Thursday, October 15, 2020

Lee v. Lee (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: January 23, 2020 

Opinion by: Judge Shirley M. Watts 


Docket entries not otherwise subject to shielding that are unclear, ambiguous, or unavailable to the public via the Judiciary’s online case search fail to satisfy the requirements of Maryland Rule 2-601(b)(3) and do not trigger the 8-202(a) thirty-day appeal period.

Recordation and indexing of a federal judgment creates a lien, not a new judgment.


In 2002, Petitioner (“Lender”) obtained a default judgment in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland against Respondent (“Borrower”), in the principal amount of approximately $140,000 plus attorney’s fees, court costs, and interest.

In June 2004, the Circuit Court for Howard County approved Lender’s Request to File Notice of Lien based on the federal judgment.  In July 2015, Lender sought and obtained a Notice of Renewed Judgment from the circuit court.

In March 2016, Borrower moved to vacate the renewed judgment and requested a hearing.  On June 2, 2016, the circuit court conducted the hearing, denied the motion, and issued a one-page order.  On June 3, 2016, the clerk stamped and mailed copies of the order and made a docket entry to the court’s case management system.  Due to a series of clerical errors, results of the Judiciary’s online case search (“Case Search”) made in the weeks following June 2 for the instant case produced unclear and confusing results, creating ambiguity as to what had been decided and when, with date fields containing entries as early as March 24 and as late as June 6.

On July 6, 2016, Borrower appealed.  The circuit court granted Lender’s motion to strike the appeal as untimely.  Borrower timely appealed.  After a remand to the circuit court to produce an accurate timeline of events, the Court of Special Appeals denied the motion to dismiss and held that the first appeal, while initially premature, had ripened.   The Court went on to reverse the denial of the motion to vacate and remand to the lower court to vacate the renewed judgment, explaining that there was nothing to renew because the lien created in 2004 became ineffective when the predicate federal judgment expired in 2014.

Lender subsequently sought and received a writ of certiorari.


The main issue before the Court of Appeals was whether entry of a judgment must satisfy the requirements of both Maryland Rule 2-601(b)(2) and 2-601(b)(3) to start the thirty-day appeal period prescribed in 8-202(a).  Stated more plainly, was the date of entry of a judgment established by the act of a clerk keying it into the docketing system, or did it need to also be publicly available?

The Court began with de novo review of the trial court’s interpretation of the underlying Maryland Rules.  Because the date of an entry of a judgment is governed by 2-601(b), the Court examined that rule’s recent history and noted that the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure in 2014 had proposed amendments to address the obsolescence of the then-current rule (requiring physical recordation on the file jacket) and lack of uniformity across the State in how clerks entered judgments.  By Rules Order of the Court of Appeals, amendments to 2-601 were adopted and became effective on January 1, 2016, notably providing that:

2-601(a)(4) A judgment is effective only when [set forth on a separate document] and when entered as provided in section (b) of this Rule.

* * * 

2-601(b)(2) Entry.  The clerk shall enter a judgment by making an entry of it on the docket of the electronic case management system used by that court along with such description of the judgment as the clerk deems appropriate. 

2-601(b)(3) Availability to the Public. Unless shielding is required by law or court order, the docket entry and the date of the entry shall be available to the public through the case search feature on the Judiciary website and in accordance with Rules 16-1002 and 16-1003.

* * * 

2-601(d) Date of Judgment.  On and after July 1, 2015, regardless of the date a judgment was signed, the date of the judgment is the date that the clerk enters the judgment on the electronic case management system docket in accordance with section (b) of this Rule. The date of a judgment entered prior to July 1, 2015 is computed in accordance with the Rules in effect when the judgment was entered.

Turning next to relevant caselaw, the court cited its prior discussion (in Hiob v. Progressive Am. Ins. Co., 440 Md. 466 (2014)) of 2-601’s separate document requirement.  The Hiob court had noted the importance of the date and form of entry of a judgment in creating precision (as to the time for filing an appeal), creating certainty (so as not to create a trap for inexperienced parties), and preserving appeal rights.  The Court here went on to highlight the need to provide the public, and not just the litigants, with an unambiguous and clear indication of the date and disposition of every civil claim brought in the State’s courts.  

Accordingly, the Court held that in order to constitute an effective judgment under 2-601 and begin the 8-202(a) thirty-day appeal period, the judgment must satisfy the plain language requirements of both 2-601(b)(2) and (b)(3).  Unless shielding is required, the docket entry and date of entry shall be available to the public through Case Search.  

Applying this framework to the instant case, the court found the June 2, 2016 Order to meet the separate document requirement of 2-601(a)(1).  However, the contemporaneous Case Search returns were unclear, ambiguous, confusing, and insufficient to establish whether a judgment had been entered as required by 2-601(b)(2) and, if so, the corresponding date of entry as required by 2-601(b)(3).  Case Search failed to provide adequate notice to the public of the date of entry of judgment and the thirty-day appeal period never triggered.

Where did this leave Borrower’s “premature” notice of appeal?  The Court pointed to 8-602(f)’s instruction that a notice of appeal filed after the signing by the trial court of an order but before entry of the order on the docket shall be treated as filed on the same day as but after the entry on the docket.  Thus, although Borrower’s notice of appeal was premature when filed, it would be treated as filed immediately after entry of the judgment on the docket and appeal would proceed.

Accordingly, the Court addressed Borrower’s appeal on its merits, affirming the Court of Special Appeals.  Explaining that a money judgment establishes a debt, while a lien creates the mechanism to enforce it, the Court found Lender’s 2004 action to have created a lien against Borrower’s property in Howard County – not a new judgment.  Lender’s failure to renew the federal judgment prior to its twelve-year expiration date in 2014 extinguished the lien predicated on it.  Because nothing remained to renew, the circuit court had erred in entering a renewed judgment and in denying Borrower's motion to vacate.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please Post Comments Here