Hiob v. Progressive Am. Ins. Co.

Decision Date20 November 2014
Docket NumberNo. 4,4
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Appeals - Entry of Final Judgment - Separate Document Requirement. Under Maryland Rule 8-202(a), a notice of appeal must ordinarily be filed within 30 days of the entry of a final judgment. Under Maryland Rule 2-601, which governs the entry of judgment, a final judgment must be set forth in a separate document signed by the judge or the clerk and must be entered on the court docket. A stipulation of voluntary dismissal between one plaintiff and one defendant in a multi-party case, not signed by a judge or clerk and docketed as "Voluntary Dismissal (Partial)," did not satisfy that requirement, even though it resolved the remaining claim in the case after the court had awarded summary judgment as to the plaintiffs' claims against the co-defendant in an earlier and previously docketed order. The requirements of Rule 2-601 were satisfied only when the Circuit Court subsequently signed an order that incorporated the summary judgment ruling into a final judgment and that order was entered on the docket. A notice of appeal filed between the signing and the docketing of that order was timely under the savings provision of Maryland Rule 8-602(d), which deems a notice of appeal filed after the rendering of a judgment, but before its docketing, as filed on the same day but after entry of the final judgment.

Circuit Court for Baltimore County

Case No. 03C08002145

Barbera, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Raker, Irma S. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by McDonald, J.

It is said, in many contexts, that timing is everything. This case involves an important question of timing for an appellate lawyer — the time to appeal.

A trial court's decision may take many forms — for example, a jury verdict, an oral ruling from the bench, a written opinion, a simple order. If there are multiple claims or multiple parties, there may be several decisions at different times that resolve the case episodically. When must a disappointed litigant commence an appeal of an adverse decision?

The time to appeal must accommodate competing values. On the one hand, appellate review advances the interest in ensuring that judicial decisions are consistent and correct. On the other hand, it is also important that a judicial decision be certain — in other words, that there is an end to the process of review. Accordingly, the path to appellate review should be clear and well-marked, but the time for filing an appeal should be finite and well-defined.

The statutes and rules governing appellate review reflect those principles. The Legislature has limited appellate jurisdiction largely to review of "final judgments" of the trial courts. This Court has implemented that jurisdiction, setting time limits by rule and, to some extent, by case law. Under Maryland Rule 8-202(a), a "notice of appeal shall be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment or order from which the appeal is taken." The date of "entry of judgment" is determined under Maryland Rule 2-601. Under that rule, a final judgment is not effective unless it is set forth on a "separate document" consistent with Rule 2-601(a) and is entered on the docket consistent with Rule 2-601(b). The date on which the separate document is docketed triggers the 30-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal under Rule 8-202(a). This caseconcerns what qualifies as a "separate document" that, upon its docketing, starts the 30-day clock for filing a notice of appeal.

This case involves several plaintiffs and two defendants. All of the plaintiffs asserted claims against the first defendant; one plaintiff asserted a claim against the second defendant. The Circuit Court awarded summary judgment in favor of the first defendant against all of the plaintiffs — a decision that was indisputably not a final judgment as it did not resolve the claim against the co-defendant. More than a year later, the claim as to the remaining co-defendant was voluntarily dismissed by means of a stipulation of dismissal. When the plaintiffs then sought to appeal the earlier adverse summary judgment ruling, the question arose as to whether the stipulation of dismissal satisfied the separate document requirement of Rule 2-601. If so, the notice of appeal was untimely as it was filed more than 30 days after the docketing of the stipulation of dismissal.

We hold that the stipulation of dismissal did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 2-601 for a separate document. The stipulation of dismissal was not in the form of a judgment, was not signed by either the judge or the clerk as required by the rule, and was not docketed consistent with the rule. Accordingly, its docketing did not trigger the time for filing an appeal of the order awarding summary judgment.

IEntry of Judgment - The Separate Document Requirement

The separate document requirement was added to Maryland Rule 2-601 in 1997 when it was imported into that rule from federal appellate practice.1 To fully understand the purpose and meaning of that requirement in Rule 2-601, it is instructive to review briefly the model on which it was based.

A. The Model - Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58
1. 1963 - Adoption of Separate Document Requirement

During the middle of the last century, there was confusion in the federal courts as to what constituted an effective final judgment2 and when the time for filing an appeal began — confusion that sometimes resulted in the inadvertent loss of the right to appellate review. (As we shall see below, similar confusion reigned in the Maryland state courts). In particular, it was often unclear whether a judge's opinion or written memorandum constituted an effective final judgment and whether a docket entry corresponding to the opinion or memorandum started the time for filing an appeal under the federal rules. This confusion caused "inequities ... when a party appealed from a document or docket entry that appeared to be a final judgment of the district court only to have the appellate court announce later that an earlier document or entryhad been the judgment and dismiss the appeal as untimely." Bankers Trust Co. v. Mallis, 435 U.S. 381, 385 (1978) (per curiam).

In order to eliminate these uncertainties and inequities, the federal rule governing entry of judgment was amended in 1963 to require that "there be a judgment set out on a separate document — distinct from any opinion or memorandum — which provides the basis for the entry of judgment." Advisory Committee Note on 1963 Amendments to Rule 58 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The separate document requirement was explicitly designed to avoid confusion when more than one docket entry or order could be interpreted as a final judgment. Id. The new requirement was intended to "make clear that a party need not file a notice of appeal until a separate judgment has been filed and entered." Bankers Trust, 435 U.S. at 384; see also 11 Wright, Miller & Kane, et al., Federal Practice & Procedure Civ. §2781 (3d ed.) (two distinct acts must coincide before there is an effective judgment: the rendition of the judgment must be set forth on a separate document and the judgment must be entered properly on the docket).

2. Mechanical Application Favoring Preservation of Appeal Rights

Two principles have guided the application of the separate document requirement in the federal courts. First, in order to provide the desired clarity, the "separate-document rule must be 'mechanically applied' in determining whether an appeal is timely." Bankers Trust, 435 U.S. at 386 (quoting United States v. Indrelunas,411 U.S. 216 (1973)).3 In Indrelunas, the United States Supreme Court recognized that the separate document requirement "would be subject to criticism for its formalism were it not for the fact that something like this was needed to make certain when a judgment becomes effective." 411 U.S. at 220 (quoting 6A J. Moore, Federal Practice 58.04 (1972)).

Second, because the rule "is not designed as a trap for the inexperienced," it is to be interpreted to preserve the right to an appeal. Bankers Trust, 435 U.S. at 386-87. Thus, the mechanical application of the requirement is relaxed only when it will prevent the loss of a right of appeal. Id. In that regard, the Supreme Court in Bankers Trust held that the separate document requirement could be waived to allow an appeal when the lack of a separate document did not mislead or prejudice a party. Id.; see also Fiore v. Washington County Community Mental Health Center, 960 F.2d 229, 235 (1st Cir. 1992) (Rule 58's "hypertechnicality" would be relaxed only to save an appeal);Hummer v. Dalton, 657 F.2d 621, 624 (4th Cir. 1981) (Rule 58 should be interpreted to prevent loss of the right of appeal) (citations omitted).4

B. Adoption of the Requirement in the Maryland Rules
1. Confusion about Timing of Entry of Judgment

As in the federal courts, appellate jurisdiction in Maryland is ordinarily limited to review of final judgments. See Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJ"), §12-301.5 Prior to the adoption of the separate document requirement in the Maryland Rules, there was some uncertainty concerning the timing of entry of a final judgment. For example, confusion arose when a docket entry stated that judgment had been entered but other circumstances indicated that the judge had not intended to issue a judgment, or when the judge intended to render a final judgmentbut the docket entry stated otherwise.6 This uncertainty could occasionally result in an unwary appellant losing the right to appeal. See Minutes of the Standing Committee on the Rules of Practice and Procedure (October 8, 1993) at 11 (discussion concerning how, under Rule 2-601 prior to the 1997 amendments, an attorney might be unaware of the exact date of the judgment and as a result lose the opportunity to appeal).


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