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Hoffman v. Hoffman

Court of Appeals of Ohio, First District, Hamilton

August 1, 2018


          Civil Appeals From: Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas TRIAL NOS. 201700205 201700206

          Paul R. Shugar and Ian D. Mitchell, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

          Christopher R. Heekin, for Defendants-Appellants.


          MILLER, JUDGE.

         {¶1} Wayne Hoffman, Pamela Hoffman, and Gerald Braunstein ("Appellants") appeal from the trial court's judgment denying their motions to vacate default judgment entered in two cases, 201700205 and 201700206. Appellants separately appealed both cases, and the appeals were consolidated by this court. We reverse the trial court's judgments and remand the cause because neither the motions for a default judgment, nor a notice of the hearing, were ever served on Appellants.

         Procedural Posture and Facts

         {¶2} On January 17, 2017, Ronald Hoffman, Don Hoffman, Ken Hoffman, Randall S. Hoffman, Todd C. Hoffman, and Alicia J. Pitcher ("Appellees") filed a complaint to contest the Last Will and Testament of Malvon W. Hoffman against Appellants in the case numbered 201700205. That same day, Appellees filed a separate complaint for a declaratory judgment against Appellants in the case numbered 201700206. On February 20, 2017, Wayne Hoffman called counsel for Appellees and requested a 30-day extension of time for deadlines in each case, to which Appellees' counsel agreed. There is some dispute as to what deadlines Hoffman asked Appellees' counsel to extend-Hoffman claims he asked for an extension to answer the complaint, while Appellees' counsel claims Hoffman asked for an extension for discovery.

         {¶3} On February 23, 2017, Appellees filed a motion for a default judgment in each case, but did not serve either motion on Appellants. A hearing on the motions was held before a magistrate on March 13, 2017. Appellants were not afforded notice of the hearing, nor did they attend. The magistrate entered default judgments in both cases on March 14, 2017. Appellants filed motions to vacate the default judgments and motions for leave to file answers out of time on April 12, 2017. After a hearing, the magistrate entered a decision denying Appellants' motion to vacate the default judgment in 201700206. No decision was entered in 201700205. Appellants filed objections in 201700206. The trial court deemed the magistrate's decision to have also been entered in 201700205, adopted the magistrate's decision, denied Appellants' objections, and entered judgment in both cases. Appellants now appeal.

         {¶4} In their sole assignment of error, Appellants argue that the trial court erred in denying Appellants' objections to the magistrate's decision. Specifically, Appellants contend that the magistrate should have applied Civ.R. 60(B) liberally to provide them relief from the default judgments; Civ.R. 55(A) required notice of the default judgment at least seven days prior to a hearing on the motion; Civ.R. 5(B)(4) required the filing of a certificate of service of the motions; and the magistrate's decision is self-contradictory in its application of the facts.

         The Absence of a Magistrate's Decision in 201700205

         {¶5} Magistrate's decisions are governed by Civ.R. 53. Under that rule, "a magistrate shall prepare a magistrate's decision respecting any matter referred under Civ.R. 53(D)(1)." Civ.R. 53(D)(3)(a). "If one or more objections to a magistrate's decision are timely filed, the court shall rule on those objections," undertaking an independent review as to the objected matters to ascertain that the magistrate has properly determined the factual issues and appropriately applied the law. Civ.R. 53(D)(4)(d). The purpose for the procedures set forth in Civ.R. 53 is to afford litigants with a meaningful opportunity to file objections. Pinkerson v. Pinkerson, 7 Ohio App.3d 319, 455 N.E.2d 693 (1st Dist.1982). "A trial court's failure to comply with Civ.R. 53 constitutes grounds for reversal only if the appellant shows the alleged error has merit and the error worked to the prejudice of the appellant." In re Estate of Hughes, 94 Ohio App.3d 551, 554, 641 N.E.2d 248 (9th Dist1994). Here, a magistrate's decision was never prepared or journalized in 201700205. The magistrate entered a decision in 201700206, and the decision references only that case throughout.

         {¶6} Absent a decision by the magistrate in 201700205, the trial court was permitted to rule on Appellants' motion in the first instance, even after a referral to the magistrate. Civ.R. 53(D)(4)(b); see Yantek v. Coach Builders Ltd., Inc., 1st Dist. Hamilton No. C-060601, 2007-Ohio-5126, ¶ 11; Donofrio v. Whitman, 191 Ohio App.3d 727, 2010-Ohio-6406, 947 N.E.2d 715, ¶ 21 (7th Dist.). Thus, the court's entry of judgment in 201700205 did not run afoul of Civ.R. 53. The court's entry simply recognized that the issues are identical in both cases and ruled on Appellants' motion to vacate the default judgment, albeit by taking the unusual step of deeming the magistrate's decision in 201700206 to have been properly filed in 201700205. The court essentially recognized that the reasoning in 201700206 was equally applicable to 201700205. The trial court's decision prejudices no one and neither party argues otherwise. Our treatment of the court's entry in 201700205 as an independent judgment most accurately reflects what occurred below. Accordingly, we review the cases together.

         Standards of Review

         {¶7} "Appellate courts 'generally review a trial court's adoption, denial or modification of a magistrate's decision for an abuse of discretion.'" In re D.S., 10th Dist. Franklin No. 15AP-487, 2016-Ohio-2810, ¶ 9, quoting Brunetto v. Curtis, 10th Dist. Franklin No. 10AP-799, 2011-Ohio-1610, ¶ 10. "However, where the appeal from the trial court's action on a magistrate's decision presents only a question of law, the standard of review is de novo." In re D.S. at ΒΆ 9. The standard of review of a court's decision with ...

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