What is a “Motion for Clarification”?

It may not show up in the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure, but the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has created rules about it – the so-called “Motion for Clarification.” You can read the court’s opinion in Moss v. Mosley, Case No. 2040992 (Ala Civ. App. May 26, 2006).

The facts of the case concern the trial court’s attempt to divide marital property in a divorce, including real estate owned by the family business. Specifically, the family business (controlled by the husband) was allowed to intervene as a party. 121 days after the trial court’s final ruling, the corporation filed a “Motion for Clarification” opposing the conveyance of a portion of its property to the wife.

The trial court later grianted the corporation’s motion and amended the property division aspects of the divorce decree so as to exclude the conveyance of the corporation’s property to the wife. The appeals court doesn’t say so, but it must have been the wife who appealed.

The appeals court said that the corporation’s motion may have been styled as a “Motion for Clarification” but that in reality it was much more, because it sought to change the property division described in the divorce decree.

A “motion for clarification” is just what the name implies: a request for an explanation from the trial court as to the meaning of a prior, allegedly unclear, order. A “motion for clarification” does not seek to persuade the trial court that a prior judgment should be changed, modified, or invalidated. If it does seek to do any of those things, then it is not a “motion to clarify” a judgment, but a motion to alter, amend, or vacate a judgment, one that, pursuant to Rule 59(e), Ala. R. Civ. P., must be filed not later than 30 days after entry of the judgment. If a trial court’s response to a “motion for clarification” is to explain, rather than to alter, amend, or vacate a prior order, then that response is a strong indicator that the motion was, in fact, one seeking clarification. See Gold Kist, Inc. v. Crouch, 671 So. 2d 695, 696 (Ala. Civ. App. 1995)(noting that “the original order was not modified by [the request for clarification]; the court simply clarified what we conclude was an abundantly clear order”). The converse is also true. If the trial court’s response to a motion for clarification does “more than merely clarify the trial court’s previous order,” by making, for example, “modifications that [are] more substantial in nature than the correction of a mere mechanical mistake,” then such corrections must be made pursuant to either Rule 59(e) or Rule 60(b), Ala. R. Civ. P. Pate v. Pate, 849 So. 2d 972, 976 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002).

The appeals court said that by the time the Motion for Clarification was filed, the trial court had no jurisdiction to amend the property division aspects of the divorce decree. Therefore, it said, the trial court’s order was void. The appeals court dismissed the appeal because it was from a void order.