ILNews

Court chooses 'lesser of two evils'

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Court of Appeals was forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in a case in which an ex-husband appealed a trial court's nunc pro tunc order granting his ex-wife's motion to correct error regarding their marriage dissolution decree.

In James E. Johnson Jr. v. Marcia Johnson, No. 02A03-0710-CV-496, the appellate court had to decide whether the trial court erred in granting the nunc pro tunc order. James argued the trial court didn't rule on Marcia's motion to correct error pursuant to Trial Rule 53.3(A), so the motion was deemed denied after 30 days and Marcia failed to file a notice of appeal.

The trial court issued its decree of dissolution Oct. 10, 2006. On Nov. 8, 2006, Marcia filed a motion to correct error and requested a hearing. A magistrate judge presided over the May 14, 2007, hearing and orally informed the parties she was going to "grant the motion to correct errors." The court didn't enter the order until Aug. 1, 2007, almost 80 days after the hearing, and issued a nunc pro tunc amended decree in favor of Marcia.

James appealed, arguing the magistrate judge didn't have the authority to grant Marcia's motion and the nunc pro tunc order was issued after her motion had been "deemed denied" per T.R. 53.3, so the original dissolution decree should be reinstated.

Chief Judge John Baker wrote for the majority and agreed with James' arguments. Under civil proceedings, a magistrate cannot enter a final appealable order unless sitting as a judge pro tempore or a special judge; the magistrate in the Johnson's case was not presiding as either.

Even if the magistrate had the intent to grant Marcia's motion to correct error, she didn't have the authority to actually grant it, wrote Chief Judge Baker.

James argued that the motion to correct error was deemed denied pursuant to T.R. 53.3, 30 days after the May 14, 2007, hearing. Because Marcia didn't file a notice of appeal 30 days after the motion was deemed denied, the original dissolution decree needs to be reinstated, he argued.

The trial court didn't rule within 30 days of Marcia's motion to correct error, and based on holdings of Garrison v. Metcalf, 849 N.E.2d 1114, 1115 (Ind. 2006) and Paulsen v. Malone, No. 06A05-0709-CV-544 (Feb. 6, 2008), Marcia's motion was deemed denied pursuant to T.R. 53.3, 30 days after the hearing, "despite the trial court's belated attempt to grant the motion," he wrote.

The purpose of a nunc pro tunc order is to correct an omission of record of action that occurred. "Because there is no evidence that the trial court granted Marcia's motion within (30) days of the hearing, there was no basis in the record for the trial court to issue a nunc pro tunc order," Chief Judge Baker wrote.

As the Indiana Supreme Court has held, Marcia was required to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of her motion being deemed denied even if the trial court belatedly granted her motion. Since she did not, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's nunc pro tunc order and remanded so the trial court could reinstate the original dissolution decree.

In regards to the nunc pro tunc order, the court was required to choose the lesser of two evils - either hold that Marcia's motion was deemed denied and she had to appeal within 30 days of the denial, or hold that the trial court's nunc pro tunc order was valid and retroactively applies to the date of the hearing, he wrote.

"If we were to decide that the trial court's nunc pro tunc order was valid and retroactively applies to the date of the hearing - May 14, 2007 - James would have had to file his notice of appeal by June 13, 2007. However, the trial court did not even issue the nunc pro tunc order until August 1, 2007 - approximately seven weeks after the deadline for James to file a notice of appeal would have expired. Such a result would be illogical and, as our Supreme Court recognized in Garrison, would effectively amend the deadline in Rule 53.3," Chief Judge Baker wrote.

Judge Carr Darden dissented from the majority, finding that according to the record of the May 14, 2007, hearing, the trial court did rule on the motion at the end of the hearing, so T.R. 53.3 wouldn't have a dispositive effect on this case.

He believed at the end of the hearing, the parties understood the court had granted Marcia's motion and there is no indication that James' attorney wouldn't prepare the order to effect the trial court's order. There was also no reason for Marcia to file an appeal because she would not have reason to believe that an order prepared by James' attorney with the magistrate's ruling wouldn't have been adopted by the trial court.

"I believe that the trial court's nunc pro tunc entry was a proper exercise of its equity power by the trial court," he wrote.
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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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