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SIDDIQ v. OSTHEIMER

September 24, 1998

MOHAMMAD SIDDIQ, APPELLANT,
V.
MICHAEL OSTHEIMER, APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, GEOFFREY M. ALPRIN, J.

Before Steadman, Associate Judge, King, Associate Judge, Retired,[fn*] and Pryor, Senior Judge. [fn*] Judge King was an Associate Judge of the court at the time of argument. His status changed to Associate Judge, Retired, on September 1, 1998. [718 A2d Page 146]

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge.

Once a non-binding arbitration award has been filed with the Multi-Door Division of the Superior Court, any party to the arbitration may file with that division a demand for trial de novo within fifteen days. See Super. Ct. Civ. Arb. R. XI(b). Such demand returns the case to the civil trial calendar. See Super. Ct. Civ. Arb. R. XI(c). The arbitration rules provide, however, that

[i]f the time for filing a demand for trial de novo expires without such action, the Clerk of the Civil Division shall enter the Award as a judgment of the Court as to each party. This judgment shall have the same force and effect as a final judgment of the Court in a civil action, but may not be appealed nor be the subject of a motion under Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure 59 or 60(b).

Super. Ct. Civ. Arb. R. X(b).

The appeal before us addresses the question of the trial court's authority to grant relief when a party fails to timely file a demand for trial de novo. On the record before us, we reverse the trial court's order setting aside a judgment based on the arbitration award.

I.

On August 7, 1995, appellant Mohammad Siddiq was awarded $25,000 in non-binding arbitration for injuries he sustained when appellee Michael Ostheimer rear-ended the vehicle in which Siddiq was a passenger. On September 7, 1995, an official of the Multi-Door Division informed the Judgments Office of the Civil Division that neither party had filed a demand for trial de novo pursuant to Rule XI(b). Based on this representation, on September 19, 1995, the clerk of the Civil Division entered an arbitration judgment in favor of Siddiq under Rule X(b).

On October 12, 1995, counsel for Ostheimer moved the trial court to set aside the judgment. Accompanying the motion was counsel's affidavit averring that he had in fact mailed a copy of the demand for trial to opposing counsel on August 9, 1995, which opposing counsel had indicated he received. With respect to the failure to file the demand for trial, the affidavit said simply, without further explanation, that counsel had "prepared the original, comeback copy and judge's copy for filing and sent it to the Court for filing."

The trial court granted Ostheimer's motion to vacate the judgment. In doing so, the court acknowledged Ostheimer's concession that his demand for trial de novo "was inexplicably not filed in the court jacket," but noted the probability that counsel for Siddiq timely received a copy of the demand. The court suggested that "limited relaxations" of Rule X(b)'s provision of finality have been allowed previously, citing Allstate Insurance Co. V. Robinson, 645 A.2d 591, 593 (D.C. 1994), and observed that a "creative reading" of Superior Court Civil Rule 60(a) might justify vacation of the arbitration judgment.

On appeal, *fn1 we noted that the record "is imprecise with respect to the complete facts and circumstances relating to appellee's compliance or attempts to comply with the filing requirement" of Arbitration Rule XI(b). Therefore, we remanded the record to the trial court "so that such findings of fact, insofar as ascertainable, may be made, including whether the demand reached any component of the court system in a timely manner." The parties stipulated to the trial court that "an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary," and the court simply found that "there exists no evidence that defendant/appellee's demand for trial de novo reached any component of the court system in a timely manner."

We conclude that on the existing record, the court order setting aside the arbitration judgment cannot be sustained. We therefore [718 A2d Page 147]

order that the judgment based on the arbitration award ...


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