The Court recently clarified an important issue of civil procedure – the precise point at which a court may consolidate a preliminary injunction hearing with a hearing on the merits.

Rule 65 of the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court may consolidate a preliminary injunction hearing with a trial on the merits “[b]efore or after the commencement of the hearing of an application for a preliminary injunction.”  In McKeeman v. Duchaine, the Law Court held that, if a court is to consolidate the hearing and trial, it must do so before the preliminary injunction hearing concludes.

In McKeeman, tenants filed a complaint alleging that their landlord had violated various Maine statutes.  After a preliminary injunction hearing, the court granted the tenants’ motion in part, but denied a request to order the landlord to pay for temporary lodging.  Later, after the landlord failed to timely answer the complaint, the court denied the tenants’ motion for default judgment on the basis that the order on the preliminary injunction motion constituted a ruling on the merits.  However, no party had requested that the preliminary injunction motion be consolidated with a trial on the merits, and the court had not indicated that it would do so before the conclusion of the hearing.

The Law Court reversed, and clarified the standards for consolidation.  The Court noted that “an order for consolidation should be set forth clearly on the record.”  Such an order may be made on a party’s motion, by stipulation, or sua sponte.  The Court then went on to hold:

A court cannot resolve the merits of a case on the record developed at the preliminary injunction hearing absent a clear order of consolidation or agreement among the parties to so proceed. Even if clearly ordered, notice of consolidation given after a preliminary injunction hearing arrives too late to serve its purpose.

(cleaned up).  According to the Law Court, this conclusion is required by due process: “[u]nclear or untimely consolidation orders . . . raise constitutional concerns when they deprive parties of their due process rights to notice and the opportunity to be heard.”

In short, it is now clear under Maine law that “retroactive consolidation” is impermissible.  Litigants are entitled to due process, and that in turn entails full and fair opportunity for parties to present their case.  Litigants bring claims with the understanding that a preliminary injunction motion is not the last opportunity to present evidence supporting their claims, and plan their case accordingly; they therefore cannot be deprived of the opportunity to present further evidence without advance notice. As in so many areas of the law, retroactivity raises basic fairness problems because it deprives parties of the ability to prospectively make choices and plan their conduct to protect their interests.