Leftridge v. Heyward, 012021 MDSCA, 0251-2020

Docket Nº0251-2020
Opinion JudgeZic, J.
Party NameVERNON J. LEFTRIDGE, JR., v. NIAMBI KAFI HEYWARD
Judge PanelFriedman, Wells, Zic, JJ.
Case DateJanuary 20, 2021
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

VERNON J. LEFTRIDGE, JR.,

v.

NIAMBI KAFI HEYWARD

No. 0251-2020

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

January 20, 2021

Circuit Court for Washington County Case No. C-21-FM-19-000748

Friedman, Wells, Zic, JJ.

OPINION [*]

Zic, J.

Vernon Leftridge, Jr., appellant, filed a complaint for custody against Niambi Kafi Heyward in the Circuit Court for Washington County, seeking custody of the parties' minor child ("Child"). After Ms. Heyward failed to file a response, the court entered a default order against her and scheduled a hearing before a magistrate. Following that hearing, at which Ms. Heyward was present and gave testimony contesting Mr. Leftridge's request for custody, the magistrate recommended that the default order be vacated and the case be assigned to a judge as a contested case. Mr. Leftridge then filed exceptions, which the court denied. Around the same time, Ms. Heyward filed a motion to transfer the case to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. The court granted Ms. Heyward's motion, ordering the case transferred to Montgomery County, and vacated the default order against Ms. Heyward. Mr. Leftridge timely noted an appeal.1

Mr. Leftridge presents 137 questions for our review, the vast majority of which are, for reasons discussed in greater detail below, not properly before this Court. As to the remaining questions, we rephrased and consolidated them into a single question: Did the circuit court err in transferring Mr. Leftridge's case to Montgomery County?

For reasons to follow, we answer the question in the negative and affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

BACKGROUND

The Child was born in 2015 to Mr. Leftridge and Ms. Heyward, who were not married. In 2016, Ms. Heyward and the Child moved from Connecticut to Montgomery County, Maryland where they remained. Around that same time, Mr. Leftridge also moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts, where he remained until 2019, at which point he moved to Washington County, Maryland.

On May 5, 2019, Mr. Leftridge filed a custody complaint against Ms. Heyward in in the Circuit Court for Washington County, requesting sole physical and legal custody of the Child. After Ms. Heyward failed to file a timely response, Mr. Leftridge asked the court to enter an order of default. On July 26, 2019, the court granted his request and entered a default order against Ms. Heyward. The court also ordered that a hearing be held before a magistrate for Mr. Leftridge to present testimony in support of his custody complaint.

At that hearing, which was held on February 18, 2020, Ms. Heyward appeared and presented testimony. She claimed that she did not receive Mr. Leftridge's complaint for custody and that she only became aware of the matter through a different child support case. As to the substance of the complaint, Ms. Heyward indicated that she would be contesting Mr. Leftridge's request for custody, explaining that the Child had lived with her in Montgomery County for the past four years and that, in that time, Mr. Leftridge had visited the Child only once. Mr. Leftridge responded by stating that Ms. Heyward denied him access to the Child.

The magistrate found that, because Ms. Heyward appeared and contested Mr. Leftridge's complaint for custody, the proper remedy was to vacate the order of default and schedule a contested custody hearing. The magistrate also directed Ms. Heyward to file an answer and counter complaint for custody, which she did on February 20, 2020. Subsequently, the magistrate issued a written report detailing these findings.

Mr. Leftridge filed timely exceptions to the magistrate's findings, which the circuit court denied on April 21, 2020.2 Around that time, Mr. Leftridge requested a pendente lite hearing and filed a notice for in banc review. On April 29, 2020, the court entered an order designating three judges to sit in banc.

Meanwhile, on April 16, 2020, Ms. Heyward filed a motion to transfer venue from Washington County to Montgomery County pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-327(c). In that motion, Ms. Heyward alleged that Montgomery County was the more appropriate venue because she and the Child were residents of Montgomery County and had been for the previous four years. She further alleged that the Child never resided in or visited Washington County; that the Child was diagnosed with nonverbal autism and was enrolled in several special-education programs located in Montgomery County; that all of the Child's school records, medical records, and significant contacts were located in Montgomery County; and that key witnesses, including the Child's teachers and therapists, were all located in Montgomery County. Ms. Heyward maintained, therefore, that a transfer to Montgomery County would serve the interests of justice.

Mr. Leftridge filed a written opposition to the motion to transfer venue. In that response, he argued that Ms. Heyward's transfer request was untimely under Maryland Rule 2-322(a) and therefore waived. Mr. Leftridge further argued that a transfer to Montgomery County would permit Ms. Heyward to continue her ongoing custodial interference, cause him undue burden and expense, violate his due process rights, result in unnecessary delay, and interrupt the proceedings in Washington County.

Mr. Leftridge also filed a Motion to Dismiss Defendant's Motion to Transfer/Change Venue, Cross Complaint, Counter Complaint, Certificate of Service, Pleadings, Answer to Complaint. In that motion, he asked the circuit court to "dismiss" all of Ms. Heyward's filings and pleadings based on various grounds including her failure to file a timely answer and to serve Mr. Leftridge with a copy of her filings.

On April 30, 2020, the circuit court entered an order granting Ms. Heyward's motion to transfer venue and striking both the default order and the order of designation. Additionally, following that order, the court cancelled the pendente lite hearing, citing the transfer order as the reason. Mr. Leftridge filed a timely appeal.

DISCUSSION

In his brief before this Court, which at times is difficult to discern, Mr. Leftridge raises myriad arguments.[3] From what we can gather, he set forth three main contentions: (1) that the circuit court erred in vacating the default order; (2) that the court erred in transferring his case to Montgomery County; and (3) that the court erred in either cancelling or failing to hold certain hearings, including an expedited pendente lite hearing, a hearing on Mr. Leftridge's exceptions, a hearing on his request for in banc review, and a hearing on his response to Ms. Heyward's motion to transfer.4

Of those arguments, only one-the court's decision to transfer Mr. Leftridge's case-concerns an appealable judgment. See Brewster v. Woodhaven Bldg. & Dev., Inc., 360 Md. 602, 615-16 (2000) ("[A]n order transferring a case from one circuit court to another, for proper venue or for a more convenient forum, and thereby terminating the litigation in the transferring court, is a final judgment and thus immediately appealable."). The court's decision to vacate its order of default is not appealable as it is neither a final judgment nor an interlocutory order from which an appeal may be taken. See Franklin Credit Mgmt. Corp. v. Nefflen, 436 Md. 300, 321 (2013) ("An 'order of default' is not 'final in its nature,' as it is not an 'unqualified, final disposition of the matter' . . . ."); Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 12-303. Similarly, none of the court's decisions regarding the above-mentioned hearings, all of which concerned procedural matters related to Mr. Leftridge's ongoing petition for custody, are a final judgment or appealable interlocutory order. See Johnson v. Francis, 239 Md.App. 530, 540 (2018) ("[T]o be appealable,...

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