Remember Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett? He was a talented player and a Super Bowl champion. Nevertheless, many now remember him as a cautionary tale about celebrating too early, before the job is complete.

Lett’s story is familiar to sports fans. Twenty-one years ago during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXVII between the Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills, Lett picked up a fumble at the Dallas 35-yard-line and began his sprint for the end-zone. The game was already over (Dallas was ahead by a margin that would make even this year’s Seahawk team blush), but a touchdown and personal glory were within Lett’s reach. As the tape shows, however, they were not to be, thanks to the hustle of Bills wide receiver Don Beebe, who swiped the ball out of Lett’s hands right before the end-zone.

I was reminded of Lett yesterday when I read the North Carolina Court of Appeals opinion In re Thompson, a case where the appellee’s victories in early proceedings were undone “on the one-yard-line,” so to speak.

In re Thompson concerns a Petition for Adjudication of Incompetence and an Application for Appointment of Guardian or Limited Guardian. From the initial hearing before the Clerk of Court, through re-hearings, appeals to the Superior Court, and other ancillary proceedings, all decisions favored the guardian of the estate. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded those prior decisions, however, when the record showed that the original incompetency order issued by the clerk of court was invalid because judgment was never entered. Indeed, no copy of the Clerk’s original signed incompetency order was stamped and filed with the Court.

Citing Rule 58, the Court explained that a judgment or an order “is entered when it is reduced to writing, signed by the judge, and filed with the clerk of court.” Because the clerk’s incompetency order had not been entered, the appeal period for the competency decision had not begun to run. Entry of that order was necessary for the superior court to have jurisdiction over the appeal; consequently, the appellate proceedings before the superior court were improper for want of jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

This same fumble could happen under Appellate Rule 3, where parties could waste time and money on an “appeal” from an order that, despite being signed and dated by the Judge, was never filed.

Appellate practitioners should note the operation of Rule 58 and the importance of file stamps to the appellate process. Likewise trial counsel should ensure that their signed orders get filed with the Court, lest the Court of Appeals or opposing counsel play the role of Bill’s receiver Don Beebe and spoil the celebration just before the end zone.

— Eric Snider