Under Virginia Supreme Court Rule 1:1, all “final judgments, orders, and decrees” remain under the jurisdiction of the trial court for 21 days after entry. After the expiration of the 21 day period, the order becomes final and no longer subject to modification. As Judge Jonathan C. Thacher of the Fairfax Circuit Court wrote in Reston Homeowners Association v. Ramirez, this rule is intended to “assure the certainty and stability that the finality of judgments brings.”
Occasionally, final judgments and orders do contain errors, and there are narrow and specific exceptions that allow the court to take corrective action outside the 21 day period. These include clerical mistakes which arise from “oversight or inadvertent omission” and Orders that were void at the time they were entered. However, these exceptions are narrow and are not liberally employed, as counsel for the Reston Homeowners Association (“RHA”) recently learned.
The case arose from RHA’s complaint against Eduardo Ramirez, alleging that Ramirez had failed to maintain his property as required by the RHA’s governing documents. The complaint sought corrective action, fees and costs, and the right to enter the property if Ramirez failed to correct the deficiency within a timely manner.
On June 18, 2010, a default judgment order was entered in favor of RHA and against Ramirez. The final order contained the following statement: “the violating condition has been corrected and Defendant’s lot is now in compliance.”
On February 25, 2011, RHA again appeared before the court, seeking a second default judgment, because “the violating conditions… set forth in the Association’s complaint remain uncorrected.” As the court noted, RHA was “requesting the Court to enter a second default order that grants an injunction and reverses the previous finding that Ramirez’s lot is in compliance.” The court refused to do this.
RHA’s raised two points in support of its second application:
- That language in the final order stating that Ramirez “is now in compliance” was “included by accident,” and
- In any event, the court retained jurisdiction because not all matters raised in the complaint had been decided by the June 18 order.
As Judge Thacher pointed out, clerical mistakes resulting from oversight or inadvertent omission may be corrected at any time, “however, to invoke such authority, the evidence must clearly support the conclusion that an error or inadvertence had been made.” The only evidence of oversight was the “bare assertion” of RHA’s counsel.
An order is not final “if its terms retain jurisdiction for the trial court to reconsider the judgment or to address other matters still pending in the action.” RHA argued that since their allegation that Ramirez was “illegally maintaining his property in violation of several building restrictions” was still undecided, the Order was not final.
RHA sought three forms of relief in its complaint: an injunction ordering Ramirez to correct the violations, attorney’s fees and costs. Costs and fees had been awarded. Since the purpose of the requested injunction was to correct violations, and since RHA acknowledged that the violating conditions had been addressed, Judge Thacher found that nothing remained before the court and, therefore, the court did not retain jurisdiction.
Under Code of Virginia Section 8.01-428, in addition to clerical mistakes, default judgments may be set aside by the defendant upon the grounds of fraud upon the court; a void judgment; failure to provide proper notice of judgment; proof of accord and satisfaction; or proof that the defendant was, at the time of service or entry of judgment, in the United States military. Each of these exceptions is subject to proof. In section B of this statute, the clerical error exception is separately set out and is perhaps distinguishable because the sufficiency of proof is somewhat subjective. While Judge Thacher provides no guidance on what would constitute sufficient proof, a “bare assertion” is clearly not enough.