In Cook v. Arias, Dkt. No. 41745 (Feb. 6, 2015), the Idaho Supreme Court issued an order that continues the Court’s jurisprudence on what constitutes a final judgment under Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 54(a). Failing to heed the lessons in Cook can result in increased litigation costs and delay the resolution of cases on appeal and on remand. Cook involved an appeal from an order in a divorce action modifying child custody but is equally applicable to other civil cases. The Court dismissed the appeal because no final judgment was entered after the divorce trial.

Appeals in civil cases can be taken from a “final judgment,” as defined in I.R.C.P. 54(a). See I.A.R. 11(a)(1) (addressing civil appeals from district court); I.R.C.P. 83(a) (addressing civil appeals from magistrates). I.R.C.P. 54(a) defines “judgment” as follows:

“Judgment” as used in these rules means a separate document entitled “Judgment” or “Decree”.   A judgment shall state the relief to which a party is entitled on one or more claims for relief in the action. Such relief can include dismissal with or without prejudice. A judgment shall not contain a recital of pleadings, the report of a master, the record of prior proceedings, the court’s legal reasoning, findings of fact, or conclusions of law. A judgment is final if either it has been certified as final pursuant to subsection (b)(1) of this rule or judgment has been entered on all claims for relief, except costs and fees, asserted by or against all parties in the action.

The rule also requires that a judgment must begin “with the words ‘JUDGMENT IS ENTERED AS FOLLOWS: . . ,’ and it shall not contain any other wording between those words and the caption.”

In Cook, the magistrate issued a series of orders that failed to comply with I.R.C.P. 54(a). The action was filed in January 2009, and a trial was held in January 2011. Following the trial, the magistrate entered an order granting the divorce and purporting to be a “judgment.” But the document was not a final judgment because it improperly contained a record of prior proceedings and acknowledged that it did not resolve all claims for relief.

The litigation continued, and the magistrate entered a series of supplemental orders, but because no final judgment had been entered, each of those orders was necessarily an interlocutory order.   The magistrate later entered other “judgments,” including a “Decree of Divorce and Judgment,” but none of those documents complied with I.R.C.P. 54(a) either. Ultimately, the Idaho Supreme Court vacated the “Decree of Divorce and Judgment” and dismissed the appeal.

The Court has addressed what is a final judgment under I.R.C.P. 54(a) in numerous decisions, most recently in Doe v. Doe, 155 Idaho 660, 663, 315 P.3d 848, 851 (2013) and Estate of Holland v. Metropolitan Property & Casualty Co., 153 Idaho 94, 99, 279 P.3d 80, 85 (2012). Cook continues that jurisprudence and re-emphasizes the absolute importance of securing a final judgment under I.R.C.P. 54(a) before the Court will hear an appeal. Failing to do so will inevitably increase litigation cost for clients and delay the final resolution of lawsuits that have already taken years to proceed through the Idaho courts.