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Divorce Decree Signed by Magistrate on Judge’s Behalf Is Not Void, Merely ‘Voidable’ If Timely Objection or Appeal Filed

Where a Court Had Both Subject Matter and Personal Jurisdiction Over the Case

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2011-1172.  Miller v. Nelson-Miller, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-2845.
Delaware App. No. 10 CAF 09 0074, 2011-Ohio-2649.  Judgment reversed.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-2845.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(June 27, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that when a court has jurisdiction over both the subject matter and the parties in a civil action, and enters a judgment in the case, failure to comply with the ministerial requirement of Civil Rule 58(A) that the judge must personally sign the  judgment entry does not render the court’s judgment “void” (of no legal effect), but merely renders the judgment “voidable” (subject to reversal if appealed).

Applying that analysis to a Delaware County case, the court held that a divorce decree and judgment entry that were improperly signed by a magistrate, rather than by the judge who decided the case, were not rendered void because of the signing error, but were voidable if a party had raised the issue of the improper signature in an objection or appeal filed within the statutory time limits for doing so.

The court’s 7-0 decision, authored by Justice Yvette McGee Brown, reversed a ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

The case involved a dispute between the estate of Norman Miller and his ex-wife, Beth Miller, now known as Beth Knece. The two were married in 1990 and filed for divorce in the Delaware County Domestic Relations Court in 2004. 

On December 27, 2004, a document captioned “Agreed Judgment Entry (Decree of Divorce)” was filed with the court. It was signed by Beth and Norman and their attorneys. In the space provided for the judge’s signature, the domestic relations magistrate to whom the case had been assigned, Lianne Sefcovic, had signed the name of Judge Everett Krueger followed by Sefcovic’s initials. On the same day, the parties also filed with the court an agreed shared-parenting decree with an agreed shared-parenting plan. That document also bore the signatures of the divorcing couple and their attorneys, and a signature for Judge Krueger followed by the magistrate’s initials.  On October 14, 2005, the trial court entered a judgment entry decree of divorce, adopting the December 27, 2004 memorandum of agreement and incorporated it in a final agreed decree of divorce. Again, the judge’s signature was provided by proxy with the magistrate’s initials.

In March 2007, Norman moved to amend the shared-parenting plan and recalculate child support, and an agreed entry was issued in July 2007. The parties did not contest the validity of the 2005 divorce decree while resolving their post-decree issues. Relying on the 2005 divorce decree, Beth obtained a new marriage license and remarried in August 2007. Norman remarried as well, marrying Rebecca Nelson-Miller in October 2008.

In April 2009, Beth filed a motion in the trial court to vacate the 2005 divorce decree and the 2004 agreed judgment entry, arguing that the entries did not comply with Ohio Civil Rule 58(A), which requires that a judgment entry must be signed by the judge. Because a magistrate does not have authority to sign a judgment entry granting a divorce, she asserted that Sefcovic’s signatures on behalf of Judge Krueger rendered the Millers’ divorce legally void and of no effect.

After an evidentiary hearing on Beth’s motion, the trial court ruled that, at most, the improper signatures had rendered the divorce decree and judgment entry voidable on appeal, and held that both parties had waived that error by failing to file objections within the statutory appeal period and by relying on the enforceability of the  divorce for the purpose of remarrying and for renegotiating their shared parenting agreement.

Beth appealed the trial court’s decision. While that appeal was pending, Norman died and the trial court substituted his widow and the administrator of his estate, Rebecca Nelson-Miller, as a party in Beth’s lawsuit.  On review, the Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the trial court, holding that there had never been a valid judgment granting the Millers’ divorce because the challenged documents were legally void and of no effect without the judge’s personal signature.

Both sides sought Supreme Court review of the Fifth District’s decision.  Beth Knece urged the court to hold that the court of appeals should have dismissed the unresolved divorce case rather than remanding it to the trial court, because Norman was now deceased and therefore could not be the subject of a divorce decree.  Rebecca Nelson-Miller asked the court to rule either 1) that the original judgment entry and divorce decree were valid because Judge Krueger had authorized Sefcovic to sign them on his behalf, or 2) the trial court’s failure to comply with the signature requirement of Civil Rule 58(A) did not render its judgment in the divorce case void, but merely voidable. 

The court agreed to consider only the second legal argument advanced by Nelson-Miller.

In today’s unanimous decision, Justice McGee Brown wrote: “The sole question for us to resolve is whether the improper signature causes the judgment to be void, or whether it is an error that renders the judgment merely voidable. We hold that it is the latter.”

Citing case law dating back to 1846, Justice McGee Brown wrote that the court has long held that the question of whether a judgment is void or voidable generally depends on whether the court rendering the judgment has jurisdiction. She wrote: “(A) judgment is generally void only when the court rendering the judgment lacks subject-matter jurisdiction or jurisdiction over the parties; however, a voidable judgment is one rendered by a court that lacks jurisdiction over the particular case due to error or irregularity.”

“In In re J.J., (2006) a magistrate contravened Sup.R. 4(B), which gives administrative judges the sole authority to transfer cases, when the magistrate transferred a custody case to a visiting judge. ... Like the appellee in the present case, the appellee in J.J. argued that because the magistrate acted outside of his authority, the resulting proceedings were void. ... This court took the opportunity to explain the important distinctions between subject-matter jurisdiction and jurisdiction over a particular case and concluded that while the Rules of Superintendence did not give the magistrate the authority to transfer cases, the magistrate’s improper transfer had no effect on the subject-matter jurisdiction of the court.”

“This court was following the same principles when it decided State ex rel. Lesher v. Kainrad (1981). In Lesher, a couple attended their divorce hearing before a referee and on that same day filed an agreed entry of divorce, which was signed by both parties and the trial judge.  No referee’s report was filed between the time of the hearing and the time of the final entry, as required by former Civ.R. 53(E).  Years later, the husband filed a mandamus action, alleging that the divorce decree was void for failure to comply with Civ.R. 53 and therefore subject to collateral attack. ‘In order to avoid finding many alleged divorces complete nullities,’ this court held that the failure to comply with Civ.R. 53 rendered the judgment voidable, not void.”

“In Lamb (v. Lamb, 2011), the Second District ... held that the ‘lack of a signature on a judgment does not constitute a jurisdictional defect.’ ...  Rather, ‘[it] is an irregularity or defect which has no effect upon the jurisdiction of the trial court.’ ... The Second District went on to hold that regardless of whether an appellate court would be permitted to correct a Civ.R. 58 error in a direct appeal, or whether the error must instead be corrected by a timely motion to the trial court due to the lack of a final, appealable order, the error does not render the judgment void, and an appellant is estopped from collaterally attacking the judgment after failing to timely object or appeal.”

“The crux of the appellee’s argument in the case at hand is the same as the appellant’s unsuccessful argument in Lamb: that the lack of a valid signature rendered the judgment void. We find our previous decisions in Lesher and In re J.J. to be analogous and the reasoning of Lamb to be persuasive, and we therefore hold that the lack of a valid signature is an irregularity that has no bearing on the subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court and renders the judgment voidable rather than void.”

Justice McGee Brown also noted that significant public policy considerations supported the court’s decision.  She wrote: “First, we have a strong interest in preserving the finality of judgments.  Finality produces ‘certainty in the law and public confidence in the system’s ability to resolve disputes.’ ... Second, and more specifically, ... (i)n the present case, it was the longstanding practice of the Domestic Relations Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas to assign magistrates the task of signing agreed entries of divorce, meaning that hundreds or thousands of uncontested divorces will be affected by this decision.  Long-reaching consequences would affect later marriages, children, all subsequent tax filings, inheritance, property divisions, estate plans, and numerous other proceedings and rights. To declare all divorce decrees with faulty signatures to be void ab initio would create absolute chaos. By declining to make such a declaration, we avoid the mass nullification of final judgment entries of divorce, and the confusion that would certainly ensue.”

In addition to joining the other justices of the court in concurrence with Justice McGee Brown’s opinion, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger also entered a separate opinion in which she urged the court to apply the legal reasoning of today’s decision, which addressed a civil case, to its analysis of future criminal cases when distinguishing between the kinds of errors that render a defendant’s sentence “void” and those that merely render a sentence “voidable.”

Elizabeth N. Gaba, 614.586.1586, for Beth Miller (nka Beth Knece).

Douglas W. Warnock, 740.363.3100, for Rebecca Nelson-Miller and Estate of Norman Miller.