In a recent case, Johnson v. University Medical Center in Lafayette, the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit reversed a trial court decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s case for abandonment due to her failure to timely pay the costs of appeal. The plaintiff in the case, Lela Johnson, originally filed a medical malpractice action against both the University Medical Center in Lafayette and the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans. The case has proceeded through courts since the original petition for damages was filed on March 15, 2006.
Both defendants, whose principal places of business correspond with the last word of their names, are operated by the State of Louisiana. After a dismissal of her original suit by the Supreme Court of Louisiana due to her failure to properly notify the defendants of the action because she had requested service of process on individuals who had not been individuals who were authorized to accept such information on behalf of the defendants, Ms. Johnson’s decided to re-file the original suit in trial court. Once again, Ms. Johnson’s service of process was held insufficient by the trial court and she moved to appeal that judgment.
Service of process is a legal term of art which essentially describes the process in which plaintiffs notify defendants of a pending suit. When the plaintiff files a complaint with a court, any defendant in the case must be given notice of the pending case and an opportunity to be heard and defend themselves against the complaint. This requirement is a basic constitutional right conferred upon everyone who has been accused of some wrongdoing and it is the accuser’s responsibility to ensure that the constitutional right of the accused is protected. The importance of service of process to our legal system and the rights of defendants makes it necessary for trial courts to dismiss actions, without regard to the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, if service of process is deficient in some way or another.
Thus, the trial court dismissed Ms. Johnson’s suit for those reasons and Ms. Johnson filed a motion to appeal. The Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure Article 2126 explains what is required of a party appealing a decision by a state trial court. Under the law, when a plaintiff files a motion to appeal a trial court’s decision and an order of appeal has been granted by the court, the clerk of the trial court must estimate how much it will cost to prepare the record and the filing fee required by the court hearing the appeal. The clerk then must notify both parties of the costs by mail and the person appealing the trial court decision, the “appellant,” must then pay the estimated costs within twenty days of the mailing. An extension may also be granted for an additional twenty days for good cause if requested by the appellant. Alternatively, the appellant may also apply for a reduction in the costs if they are shown to be excessive and the application is filed within the first twenty day period. If there is any difference between the actual and estimated costs after preparation is complete, then the difference must be paid to the appellant if the estimate was excessive or paid to the clerk if the costs were insufficient.
Ms. Johnson, however, failed to pay the costs within the twenty day period or request an extension. Under Louisiana law, if the appellant fails to pay the estimated costs in a timely fashion or request the necessary extension, the trial court may either (1) dismiss the case as abandoned, or (2) grant a ten day extension and dismiss the appeal as abandoned if the costs are not paid within that extension. Both the trial court and the other party in the suit can file a motion to dismiss the appeal on grounds of abandonment under that law. In the instant case, Ms. Johson failed to pay the estimated costs, failed to request and extension and failed to request a reduction in the estimated costs due to excessiveness. As a result, the defendants moved to dismiss the appeal and the trial court granted the motion to dismiss the appeal as abandoned.
The third circuit, however, reversed and reinstated the appeal on review. Ms. Johnson appealed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the appeal mentioned above. The appellate court analyzed the law described above, particularly the law’s desired purpose and effect. In essence, the Louisiana law which requires appellate costs to be paid in a timely fashion by appellants serves two main purposes. The primary purpose of the law allows a court or a party to dismiss an appeal because the appellant has filed an appeal but has decided to abandon it. This protects the integrity of the court by making the appeals process efficient for parties who truly wish to appeal a trial court’s decision. The trial court’s decision might be erroneous, and the party seeking appeal may have a desperate need for relief and a reversal of the earlier decision. Appeals which lack merit and were filed out of temporary frustration with the holding might later be reconsidered later and abandoned. Without the law requiring the timely payment of fees, the system would have difficultly ensuring the timely and efficient resolution of appeals which are honestly filed and meritorious.
Conversely,the victorious party in trial court (the “appellee”) should not be forced to wait anxiously for the disposition of an appeal which has been in fact abandoned by the appellant. The appellant, by necessity, files an appeal because he or she believes that the trial court has either misapplied the correct legal standard, applied the wrong legal standard, or has relied on clearly erroneous findings of fact in reaching his legal conclusions. If the appellant then later abandons his claim but does not formally notify the court or the appellee, then neither the court nor the appellee have any notice that the claim has been abandoned. This could allow a losing party to file an appeal with no intention of appealing the trial court’s decision use the appeal to temporarily threaten the winning party at trial. To prevent appeals that lack merit or are based on ill motive, the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure requires the appellate to pay the estimated costs to the clerk and provides the appellate with the opportunity to both contest the amount of the estimate or request an extension if good cause is shown.
The secondary purpose of the law requiring timely payment of the costs of appeals is to provide an incentive for tardy appellants to pay the costs of appeal in a timely fashion. The Code also clearly states that the focus of trial courts deciding motions to dismiss for abandonment under the provision to focus on securing payment of the costs of appeals to promote the efficient movement of appeals through the courts. The Code also expressly states that the purpose of such motions to dismiss is not to punish those who do not pay the costs of appeal in a timely fashion by dismissal due to abandonment. The court, interpreting both prior case law and the Code’s provision discussed above, ultimately decided that Ms. Johnson’s failure to pay did not represent the type of circumstances which the provision was designed to prevent.
The court reasoned that the dual purpose of the provision was ultimately to weed out claims which had been actually abandoned and to incentivize the timely payment of costs of appeal by appellants. It is true that Ms. Johnson failed to pay the costs of appeal within the twenty day period or request an extension or reduction in costs. However, Ms. Johnson did pay the costs, albeit slightly late, a little over a month after the defendants filed a motion to dismiss for abandonment. The court held that the purpose of the law was not to punish tardy payment of the costs of appeal by dismissing the appeal. Rather, the provision was designed to rid the court system of appeals which had been truly abandoned by the party who filed the appeal. Ms. Johnson had not decided to abandon her appeal, and although her payment had been slightly delayed, the dismissal of her appeal would result in the misapplication of the law governing the payment of the costs of appeals. Since one of the purposes of the law is to bring justice to the parties before the court, the dismissal of an appeal due to a slight delay in payment by the appellant would be an unduly harsh penalty and contravene the purpose of the legislature in developing the Code and the rules governing the payment of costs of appeal.
The intricate rules of civil procedure are daunting and can be fatal to an otherwise meritorious case. The rules are different in every state as well as the federal system. It is essential that all deadlines are met at every stage of litigation to ensure that a valid claim ultimately results in compensation rightfully owed to the victim of another’s wrongful acts. Attorneys are “doctors of the law” and can assist a worthy plaintiff in obtaining compensation for his or her injuries and make certain all costs and filing are completed in a timely fashion to avoid disaster, up to and including dismissal due to a procedural error. Legal representation can be employed to avoid dismissal of what could be a victorious claim.