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Supreme Court asked to untangle Humpty Dumpty-esque rule

When is an order actually a judgment? That’s the riddle that an appellate court — with the support of Humpty Dumpty — has asked the Missouri Supreme Court to solve.

The underlying dispute stems from a Greene County circuit judge’s decision to appoint a receiver to control a disputed southwestern Missouri farming operation. The Court of Appeals Southern District ruled on Feb. 4 that a controlling Supreme Court precedent required the appeal to be dismissed because the judge’s order appointing the receiver wasn’t called a “judgment.”

The Missouri Supreme Court. File Photo.

The Missouri Supreme Court. File Photo.

But in a dissent, Judge Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer said a more recent Supreme Court ruling indicated that appellate judges should look at the substance of the order rather than its title. Saying that “a quagmire exists for practicing attorneys, trial courts and the courts of appeal,” she transferred the case to the Supreme Court for a final ruling.

Although an appeal generally can’t be filed until the case is final, a state statute allows for orders involving receivers to be appealed on an interlocutory basis — that is, to be appealed even though the underlying case hasn’t been resolved.

In a 2006 ruling, Spiece v. Garland, the Missouri Supreme Court considered a similar statutory provision that allows appeals for orders that grant a new trial. The high court said interlocutory appeals must comply with a Supreme Court Rule that says an order is appealable only when it is a signed by the judge and denominated as a “judgment” or “decree.”

Judge Gary W. Lynch, writing for the Southern District panel’s majority, acknowledged that a more recent case signaled that such a rigid requirement wasn’t necessary. In Sanford v. CenturyTel of Missouri LLC, issued in 2016, the high court said a defendant waited too long to appeal a judge’s order denying arbitration in the underlying dispute. The defendant had relied on a court rule that says judgments don’t become final until 30 days after they are entered.

But the Supreme Court said that 30-day window exists only to allow the trial judge to reconsider or vacate judgments before they become final. Because interlocutory matters are by definition not final, it would be “meaningless” to treat them as regular judgments, the court said.

Lynch said it would be “common sense” to take the same approach to the Greene County receivership dispute. But the Sanford case didn’t mention the earlier Spiece case, much less overrule it. Also, the ability to immediately appeal an order denying arbitration comes from a particular statute, section 435.440. A different section, 512.020, governs several other types of interlocutory appeals, including both receivership matters and the granting of a new trial that was at issue in Spiece.

Lynch said the appellate court was constrained by the Supreme Court’s controlling precedent. Or, as Judge Don E. Burrell Jr. put in a concurring opinion, “Spiece is the master.”

Burrell, a former Greene County circuit judge himself, wrote that when he was on the trial bench, “it really rubbed me the wrong way that I could be forced — by extraordinary writ, no less — to rename as a ‘judgment’ what was clearly an order. I now find that it chafes me no less as an appellate judge.” To highlight the odd distinction between orders and judgments, Burrell turned to Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”:

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”

Although the transfer to the Supreme Court means further delay in the case, Thomas W. Millington of Millington, Glass, Love, & Young in Springfield, an attorney for Maple Grove Farms, which appealed the receiver order, said the Supreme Court now has a chance to sort out a great deal of confusion.

“It’s unfortunate that a long time ago somebody on the Civil Rules Committee said we’re kind of in the business of calling zebras ‘pigs’ and calling pigs ‘geese,’” he said.

Millington added that he hopes the Supreme Court will rule not only on the ability to appeal the receivership order but also on the merits of the order. Because the receiver was appointed in late 2017, he said, the disputed farm has been sold. Now his clients face another round of appeals just to find out if they have an appeal.

Jacob Sappington of Sanders, Warren, Russell & Scheer in Springfield, an attorney for Meadowfresh Solutions, the plaintiff in the underlying dispute, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

It’s not clear when the Supreme Court will hear the Greene County case, but the differences between judgments and orders already are on the court’s mind. On Feb. 13, the court said that a Boone County judge must enter an official judgment in a long-running lawsuit involving a sales tax election in Columbia.

The trial judge had dismissed a challenge to the tax but declined to denominate the dismissal order as a judgment, preventing it from being appealed. The Supreme Court said unanimously that because the order clearly resolved all claims in the case, the judge had “no discretion” other than to call the judgment what it was.

The Southern District case is Meadowfresh Solutions USA v. Maple Grove Farms LLC, SD35269. The Supreme Court case is State ex rel. Henderson v. Asel, SC96865.