Law Updates

Unclear docket entries, and the countdown to file an appeal

Won Sun Lee v. Won Bok Lee, 240 Md. App 47 (2019) | View pdf

(June 27, 2019) Adrián Martínez, Summer Associate.

For more information, contact Eric Leppo

In 2002 Mr. Bok Lee obtained a default judgment in federal court against his brother, Mr. Sun Lee, in the amount of $141,059.44. In 2004 in the Circuit Court for Howard County, Mr. Bok Lee filed a “Request to File Notice of Lien” in order to domesticate the foreign judgment. The filing was recorded as a “Notice of Lien of Judgment Received from United States District Court” and the docket entry described a “[j]udgement entered on 06/01/2004.” On July 23, 2015, Mr. Bok Lee filed a “Request to Renew Judgment,” and the clerk entered a renewed judgment onto the docket. On March 24, 2016, Mr. Sun Lee moved to vacate the renewal, arguing that the original filing had created a lien and not a judgment, and that the renewal was improper because the federal judgment had expired. The Circuit Court agreed it was a lien, but that the renewal was proper.

The court issued an order denying the motion which contained: the signature of the judge, an “ENTERED” stamp with the date of June 3, 2016, a true test certification, and a docket entry notation of “6000” on the bottom right corner. A key issue in this appeal is the Circuit Court’s entry of the denial of Mr. Sun Lee’s motion to vacate onto the case management system, specifically “Docket Entry 6000.” The entry date of that docket entry was listed as 3/24/2016, the same day as the original filing. A second item “Docket Entry 14000” followed, which listed an entry date of June 6, 2016 stating that the “Motion to Vacate Judgment is denied.”

The Court of Special Appeals determined that due to the record being unclear, it was unable to determine when Mr. Sun Lee’s time to appeal had begun, and that “[u]nder none of [the] possible scenario[s] [before them] was Mr. Sun Lee’s appeal late.” Lee v. Lee, 2017 WL 3634056, at *3. The court reversed and remanded the case requesting the clerk of court to explain the entries, as well as the practices employed with the case management system. The clerk issued a memorandum explaining: a separate order was signed and entered into the electronic case management system, the relevant missing information was only reflected on the court’s internal electronic case management system, and that information was not publically accessible. The docket entries were then subsequently altered to reflect the correct information on the publically accessible site.

As timeliness is everything to appellate jurisdiction, an appellate court may revisit the question of whether an original notice of appeal is late. Even when a previous appellate panel has determined that the appeal was not late such a decision does not precluded the new panel from reconsidering timeliness, particularly in cases such as this, when the court determines that the record is “substantially different” from the last appeal. In order to answer the question of timeliness, the court referred to two questions asked on remand: 1) Whether a separate signed document containing the judgment pursuant to Rule 2-601(a), and 2) On what date did the clerk enter the judgment onto the case management system pursuant to Rule 2-601(b). While the court accepted that a separate document was entered on June 3, 2016, it concluded that the docket entry did not clearly convey the date that the clerk entered “[d]enied.”

The effect of a muddled docket entry was addressed by the Court of Appeals in Hiob v. Progressive American Insurance Company, 440 Md. 466 (2014). There the Court promulgated a test for the countdown for an appeal to begin. In short there must be a final judgment, which is contained in a separate document, and is filed separately from the docket entry.

Rule 2-601 has since been amended, changing and adding certain requirements. Courts are now required to enter judgments “by making an entry of it on the docket of the electronic case management system made by that court.” Also for every case, absent shielded ones, “the docket entry and the date of the entry shall be available to the public through the case search features on the Judiciary website….” One final change is that “the date of the judgment is the date that the clerk enters the judgment on the electronic case management system in accordance with subsection (b) of this Rule.” Rule 8-202(f) states that for purposes of determining the time for an appeal, an “entry . . . occurs on the day when the clerk of the lower court enters a record on the docket of the electronic case management system used by that court.”

Applying that test and those rules to the instant case, the Court of Special Appeals determined that because the date of entry was not visible to the public, the docket entry failed to comply with Rule 2-601(b). The only way to know if a separate document was filed would have been to make three separate assumptions. Therefore, the docket entry failed the Hiob test as it does not give litigants or the public an unequivocal date of when the judgment was entered. Because the docket entry failed to give notice as to the date of the entry of judgment, the countdown for an appeal never started. Despite Mr. Sun Lee’s appeal being filed on the 31st day after the judgment, pursuant to Rule 8-602(f) it was timely because it was to be treated as “filed on the same day as, but after, the entry on the docket.”