Thursday, May 19, 2011

No Appealable Order In Divorce Disqualification

The Ohio Supreme Court web page reports:

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that the denial of a motion to disqualify opposing counsel in a divorce proceeding is not a “final” order subject to immediate appeal.

The Court’s 6-0 decision, which affirmed a ruling by the 9th District Court of Appeals, was authored by Justice Yvette McGee Brown.

The case involved a divorce action between Jeffrey R. Kissinger and Beth A. Wilhelm-Kissinger of Summit County. During the proceedings, a dispute arose regarding allegedly illegally obtained and privileged email messages between Kissinger and his attorney that Wilhelm-Kissinger had apparently taken from Kissinger’s computer and given to her attorney. Kissinger moved the Summit County Court of Common Pleas Domestic Relations Division to disqualify Wilhelm-Kissinger’s attorney.  After a hearing in which Wilhelm-Kissinger’s attorney reported that he never sought or reviewed any of the email messages in question, the trial court denied the disqualification motion. 

Kissinger appealed. The 9th District Court of Appeals dismissed Kissinger’s appeal, based on its determination that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case because the denial of a motion to disqualify opposing counsel was not a final, appealable order under R.C. 2505.02(B)(4). In response to a motion by Kissinger, the 9th District certified a conflict between its ruling in this case and a 2003 decision of the 10th District Court of Appeals, Crockett v. Crockett, in which that court held that denial of a motion to disqualify opposing counsel was a final, appealable order.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case to resolve the conflict between appellate districts.

Writing for the Court in today’s unanimous decision, Justice McGee Brown noted that under the applicable statutory criteria for a final appealable order, Kissinger must show that the trial court order denying his motion was made in a “special proceeding” and that it affected a substantial right.  Since prior Supreme Court decisions have held that a divorce action qualifies as a “special proceeding,”  Justice McGee Brown said the remaining question for the Court to answer was whether denial of a motion such as Kissinger’s in this case affects a substantial right.

She wrote: “An order affects a substantial right for the purposes of R.C. 2505.02(B)(2) only if an immediate appeal is necessary to protect the right effectively. ... Covered rights include any ‘right that the United States Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, a statute, the common law, or a rule of procedure entitles a person to enforce or protect.’ ... We have previously held that a decision granting a motion to disqualify opposing counsel is a final, appealable order that a party deprived of counsel can appeal immediately. ... We now address whether in the special proceeding of divorce, an order denying a motion to disqualify opposing counsel also qualifies as a final, appealable order under R.C. 2505.02(B)(2).”

“Orders granting and denying disqualification of counsel differ in two key respects. First, an order granting disqualification immediately and definitely affects the party it deprives of chosen counsel; the purpose of appealing such an order is to prevent the removal itself.  By contrast, an order denying disqualification, standing alone, affects no right held by the unsuccessful movant because there is no substantial right to disqualify opposing counsel. Second, an order granting disqualification typically imposes a permanent effect because it is unlikely to be reconsidered as a trial progresses. ...Therefore, a grant of a motion to disqualify counsel must be appealed immediately or its effect will be irreversible.”

“An order denying disqualification, however, lacks a similarly permanent effect. ...  That order may be revisited throughout trial, and the party seeking disqualification may pursue other avenues, such as disciplinary proceedings, to address any improprieties that occur. With these differences in mind, we cannot conclude that an order denying disqualification in the divorce context requires immediate appeal to ensure the protection of a substantial right. Accordingly, although it occurs in a special proceeding, such a denial is not a final, appealable order under R.C. 2505.02(B)(2).”

Justice McGee Brown’s opinion was joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor did not participate in the Court’s deliberations or decision in the case.

The opinion is attached here. (Mike Frisch)

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