Vacatur of default judgment not appealable
The Chief

Appeal from new trial = appeal from judgment on the merits — sometimes.

A few days ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court saved a litigant who purportedly appealed only from an order denying new trial rather than the judgment that was the subject of a motion for new trial. “While a judgment denying a motion for new trial is an interlocutory order and is normally not appealable,” the Court explained, “when a motion for appeal refers by date to the judgmetn denying a motion for new trial, but the circumstances indicate that the appellant intended to appeal from the final judgment on the merits, the appeal should be maintained as taken from the judgment on the merits.” Williams v. Hosp. Servs. Dist. No. 1 of Tangipahoa Parish, 2018-1386 (La. 12/17/18), — So. 3d —.

That seems simple enough. But as the court of appeal’s decision shows, the case had an extra layer of complication. Two plaintiffs—DePhillips and Williams—each brought similar putative class actions. After the two cases were consolidated, a defendant raised a peremptory exception of prescription. At a hearing in open court, the trial court sustained the exception in both cases. Afterwards, things got complicated.

On the same day, the trial court signed two judgments. While each judgment bore the consolidated caption, the substance of each judgment indicate that each applied to only one case:

  • The “DePhillips judgment,” signed November 16, 2016, sustained the exception as to plaintiff DePhillips, and said that the suit was confined to claims occurring within one year from filing of suit. This judgment contained no decretal language dismissing any claims. Notice of this judgment was mailed on November 17, 2016.
  • The “Williams judgment,” signed the same day as the DePhillips judgment, sustained the exception of prescription as to Wiliams’s claims and dismissed Williams’s claims with prejudice. Notice of this judgment was mailed on November 22, 2016.

Both plaintiffs then filed a motion for new trial, which on its face, sought review of the judgment signed on November 16, 2016, and stated that the clerk mailed notice of the judgment on November 17, 2016. The trial court denied the motion for new trial on January 9, 2017, and signed a written judgment to that effect on January 19, 2017. The plaintiffs then attempted to appeal the judgment rendered on January 9 and signed on January 19.

The court of appeal dismissed the appeal. In its decision, the court recited the rule that, when a motion for appeal refers by date to a judgment denying a new trial, but the circumstances indicate that the appellant actually intended to appeal from the final judgment on the merits, the appeal should be maintained as being taken from the judgment on the merits. But in applying this rule, the court determined that the plaintiffs still appealed the wrong judgment. The reason was that the motion for new trial referred by date to the non-final DePhillips judgment, not the final Williams judgment. DePhillips v. Hosp. Serv. Dist. No. 1 of Tangipahoa Parish, 2017-1423 c/w 2017-1424 (La. App. 1 Cir. 7/18/18), 255 So. 3d 1.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal's judgment and reinstated the appeal. Reviewing the same circumstances as the court of appeal, the Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiff appealed “from the only final judgment rendered in this consolidated matter, which was the dismissal of the plaintiff Earnest Williams’ claims.”

The lesson for the rest of us: be careful in writing your motion and order of appeal: make sure that it correctly identifies the judgment you want to appeal, and make sure that the judgment being appealed is a final, appealable judgment.

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