Miller v. Nelson–Miller

Citation2012 -Ohio- 2845,972 N.E.2d 568,132 Ohio St.3d 381
Decision Date27 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 2011–1172.,2011–1172.
PartiesMILLER, Cross–Appellee, v. NELSON–MILLER, Cross–Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

[Ohio St.3d 381]Syllabus of the Court

In a court that properly has jurisdiction over the subject matter and the parties, the court's noncompliance with the ministerial duties of Civ.R. 58(A) renders the judgment voidable and not void.

Elizabeth N. Gaba, Columbus, for cross-appellee.

Douglas W. Warnock Co., L.P.A., and Douglas W. Warnock; and Bricker & Eckler, L.L.P., Cleveland, and Matthew W. Warnock, for cross-appellant.

McGEE BROWN, J.

{¶ 1} Appellant, Rebecca S. Nelson–Miller, as administrator of the estate of Norman Leslie Miller, cross-appeals from a decision of the Fifth District Court of Appeals that held that the 2005 agreed judgment entry of divorce between Norman and cross-appellee, Beth Miller, n.k.a. Knece, was void for noncompliance with Civ.R. 58(A) due to the trial court's improper delegation of its judgment-entry signatory duties to a magistrate. We are asked to determine whether the trial court's noncompliance with the signature requirement of Civ.R. 58(A) caused the 2005 judgment entry to be void or merely voidable. We hold that where a court possesses jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter, mechanical irregularities regarding the trial court's signature render the judgment voidable, not void.

Factual and Procedural Background

{¶ 2} Norman and Beth were married from 1990 to 2004, when Beth filed a complaint for divorce with the Domestic Relations Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, and Norman responded with a counterclaim for divorce. The case was referred to Magistrate Lianne Sefcovic. The parties agreed to temporary orders and scheduled a settlement conference to determine a final order on December 21, 2004.

{¶ 3} On December 27, 2004, a document captioned “Agreed Judgment Entry (Decree of Divorce) was filed with the trial court.” The agreement contained a [Ohio St.3d 382]number of handwritten revisions, approval of each of which was indicated by Norman's and Beth's initials. The agreement was signed by both parties and their counsel. In the space provided for the judge's signature, Magistrate Sefcovic signed Judge Everett Krueger's name, followed by the magistrate's initials. On the same day, a shared-parenting decree with an agreed shared-parenting plan was filed, again bearing the signatures of the parties and their counsel, and with a signature for Judge Krueger followed by the magistrate's initials. On October 14, 2005, the trial court entered a judgment entry decree of divorce, sua sponte adopting the December 27, 2004 memorandum of agreement and incorporating it in a final agreed decree of divorce. Again, the judge's signature was provided by proxy with the magistrate's initials.

{¶ 4} In March 2007, Norman moved to amend the shared-parenting plan and recalculate child support, and an agreed entry was issued in July 2007. The parties did not contest the validity of the 2005 divorce decree while resolving their postdecree issues. Relying on the 2005 divorce decree, Beth obtained a new marriage license and remarried in August 2007. Norman remarried as well, in October 2008.

{¶ 5} In April 2009, Beth moved to vacate the 2005 divorce decree and to strike the 2004 agreed judgment entry, arguing that the entries were void for failure to comply with Civ.R. 58(A) due to the improper signature by Magistrate Sefcovic in place of Judge Krueger. For purposes of the 2009 proceedings, Judge Krueger filed an affidavit stating that he had given Magistrate Sefcovic the authority to sign the judge's name to all judgment entries that were agreed to and approved by the parties.

{¶ 6} Following an evidentiary hearing, Magistrate David Laughlin issued a decision upholding the validity of the 2005 divorce decree and the 2004 agreed judgment entry. The magistrate stated that Judge Krueger had validly authorized and directed Magistrate Sefcovic to provide his signature for agreed-upon entries that would not involve “any contest or independent adjudication.” The decision reasoned that the error alleged by Beth would be voidable at most, and not subject to collateral attack. The decision further stated that the alleged error, as voidable, had been waived by both parties in their failure to file objections and their reliance on the enforceability of the divorce decree for the purpose of remarrying and for renegotiating the shared-parenting plan.

{¶ 7} Beth filed timely objections to the magistrate's decision. The trial court overruled the objections and adopted the magistrate's decision. Beth then appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. While the appeal was pending, the appellate court was notified that Norman had passed away on January 25, 2010. His surviving spouse, Rebecca Nelson–Miller, as administrator of Norman's estate, was substituted as a party in this matter.

[Ohio St.3d 383]{¶ 8} In May 2011, the Fifth District reversed and remanded the trial court's decision, holding that Civ.R. 53 does not permit a magistrate to enter judgments and that the trial court therefore did not have the authority to delegate the duty of signing agreed judgment entries. The Fifth District further held that Civ.R. 58 requires the trial court's signature, that a judgment without the signature of the trial court is simply not a judgment, and that the 2005 divorce decree was therefore void because it was not personally signed by the trial judge.

{¶ 9} On remand, the trial court issued a judgment entry dated June 7, 2011, which stated that “the undersigned Judge hereby substitutes his original signature below for [the 2004 agreed judgment entry, the 2005 divorce decree, and the 2007 postdecree judgment entry], effective the date of the original filing date for each thereof, and as if fully signed in the previous entry.”

{¶ 10} Beth sought this court's review, arguing that the divorce action abated upon Norman's death and that the appellate court should have dismissed the entire divorce action rather than remanding. Norman's estate cross-appealed, arguing that the trial judge's authorization to the magistrate satisfied the signature requirement of Civ.R. 58 and alternatively arguing that the error was voidable, rather than void. Of the foregoing arguments, this court accepted jurisdiction only over the following proposition of law in the cross-appeal: “If the trial court fails to comply with the signature requirement of Civ.R. 58(A) by failing to personally sign the judgment entry, the resulting judgment is voidable, not void, and may be attacked only through a direct appeal. A party is estopped from collaterally attacking the validity of the judgment.”

Analysis

{¶ 11} Civ.R. 58(A) is titled “Preparation; entry; effect” and provides that an entry of judgment is effective once (1) the court prepares the judgment, (2) the court signs the judgment, and (3) the court clerk enters the judgment upon the journal. The parties concede for purposes of this appeal that the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure do not allow the trial court to delegate its signatory duties to a magistrate. The sole question for us to resolve is whether the improper signature causes the judgment to be void, or whether it is an error that renders the judgment merely voidable. We hold that it is the latter.

{¶ 12} This court has long held that the question of whether a judgment is void or voidable generally depends on “whether the Court rendering the judgment has jurisdiction.” Cochran's Heirs' Lessee v. Loring, 17 Ohio 409, 423 (1848).

“The distinction is between the lack of power or want of jurisdiction in the Court, and a wrongful or defective execution of power. In the first instance all acts of the Court not having jurisdiction or power are void, in [Ohio St.3d 384]the latter voidable only. A Court then, may act, first, without power or jurisdiction; second, having power or jurisdiction, may exercise it wrongfully; or third, irregularly. In the first instance, the act or judgment of the Court is wholly void, and is as though it had not been done. The second is wrong and must be reversed upon error. The third is irregular, and must be corrected by motion.”

Id. at 423, quoting Paine's Lessee v. Mooreland, 15 Ohio 435, 445 (1846). Thus, a judgment is generally void only when the court rendering the judgment lacks subject-matter jurisdiction or jurisdiction over the parties; however, a voidable judgment is one rendered by a court that lacks jurisdiction over the particular case due to error or irregularity. In re J.J., 111 Ohio St.3d 205, 2006-Ohio-5484, 855 N.E.2d 851, at ¶ 10, 15.

{¶ 13} In J.J., a magistrate contravened Sup.R. 4(B), which gives administrative judges the sole authority to transfer cases, when the magistrate transferred a custody case to a visiting judge. Id. at ¶ 5, 16. Like the appellee in the present case, the appellee in J.J. argued that because the magistrate acted outside of his authority, the resulting proceedings were void. Id. at ¶ 6. This court took the opportunity to explain the important distinctions between subject-matter jurisdiction and jurisdiction over a particular case and concluded that while the Rules of Superintendence did not give the magistrate the authority to transfer cases, the magistrate's improper transfer had no effect on the subject-matter jurisdiction of the court. Id. at ¶ 16. Rather, the magistrate's action constituted a mere procedural irregularity that affected the court's jurisdiction over the particular case, resulting only in a voidable judgment. Id. at ¶ 15. As a consequence of the judgment's being a voidable rather than a void judgment, the appellant in J.J. waived the procedural irregularity by failure to raise a timely objection. Id. at ¶ 16.

{¶ 14} This court was following the same principles when it decided State ex rel. Lesher v. Kainrad, 65 Ohio St.2d 68, 417...

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