A Reminder From the Seventh Circuit to Proofread the Form of the Judgment

29 January 2015 Wisconsin Appellate Law Blog

The Seventh Circuit’s docket appears to be rife with cases involving little errors that turn out to have not-so-little effects. Last month we wrote about the perils of typos in security agreements; this month the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion that serves as a good reminder that parties must look carefully at the form of the judgment entered by the district court. Article III insulates the judicial branch from the “diminish[ment]” of judges’ “compensation . . . during their continuance in office”; but, alas, it does nothing to insulate the third branch from the sort of typographical errors that plague the rest of us mere mortals—a fact to which the district judge in Dual-Temp of Illinois, Inc. v. Hench Control, Inc., Nos. 14-3393 & 14-3394 (7th Cir. Jan. 23, 2015), now can attest.

In a three-page decision (issued per curiam by Judges Ripple, Manion, and Williams), the court dismissed two consolidated appeals for lack of jurisdiction after the district judge conceded that she had checked the wrong box on the judgment form, indicating that she was not awarding prejudgment interest when she in fact intended to do so. The underlying dispute was a breach-of-contract case.

Luckily, the prevailing plaintiff (Dual-Temp) filed a motion to “quantify interest based on the memorandum opinion and order” twenty-eight days after the judgment’s entry on the docket. That was in the nick of time under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), which governs motions to alter or amend judgments, and requires that such motions be brought no later than 28 days after entry of the judgment.

If Dual-Temp hadn’t filed its motion by the 28th day, it might well have lost a substantial award of prejudgment interest. Set Rule 59(e) to one side for a moment. Rule 60(a), which has no time limitation, would offer the only remaining path to relief to Dual-Temp, but that rule cabins the district court’s ability to alter an entered judgment to “clerical mistakes, or a mistake arising from oversight or omission whenever one is found in a judgment.” Rule 60(a) is a narrow window through which parties can end-run the law’s preference for the finality of judgments. If Dual-Temp had waited one more day, it would have run the considerable risk that it did not meet Rule 60(a)’s stringent standard.

In fact, the district court did construe the motion as one to correct a clerical mistake under Rule 60(a) and, in so doing, explained that it had intended to check the box for prejudgment interest on the form.

We think that it might have been more efficient under the circumstances for the district judge to have recognized the motion as one under Rule 59(e). Borrero v. City of Chicago, 456 F.3d 698, 699 (7th Cir. 2006), is one of many Seventh Circuit decisions that generally deem motions filed within 28 days of the judgement’s entry as Rule 59(e) motions, no matter what nomenclature the movant uses. Here, Dual-Temp used none. Treating the motion as one under Rule 59(e) invokes Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(4), which provides that the Rule 59(e) motion merely suspends the appeals then pending in the court of appeals until the district court resolves the motion. Paying the extra filing fee for a new set of appeals would have been unnecessary under Rule 4(a)(4)(B)(iii) even if the parties then decided to appeal the court’s decision on the Rule 59(e) motion, which Rule 4(a)(4)(B)(ii) requires them to do by filing new appeals or amending the notices of appeal already on file.

What did happen is that the court of appeals dismissed the appeals for lack of a final judgment, thus requiring the parties to descend a few flights of stairs in the Dirksen Building to return to the N.D. of Illinois. Going back up those stairs, however, now will require filing entirely new appeals and another set of filing fees.

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