Order Valid If Judge Renders and Directs Entry of Judgment But Order Not Entered Until After Judge Leaves Office

The unique scenario of where the trial court judge renders a judgment just before his term of office ends, but the judgment was not entered until after the judge’s term ended,  was presented in Gilliam v. Gilliam, [Ms. 2080856] (Ala. Civ. App. Feb. 5, 2010).  The Court of Civil Appeals concluded that, to be valid, the trial court must both render judgment and direct entry of judgment by the clerk prior to leaving office.  Further, the Court of Civil Appeals held that an order is valid even if filed on a legal holiday, but that the trial court erred by not holding a hearing on a post-judgment motion that had merit.

In this divorce case, the wife filed a rule 60(b)(4) motion arguing that the judgment was void because, although the trial court judge rendered the order prior to leaving office, the clerk did not actually enter the judgment until after the judge’s term ended.  The Court of Civil Appeals concluded that an order is valid where the trial court judge both renders judgment and directs entry of the judgment prior to leaving office.  In this scenario, the entry of judgment is merely a ministerial act and the order is valid.  Here, the trial court judge signed the order and filed it in the clerk’s office prior to leaving office, so the order was valid.

The Court of Civil Appeals distinguished this case from the situation where the trial court merely signed the order prior to leaving office but took no steps to direct entry.  Citing Rollins v. Rollins, 903 So. 2d 828 (Ala. Civ. App. 2004), the Court of Civil Appeals noted that until the trial court delivers the judgment to the clerk and directs entry of judgment, the judgment is subject to change and not final.  The trial court must take both steps – rendering and directing entry – for the order to be valid.

The wife also argued that the order was not valid because it was filed with the clerk on a legal holiday.  The Court of Civil Appeals noted that Ala. R. Civ. P. 77(c) sets out when the courts must be open.  It does not, however, say when the courts can’t  be open.  Rule 77(a) says that the courts are always open for the purpose of filing a pleading and, therefore, the order was valid even if filed on a legal holiday.

Finally, the wife argued that the trial court (i.e. the judge who took over for the trial judge who made order prior to leaving office) erred by allowing her Rule 59 post-judgment motions to be denied by operation of law without affording her a hearing when a hearing was requested.  The Court of Civil Appeals held that a party is entitled to a hearing on a post-judgment motion when a hearing is requested, but failure to have a hearing is harmless error if the motions have no merit.  Here, the Court of Civil Appeals concluded that the motions had some merit.  Therefore, the Court of Civil Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to hold hearings on the Rule 59 motions.