Final Judgments — An Ongoing Dilemma

By Karen Federman Henry

Other than failing to preserve an issue or note an objection at the proper time, one of the main causes of paranoia in appellate practitioners is the need for a final judgment. During the past 20 years, the appellate courts have routinely admonished litigators that they must have a final judgment to obtain appellate review. The simplest final judgment occurs when a case has been tried and a jury rendered its verdict. In other situations, many of us refer to the Maryland Code to identify the status of a case — does it resolve all of the issues? Are the parties “out of court”? Does the case satisfy the criteria for an interlocutory appeal? Is it a collateral order?

Cases that reach the appellate courts after judicial review have posed unique challenges; in part, this derives from the ability to appeal from the circuit court only if the statute specifies that an appeal is permitted. At the very end of last month, the Court of Appeals provided another corollary to determining whether a final judgment exists — when the parties consent to remand the case to the administrative agency prior to the circuit court’s review, the remand order is not a final judgment that may be appealed.

In Metro Maintenance Systems South, Inc. v. Thomas Milburn, Court of Appeals No. 31, Sept. Term, 2014, the Court of Appeals reviewed a case that arose from the Board of Appeals of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The case involved an appeal from a denial of unemployment benefits, and traveled from the Board to the circuit court on judicial review. Before the court performed its review of the record and the law, the Board sought to have the case remanded so that it could modify its decision. The claimant agreed, but his former employer (Metro Maintenance Systems) objected. When the court issued a remand order, the employer noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which held that the order did not constitute a final judgment. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari and affirmed the Court of Special Appeals.

The Court began its discussion by acknowledging that the law does not define a final judgment. Typically, a final judgment requires adjudication of all issues in a case and entry of an order or judgment. Exceptions to this principle include interlocutory appeals that are permitted by statute, appeals permitted when the circuit court enters judgment pursuant to Md. Rule 2-602(b), or appeals based on the collateral-order doctrine. These exceptions do not apply to judicial review, which is governed by Title 7-200 of the Maryland Rules. Under those provisions, the court reviews the record to determine whether the findings of fact of the agency are supported by substantial evidence and whether any error of law occurred. The court then can affirm, reverse, modify, or remand the matter. Any of these outcomes are final judgments — they all occur after the court has completed judicial review.

The nuance in Metro, however, is that when the decision to remand the case to the agency occurs before judicial review has been performed, the order is not a final judgment and cannot be challenged on appeal at that point. The Court noted that the propriety of the remand could be raised later, and viewed the remand as simply deferring judicial review. Yet, in the same paragraph, the Court tried to distinguish the remand from a transfer to another court based on venue or a referral to arbitration — transfers and arbitration decisions remain final judgments, but a remand for revising the Board’s decision is not.

The Court viewed the latter as merely imposing a “brief delay” before judicial review would occur, although no deadline was imposed on the Board for resubmitting its decision. Conceivably, the remand could take long enough to have a detrimental effect on the parties, especially if the record is large or the Board becomes busy with other matters. Perhaps the consent of two out of the three parties involved contributed to the perception that the delay would be brief or otherwise acceptable to the parties.

In light of this dilemma, administrative-law participants need to remain vigilant throughout the case: first, to make sure that the record is complete and that the agency has made the requisite findings and determinations to proceed to judicial review, then make sure to refer to the applicable statute — is there a right of appeal to any court and, if so, how far through the appellate system can you go? If the matter is remanded to the agency, evaluate whether it preceded or followed the court’s review; this will dictate what options are available to you. And stay tuned for more explanations from the appellate courts — seemingly simple issues can create hurdles to those who have not checked the most recent opinions on the proper application and interpretation of the appellate requirements.

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