LEN STOLER, INC.
TRACY L. WISNER
Woodward, Hotten, Salmon, James P., (Retired, Specially Assigned) JJ.
A creditor brought suit against an automobile dealer challenging the dealer's retention of certain fees and charges associated with the purchase of a vehicle, alleging violations of the Maryland Closed-End Credit Grantor Law. The car dealer moved for summary judgment, which was denied by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. The court also granted the creditor's motion for partial summary judgment. In the order the court stated: "[t]o the extent that this Order is not a final judgment, this court expressly determines, pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-602(b) that there is no just reason for delay, and this otherwise final Order should be entered as a final judgment, notwithstanding that it adjudicates fewer than all of the claims at issue in this action." On appeal, the dealer presents three questions for our review:
1. Whether the [c]ircuit [c]ourt erred when it determined that Maryland's Closed-End Credit Grantor Law, [Md. Code Ann. Comm. Law], §12-1001, et. seq. ("CLEC"), prohibited [Len Stoler Inc., ] from collecting and retaining the [electronic titling fee], despite express permission to do so in [Md. Code Ann., Transp.] §13-610 and [Md. Code Regs.] 11.12.01.23(A) & (B)?
2. Whether the [c]ircuit [c]ourt erred when it held, implicitly, that [appellee] had standing to sue for the alleged injury caused by [Len Stoler Inc., ]'s retention of the Tax Allowance, notwithstanding that [appellee] had no rights to the funds and that the funds collected would otherwise have gone to the State and not to [appellee]?
3. Whether the [c]ircuit [c]ourt erred when it determined that Maryland's Closed-End Credit Grantor Law, [Md. Code Ann. Comm]. Law, §12-1001, et. seq., prohibited [Len Stoler Inc., ] from collecting and retaining the Tax Allowance despite express permission to do so in [Md. Code Ann., Transp.] §13-812?
For the reasons that follow, we shall reverse the judgment of the circuit court.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On March 30, 2011, appellee, Tracy Wisner, purchased a 2011 Lexus from appellant, Len Stoler, Inc., ("LSI"), an automobile dealer, for $51, 867.50. Appellee traded in a Jeep she owned in lieu of a down payment, and financed the remainder through Toyota Credit Motor Corporation. Appellee signed a sales contract that was a standard form document LSI used for all purchases. The contract included an itemized list of all charges including: a $4.00 charge for taxes paid to government agencies; a $220.00 charge for government registration fees; and a $50.00 charge for government certification of title fees.
Two years later, appellee filed a putative class action lawsuit against LSI alleging causes of action related to the three charges referenced above. In her original complaint, she asserted that LSI had overcharged her $104 for the fees. LSI explained that out of the $220 in government registration fees, it had only actually incurred $140 in fees and accordingly, sixteen days after appellee purchased the vehicle, on June 15, 2011, it issued her an $80 refund which appellee accepted and deposited within days of receipt. As a result of this realization, appellee amended her complaint, alleging that LSI had improperly collected $24, had double charged her this amount and improperly retained the fee in violation of the Credit Grantor Closed End Credit Provisions ("CLEC"). LSI moved for summary judgment, asserting that it was authorized by the Transportation Article to collect the retained $24. Additionally, it argued that appellee was incorrect in her assertion that she had been double charged the $24 and ascribed the confusion to appellee misreading the sales documents. LSI averred that appellee confused a separate $24 fee, which consisted of the $4 tire recycling fee and the $20 electronic titling fee. In her opposition to LSI's motion for summary judgment, appellee altered her argument slightly: she no longer claimed that she had been double charged the $24 tax allowance, but rather asserted that LSI had violated CLEC by improperly retaining the $24 tax allowance and the collected $20 electronic titling fee – bringing the total amount she alleged she was overcharged to $44.
The court held a hearing on the motion and a cross motion for summary judgment filed by appellee on March 26, 2014 and after both parties argued, the court adjourned to review two cases brought to its attention, Biggus v. Ford Motor Credit Co., 328 Md. 188 (1992) [hereinafter Biggus] and Ford Motor Credit Co., v. Roberson, 420 Md. 649 (2011) [hereinafter Roberson]. The hearing resumed on April 23, 2014 and, following additional arguments, the court granted appellee's motion for partial summary judgment, and denied LSI's motion for summary judgment, ruling that the CLEC prohibited LSI from charging appellee either the $20 electronic titling fee or the $24 charge for collecting excise taxes.
LSI noted an appeal several days later. Additional facts will be presented, to the extent they prove relevant in addressing the issues on appeal.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment is proper where the circuit court determines that there are no genuine disputes as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as matter of law. See Md. Rule 2-501. We review a circuit court's grant or denial of summary judgment de novo. See Haas v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 396 Md. 469, 479, 914 A.2d 735, 741 (2007). In reviewing the grant of a motion for summary judgment, appellate courts focus on whether the circuit court's grant of the motion was legally correct. Laing v. Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 180 Md.App. 136, 152-53 (2008) (citations omitted).
CERTIFICATION FOR FINAL JUDGMENT
Before considering the merits of this appeal, we must engage in a jurisdictional inquiry, specifically, whether the circuit court was correct in certifying its summary judgment ruling as a final order. Although neither party raised this issue in their briefs, we note that if certification was improper, the appeal must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. See Huber v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 347 Md. 415, 419 (1997) (declining to address the merits of an appeal predicated on the lack of jurisdiction as a result of the circuit court improperly certifying its declaratory judgment as a final judgment). See also Shofer v. Stuart Hack Co., 107 Md.App. 585, 591 (1996) (addressing the circuit court's certification of a final judgment even though neither party raised the issue on appeal, and explaining that appellate courts cannot exercise subject matter jurisdiction over an appeal unless there was a properly entered final judgment before the circuit court). We review a circuit court's entry of a final judgment pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-602 de novo, and accordingly, we give no deference to the circuit court's findings. Id. at 591.
In the case at bar, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and appellee filed a motion for class certification. Following oral arguments on the cross motions, the circuit court denied appellant's motion and granted appellee's partial motion for summary judgment. Regarding the class certification motion, the following colloquy occurred:
THE COURT: Now, the next part of this case is the [appellee's] request to have the class certified. I try to be a practical judge and I suspect I'm not the last word on this case and it seems to me that if Len Stoler intends to appeal this case on my decision, I believe it is prudent and more efficient with considering all the possible costs involved that this be considered an appealable order at this time before we go down the road of class certification.
[APPELLANT'S COUNSEL]: Thank you, Your Honor. That is Len Stoler's intention.
THE COURT: So I believe that is the prudent way to proceed. Did you wish to be heard on that, [appellee's counsel]?
[APPELLEE'S COUNSEL]: No, Your Honor. That's fine.
THE COURT: I mean, it might save you money in the long run, too, or expense.
[APPELLEE'S COUNSEL]: I agree. We want to know the ultimate answer.
The court later issued its order, ruling in part "[t]o the extent that this Order is not a final judgment, this [c]ourt expressly determines, pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-602(b) that there is no just reason for delay, and this otherwise final Order should be entered as a final judgment, notwithstanding that it adjudicates fewer than all of the claims at issue in this action."
The "final judgment rule" is codified in the Maryland Code, (1974 Repl. Vol. 2013) Courts & Judicial Proceedings §12-301, which provides that "a party may appeal from a final judgment entered in a civil or criminal case by a circuit court. The right of appeal exists from a final judgment entered by a court in the exercise of original, special, limited, statutory jurisdiction, unless in a particular case the right of appeal is expressly ...