Premier Pediatric Providers, LLC v. Kennesaw Pediatrics, P.C.

Kennesaw Pediatrics, P.C. sued Premier Pediatric Providers, LLC and won summary judgment. Premier appealed, which meant it then had 30 days to have the hearing transcript prepared and filed as part of the record on appeal. Premier did not do so. Four months later, Kennesaw Pediatrics moved to dismiss the appeal under OCGA § 5-6-48(c). That statute allows a trial court to dismiss an appeal “where there has been an unreasonable delay in the filing of the transcript and it is shown that the delay was inexcusable and was caused by [the party responsible for filing the transcript].”

To counter Kennesaw Pediatrics’ motion to dismiss, Premier explained that it had believed the transcript was filed a few days after the notice of appeal. After filing the notice of appeal, Appellant’s firm received an invoice from the clerk of superior court for all costs associated with the record on appeal including a $35.00 “Transcript Charge” and $1,562.00 for the 1,562 “pages in record” at a cost of a dollar per page. Harris's firm promptly paid the invoice, and Harris assumed that meant that the transcript had been included in the record on appeal. From the record, it was reasonable to conclude that the only transcript in the case—the summary judgment hearing—was covered by the $35 fee for a transcript. He only suspected that he was wrong when he saw the motion to dismiss. He immediately arranged for the transcript to be prepared and filed with the court five days after the motion to dismiss was filed (which had been filed four months after the notice of appeal). The trial court agreed that the delay was neither unreasonable nor inexcusable and denied the motion to dismiss.

The Georgia Court of Appeals vacated the order denying dismissal, holding that because Appellant did not do anything to ensure the transcript was filed for the first four months of the appeal, his explanation was unreasonable and his delay was inexcusable. The Court of Appeals explained that the delay was “prima facie inexcusable” because it was Premier's responsibility to have the transcript prepared and that Premier failed to “come forth with evidence to rebut the presumption that the delay was inexcusable.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that it was not proper for Premier to shift the blame to the clerk of court for not filing the transcript. The Court of Appeals also concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by focusing only on Premier's diligence after Kennesaw Pediatrics filed its motion to dismiss. The court then entered an order dismissing the appeal.

The Supreme Court of Georgia granted review to clarify the standard for appellate review of a trial court's decision whether to dismiss an appeal under OCGA § 5-6-48(c), both as to the predicate findings and the ultimate decision whether to dismiss, and to consider whether the Court of Appeals properly applied that statute in this case.

The “abuse of discretion” standard applies both to the trial court's predicate findings (on the unreasonable and inexcusable factors) and its ultimate decision of whether to deny the motion. Under that standard, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Kennesaw Pediatrics’ motion to dismiss.

Under Georgia law, an appellate court may not dismiss an appeal challenged under OCGA § 5-6-48(c), and it is generally not proper even to direct the trial court to do so. That statute expressly prohibits an appellate court from dismissing an appeal based on the failure to timely file the transcript, and it gives the trial court discretion as to the ultimate question whether to dismiss an appeal.

The abuse of discretion standard means the trial court's conclusions will be affirmed so long as they are “in conformity with the governing legal principles,” based on “correct facts” that are “relevant to determining whether [any] legal requirements [are] satisfied,” and within the “range” of possible outcomes “in which there could be room for reasonable and experienced minds to differ.”

Applying that standard of review here, the Supreme Court of Georgia saw no basis for concluding that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that the delay here was not “inexcusable.” The trial court did not rely on any incorrect facts or misunderstandings of the law. The sequence of events was not disputed.

The legislature has directed that the Appellate Practice Act is to be “liberally construed so as to bring about a decision on the merits of every case appealed and to avoid dismissal of any case or refusal to consider any points raised therein.” OCGA § 5-6-30. In other words, OCGA § 5-6-30 puts a legislative thumb on the scale in favor of reaching the merits. The Act was passed to “simplify the procedure for bringing a case to the appellate court,” not to “set traps and pitfalls by way of technicalities for unwary litigants,” and was intended to “get away from the harsh practice of treating every minor departure from prescribed procedures as a jurisdictional defect on the same level as a violation of the Bill of Rights.” That directive adds support to the trial court's decision here to allow the appeal of this case to proceed to a decision on its merits. The opinion below was REVERSED, the order of dismissal was VACATED, and the case is REMANDED to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings.

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