Special Appeals reflects the reality of the situation and should therefore be affirmed by this court.

For an appellate court to entertain an appeal, the issue must generally be taken from a final judgment. We agree with Petitioner's statement that in order for a judgment to be considered final and appealable in Maryland, two criteria must be met. The judgment must settle the rights of the parties, thereby concluding the cause of action, and the judgment must be entered on the docket. Maryland Rules 2-601 and 2-602, read jointly, set forth the specific requirements which must be met in order for a judgment to be entered and to conclude the cause of action.

Although Maryland's appellate courts have never addressed the precise situation in the instant case, the issue of what constitutes a final appealable judgment has been the subject of numerous cases. See Planning Board of Howard Co. v. Mortimer, 310 Md. 639, 530 A.2d 1237 (1987), and cases cited therein. For an appellate court to have subject matter jurisdiction, an appeal must generally be taken from a final judgment or an appealable interlocutory order. Md.Code (1984 Repl.Vol. and 1989 Cum.Supp.) §§ 12-301 and 12-303 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article.

In order to avoid piecemeal appeals and duplication of efforts and costs in cases involving multiple claims and/or multiple parties, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) was adopted in the federal courts, and Rule 2-602 was adopted in the Maryland courts. Therefore, in either jurisdiction an action involving multiple claims or multiple parties is viewed as a "single judicial unit ordinarily requiring complete disposition before a final appealable judgment may be entered." Planning Board, 310 Md. at 647, 530 A.2d at 1241. An order or judgment that would be final and appealable except for the fact that it does not dispose of all of the claims and adjudicates the rights and liabilities of all the parties, may be appealed only when the trial court in the exercise of its discretion makes an express determination that there is no just reason for delay. Blucher v. Ekstrom, 309 Md. 458, 524 A.2d 1235 (1987); East v. Gilchrist, 293 Md. 453, 445 A.2d 343 (1982); Lang v. Catterton, 267 Md. 268, 297 A.2d 735 (1972); Brooks v. Ford Motor Credit Co., 261 Md. 278, 274 A.2d 345 (1971); Tedrow v. Ford Motor Co., 260 Md. 142, 271 A.2d 688 (1970). Such treatment does not deny the right of appeal. Rather, it regulates the time for taking the appeal in the interest of judicial economy. Lang, 267 Md. at 272, 297 A.2d at 738. It is precisely the question of timing that is at issue in the instant case.

In Billman v. Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, 312 Md. 128, 538 A.2d 1172 (1988), we noted that the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article leaves it to the Maryland Rules to determine the date from which the time for appeal begins to run. In Billman, we held that Rule 2-601(b) fixes the date on which the time calculation begins as the "date on which the clerk makes a record of the judgment by 'writing on the file jacket, or on a docket within that file, or in a docket book.' " Id. at 134, 538 A.2d at 1175. That date is considered "the date of the judgment." Id.

We made clear in Houghton v. County Commissioners of Kent County, 307 Md. 216, 223-24, 513 A.2d 291, 294-95 (1986), that no specific words, such as "judgment," need be used by the clerk in order to make a docket entry into a final judgment. Nevertheless, in Doehring v. Wagner, 311 Md. 272, 533 A.2d 1300 (1987), we held that when a trial court makes a ruling which "in substance does finally terminate that case in that court," an appeal could still not be taken until "that ruling becomes embodied in whatever formal action is necessary to constitute a final judgment." Id. at 274-75, 533 A.2d at 1301 (emphasis added).

Therefore, Respondent's contention that the oral comment made by the trial judge was sufficient to create a final judgment on the third-party claim is simply not supported by caselaw. In Suitland Development Corp. v. Merchants Mortgage Co., 254 Md. 43, 56, 254 A.2d 359, 366 (1969), we examined when a decree became final for purposes of appeal and we reiterated our approval of the comment of Judge Digges in Pocock v. Gladden, 154 Md. 249, 253-54, 140 A. 208, 210 (1928), wherein he wrote:

[I]t is our opinion that the date of a decree ... relating to the time within which appeals from decrees or orders of courts of equity shall be taken, is that date upon which the decree becomes effective and binding, which can only be that date upon which it is filed and becomes a part of the public record of ...

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