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South Carolina Appellate Courts continue to reward indefinite pleading

I applauded when the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued its 2008 opinion in Camp v. Camp, 378 S.C. 237, 662 S.E.2d 458 (Ct. App. 2008) dismissing an appeal because it found that the appellant’s motion to reconsider wasn’t a proper motion, and therefore it did not toll the time to file an appeal–thus making the appeal untimely.  The motion to reconsider filed by the appellant in Camp stated, in its entirety:

PLEASE be advised that the Defendant through his undersigned attorney, will move before the Honorable David Sawyer, Jr., to reconsider the ruling in his Order dated July 26, 2006, in awarding Plaintiff, William James Camp’s college expenses and costs.

This motion hearing is set to be heard on the 18th day of October, 2006, at 3:45 o’clock, p.m.

Please be present to defend if so minded.

The Court of Appeals found that this pleading failed to meet the requirement of a motion, which Rule 7(b)(1), SCRCP requires “shall state with particularity the grounds therefor, and shall set forth the relief or order sought.”

Today’s [February 16, 2010] Supreme Court opinion in Camp v. Camp, 386 S.C. 571, 689 S.E.2d 634 (2010), with the recently-retired Justice John H. Waller, Jr. in dissent, reversed the Court of Appeals and held that appellant’s appeal was timely, concluding:

In our view, neither party was prejudiced by Father’s motion for reconsideration, and it appears from the record the court was able to both comprehend the motion and deal with it fairly.  The trial court’s order denying Father’s motion for reconsideration stated that “[b]ased on the arguments of counsel” the motion was denied.  Hence, neither party was prejudiced, and the court dealt with the motion fairly….

When neither party is prejudiced and the court is able to deal fairly with a motion for reconsideration, applying an overly technical reading of the rules does not serve the purpose of Rule 7(b)(1), SCRCP.  For these reasons, we reverse the court of appeals decision and hold Father’s motion for reconsideration tolled the time for filing a notice of appeal.

The Court of Appeals and Justice Waller’s opinions were much better reasoned.   As Waller noted:

Our rules clearly state the requirements for motions and for appeals.  Permitting a post-trial motion that identifies neither the grounds on which it relies nor the relief sought to stay the time for appeal under Rule 59(e), SCRCP, would undermine our procedural rules.  Moreover, it would encourage parties to file baseless post-trial motions with the expectation of “filling in the blanks” at a later date. …

To allow such patently defective motions to stay the time period for filing an appeal would “whittle away at the rules and ultimately render them meaningless.” The majority concludes that as long as “neither party is prejudiced and the court is able to deal fairly with a motion for reconsideration,” then a skeletal motion is proper.  I believe this effectively vitiates the plain (and relatively undemanding) requirements of the applicable rules of civil procedure.  Moreover, it will create unnecessary fact-intensive inquiries by our appellate courts to determine whether parties were – in fact – prejudiced by an insufficient motion. (citations omitted)

In December 2009, I complained about the Court of Appeals’ opinion in Smith v. Smith, 386 S.C. 251, 687 S.E.2d 720 (Ct.App. 2009) for rewarding attorneys who file vague pleadings by allowing relief to be granted on a catchall request for “such other relief as the court may deem fit and proper.”  The Supreme Court’s Camp opinion continues our appellate court’s recent trend of rewarding indefinite pleadings.

Basically, through its opinion in Camp, the Supreme Court is telling family court judges and family law attorneys that if there is no prejudice, any motion filed in the family court is proper–even if it utterly fails to state the relief requested and the grounds therefore.  Family Court is often terrifying enough for thoughtful practitioners, as family court judges have tremendous discretion and attorneys have little ability to control or predict when or how a family court judge will exercise that discretion.  Allowing family court judges to grant relief pursuant to motion that fails to state the relief sought or the grounds therefore by deciding the other party was not “prejudiced” by a skeleton motion is to reward the sloppy attorney and hinder a thoughtful attorney from fully preparing to defend a motion.  I cannot understand why our appellate courts are blind to the incentives they are creating and the injustices they will be encouraging by rewarding indefinite pleadings.

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