The Supreme Court of Connecticut recently found another exception to the final judgment rule under the second prong of State v. Curcio, 191 Conn. 27, 31 (1983), reaffirming that parties may immediately appeal and challenge a trial court’s power to vacate a previous judgment or order. As a second procedural issue, the Court also discussed an ambiguity on Form JD-SC-28—the form used to file an appeal or amended appeal—and noted that a technical defect in the form would not deprive an appellate court of jurisdiction.
Pritchard v. Pritchard, 281 Conn. 262 (2007) has an unusual procedural history. Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard divorced in 1996. As part of the divorce the husband was ordered to pay alimony and child support payments. Over the next several years, the husband was in arrears on the payments. Between November 1996 and July 2000, the trial court granted a number of motions for contempt against the husband. In September 2002, the husband was arrested and, after again being found in contempt, the court ordered monthly reviews of the contempt finding while he was incarcerated.
During one of the monthly reviews it was discovered that the husband had fraudulently transferred property in Bethel, CT. The State, acting on behalf of the wife through support enforcement services (see Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 46b-207, 46b-231), filed a motion for reconveyance of the Bethel property. On January 12, 2004, however, after a hearing on the motion for reconveyance, the court vacated all prior findings of contempt against the husband and stayed all payments of child support pending a hearing and recalculation of the husband’s arrearage. The State immediately appealed that ruling arguing that the trial court lacked authority to vacate a prior family support order of contempt (see Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 46b-86, 46b-231(q)) absent a motion by the husband challenging the original orders. On August 24, 2004, the trial court issued a memorandum of decision reiterating its January 2004 order. The State then purported to file an amended appeal based on the August 24, 2004 memorandum of decision. When filling out form JD-SC-28, in the space asking for “judgment date,” the State wrote January 12, 2004 rather than August 24, 2004, but all other information on the form related to the trial court’s August decision. The Appellate Court dismissed the appeal for lack of a final judgment, concluding that the January 2004 rulings did not terminate a separate and distinct proceeding or so conclude the rights of the parties that further proceedings could not affect them as contemplated by State v. Curcio. See Pritchard v. Pritchard, 92 Conn. App 327 (2005). The Appellate Court also concluded that the appeal from the January 12, 2004 ruling was mooted by the August 24, 2004 memorandum of decision but that the State had failed to appeal from the August 24 decision because that date was not specified on the amended appeal form.
The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court’s decision. First, with respect to the appealability of the January 2004 rulings, the Court noted that, although the opening of a prior judgment is not considered a final judgment until a substitute judgment has been rendered, there is an established exception to this rule “where the appeal challenges the power of the court to act to set aside the judgment.” Thus, the State’s appeal of the January 2004 ruling was a final judgment because it fit within that exception. Moreover, even if there were no claim that the trial court lacked the power to vacate the orders, the Court concluded that the State’s appeal met the second prong of State v. Curcio. The Court noted that this was not a situation in which the trial court vacated the judgment granting the wife’s motion for contempt but had not yet entered a substituted judgment; rather, the trial court’s January 2004 decision was functionally equivalent to denying the wife’s initial motion for contempt. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the January 2004 judgment “immediately and permanently terminated the established rights of the state in the [previously issued] orders so that no further proceedings could affect them,” thus meeting the second prong of State v. Curcio.
With respect to the State’s amended appeal, the Court reversed the Appellate Court’s decision that the State failed to appeal the August 2004 ruling in its notice of appeal form. The Court discussed that amended appeals require the same form used for all appeals (form JD-SC-28) and, in the case of an amended appeal, it is unclear whether the form requires the date of the original judgment on appeal or the date of the subsequent judgment. The Court also concluded, based on the State’s other submissions in the appeal papers (preliminary statement of the issues, draft judgment file, etc.), that it was clear that the State was appealing from the August 24 judgment. Careful not to elevate form over substance, the Court concluded that this was sufficient to invoke appellate jurisdiction over the August 2004 judgment.
Pritchard is a new application of the second prong of State v. Curcio, which remains a narrow exception to the final judgment rule. The decision also suggests that formal compliance with the Practice Book—while important—should not dictate the outcome of a party’s appeal.