Emailed and Oral Orders Not Properly “Rendered”– Pending Contempt Motions Make Judgment Nonfinal

 A divorce case prompted the Court of Civil Appeals to discuss several points about how a judgment is properly “rendered,” and when a judgment is final for purposes of supporting an appeal. Meek v. Meek, No. 2090026 (Ala. Civ. App. Jul. 16, 2010). Ultimately, because the trial court had not disposed of contempt motions, the appellate court held that it lacked jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal.

1

Shortly after the husband filed for divorce, the trial court entered an order dictating how various issues (child custody, marital assets, and the like) would be handled while the case moved toward trial. This was in June 2006.

The parties then exchanged contempt motions. The husband filed his in November 2007; the wife hers in April 2009. Between these dates, in November 2008, the trial court held what was meant to be the lawsuit’s “final” hearing.

On May 4, 2009, however, the court heard the wife’s motion for contempt. During this hearing, the court told the parties that it had emailed them a “draft order” after the November 2008 hearing. This emailed order, the court said, was as effective as if it had been “verbally ordered . . . from the bench.” The court decided to treat the wife’s contempt motion as a Rule 59 motion to alter, amend, or vacate the emailed “draft order,” which it considered final.

On June 26, 2009, “the trial court purported to enter a final judgment that divorced the parties.” This order addressed numerous issues but not the motions for contempt. The court then declared this order effective as of November 16, 2008 — days after the original “final” hearing. The wife appealed.

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The Court of Civil Appeals held that the trial court had not entered a final judgment because it had not adjudicated the contempt motions. “The pendency of an unadjudicated contempt motion alleging a party’s failure to obey orders entered during the progress of the litigation renders a judgment nonfinal.”

The trial court moreover was wrong in considering its email “draft order” a final judgment. Procedural Rule 58, which sets out the procedures for rendering and entering orders and judgments, “does not allow” rendition by email to the parties; “nor does it allow for an ‘oral’ rendition of a judgment.” Even if rendered properly, a judgment does not become effective “until it has been entered within the meaning of Rule 58.” In this case, “an ‘effective’ judgment was not entered” until June 26, 2009, when the court’s judgment was entered into the State Judicial Information System.

Because that judgment did not dispose of the pending contempt motions, it was not final, and did not yield appellate jurisdiction. The appeal was accordingly dismissed.