How to Judge a Judgment

Most lawyers think that once they get a verdict, or an order granting summary judgment, the case is over. Few pay attention to the mechanics of how the decision in their client’s favor actually gets translated into a judgment. Even fewer recognize that without the judgment — the thing that the sheriff can enforce, the thing that can be appealed, and the thing that gives rise to collateral estoppel and res judicata — all their good work leading up to that point may be of limited consequence, and certainly does not by itself allow the prevailing party, or for that matter, the losing party, to take the next steps in the litigation process.

Of course, the point of a judgment is to gain relief or a recovery for the client. Many cases end when the parties find out what the jury or judge thinks of the case, often without the need to resort to proceedings to enforce the decision. Good lawyers foresee the result and work out a settlement in light of it.

But in many other cases, the decision on the merits is only one stop on a longer journey, and to move ahead, it is necessary to translate that decision into a binding judgment because a judgment starts the clock for an appeal. See Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 104.01 (“an appeal may be taken from a judgment within 60 days after its entry”).

Though the procedure for entry of judgment may seem clear, court administrators, lawyers, and even judges are often confused about what is necessary for a judgment to be entered and when appeal must be taken. The process can sometimes be long and drawn out when judges indiscriminately write “let judgment be entered accordingly” at the end of every order, directing the entry of judgment on all sorts of things that are not really final adjudications, like decisions on non-dispositive motions. Nevertheless, if the trial judge’s order directs entry of judgment unnecessarily, the court administrator must still enter judgment — a judgment that carries the same weight as if properly entered.

The confusion and delay caused by entry of a seemingly improper judgment gives some lawyers heartburn that can best be avoided by asking the judge to vacate the improperly entered judgment. The lawyers in a case I was involved with recently did exactly that. There, plaintiff brought a suit for employment discrimination and received a jury verdict in her favor. The court issued an order for judgment and the court administrator promptly entered judgment. Shortly thereafter, the court issued an order staying entry of judgment pending its decisions on post-trial motions. The court denied defendant’s post-trial motions but granted plaintiff’s motion for fees and costs in part. Though the order did not direct it to do so, the administrator entered judgment on the fee order. Then, the court issued an order vacating the first judgment and stating that the stay pending resolution of post-trial motions remained in full force and effect. The court administrator entered a third judgment. Ultimately, to clean up the messy procedural posture of the case and provide defendants with a clear timeline to appeal, the parties submitted a stipulation requesting the court to order entry of judgment. As this scenario illustrates, entering judgments willy-nilly can muck things up badly and delay — or even cost you — an appeal.

Entry of partial judgments creates even more troubling issues. Even if the parties do not ask for certification under Rule 54.02 or if the court fails to specifically state that the order is issued under Rule 54.02, if the court directs the entry of a “final” judgment, parties must take timely appeal from the partial judgment. Even where the district court directs the entry of final partial judgment in error, a timely appeal is required to protect the right to review. Sterling State Bank v. Maas Commercial Props. LLC, 837 N.W.2d 733, 737 (Minn. Ct. App. 2013). Those who wait to appeal a partial judgment until entry of final judgment on all of the remaining issues will see themselves promptly dismissed by the court of appeals. See Javinsky v. Comm’r of Admin., 725 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007). As a result, the best thing to do if faced with a questionable partial judgment is to appeal and have the Court of Appeals dismiss you if they find it inappropriate. See T & R Flooring, LLC v. O’Byrne, 826 N.W.2d 833, 837 (Minn. Ct. App. 2013) (concluding that the district court erred by directing entry of final partial judgment under Rule 54.02 and dismissing the appeal). Of course, that process takes time and money. But, then again, explaining the total loss of appellate review to your client does too.

As if all that is not complicated enough, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently granted review of an appeal dismissed for failure to appeal from a partial “final” judgment. See Contractors Edge, Inc. v. City of Mankato, A14-0223 (Minn. Ct. App. Mar. 18, 2014) (review granted on May 28, 2014).  Where the law is going to go may be up in the air.  Stay tuned for updates.

Even where a party understands that he or she must take immediate appeal of a judgment — whether partial or full, erroneously or properly entered — he or she must also appreciate that the time for appeal runs from the date of entry, not docketing. The docketing of judgment is a separate procedure from its entry.

In years past, judgments were entered into a judgment roll, a separate record book. See Wells v. Gieseke, 27 Minn. 478, 481, 8 N.W. 380, 380–81 (1881) (explaining “that the clerk, when the statement [for confession of judgment] is filed, ‘shall endorse upon it, and enter in a judgment-book, a judgment of the district court for the amount computed. The statement and verification, with the judgment endorsed thereon, become the judgment-roll.’”).

Although that formulation is now outdated, many of the basic concepts related to recording judgments remain the same. For example, the entry of a judgment must still appear in the written record of an action. This requirement may be satisfied by a document titled “Judgment” that lays out the court’s conclusions of law. Many districts have adopted a more informal procedure, where entry of judgment is accomplished when the court administrator signs and dates the last page of the trial judge’s order, adding that: “The above conclusions of law constitute the judgment of the court.”

In comparison, docketing requires the prevailing party to file an affidavit of identification of judgment debtor, including the creditor’s name, occupation, residence, and the address of the debtor. Minn. Stat. sec. 548.09, subdiv. 2. Docketing is the formal process by which the judgment is given life — that is, once docketed, a judgment creates a lien on real property in the county in which the judgment is docketed, and the court administrator may issue writs of execution to enforce the judgment. See generally id. subdiv. 1 (providing process for entry and docketing of judgment).

A comprehensive and uniform understanding of when and how judgments should be entered has proven elusive to courts and litigants alike. Your clients (and your peace of mind) are best served by keeping a diligent eye on the time and scope of judgments entered — or not entered — in your cases.

Note: The title for this article comes from a publication distributed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, How to Judge a Judgment: An Overview for Court Administrators of Issues Affecting Appeals (Feb. 15, 1989), which was intended to help court administrators sort through the process of when and how to enter judgments. It was and is a very helpful publication, although it is not readily available today.

Reprinted with permission of Minnesota Lawyer ©2014


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