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Reaves v. Tucker

Court of Appeals of Virginia

June 13, 2017



          Brandy M. Poss (DeFazio Bal, P.C., on brief), for appellant.

          Monique W. Donner (Breckenridge Ingles; Martin Ingles & Hensley, Ltd., on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Chief Judge Huff, Judges Petty and Beales Argued at Richmond, Virginia.



         In this appeal, we conclude that the trial court was not required to stay the scheduled trial when one of the parties filed a notice of appeal to this Court in an attempt to appeal an interlocutory order that was not subject to appeal. We also conclude that the trial court's enforcement of the pretrial scheduling order and the pretrial conference order was not an abuse of its discretion. We therefore affirm the trial court's decisions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Judy Kay Reaves (wife) and James Kelly Tucker (husband) were married in 2009. The couple separated in 2014. In December of that year, husband filed a complaint seeking determination of his temporary support obligation, but not divorce. Wife counter-claimed for divorce.

         A pretrial conference was held on June 29, 2015, when both parties were represented by counsel. To memorialize the stipulations and agreements made by the parties at the pretrial conference, the trial court entered two orders on August 24, 2015. A pretrial conference order (conference order) established, among other things, the stipulations and burdens of proof regarding equitable distribution and spousal support. The pretrial scheduling order (scheduling order) established a trial date of March 17, 2016. It required wife to submit to husband by October 27, 2015, appraisals of any property owned by husband prior to the marriage that wife contended had increased in value during the marriage. Husband was required to submit to wife by January 10, 2016, appraisals of any property for which husband contested the appraisal submitted by wife. The scheduling order required both parties to file with the trial court fifteen days prior to trial a list of exhibits and proposed witnesses. It warned, "Any exhibit or witness not so identified and filed will not be received in evidence, except in rebuttal or for impeachment . . . ." Additionally, the scheduling order provided, "Absent leave of court, any motion in limine which requires argument exceeding five minutes shall be duly noticed and heard before the day of trial." Finally, it established, "Continuances will only be granted by the court for good cause shown." Neither party objected to either order.

         On January 8, 2016, the trial court granted wife's counsel's request to withdraw. On February 25, 2016, the trial court denied wife's request for a continuance. Wife, acting pro se, [1]filed a notice of appeal on March 7, 2016, seeking review by this Court of the trial court's order denying her request for a continuance. Wife did not request this Court to stay the proceedings in the trial court pending resolution of her appeal. This Court dismissed the appeal without prejudice on March 22, 2016, because the appeal "ha[d] been filed prematurely as it was not a final dispositive order entered in that case."[2] On March 17, 2016, which was the date set by the scheduling order for trial, the trial court denied wife's request to stay the trial on the basis of the pending appeal and denied her new motion for a continuance. The trial court granted husband's request to prohibit wife from calling witnesses or introducing exhibits that had not been disclosed pursuant to the deadline imposed by the scheduling order. Although husband had disclosed his list prior to the deadline, wife had made no disclosure. The trial court ruled, however, that wife herself could testify and that she could present witnesses or exhibits in rebuttal to or impeachment of husband's evidence.

         Wife's assignments of error essentially flow from the trial court's enforcement of the conference order and the scheduling order.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Wife's Motion to Stay Trial Pending Her Interlocutory Appeal

         Wife argues that the trial court erred by denying her motion to stay, which she made at the March 17, 2016 trial.[3] Her assignment of error states,

At the time of the March 17, 2016 hearing, an appeal was pending in the Court of Appeals of Virginia regarding Wife's appeal of the trial court's February 25, 2016 Order. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals of Virginia had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter of the suit. The trial court did not have jurisdiction on March 17, 2016 to hear any evidence or make any decisions regarding the parties' divorce matter.

         We first note that wife concedes that this Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to address the merits of her appeal from the February 25, 2016 order. Wife nevertheless argues that the mere filing of the notice of appeal transferred jurisdiction over the case to this Court, and divested the trial court of jurisdiction to proceed until this Court dismissed the appeal. Simply put, the issue before us is whether a trial court must stay all proceedings in a case when a party files a notice of appeal regarding an interlocutory order over which this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.

         A challenge to a trial court's jurisdiction is a question of law that is reviewed de novo on appeal. Mayer v. Corso-Mayer, 62 Va.App. 713, 724-25, 753 S.E.2d 263, 268 (2014).

         It is well-established that "[t]he orderly administration of justice demands that when an appellate court acquires jurisdiction over the parties involved in litigation and the subject matter of their controversy, the jurisdiction of the trial court from which the appeal was taken must cease." Greene v. Greene, 223 Va. 210, 212, 288 S.E.2d 447, 448 (1982) (emphasis added). "When a party files a notice of appeal, that notice 'effectively transfers jurisdiction from the lower court to the appellate court and places the named parties within the jurisdiction of the appellate court.'" McCoy v. McCoy, 55 Va.App. 524, 528, 687 S.E.2d 82, 84 (2010) (quoting Watkins v. Fairfax Cty. Dep't of Family Servs., 42 Va.App. 760, 771, 595 S.E.2d 19, 25 (2004)).

         However, "the Court of Appeals of Virginia is a court of limited jurisdiction. Unless a statute confers jurisdiction to this Court, we are without power to review an appeal."[4] Prizzia v. Prizzia, 45 Va.App. 280, 286, 610 S.E.2d 326, 329 (2005) (quoting Canova Elec. Contracting, Inc. v. LMI Ins. Co., 22 Va.App. 595, 599, 471 S.E.2d 827, 829 (1996)). "While a court always has jurisdiction to determine whether it has subject matter jurisdiction, a judgment on the merits made without subject matter jurisdiction is null and void." Porter v. Commonwealth, 276 Va. 203, 228, 661 S.E.2d 415, 427 (2008) (quoting Morrison v. Bestler, 239 Va. 166, 170, 387 S.E.2d 753, 755-56 (1990)). Consequently, a notice of appeal cannot transfer to this Court jurisdiction over the subject matter of a case if that subject matter is not within this Court's limited jurisdiction.[5]

         Here, wife appealed to this Court on March 7, 2016, the trial court's February 25, 2016 order denying her motion for a continuance. This Court had jurisdiction to determine whether the appeal fell within its subject matter jurisdiction. When this Court determined that the appeal did not, we dismissed the appeal on March 22, 2016, because the appeal "ha[d] been filed prematurely as it was not a final dispositive order entered in that case." Contrary to wife's argument, this Court never ...

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