My Kingdom for a Horse
In a battlefield scene toward the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the King finds the tide of the battle has turned because the King has lost track of his horse. He yells, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse,” when he has lost everything because of a setback involving the smallest detail.
Although not quite a Shakespearean tragedy, litigants in federal court may be able to relate to the King’s dilemma. In court, the parties can suffer a defeat from the tiniest ministerial setback. A recent case illustrates the point.
In Cooke v. Jackson National Life Insurance Co., the plaintiff won a victory when the trial court directed the insurance company to pay a death benefit on a life insurance policy, plus interest, plus attorney fees. The trial court entered an Order that read as follows:
“Enter Memorandum Opinion and Order. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment [Dkt. Item No. 47] is granted and Defendant’s motion for summary judgment [Dkt. Item No. 42] is denied. The Court awards attorney fees to Plaintiff for cost of preparing and responding to these motions. This case is hereby dismissed with prejudice.”
The trial court also entered a Judgment, signed by the Clerk, that stated:
“Judgment is entered in favor of plaintiff, Norma L. Cooke and against the defendant, Jackson National Life Insurance Company, which includes an award of reasonable attorney fees in accordance with the Court’s Memorandum Opinion and Order.”
(Later, the trial court clarified that the plaintiff was to receive $191,362.06 under the policy, plus interest, but the trial court never did set the amount of the fee award.) When the case went up on appeal, the Court of Appeals found that the Order and Judgment were both too indefinite. The Court of Appeals identified the following mistakes:
- The Order was self-contradictory, because it seemed to award relief to the plaintiff while also dismissing the case with prejudice. (To avoid confusion, the trial court should have omitted the “dismissed with prejudice” sentence.)
- The Order did not set forth the relief specifically. To be enforceable, an Order/ Judgment should plainly state who is to pay what amount to whom.
- The Order cross-referenced motion papers from the litigation, and the Judgment cross-referenced an opinion. In the 7th Circuit, a Final Order/Judgment must be a self-contained statement of the trial court’s decision. If formatted correctly, a Final Order/Judgment can be enforced without referring to any other papers from the litigation.
- The clerk -– and not the trial court judge — signed the Judgment. In the 7th Circuit, the parties must get the trial court judge to sign the Judgment.
- The trial court never decided the amount awarded as attorney fees. While a fee award can appear in an order separate from the Judgment, the trial court must award a specific dollar amount as attorney fees.
In its opinion, the Court of Appeals criticized both the trial court judge and the litigants, faulting everyone for the formatting deficiencies in the Order and the Judgment. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court -– adding delay in the appellate review, and delaying the final payout -– so that the parties could ask the trial court to fix the record.
Surely the delay was frustrating for everyone in the Cooke litigation. But for lawyers practicing in the 7th Circuit, the Cooke opinion is a stark reminder that we must get the Judgment entered correctly. Seemingly-immaterial details can derail a favorable outcome.
Because of a single horse, the fate of an entire kingdom might hang in the balance.
Photo credit: David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth, 1745.