Santee v. Mesa Airlines (CA2 2/28/12)

We don’t know where to begin. Well, first, let’s just tell you what happened:

Santee sued Mesa for damaging his personal property. Mesa moved to dismiss (“after several years of pretrial litigation,” the court tells us) and won; the court filed a signed minute entry. Mesa, which had made an offer of judgment, then moved for expert fees and costs under Rule 68(g). Santee filed his notice of appeal within thirty days of the dismissal but before this  motion had been ruled on. The trial court then granted that motion and “entered a final judgment dismissing the claims.”

The Court of Appeals decides, sua sponte, that it has no jurisdiction because the notice of appeal was premature (filed before the judgment entered after the Rule 68 motion). A premature notice works only if the entry of judgment is merely ministerial, i.e. if nothing could change between the notice and the actual entry of judgment (Barassi 1981). This is to prevent disruption of the trial process and avoid piecemeal litigation.

To its credit, the court had ordered supplemental briefs. Santee argued that a signed minute entry is appealable and a subsequent motion shouldn’t make it not so. The court says the argument is “unsupported by any authority,” ignores the trial-disruption issue, and, anyway, is just what time-extending motions do.

So Santee pointed out that a Rule 68 motion is not time-extending (ARCAP 9). The court agrees but says that there was no final judgment. Why not? Apparently because “the filing of the Rule 68(g) motion created an issue that demanded resolution by the trial court.”

We try to keep these things reasonably short, so we’re not going to try to untangle the court’s “reasoning” in those last two paragraphs.

Santee also contended that the taxing of costs was ministerial. The court disagreed, with perhaps a bit more justification, though Santee had an argument.

Okay, that’s what happened. Now, so that you don’t go away confused, be sure not to learn anything from this case. Here’s the law:

A signed minute entry is appealable. Why? Because its a judgment under Rule 58; the Focal Point case told us that a long time ago. Taxing fees and costs is not a separate issue that prevents entry of an appealable judgment; there are cases on that, too.

Once judgment is entered the trial court has no jurisdiction except over time-extending motions and those in furtherance of the appeal. If you forget to have the court award fees and costs before judgment, you need to move for new trial or to amend. Again, the cases are out there.

Therefore, the appeal time began to run with the signed minute entry. The trial court had no jurisdiction to entertain the Rule 68 motion or to amend (there having been no such motion) its earlier judgment. The second judgment was a nullity; Santee’s notice of appeal was timely, not premature.

Yes, Santee could have objected to the Rule 68 motion on jurisdictional grounds and filed another notice of appeal after the second judgment. That would have been the safest course, especially in these days when courts bend over backward to coddle people who don’t know the law.

On the subject of disrupting the process, can you imagine what would happen if this case were the law? The motions you could file to disrupt and delay your opponent’s appeal would be limited only by your imagination.

One last confusion: This slip opinion has the red Do-Not-Cite stamp the court uses for memorandum decisions. But it says “OPINION,” not “MEMORANDUM DECISION,” and the court has released it through the published-opinion channel. So is it an opinion, or a memo, or does the court think is has invented the non-citable opinion?

We would normally delay blogging one like this, per our FAQ, but presumably this isn’t going anywhere except back to Superior Court for the entry of a new notice of appeal.

(link to opinion)