DEBORAH HIOB, ET AL.
PROGRESSIVE AMERICAN INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL
Argued September 10, 2014.
Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Case No. 03C08002145.
Argued by Linda M. Schuett, Blumenthal, Delavan & Williams, P.A., of Annapolis, MD; Robert, Siems, Law Offices of Robert L. Siems, P.A., of Baltimore, MD, on brief for Petitioners.
Argued by Angus R. Everton, Morgan, Carlo, Downs, & Everton, P.A., of Hunt Valley, MD, on brief for Respondents.
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Raker, Irma S. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ. Opinion by McDonald, J.
[440 Md. 471] McDonald, J.
It is said, in many contexts, that timing is everything. This case involves an important question of timing for an appellate lawyer -- the time to appeal.
A trial court's decision may take many forms -- for example, a jury verdict, an oral ruling from the bench, a written opinion, a simple order. If there are multiple claims or multiple parties, there may be several decisions at different times that resolve the case episodically. When must a disappointed litigant commence an appeal of an adverse decision?
The time to appeal must accommodate competing values. On the one hand, appellate review advances the interest in ensuring that judicial decisions are consistent and correct. On the other hand, it is also important that a judicial decision be certain -- in other words, that there is an end to the process of review. Accordingly, the path to appellate review should be clear and well-marked, but the time for filing an appeal should be finite and well-defined.
The statutes and rules governing appellate review reflect those principles. The Legislature has limited appellate jurisdiction largely to review of " final judgments" of the trial courts. This Court has implemented that jurisdiction, setting time limits by rule and, to some extent, by case law. Under Maryland Rule 8-202(a), a " notice of appeal shall be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment or order from which the appeal is taken." The date of " entry of judgment" is determined under Maryland Rule 2-601. Under that rule, a [440 Md. 472] final judgment is not effective unless it is set forth on a " separate document" consistent with Rule 2-601(a) and is entered on the docket consistent with Rule 2-601(b). The date on which the separate document is docketed triggers the 30-day deadline for filing a notice of appeal under Rule 8-202(a). This case concerns what qualifies as a " separate document" that, upon its docketing, starts the 30-day clock for filing a notice of appeal.
This case involves several plaintiffs and two defendants. All of the plaintiffs asserted claims against the first defendant; one plaintiff asserted a claim against the second defendant. The Circuit Court awarded summary judgment in favor of the first defendant against all of the plaintiffs -- a decision that was indisputably not a final judgment as it did not resolve the claim against the co-defendant. More than a year later, the claim as to the remaining co-defendant was voluntarily dismissed by means of a stipulation of dismissal. When the plaintiffs then sought to appeal the earlier adverse summary judgment ruling, the question arose as to whether the stipulation of dismissal satisfied the separate document requirement of Rule 2-601. If so, the notice of appeal was untimely as it was filed more than 30 days after the docketing of the stipulation of dismissal.
We hold that the stipulation of dismissal did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 2-601 for a separate document. The stipulation of dismissal was not in the form of a judgment, was not signed by either the judge or the clerk as required by the rule, and was not docketed consistent with the rule. Accordingly, its docketing did not trigger the time for filing an appeal of the order awarding summary judgment.
Entry of Judgment - The Separate Document Requirement
The separate document requirement was added to Maryland Rule 2-601 in 1997 when it was imported into that rule from [440 Md. 473] federal appellate practice. To fully understand the purpose and meaning of that requirement in Rule 2-601, it is instructive
to review briefly the model on which it was based.
A. The Model -- Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58
1. 1963 - Adoption of Separate Document Requirement
During the middle of the last century, there was confusion in the federal courts as to what constituted an effective final judgment and when the time for filing an appeal began -- confusion that sometimes resulted in the inadvertent loss of the right to appellate review. (As we shall see below, similar confusion reigned in the Maryland state courts). In particular, it was often unclear whether a judge's opinion or written memorandum constituted an effective final judgment and whether a docket entry corresponding to the opinion or memorandum started the time for filing an appeal under the federal rules. This confusion caused " inequities ... when a party appealed from a document or docket entry that appeared to be a final judgment of the district court only to have the appellate court announce later that an earlier document or entry had been the judgment and dismiss the appeal as untimely." Bankers Trust Co. v. Mallis, 435 U.S. 381, 385, 98 S.Ct. 1117, 55 L.Ed.2d 357 (1978) ( per curiam ).
In order to eliminate these uncertainties and inequities, the federal rule governing entry of judgment was amended in 1963 to require that " there be a judgment set out on a separate document -- distinct from any opinion or memorandum -- which provides the basis for the entry of judgment." Advisory Committee Note on 1963 Amendments to Rule 58 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The separate document requirement was explicitly designed to avoid confusion when more than one docket entry or order could be interpreted as a [440 Md. 474] final judgment. Id. The new requirement was intended to " make clear that a party need not file a notice of appeal until a separate judgment has been filed and entered." Bankers Trust, 435 U.S. at 384; see also 11 Wright, Miller & Kane, et al., Federal Practice & Procedure Civ. § 2781 (3d ed.) (two distinct acts must coincide before there is an effective judgment: the rendition of the judgment must be set forth on a separate document and the judgment must be entered properly on the docket).
2. Mechanical Application Favoring Preservation of Appeal Rights
Two principles have guided the application of the separate document requirement in the federal courts. First, in order to provide the desired clarity, the " separate-document rule must be 'mechanically applied' in determining whether an appeal is timely." Bankers Trust, 435 U.S. at 386 (quoting United States v. Indrelunas, 411 U.S. 216, 93 S.Ct. 1562, 36 L.Ed.2d 202 (1973)). In Indrelunas, the
United States Supreme Court recognized that the separate document requirement " would be subject to criticism for its formalism were it not for the fact that something like this was needed to make certain when a judgment becomes effective." [440 Md. 475] 411 U.S. at 220 (quoting 6A J. Moore, Federal Practice 58.04 (1972)).
Second, because the rule " is not designed as a trap for the inexperienced," it is to be interpreted to preserve the right to an appeal. Bankers Trust, 435 U.S. at 386-87. Thus, the mechanical application of the requirement is relaxed only when it will prevent the loss of a right of appeal. Id. In that regard, the Supreme Court in Bankers Trust held that the separate document requirement could be waived to allow an appeal when the lack of a separate document did not mislead or prejudice a party. Id.; see also Fiore v. Washington County Community Mental Health Center, 960 F.2d 229, 235 (1st Cir. 1992) (Rule 58's " hypertechnicality" would be relaxed only to save an appeal); Hummer v. Dalton, 657 F.2d 621, 624 (4th Cir. 1981) (Rule 58 should be interpreted to prevent loss of the right of appeal) (citations omitted).
B. Adoption of the Requirement in the Maryland Rules
1. Confusion about Timing of Entry of Judgment
As in the federal courts, appellate jurisdiction in Maryland is ordinarily limited to review of final judgments. See Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article (" CJ" ), § 12-301. Prior to the adoption of the separate document [440 Md. 476] requirement in the Maryland Rules, there was some uncertainty concerning the timing of entry of a final judgment. For example, confusion arose when a docket entry stated that judgment had been entered but other circumstances indicated that the judge had not intended to issue a judgment, or when the judge intended to render a final judgment but the docket entry stated otherwise. This uncertainty could occasionally
result in an unwary appellant losing the right to appeal. See Minutes of the Standing Committee on the Rules of Practice and Procedure (October 8, 1993) at 11 (discussion concerning how, under Rule 2-601 prior to the 1997 amendments, an attorney might be unaware of the exact date of the judgment and as a result lose the opportunity to appeal).
2. 1997 - Amendment of Rule 2-601 to Require Separate Document
The revision of Rule 2-601 in 1997 was designed to alleviate much of this uncertainty. In drafting a revision to achieve clarity as to what is an effective judgment and when that judgment is entered, the Rules Committee patterned the amendment after the existing version of Rule 58 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure which, as noted above, was [440 Md. 477] designed to address similar confusion in the federal courts. The Reporter's Note that accompanied the proposed revisions of Rule 2-601 to the Court of Appeals noted that, in accordance with the Court's direction at a rules hearing, the proposed amendments borrowed language from Rule 58, with style changes, " to address the need for clear, complete, and precise judgments" by creating a separate document requirement. See 134th Report of the Standing Committee on the Rules of Practice and Procedure (October 31, 1996), 23:24 Md. Reg. 1665, 1667 (November 22, 1996). In the Reporter's Note to the amended rule, the Rules Committee recommended that the Administrative Office of the Courts develop forms of judgment similar to those used in the federal system. In an apparent response to that suggestion, shortly after the adoption of the amendment, legal counsel to the circuit court clerks circulated a memorandum with examples and directions, patterned after models used by the federal courts under Rule 58, for satisfying the separate document requirement. Memorandum of Assistant Attorney General Julia Freit to All Clerks of the Circuit Courts (June 19, 1997).
[440 Md. 478] 3. Entry of Judgment under the Amended Rule
In its current form, Rule 2-601 states as follows, with the language added by the 1997 amendments in italics:
Rule 2-601. Entry of judgment.
(a) Prompt entry -- Separate document .
Each judgment shall be set forth on a separate document. Upon a verdict of a jury or a decision by the court allowing recovery only of costs or a specified amount of money or denying all relief, the clerk shall forthwith prepare, sign, and enter the judgment, unless the court orders otherwise. Upon a verdict of a jury or a decision by the court granting other relief, the court shall promptly review the form of the judgment presented and, if approved, sign it, and the clerk shall forthwith enter the judgment as approved and signed. A judgment is effective only when so set forth and when entered as provided in section (b) of this Rule. Unless the court orders otherwise, entry of the judgment shall not be delayed pending determination of the amount of costs.
(b) Method of Entry--Date of Judgment.
The clerk shall enter a judgment by making a record of it in writing on the
file jacket, or on a docket within the file, or in a docket book, according to
the practice of each court, and shall record the actual date of the entry.
That date shall be the date of the judgment.
(c) Recording and Indexing.
Promptly after entry, the clerk shall (1) record and index the judgment, except a judgment denying all relief without costs, in the judgment records of the court and (2) note on the docket the date the clerk sent copies of the judgment in accordance with Rule 1-324.
As the above indicates, the 1997 amendments included several new requirements for the effective entry of judgment. First, as a result of those amendments, " [e]ach judgment shall be set [440 Md. 479] forth on a separate document." This document must be separate from an oral ruling of the judge, a docket entry, or a memorandum. 
Second, the separate document is to be signed by either the judge or the clerk. Who must sign the document depends on the type of judgment. When there is a decision by the court denying all relief, the clerk shall " prepare, sign, and enter the judgment." Rule 2-601(a). More complex types of judgments require a signature by the judge. Id.
Third, a judgment is effective -- meaning that it triggers the time for filing an appeal -- only if it is set forth in accordance ...