“A Case About Nothing”: Ireton v. Chambers

By Brad McCullough

If the iconic 1990s television comedy series “Seinfeld” was a show about nothing, then a recent decision of the Court of Special Appeals was – in the words of Judge Kevin Arthur – “a case about nothing.” Ireton v. Chambers, No. 1038, Sept. Term 2105, slip op. at 1 (July 28, 2016). But while the case might have been “about nothing,” the litigants disagreed about nearly everything, including what exactly the court was reviewing, what standard of review the court should employ, and how a statute granting qualified immunity to municipal officials should be interpreted.

Dr. Lore Chambers had been the assistant city administrator of Salisbury, Md., and James Ireton had been the city’s mayor. After some incident, “the details of which are not entirely clear,” Dr. Chambers was fired and then sued Mayor Ireton for assault. Id. (footnote omitted). Mayor Ireton sought the protection provided by Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-507(a)(1), which immunizes municipal officers from civil liability for discretionary acts performed without malice. After a two-day trial, the jury returned a special verdict, finding that Mayor Ireton had assaulted Dr. Chambers, but that he had not acted with actual malice.

At that point, the procedural wheels started spinning. The clerk docketed judgment in favor of Dr. Chambers and against Mayor Ireton for $0.00. “Mayor Ireton moved to revise the judgment, arguing that the court should have entered judgment in his favor.” Id. at 2.[1] The court granted that motion and the clerk entered the revised judgment.

Thirty days later, Dr. Chambers moved to “vacate” the revised judgment; the court granted that motion and reinstated the original judgment. Not to be outdone, Mayor Ireton moved to alter or amend the twice-revised order. “[T]he court finally ended the back-and-forth motions, denying the mayor’s motion and leaving the zero-dollar judgment intact.” Id. at 3. Mayor Ireton noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.

It was left to Judge Arthur, writing for the court, to sort things out. The first area of disagreement involved the appropriate standard of review, which required the court to “determine what exactly” it was reviewing. Id. at 3. “Mayor Ireton contends that the case presents a legal question, subject to do novo review, as it involves the interpretation of a statute.” Id. Dr. Chambers, on the other hand, argued that the appellate court was “reviewing the circuit court’s decision not to revise the judgment and, hence, may consider only whether the court abused its discretion.” Id.

The court set out to explain the effects of the parties’ procedural maneuvering. When the circuit court granted Mayor Ireton’s motion to alter or amend the initial judgment, the revised judgment restored the attributes of finality that had disappeared when the motion was filed. Id. at 4 (citing Md. Rule 8-202(c)). Dr. Chambers’s subsequent motion to “vacate” that revised judgment was effectively “a motion to revise the revised judgment under Md. Rule 2-535(a)).” Id. (citation omitted). So when the court granted that motion and re-revised the judgment, “that ruling, upon its entry on the docket, became the new final judgment.” Id.

But the parties were not yet finished. For the last in their series of post-trial motions – Mayor Ireton’s second motion to alter or amend – then “effectively deprived the new judgment of finality until the court . . . decided it.” Id. (citing Md. Rule 8-202(c)). The judgment became final upon the circuit court’s denial of that second motion to alter or amend, from which Mayor Ireton noted a timely appeal. Id. at 4-5.  

The court explained that a party, against whom a judgment has been entered, “does not forfeit the right to challenge that judgment on appeal merely by filing a timely motion to alter or amend.” Id. at 5. Thus, when the mayor’s second motion to alter or amend was denied, “he became entitled to appeal the final judgment itself (Md. Rule 8-202(c)), as well as any interlocutory orders previously entered in the action. Md. Rule 8-131(d).” Id. As a result, the issue facing the court was “not limited to whether the circuit court abused its discretion in denying Mayor Ireton’s second motion to alter or amend the re-revised judgment for zero dollars in damages,” but included a review of “the court’s decision to grant Dr. Chambers’s revisory motion and to enter a zero-dollar judgment against Mayor Ireton.” Id. That determination involved a legal issue concerning an interpretation of statutory and case law and was conducted under a de novo standard of review. Id.

Judge Arthur then turned the court’s attention to the statute at hand. “We must determine whether the qualified immunity from ‘civil liability,’ within the meaning of [Cts. & Jud. Proc.] § 5-507(a)(1), entails immunity from the entry of a civil judgment or just immunity from a judgment for damages.” Id. at 6. While “[o]bviously, this is a question of statutory interpretation,” the court found that the term “civil liability” in the statute was ambiguous and could be fairly read in either of two ways.

It could be read in the way espoused by Mayor Ireton, i.e., amenability to a civil action. In that instance, immunity from “civil liability” would protect the immunized party from the entry of a judgment. Or the term “civil liability” could be read in the manner advocated by Dr. Chambers: a sum of money assessed as damages. In that instance, immunity from “civil liability” would protect the immunized party from a judgment for damages. Indeed, Black’s Law Dictionary embraces both definitions. Id. at 7.

The court found another ambiguous feature of the statute: “whether a plaintiff must prove actual malice as an additional element of her case-in-chief or whether the absence of malice is an affirmative defense that an official must raise and prove.” Id. at 7-8 (footnote omitted). But either way, “a finding of no malice would be fatal to the plaintiff’s case.” Id. at 8. This was critical to the court’s analysis, for, in either instance, there simply could not be a judgment in Dr. Chambers’s favor. As such, “the court should not have entered judgment against Mayor Ireton – even for zero dollars.” Id. (footnote omitted).

The court identified yet another crack in Dr. Chambers’s armor. “In equating immunity from civil liability with immunity from an award of damages, Dr. Chambers fails to recognize that the concept of ‘civil liability’ is not confined to liability for damages: it may also include liability for equitable relief, such as an injunction. … Under Dr. Chambers’s theory, it appears that the official’s immunity from ‘civil liability’ would not protect against liability for equitable relief, because it would not entail an award of damages.” Id. at 9-10. The court did not think “that the General Assembly intended to create an immunity from ‘civil liability’ that excludes an entire category of civil remedies” and noted “that when the General Assembly intends to create an immunity only from an award of damages, it knows how to do so,” citing various statutes where the legislature did just that. Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added).

The court thus rejected the interpretation championed by Dr. Chambers, id. at 10, holding that “the circuit court should not have entered judgment against Mayor Ireton, even for zero dollars. Once the jury found that the mayor did not act with malice, his qualified immunity from ‘civil liability’ required the court to enter judgment in his favor and against Dr. Chambers.” Id. at 11. This then truly was “a case about nothing” that clarified the distinction between a judgment that does not give anything (a judgment for the defendant) and a judgment that gives nothing (a judgment for the plaintiff for $0.00).

 

[1] One could ask, why did the parties care about the difference between a judgment in favor of the defendant and a judgment in favor of the plaintiff for $0.00? The Court of Special Appeals pondered that question:

An appellate court, concerned about appellate jurisdiction, might wonder why the mayor is aggrieved by a judgment for zero dollars. Even though the judgment requires him to pay nothing, we are satisfied that the mayor, as a public figure, is sufficiently aggrieved because of the reputational consequences of having a judgment against him.

Slip op. at 6 n.5.

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