Phillips v. Garcia (CA1 6/9/15)

The moral being that its better to follow the rules in the first place than to make up arguments about them later.

Though it has been made more complicated over the years, procedure after compulsory arbitration isn’t rocket science. The arbitrator makes a decision; the winner then prepares a form of award and, if there’s no appeal, can get it reduced to judgment. But Phillips tried to skip a step: after winning an arbitration he had the arbitrator sign something he called a “judgment.” Ten months later, when he tried to enforce his “judgment,” Garcia moved to dismiss; under Rule 76d the court “shall” do that if the award isn’t reduced to judgment in 120 days. The trial court denied the motion.

Which creates an interesting procedural situation. Garcia of course argued that the “judgment” was invalid. But if there’s no judgment, how can there be an appeal? As the Court of Appeals points out, the mere denial of a motion to dismiss is interlocutory. It solves the problem by using its discretion to treat the “appeal” as a special action.

Addressing the merits, it then explains the conclusion it has already signaled, viz., that Phillip’s “judgment” was not, in its words, a “true judgment.” (There was, of course, either a judgment or there wasn’t; “true judgment” is redundant and potentially confusing.) It wasn’t a judgment because under Rule 58 only judges and commissioners can issue those.

Phillips argued that since Rule 76 actually says that what’s needed is an “award or other final decision” he had an adequate “final decision” in the form of a “mislabeled award.” He had a case (Bittner 1995) holding in effect that a mislabeled award can still be an award. But the issue here is whether a mislabeled award can be a judgment.

Phillips also argued 12-133E: “The award has the effect of a judgment on the parties unless reversed on appeal.” The court “harmonizes” the relationship between Rule 76 and 12-133E by deciding that the rule requires an affirmative judicial act – the entry of a “true judgment” – and that this “advances the intent” of the statute and is consistent with the statute because it doesn’t render any part of it meaningless. The court does not explain the remaining meaning, if any, of “the award has the effect of a judgment.” The court’s analysis here is conclusory, the sort of thing one reads expecting eventually to reach the meat of and never does. The conclusion is arguably correct but requires wading farther into the deep water of court rule-procedural statute relationships that the court seems willing to go.

The court then adds that in 2007 the present version of the rule replaced older language that was (though the court doesn’t put it this way) much more consistent with the statute. That indicates, the court concludes, that the Supreme Court intended an “affirmative act.” While correct, that begs the question of why the Supreme Court’s intent is more important than the Legislature’s (for purposes of this analysis it may indeed be but that isn’t something that should just go without saying).

The court remands for dismissal without prejudice, that being the flavor of dismissal both parties indicated at oral argument would be warranted if Garcia prevailed.

(link to opinion)