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Lee v. Lee

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

January 30, 2019

WON SUN LEE
v.
WON BOK LEE

          Circuit Court for Howard County Case No. 13-C-55-045573

          Fader, C.J., Beachley, Kenney, James A., III (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          FADER, C.J.

         Won Sun Lee, the appellant, challenges the Circuit Court for Howard County's refusal to vacate a renewed judgment the court's clerk entered against him and in favor of his brother, Won Bok Lee. Before we can address the merits of this appeal, Mr. Bok Lee asks us to determine whether it is timely. We conclude that it is. The clerk's entry of the order from which Mr. Sun Lee appeals initially failed to comply with the requirements of Maryland Rule 2-601(b) because the docket entry available through the case search feature on the Judiciary website did not identify the date on which judgment was entered. As a result, the appeal period did not start to run and Mr. Sun Lee's appeal was premature when it was filed. However, subsequent changes to the docket entry fixed the problem and Mr. Sun Lee's appeal is now properly before us.

         Turning to the merits, Mr. Sun Lee asks us to decide whether his brother's 2015 attempt to renew a judgment in the circuit court was effective. The answer to that question revolves largely around two others: (1) whether Mr. Bok Lee's 2004 filing in the circuit court of notice of a 2002 federal court judgment created a new state court judgment or just a lien; and (2) if that filing created a lien only, whether it extended the period for renewal of the underlying judgment, which otherwise expired by operation of law in 2014. We conclude that the 2004 filing created a lien, not a judgment, and so could not be renewed once the underlying federal court judgment had expired. We therefore reverse the judgment of the circuit court and remand with instructions to vacate the renewed judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Initial Proceedings in Federal and State Court

         In 2002, Mr. Bok Lee obtained a judgment by default in the amount of $141, 059.44 against Mr. Sun Lee in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.

         In May 2004, Mr. Bok Lee filed a "Request to File Notice of Lien" in the Circuit Court for Howard County based on the federal judgment. On June 1, 2004, the circuit court entered a "Notice of Lien of Judgment Received From United States District Court" and made the following docket entry: "Judgment entered on 06/01/04."

         The Howard County case remained dormant until July 23, 2015, when Mr. Bok Lee filed a "Request to Renew Judgment." The request stated that "[j]udgment in this case was entered on June 1, 2004," claimed that it had "not expired (12 years from entry)," and asked the clerk to renew it. The clerk promptly entered the renewed judgment on the docket.

         On March 24, 2016, Mr. Sun Lee moved to vacate the renewal. He argued that Mr. Bok Lee's 2004 filing had created a lien, rather than a new judgment, and so could no longer be renewed once the federal judgment had expired. Although the circuit court agreed with Mr. Sun Lee that the 2004 filing had created a lien, not a new judgment, it also agreed with Mr. Bok Lee that it was nonetheless still subject to renewal.

         Three writings relating to the circuit court's ruling are central to our discussion below, so we present them in some detail. First, after a hearing, the court issued a one-page written order containing a single substantive sentence that identifies what the court considered (the motion to vacate, the opposition, and the arguments of the parties) and states that the motion to vacate is denied. The order is dated June 2, 2016 and bears (1) the signature of the judge, (2) a stamp identifying that it was "ENTERED" on June 3, 2016, (3) a true test certification, and (4) a notation of "6000" in the bottom right corner. We refer to this order as the "June 2 Order."

         The second and third writings of significance are both docket entries. Each appears slightly differently in the circuit court's own system than it appeared as viewed through the case search feature on the Judiciary website at the relevant time-which, for purposes of determining the timeliness of the appeal, is the period between June 3 and July 6, 2016. The first, which we refer to as "Docket Entry 6000," appears in the court's case management system as:

         (Image Omitted)

         At the relevant time, that same entry appeared through the case search feature on the Judiciary website as:[1]

         (Image Omitted)

         The second entry, which we refer to as "Docket Entry 14000," appears in the court's case management system as:

         (Image Omitted)

         We discuss both docket entries in more detail below.

         Mr. Sun Lee noted an appeal on July 6, 2016. Mr. Bok Lee moved to strike the notice as late, arguing that the June 2 Order had been entered on June 3 and that any appeal-after accounting for weekends and a holiday-was due by July 5. The circuit court granted the motion and struck the notice of appeal. Mr. Sun Lee then appealed timely from the order striking his first notice of appeal.

         The First Appeal

         In an unreported opinion, a panel of this Court concluded that the record did not reflect when, or even if, Mr. Sun Lee's time to appeal had begun to run. Lee v. Lee, No. 945, Sept. Term 2016, 2017 WL 3634056, at *3 (Aug. 24, 2017). The panel identified three factors that are necessary for there to be a valid appeal: (1) under Rule 2-601(a), the final judgment must be "set forth on a separate document" that is signed by a judge or the clerk of court; (2) under Rule 2-601(b), the judgment must be entered on the court's electronic case management system; and (3) under Rules 2-601(d) and 8-202(a), an appeal must be noted within 30 days of the date on which the judgment was entered in that court's electronic case management system. Lee, 2017 WL 3634056, at *1.

         Based on the record as it then stood, the panel found insufficient evidence to determine either (1) whether the separate document required by Rule 2-601(a) had been signed or (2) whether such a document had been entered on the court's electronic case management system. Id. at *2. With respect to the separate document, the panel considered it plausible that the June 2 Order was the required separate document setting forth the judgment, but it was uncertain because of a perceived inconsistency between the date of that order and Docket Entry 14000. That entry, although not made until June 6, seemed to contemplate that a separate order was still yet to come. Id.

         With respect to the entry of such a document, the panel first considered, and rejected, Mr. Bok Lee's contention that Docket Entry 6000 reflected the entry of the order in the court's electronic case management system. The panel's confusion in attempting to interpret this docket entry is perhaps best reflected in a footnote in which it observed that neither party had "ventured an explanation, nor can we invent one, to explain why the portion of the docket entry that says '06/03/16 copies mailed' was made on (or added to) the March 24 docket entry." Id. at *2 n.3. In the absence of any such explanation, the panel concluded that this could not possibly reflect entry of the separate document by which the court had entered judgment and, therefore, that "there is no way that June 3 can be the date of entry of judgment." Id. at *2.

         As an alternative, the panel considered whether Docket Entry 14000 could constitute entry of the separate document on the court's electronic case management system. Id. The panel concluded that this docket entry might constitute entry of a separate order on the electronic docket, but was uncertain in light of the same perceived inconsistency as to dates between that June 6 entry-and its indication that an order still had to be submitted-and the June 2 Order. Id. at *2-3.

         Out of that uncertainty, the panel posited three possibilities: (1) if a separate document had been executed before June 6 (such as the June 2 Order), and Docket Entry 14000 constituted its entry on the electronic case management system (on June 6), then Mr. Sun Lee's appeal would be timely; (2) if a separate document had been executed after June 6, then-still treating Docket Entry 14000 as the (premature) entry of that separate document on the court's electronic case management system-the appeal would be "ripe to proceed," with June 6 being its operative date; or (3) if a separate document was never signed, the judgment "has still not become final," and the appeal "was, and remains, premature." Id. at *2. "Under none of these three possible scenarios," the panel concluded, "was Mr. Sun Lee's appeal late." Id. at *3. The panel therefore reversed the order striking the notice of appeal and remanded to the circuit court with the following mandate:

JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR HOWARD COUNTY REVERSED AND REMANDED FOR THE CIRCUIT COURT TO DETERMINE DATE OF ENTRY OF JUDGMENT OR TO ENTER THE JUDGMENT ON A SEPARATE DOCUMENT. COSTS TO BE PAID BY APPELLEE.

Id.

         Proceedings on Remand

         On remand, the circuit court asked the court clerk to explain his practices with respect to the relevant entries in the court's electronic case management system. The clerk's responsive memorandum explained that the June 2 Order is the separate document reflecting the court's judgment and that it was entered on the court's electronic case management system on June 3 as part of Docket Entry 6000. With respect to the date of entry, the clerk's memorandum explained that:

• "It is the clerk's practice that when the clerk enters a ruling/order from the Court, the Order is 'entered' stamped. Which in this case was June 3, 2016."
• "It is the clerk's practice to update the original motion in [the court's electronic case management system]. In this case the clerk entered the ruling of Denied under docket entry 6000 as of June 3, 2016 and mailed copies of the Order on June 3, 2016."
• "Adjacent to the ruling of Denied is the closed date of the motion of June 3, 2016 which also corresponds to the date of entry."[2]
• "Therefore the written Order Denying the Motion to Vacate Judgment was entered by the clerk on June 3, 2016."

         Upon receiving the clerk's memorandum, the circuit court issued its own memorandum opinion in which it provided "an explanation of the process." The court explained that Docket Entry 6000, although a single entry bearing an "Entered" date of March 24, actually reflects at least three different events: the filing of the motion to vacate the judgment, the scheduling of a hearing on that motion, and the court's denial of that motion. March 24, 2016, the court explained, is the date the motion was filed. The subsequent dates mentioned are the dates on which the two other events-scheduling of the hearing (April 20, 2016) and entry of the order (June 3, 2016)-were entered into the system.

         The court also sought to answer the uncertainty regarding Docket Entry 14000, explaining that it reflects "a hearing sheet[, ] which is a summary of what occurred during a proceeding." Thus, the information in that entry reflects the court's statement in open court that it would deny the motion, not the entry of a written order. According to the court, "[t]he entry of the hearing sheet on June 6, 2016 is just that, the entering of the hearing sheet into the electronic case management system. It is not an order, nor does it have the effect of an order."

         In summarizing its response to the questions raised by the panel, the circuit court stated that it "issued a separate Order that was signed on June 2, 2016," and that "[t]he Order was entered by the clerk in the electronic case management system on June 3, 2016 . . . ."

         Alterations to the Docket Entries as Those Entries Appear Through the Case Search Feature on the Judiciary Website

         The status of the docket entries as discussed thus far was accurate through at least July 31, 2016, as reflected in the filings of the parties in the circuit court and included in the record filed with this Court. When this Court independently queried the case search function available on ...


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