Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Zinora M. Mitchell-Rankin, Trial Judge)
Before Ferren, Steadman And King, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman
STEADMAN, Associate Judge: This appeal addresses the power of a trial court to reopen and expand upon a final order rendered by the trial court in a civil action. It involves a man who died, leaving behind three women all claiming to be his legal surviving spouse. In an action immediately following his death in which the Disposition of his body was at issue, the trial court ruled that "for the limited purposes of hearing," it appeared that appellee Betty Clement was the surviving spouse and thus, the court ordered the body released to her. Some nine months later, the trial court issued an order expanding the original ruling to declare that Betty Clement was the surviving spouse "for all purposes." We are unable to discern any basis in law authorizing the trial court to expand its original final order in this manner in contravention of the general principle of finality of judgments, and hence must vacate the second order.
Mansfield Clement died in the District of Columbia, and his body was held by the District of Columbia Department of Human Services. On August 15, 1990, Betty Clement filed with the Superior Court an "Emergency Complaint for Release of Remains," seeking an order requiring the Department of Human Services to release the body to her. *fn1 Appellants intervened as plaintiffs in that action *fn2 and opposed Betty Clement's request. *fn3 The trial court held a hearing on August 27, 1990, after which the court issued an order directing the Department of Human Services to release decedent's body to Betty Clement. That order stated that "the court satisfied of the existence of a valid marriage between Ms. Betty J. Clement and Mansfield Clement, which for the limited purposes of hearing appears not to have been terminated by divorce, etc., prior to Mr. Mansfield Clement's death," and thus directed the Department of Human Services to release the body of decedent to Betty Clement. No appeal was taken from the order nor was any other challenge made to the order by any party.
Some months later, following an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the decedent's employment annuity, Betty Clement filed a "Motion for Clarification of Order and Declaratory Judgment" on January 24, 1991 *fn4 Both appellants opposed this motion, arguing, inter alia, that the motion was improper and not in compliance with the rules of court, that the proceeding had been instituted only for the release of the body, and that it should not now be transformed into "a full fledged declaration of the status rights." *fn5 The trial court held a hearing on the motion on May 20, 1991, at which all parties were present and represented by counsel. The trial court told the parties:
Absent an indication that would lead this court to conclude that I should -- I'm not going to take additional testimony unless, again, you can point to me some deficiencies of the record which exist which would lead this court to reconsider the evidence that I have already heard.
The court stated that if no such allegations of error existed, it was prepared to rule based upon the evidence in the record. No new evidence was introduced. At the Conclusion of the hearing, the trial court issued a second written order which declared Betty Clement to be the "lawful surviving spouse of Mansfield Clement for all purposes" and declared that the prior order "should be clarified to include a Declaratory Judgment as set forth herein."
Once a trial court issues a final ruling dispositive of a lawsuit, there is only a limited number of ways in which the parties in a case can seek to reopen the matter. In the instant case, the trial court had issued a final order. Thus, in order to have the authority to enter the second order as it did, the trial court would have had to have some type of statutory or other authority for doing so. Betty Clement claims that, in issuing the second order, the trial court did nothing more than clarify the initial order. Thus, Betty Clement does not, even on appeal, cite to any source of authority for the trial court's action other than a case which affirmed a clarification by a trial court of a prior judgment by that court. *fn6 Appellants claim that the second order was more than a mere clarification. We agree, and moreover, we discern no other authority for the trial court's actions.
A fundamental principle of litigation that has been stressed in a variety of contexts is the importance of finality. See, e.g., Oxendine v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 563 A.2d 330, 334 (D.C. 1989) (reversal of judgment granting new trial pursuant to Rule 60(b)(6)); Neuman v. Neuman, 377 A.2d 393, 397 (D.C. 1977) (denial of challenge to validity of divorce decree); Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. Hill, 250 A.2d 923, 925 (D.C. 1969) (reversal of reinstatement pursuant to Rule 60(b) of action dismissed for want of prosecution); Greater Boston Television Corp. v. Federal Communications Comm'n, 149 U.S. App. D.C. 322, 331-32, 463 F.2d 268, 277-78 (denial of motion to recall the mandate), cert. denied, 403 U.S. 923, 91 S.Ct. 2233, 29 L.Ed.2d 701 (1971); Smith v. Jackson Tool & Die, Inc., 426 F.2d 5, 8 (5th Cir. 1970) ("the policy of finality of judicial proceedings is, and indeed it should be, a strong one"); 18 CHARLES A. WRIGHT, ARTHUR R. MILLER & EDWARD H. COOPER, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 4403, at 11-18 (1981) (policies underlying doctrine of res judicata include repose and finality of judgments). This principle, of course, may give way where countervailing considerations prevail, but authority must exist in law to override the principle and the legal considerations that have been developed to channel the exercise of such authority must be brought to bear in such situations. We address seriatim several possible sources of authority for the trial court's action.
Superior Court Civil Rule 59(e) provides that "a motion to alter or amend the judgment shall be served not later than 10 days after entry of the judgment." In the instant case, Betty Clement's motion was made almost five months after entry of the judgment. Thus, due to the ten-day time limitation of the rule, it is completely inapplicable. There is no precedent for extending that ten-day limitation, and in fact, Rule 6(b) prohibits extension of that period. *fn7 Here, the final judgment was entered in August, 1990, and Betty Clement made her "Motion for Clarification of Order and Declaratory Judgment" ...