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REAL ESTATE 57: A court may not sua sponte modify its own judgment without authority under MCR 2.612 or due process to the parties.

Plaintiffs/counterdefendants (plaintiffs), and third-party defendants were neighbors from approximately 1996 until 2015.  Plaintiffs and the third-party defendants never had any disputes regarding the boundary line between their properties.  The third party defendants sold their property in 2015 to defendants who almost immediately disputed the boundary line between their property and plaintiffs’ property.  Due to this dispute, plaintiffs filed a complaint for adverse possession, acquiescence, and trespass.  Defendants then filed a countercomplaint for the same three counts in addition to quiet title.  The case proceeded through the litigation process and eventually was set for a bench trial.

 On April 24, 2017, after the bench trial, the trial court entered a judgment ruling in favor of plaintiffs on their acquiescence claim, concluding that they were “entitled to quiet title of the disputed area.”  The court held that plaintiffs had proved by a preponderance of the evidence that “the parties recognized and treated the black line on the Plot Plans as the boundary line between their residences.”  Accordingly, the court directed the parties to file amended deeds for their respective properties that show “the new boundary line as reflected by the black line on the Plot Plans.  However, the parties were unable to agree outside of court on the location of the new boundary line.  Both parties hired surveyors and the resulting surveys also did not agree on the location of the boundary line.

 On February 14, 2018, defendants filed a motion to enforce the judgment and order a court-appointed surveyor.  Defendants argued that there was a disagreement “as to how to physically implement the Court’s Judgment” and noted that it was likely that the parties would continue to engage in disagreements without the court’s intervention.  At oral arguments on the motion, defense counsel stated that defendants were not attempting to appeal, modify, or change the court’s judgment; rather, they merely wanted an independent surveyor to physically mark the boundary line consistent with the court’s ruling that it conform to the black line on the plot plans which were plaintiffs’ exhibits 2 and 16.  Defendants argued that it was within the trial court’s inherent powers to enforce its own orders and judgments.  The trial court agreed and appointed a special master to review the matter and, if appropriate, hire a surveyor to survey the property consistent with the court’s judgment “and that will be the line as the Court found.”

 Subsequently, the special master hired a surveyor to complete a survey.  Thereafter, the trial court ordered the parties to appear for a status conference on October 25, 2018, to discuss the September 28, 2018 letter sent by the special master to the court, as well as the parties’ attorneys, detailing his recommendation as to the boundary line.  Following the scheduled status conference, the trial court entered an order stating that it had reviewed the special master’s letter and “finds that the special master’s recommendation to adopt the boundary line as established by the court-ordered surveyor appropriate.  Accordingly, this Court adopts the special master’s recommendation, which sets the boundary line between the two properties.  The court then ordered the parties to file amended deeds for their respective properties that reflected the new boundary line.

Defendants filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the boundary line established by the survey did not comport with the court’s April 24, 2017 judgment.  Specifically, the new boundary was a curved line—not a straight line as set forth in the plot plans that were incorporated into the court’s judgment, i.e., plaintiffs’ trial exhibits 2 and 16. 

Nevertheless, defendants argued, the trial court adopted a new boundary line that was curved—in defiance of its own recognition that a curving line would not be in compliance with its judgment.  In effect then, defendants argued, the trial court sua sponte amended its final judgment and denied defendants due process because the court did not hold a hearing where defendants could challenge the survey and the “new” curving boundary.

 On December 21, 2018, the trial court entered an order denying defendants’ motion for reconsideration.  The trial court noted that “its opinion and order clearly determined that the boundary line moved as a result of acquiescence by the previous owners.”  The court denied that it sua sponte entered an order because defendants had filed a motion to enforce the judgment and requested the court to order a court-appointed surveyor—which is what prompted the court to appoint a special master who retained the surveyor.   Defendants argue that the trial court reversibly erred when it sua sponte modified its April 24, 2017 judgment—changing the boundary line from a straight line to a curved line—over 18 months after the judgment was entered.  We agree.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

 “The proper interpretation and application of a court rule is a question of law, which we review de novo.”  Principles of statutory construction are used when interpreting the Michigan Court Rules.  First, this Court considers the plain language of the court rule in order to determine its meaning.   “The intent of the rule must be determined from an examination of the court rule itself and its place within the structure of the Michigan Court Rules as a whole.” 

 The court rule that allows a trial court to modify a judgment is MCR 2.612.  In this case, no motion under MCR 2.612 or appeal was filed.  Accordingly, for the court to have the authority to amend its judgment, the amendment must have been to correct a clerical mistake.  This is because a court can correct a clerical mistake on its own initiative.  MCR 2.612(A).

 Here, the court entered a judgment on April 24, 2017, that defined a specific property line between the parties’ properties—it was a straight-line boundary.  On October 25, 2018, the court entered an order that defined a new property line between the parties’ properties—it was a curvedline boundary.  Accordingly, the change affected the dimensions of the two properties and altered the property line.  Therefore, the change between the April 24, 2017 judgment and the October 25, 2018 order was substantive, rather than clerical, in nature.  Defendants also argue that the trial court denied their constitutional right to due process when it entered the October 25, 2018 order without giving notice or holding a hearing.  We agree.

DUE PROCESS

 “Whether a party has been afforded due process is a question of law.”  This Court reviews questions of law de novo. 

Defendants are essentially arguing that the trial court violated their right to procedural due process when it entered the October 25, 2018 order, which modified the court’s April 24, 2017 judgment.  “Due process is a flexible concept, the essence of which requires fundamental fairness.” “The basic requirements of due process in a civil case include notice of the proceeding and a meaningful opportunity to be heard.”   “Where a court considers an issue sua sponte, due process can be satisfied by affording a party an opportunity for rehearing.”

 On October 5, 2018, the trial court gave the parties notice that a status conference concerning the special master recommendation would be held on October 25, 2018.  The hearing notice did not inform the parties that the court was considering modifying its April 24, 2017 judgment.  The parties were not given the opportunity to file briefs before the conference.  The conference was not recorded so it is unknown what was said at the conference.  Nonetheless, the hearing notice for the conference was insufficient because it did not include notice of the nature of the proceeding.  Without notice of the nature of the proceeding, defendants could not have been prepared to present arguments at a hearing.

In conclusion, the trial court’s October 25, 2018 order is vacated and this matter is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

ASSISTANCE WITH PROPERTY ISSUES

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