In 2007, the Maryland General Assembly amended several Maryland Rules of Civil Procedure in an attempt to “provide greater uniformity in the treatment of prematurely filed post-judgment motions.” See, 34-2 Md. Reg. 78. Unfortunately, in amending Rules 2-532, 2-533, 2-534, and 2-535, the General Assembly opened the door for post-judgment motions to be filed months or even years after a Court’s oral ruling on a matter.
These Rules share language providing that certain post-judgment motions filed after the announcement or signing by the trial court of a judgment but before entry of the judgment on the docket are to be “treated as filed on the same day as, but after, the entry on the docket.” See, Md. Rules 2-532, 2-533, 2-534, and 2-535. Of note, similar language was later adopted for Rules 2-551 and 8-202 in 2016 and 2015, respectively.
The Appellate Court of Maryland has stated that “[w]hen a written or oral opinion indicates that a written embodiment of the judgment will follow, the opinion cannot be a final, unqualified disposition.” See, generally, Bussell v. Bussell 194 Md. App. 137 (2010). In conjunction with this case law, the effect of this “entry on the docket” language is that both parties can be aware of a court’s final decision on a matter, but a post-judgment motion can be made at any time, so long as it occurs ten days following the entry of the decision on the docket.
With the application of this trend to Rule 8-202 in 2015, a similar issue now exists for notices of appeals to higher courts. Specifically, Rules 8-202(a) and (f) provide that judgments may be appealed within thirty days of a trial court clerk entering the record on the trial court’s docket. Predictably, this change has caused some controversy in the timing of appeals.
The Supreme Court of Maryland explored the effect of the additions to Rule 8-202 in in Won Bok Lee v. Won Sun Lee, 466 Md. 601 (2020). In that same case, the Court also considered the standards placed by Rules 2-601(a), (b), and (c), which set forth the requirements for judgments to be entered in a separate document, available to the public on the Judiciary website. In Lee, a judgment was orally communicated to the parties in court, and a written order was issued on that same day. Id. at 605, 608. Ostensibly four days later, the trial court clerk entered a line reflecting the judgment into the electronic case management system docket in accordance with Rule 2-601(b)(2). Id. at 605. However, due to an error, the date of the entry of the order into the docket was unclear and not available to the public pursuant to Rule 2-601(b)(3). Id. at 606. Further complicating the matter, the parties were in dispute as to whether the order was properly produced in a separate document, as required by Rule 2-601(a). Id. at 613. The Supreme Court of Maryland stated that the purpose of both the separate document requirement and requirement that the online docket show the date of entry is to provide “a clear date from which the thirty-day appeal period set forth in Maryland Rule 8-202(a) begins to run.” Id. at 636. Although the Supreme Court of Maryland found that the trial court did conform to Rule 2-601(a), the Court found that Rule 2-601(b)(3) was not satisfied. Id at 615. As a result, the thirty-day appeal period outlined in Rule 8-202(a) was not triggered. Id. at 605-6. In short, even though both parties were aware of the trial court’s decision, an appeal was allowed to be filed more than thirty days after the date of that judgment.
With the adoption of these provisions that are intended to create a “uniform” system, there is now potential for a party against whom a judgment was entered to have an indefinite timeframe during which relief can be sought, even if the party was informed orally—or even in writing—of the court’s decision.
Since the implementation of the “entry on the docket” language, as well as the related provisions in Rule 2-601, there have been numerous cases in which Maryland courts have considered such motions well over ten days following a court’s judgment, as the judgments were not entered into the docket for some time.
For example, in Hiob v. Progressive Am. Ins. Co., the Supreme Court of Maryland addressed confusion regarding whether a notice of appeal was timely, partially because the final judgment was not docketed for over two weeks. 440 Md. 466 (2014). In the unreported opinion of Bah v. State, the Appellate Court of Maryland considered a similar issue, stemming from the failure of the trial court to docket a judgment for over one month. No. 2419, 2021 LEXIS 833 (Md. App. Sep. 17, 2021). In fact, it is not unheard of for a motion—let alone a docket entry—to sit dormant for ten years. See, Raley v. Ziner, No. 701, 2018 LEXIS 724 (Md. App. Jul. 25, 2018).
There are methods in place to limit dormant dockets; in particular, Rule 2-507(c) allows the trial courts to dismiss matters for which the docket has been dormant for a year. However, not every court is equally diligent in clearing its docket.
The bottom line is there is a very real possibility that some form of the following scenario could occur. First, a trial judge orally rules in favor of Party A and against party B. Even at this stage, the Parties are aware of the judgment, but the Rules require entry of a separate document onto the docket before a post-judgment motion or notice of appeal would be effective. Second, the judge could fail to issue a written order to the Parties. Even though the Parties are aware of the judgment, Party B would need to wait to file a motion or appeal. Third, the judge could later issue a written order to the Parties, and even provide the Parties copies of the written order. However, until the order is entered on the docket, the Rules still allow Party B additional time to file a motion or notice of appeal. Fourth, a clerk could fail to enter the judgment onto the docket, thereby depriving the matter of its final judgment. Fifth, over a year could pass, and the clerk could fail to recognize the dormant docket. At every stage of this scenario, the Maryland Rules allow for a different method of failure, but Party B is still not required to file a post-judgment motion or a notice of appeal until after the final judgment is docketed. Theoretically, if neither Party alerts the trial court to whichever failure(s) have taken place, Party B could have an infinite amount of time before the court dockets the final judgment, starting the timer on the post-judgment or appellate clock.
The efficacy of the court system is fundamental to its functioning, yet it is clearly vulnerable to the type of failure described in the above scenario.
Something has to give. Certainly, there is merit to the notion that uniformity is necessary in the treatment of prematurely filed post-judgment motions and appeals. It is also understandable that the courts would prefer separate documents to be filed stating a judgment, and that those documents should be publicly listed. These are important considerations to allow for a party to file a post-judgment motion or an appeal. Nevertheless, the courts must adopt a standard to account for human and clerical error. In the case where judgment was made orally in front of the parties, the court’s requirements significantly favor the losing party. A separate time limit for decisions made in front of parties should be in place; perhaps a thirty-day period for appeals and ten-day period for post-judgment motions in that situation would be reasonable. If changes are not made, losing parties can continue to take advantage of the absurdity baked into the Maryland Rules; namely, that even if a party knows there was a judgment against it, there is a potential for it to have essentially unlimited time to file a post-judgment motion or notice of appeal.
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