Failure To Hold Hearing On Post-Judgment Motion Was “Harmless Error”

In Peebles v. Mooresville, No. 1060335 (Sept. 7. 2007), the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of the Town of Mooresville and other of the issue of the validity of a zoning ordinance.  In doing so, the Supreme Court addressed the failure of the trial court to hold a requested hearing on postjudgment motions, as well as the effect of the failure to cite authority for an issue and the effect of filing a reply brief just one day before the summary judgment hearing. 

In Peebles, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that a zoning ordinance was valid.  The plaintiffs filed Rule 59 postjudgment motions, and requested a hearing on the motions.  Before the hearing was held, however, the trial court denied the motions.  On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred by failing to hold the requested hearing on the motions.  The Supreme Court, however, held that even though it was error not to hold the hearing, the error was not reversible.

The Court noted that Ala. R. Civ. P. 59(g) provides that post-judgment motions "shall not be ruled upon until the parties have had opportunity to be heard thereon."  However, "although the trial court may have erred by not holding a hearing on the Peeble’s group postjudgment  motion, such an error does not automatically necessitate a reversal."  p. 11.  Instead, the error will be harmless where "(1) there is . . . no probable merit in the grounds asserted in the motionm or (2) the appellate court resolves the issues presented therein, as a matter of law, adversely to the movant, by application of the same objective standard of review as that applied in the trial court."  p. 11, quoting Historic Blakely Authority v. Williams, 675 So. 2d 359, 352 (Ala. 1995).  Here, because the Court decided the issue as a matter of law using the same standard of review as the trial court, any error was harmless and thus not reversable.

The Court also touched on two other interesting issues.  First, the Peebles argued that the trial court erred by dismissing one of the defendants.  However, the plaintiffs failed to cite legal authority for its argument.  The Court restated the rule that "[w]here am appellant fails to cite any authority for an argument, this Court may affirm the judgment as to those issues, for it is neither this Court’s duty nor its function to perform all the legal research for an appellant,"  p. 8, and affirmed the dismissal.

Second, the Court touched on, but did not decide, whether a reply brief filed by a summary judgment movant the day before a hearing was timely.  Ala. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2) requires that "the motion for summary judgment, with all supporting materials, including any briefs, shall be served at least ten (10) days before the time fixed for the hearing . . ."  The Court did not decide if the trial court erred by holding the hearing one day after the filing of the reply brief, instead concluding that the error, if any, was harmless.  The Court noted that the reply brief did not contain any new evidence or arguments and, therefore, there was no prejudice.