In today's per curiam opinion in Wiesenberg v. University of Hawaii, No. SCWC-15-0000711 (June 30, 2016), the Hawaii Supreme Court clarified a point of appellate procedure that has been unnecessarily vague -- and therefore dangerous -- for a while: whether a trial court's entry of an amended judgment, entered after the filing of a post-judgment order, resets the time for an appellant to file her notice of appeal. The Supreme Court was reviewing an order by the Intermediate Court of Appeals dismissing an appeal for lack of jurisdiction because the appellant missed the filing deadline.
If, like us, you rejoice in these type of issues, read on.
Like we've said before, jurisdictional deadlines like notices of appeal are the kind of things that keep we lawyers awake at night. In the past, appellate filing deadlines caused you at times to have to sprint down to the Appellate Clerk's office (pictured above) at 4:20 p.m. before the doors closed. E-filing has taken care of a lot of that, but issues like jurisdictional deadlines still remain.
And now, after Wiesenberg, we have a bit more clarity, which is always good.
The trial court granted the University of Hawaii's motion for judgment on the pleadings, and entered a final judgment dismissing a civil complaint which alleged the U.H. should have admitted the plaintiff to its masters program. The judgment looked like a most civil judgments, and repeated the typical boilerplate language. Three sentences, three paragraphs. (No more, no less. Three shall be the number of the counting...) The operative part of the judgment totaled 14 words, and contained the magic text: the judgment "fully and finally resolves all claims between the parties and no other claims remain in this proceeding." The trial court directed entry of judgment.
Normally, that would open the 30-day window to appeal. But the U.H. then filed a post-judgment motion seeking to recover its attorneys fees which the court approved. Counsel for the parties signed off on an amended form of judgment which the trial court entered.
The amended judgment was a bit longer than the first judgment. We won't reprint it here, but let's just say that it went into more detail, but just about all of this detail was about the post-judgment fee motion. See slip op. at 6. The judgment repeated some of the magic words from the first judgment. Things like "a final judgment be, and hereby is, entered in accordance with" the earlier motion for judgment on the pleadings, and the post-judgment attorneys fee motion. The judgment also set out the interest rate, and again hit the magic words "This FINAL AMENDED JUDGMENT fully and finally resolves all claims between the parties and no other claims remain in this proceeding." Nine days later, the plaintiff filed a notice of appeal.
If measured from the date of the amended judgment, he was good: generally you have 30 days to appeal. However, if the first judgment was the trigger, then he was late. Too late: the first judgment had been entered two months earlier.
You snooze, you lose, argued U.H., and the ICA bought it and dismissed. [Sidebar: We've noticed that the ICA tends to be rather anal-retentive about things like timely filing dates and technical finality of trial court orders, and perhaps rightly so. For example, we've been in situations where the ICA has dismissed appeals for lack of a final judgment months after the jurisdictional statement was filed without objection, and months after the briefing was completed. We understand why courts jealously guard their subject matter jurisdiction, but we also think there needs to be a reasonable way to correct technical deficiencies like missing magic words in judgments, or ways for the parties and the lower courts to clearly understand what is and what isn't a trigger to a jurisdictional appeal deadline.]
Here, the ICA rejected the plaintiff-appellant's argument that the second, amended judgment was materially different from the earlier first judgment. He asserted the second judgment included attorneys fees and interest, which meant that the 30-day appeal deadline only starting running upon the entry of the second judgment, and he could wait until it was filed. The ICA concluded that the first judgment was the "operative judgment" and that the second judgment was "superfluous." Slip op. at 7. In other words, the second judgment only added stuff about fees and interest, and didn't change the judgment on the underlying substantive law (i.e., the motion for judgment on the pleadings was left untouched). Following so far?
The Hawaii Supreme Court didn't see it so rigidly. Indeed, it resolved the case with a straightforward application of rule 4 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure, and two of its earlier opinions which held that the second judgment is the trigger to the appeal if it "either materially alter[ed] the rights or obligations of the parties determined by the original judgment or creat[es] a right to appeal where none previously existed." Slip op, at 14.
Applying that standard, the court held that the second, amended judgment here materially altered the plaintiff's rights or obligations. These were not mere clerical changes, because the Final Amended Judgment includes additional information on the award of attorneys' fees as well as statutory interest." Slip op. at 14. The opinion contains a side-by-side comparison between the two judgments, and held that the key difference was the new obligation on the plaintiff to pay UH's attorneys fees and costs. See slip op. at 15.
The additional language creates new obligations and legal consequences that did not exist under the Original Judgment. For example, by including the award of attorneys’ fees, the Final Amended Judgment was a money judgment upon which UH could recover interest. Moreover, UH may execute on the Final Amended Judgment by recording it as a judgment lien against Wiesenberg’s property or initiating collection and garnishment actions. The effect of the Final Amended Judgment provide serious legal implications for Wiesenberg -- legal implications that did not exist under the Original Judgment. These implications are not clerical in nature; rather, they are implications that altered the Original Judgment in a material and substantial respect. The Final Amended Judgment, therefore, was the operative document for purposes of this appeal.
Slip op. at 16 (footnotes and citations omitted).
Thus, the plaintiff's notice of appeal from the second, amended judgment was timely.
What might this mean for all you Hawaii appellate mavens? Here's what we think:
- If there's a post-judgment grant of attorneys' fees and the court reduces it to a new amended judgment, the appeal period runs from the second judgment and not the original judgment. We assume the same was true for any monetary or other obligations which are imposed via a post-original judgment order.
- But, the court also noted that an award of attorneys fees need not have been reduced to a judgment, so there actually was no need for the trial court to have amended the judgment to include it. See slip op. at 16 n.5 ("We recognize that the circuit court need not reduce a post-judgment award of attorneys' fees and costs to a separate judgment for purposes of an appeal. However, because the court entered the Final Amended Judgment, this court's review, for purposes of determining whether the appeal was perfected, turns on an analysis of the effect of the amendments.").
- Of course, the goal shouldn't be to get rid of appeals where opposing counsel merely (and understandably) slipped up, but should be to weed out appeals where someone has sat on their appeal rights despite a clear deadline. But you can also see how, from the appellee's viewpoint, this case probably seems like one where no good deed is going unpunished, and counsel and the court inadvertently extended the appeal deadline by being thorough. Here, unnecessarily amending the judgment came back to bite when the amended judgment became the new trigger and extended the appeal deadline.
- If you're appealing and have any doubts about the deadline, don't get "lulled into waiting" by post-trial motions like the plaintiff's counsel said happened to him. See slip op. at 7. If the ground rules are not clear, file your notice of appeal. Yes, you may be embarrassed later when you realize you filed too early. But under Rule 4(a)(2), a "premature" notice of appeal "after announcement of a decision but before entry of the judgment or order" is considered filed "immediately after the time the judgment or order becomes final." Don't snooze, and you won't lose.
Case remanded back to the ICA for disposition on the merits.
We know of one appellate lawyer who is sleeping better tonight.