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The Licensee v Queensland Building and Construction Commission[2019] QCAT 31

The Licensee v Queensland Building and Construction Commission[2019] QCAT 31

QUEENSLAND CIVIL AND ADMINISTRATIVE TRIBUNAL

CITATION:

The Licensee v Queensland Building and Construction Commission [2019] QCAT 031

PARTIES:

THE LICENSEE

(applicant)

v

QUEENSLAND BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION COMMISSION

(respondent)

APPLICATION NO:

GAR029-19

MATTER TYPE:

Occupational regulation matters

DELIVERED ON:

7 February 2019

HEARING DATE:

1 February 2019

HEARD AT:

Brisbane

DECISION OF:

Member A Fitzpatrick

ORDERS:

  1. Upon the Directors of the applicant, by their Counsel, undertaking to the tribunal as follows:

The Directors, jointly and severally, will pay, within 30 days of demand, any debt of the applicant incurred between the making of this order and the below hearing date, that remains unpaid by the applicant if and when it is liquidated,

the tribunal orders that:

  1. (a)
    The decision of the respondent dated 8 January 2019 to suspend the applicant’s licence (decision) be stayed until such time as the application   to   review    a    decision    filed  14 January 2019 (review application) is determined, further order or agreement in writing of the parties.
  2. (b)
    The respondent is to write to the applicant and inform it whether it will:
    1. (i)
      consent to an order setting aside the decision; or
    2. (ii)
      oppose the review application setting out the grounds relied on, including suchinformationwhichisrelevantto compliance with the Minimum Financial Requirements policy of the respondent, not currently provided by the applicant with particular reference to the 31 December 2018 balance sheet for the Family Group and the conclusions reached in paragraph 22 of the affidavit of Natasha Dennis-Weller filed 1 February 2019,

By 8 February 2019;

  1. (c)
    Conditional upon the respondent writing to the applicant pursuant to Order 2(b):
    1. The applicant file and serve such further material as they intend relying on in relation to the review application,

By 1 March 2019;

  1. The respondent file and serve any material in reply that it intends relying on in relation to the review application; further advising which witnesses it requires for cross- examination,

By 22 March 2019;

  1. The applicant file and serve any further material in reply and further advise which witnesses it requires for cross-examination

By 5 April 2019;

  1. The review application be listed for hearing on 20 and 21 May 2019.
  1. (d)
    Other than to the parties to the proceeding, publication is prohibited of information which may identify the applicant company and its directors, any subsidiary or related companies of the applicant or any of the applicant’s current construction projects, until further order of the tribunal. This order does not affect the public register maintained by the respondent.
  2. (e)
    The costs of the application to stay a decision filed 14 January 2019 and the review application are reserved.

CATCHWORDS:

PROFESSIONS AND TRADES – BUILDERS LICENCES AND REGISTRATION – where decision made to suspend licence because of failure to meet minimum financial requirements – where applicant filed an application to review and seeks a stay of the suspension decision – whether it is desirable to grant a stay

Queensland Building and Construction Commission Act

1991 (Qld), s 35,

Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2009 (Qld), s 22, 66

Bryant v Commonwealth Bank of Australia (1996) 70 ALJR 306

Deputy Commissioner Stewart v Kennedy [2011] QCATA 254

Erathnage v Medical Board of Australia [2016] QCAT 418

NGE v Queensland Building and Construction Commission [2017] QCAT 238

Uysal v Queensland Building and Construction Commission [2016] QCAT 367

APPEARANCES & REPRESENTATION:

 

Applicant:

BWJ Kidston instructed by Hall Lawyers Pty Ltd

Respondent:

C Hill, in-house solicitor, Queensland Building and Construction Commission

REASONS FOR DECISION

  1. [1]
    An order pursuant to s 66 of the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2009 (Qld) (QCAT Act) has been made in this matter. The parties have therefore been de-identified.
  2. [2]
    The Licensee is the subject of a decision of the respondent made 8 January 2019 to suspend its carpentry licence for failure to meet Minimum Financial Requirements. The Licensee conducts business as Trustee for a Trust.
  3. [3]
    On 15 January 2019, an interim order was made by this tribunal staying the 8 January 2019 decision until the hearing of an application for a stay heard on 1 February 2019.
  4. [4]
    The application to stay a decision was filed by the Licensee on 14 January 2019. The relief sought is that the 8 January 2019 decision be stayed pending determination of an application for review of that decision filed 14 January 2019, on such terms as the tribunal considers appropriate.
  1. [5]
    The interim order made on 15 January 2019 was made upon the undertaking to the tribunal that the directors of the Licensee jointly and severally pay, within 30 days of demand, any debt of the Licensee incurred between the making of the order and the hearing date on 1 February 2019 that remains unpaid by the applicant, if and when it is liquidated. Counsel for the applicant undertook to the tribunal that if a further stay is granted the same undertaking is given by the Directors.
  2. [6]
    After considering the evidence and submissions made by both parties, I granted the stay and made orders accordingly. My reasons for the decision are set out below.

Power to grant a stay

  1. [7]
    The tribunal has the power to grant a stay under s 22(4) of the QCAT Act, if it considers it desirable after having regard to:
    1. (a)
      the interests of any person whose interests may be affected by the making of the order or the order not being made;
    2. (b)
      any submission made to the tribunal by the decision-maker for the reviewable decision; and
    3. (c)
      the public interest.
  2. [8]
    The statutory provision has primacy in terms of the relevant considerations on an application for stay of a decision. The provision does not exclude standard curial principles and procedures:
    1. (a)
      whether the applicant has an arguable case; and
    2. (b)
      the balance of convenience.
  3. [9]
    In relation to prospects of success the applicant must demonstrate that there is an arguable case. The tribunal is not required to undertake a detailed assessment of prospects of success. Factors which may influence a determination of the balance of convenience and desirability of granting a stay include whether refusal of a stay would render the appeal nugatory, the impact of a stay on both parties and the public interest.[1]
  4. [10]
    The tribunal should only grant a stay if it considers this ‘desirable’. The word has been held to connote a ‘positive aspiration’ and ‘worthy of achievement’ rather than ‘merely advisable’.[2]

Reasons for suspension of the licence

  1. [11]
    Under s 35(3) of the Queensland Building and Construction Commission Act 1991 (Qld) (the QBCC Act), a licence may be granted subject to conditions as the authority considers appropriate, including that the licensee’s financial circumstances must at all times satisfy the relevant financial requirements stated in the Board’s policies. The Minimum Financial Requirements (MFR) policy requires all licensees to maintain a

current ratio of not less than 1:1, meaning a licensee’s current assets must equal or exceed its current liabilities.

  1. [12]
    The QBCC may suspend or cancel a licence if the licensee contravenes a condition to which the licence is subject under s 35.[3]
  2. [13]
    On 5 September 2018, the QBCC commenced a compliance audit pursuant to s 50C of the QBCC Act to determine if the licensee was in compliance with the MFR policy.
  3. [14]
    Since then the company and the QBCC have engaged in correspondence and participated in meetings in order to establish compliance with the MFR policy.
  4. [15]
    In its statement of reasons for the decision made on 8 January 2019, the QBCC stated that Licensee’s submissions did not demonstrate that the company complies with the Minimum Financial Requirements.
  5. [16]
    One of the key areas of concern to the QBCC is whether related entity loans from the Licensee to beneficiaries of the Trust are collectable and therefore appropriately included in the current assets of the Licensee.
  6. [17]
    Section 4 of the MFR Policy states that Current Assets do not include any Related Entity loans or investment assets which are not collectable.
  7. [18]
    Section 6.6 of the MFR policy provides:

The Accepted Independent Accountant must determine the collectability of any Related Entity Loan or investment assets based on the financial position of the Related Entity as at the same balance date as the MFR report or other report.

At a minimum, the Accepted Independent Accountant is required to view the balance sheet of the Related Entity, for the relevant balance date and ensure the Related Entity Loan or investment is shown as a liability for the same amount, and classification, as stated by the applicant or licensee.

  1. [19]
    Section 14 of the MFR policy defines ‘collectable’ as:

For Related Entity loan or investment assets it means the Related Entity has net current assets and net tangible assets as at balance sheet date sufficient to repay the loan in full.

  1. [20]
    The QBCC in its Statement of Reasons said that it was not satisfied the Minimum Financial Requirements had been met because the information provided to it did not demonstrate:
    1. (a)
      whether the related entities have sufficient net current assets to repay their related entity loans to the trust;
    2. (b)
      whether the related entity loan amounts have been confirmed as collectable. For this reason the loans should be excluded from the current assets of the trust;
    3. (c)
      that there were further assets available to the trust. The $90,000 of assets said to be available to the trust represented by vehicles and tools are non-current assets and would not affect the current assets of the trust even if brought to account; and
  1. (d)
    the collectability of an amount owed to the Licensee by a creditor, in liquidation.
  1. [21]
    The QBCC calculated in its Statement of Reasons that the current ratio of the licensee and trust combined was 0.70:1 which is less than the minimum current ratio of 1:1 required by s 4 of the MFR policy.

Evidence

  1. [22]
    The applicant did not call any witnesses however it relied on the following material made Exhibits in the proceeding:
    1. (a)
      Exhibit 1 – application to review a decision filed 14 January 2019;
    2. (b)
      Exhibit 2 – application to stay a decision filed 14 January 2019;
    3. (c)
      Exhibit 3 – affidavit of a Director sworn 14 January 2019;
    4. (d)
      Exhibit 4 – affidavit of Anthony Diacos sworn 11 January 2019;
    5. (e)
      Exhibit 5 – order made 15 January 2019; and
    6. (f)
      Exhibit 6 – affidavit of Craig Mitchell Hall sworn 24 January 2019.
  2. [23]
    The QBCC handed up at the hearing and filed by leave an affidavit of Natasha Dennis- Weller sworn 1 February 2019 which is Exhibit 7 in the proceedings.

The interests of the applicant

  1. [24]
    On the basis that the QBCC’s material does not assert contrary facts, I accept the evidence of the Director set out in his affidavit of 14 January 2019 that:
    1. (a)
      the applicant, as trustee for the Trust, carries on business undertaking carpentry work, including form work;
    2. (b)
      the business has in excess of 20 employees;
    3. (c)
      in the 2017 financial year the applicant had a net profit in excess of $500,000. The 2018 financial year was not good but there were no real cash flow issues;
    4. (d)
      work secured in the financial year 2018/2019 and work it is anticipated to secure will generate a significant profit in the order of over $500,000;
    5. (e)
      suspension of the applicant’s licence means that:
  1. (i)
    the applicant cannot perform building work and derive income;
  2. (ii)
    the applicant is exposed to claims for delay damages;
  3. (iii)
    the applicant still has to meet its financial obligations to its creditors and employees. The applicant would need to start terminating employment of employees;
  4. (iv)
    family income will be jeopardised and cease;
  5. (v)
    the applicant will be unable to pay its trade creditors. That will likely result in other trade creditors refusing to supply the applicant;
  6. (vi)
    the applicant will likely be placed under external administration and be liquidated;
  7. (vii)
    the home in which the Director and his family live, which is mortgaged to the applicant’s bankers, is potentially at risk of being lost; and
  8. (viii)
    there are four current jobs and two they are waiting to start representing approximately $2.5 million in total work. Two jobs are anticipated representing approximately $500,000 in total work. They are all commercial projects and none are domestic in nature;
  1. (f)
    wages are paid up to date;
  2. (g)
    The Directors, both shareholders of the applicant and their respective families have net assets with a value of at least $2 million; and
  3. (h)
    unless the stay application is granted, the applicant may lose the benefit of its current contracts and sustain substantial loss of goodwill and reputation within the industry.
  1. [25]
    Ms Natasha Dennis-Weller, team leader of the financial requirements division of the QBCC, gave evidence that she had insufficient information to conclude that all the Licensee’s taxation obligations were being complied with but did acknowledge that there was evidence a portion of the debt to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) was being paid by agreement. I note an ATO payment plan attached to Mr Hall’s affidavit together with an itemised account showing regular payments up to 21 January 2019. On this evidence I find that moneys owed to the ATO are being managed. The QBCC submitted that the applicant was not within the industry terms of trade prescribed in the MFR Policy. There is no evidence of any claim by trade creditors against the Licensee. I accept the evidence of the Director that the Licensee is paying its debts.
  2. [26]
    Also attached to Mr Hall’s affidavit is the Trust’s National Australia Bank account balance summary for the month ending 31 December 2018, disclosing a closing balance of $374,641.47 credit.
  3. [27]
    Mr Hall attaches  a balance sheet position for  the Directors’  Family Group as  at  31 December 2018. The total assets of the Family Group after related entity loans is stated as $1,724,719. Valuation reports are attached by Mr Hall in relation to the homes referred to in the balance sheet for the Family Group.
  4. [28]
    The affidavit of Mr Hall sworn 24 January 2019 attaches a MFR report certified by Mr Anthony Diacos, Certified Practicing Accountant. The report is dated 21 January 2019. Mr Diacos certifies that:
    1. (a)
      he has included related entity loan and/or investment asset amounts in the financial information, having independently verified such assets are collectable by the applicant in accordance with the MFR policy;
    2. (b)
      the current ratio is 1.1967:1; and
    3. (c)
      the applicant meets the MFR requirements. Based on the client’s NTA, the maximum revenue the client may earn per financial year is $3 million.
  1. [29]
    The matters certified by Mr Diacos are challenged by the QBCC and will form a central part of the forthcoming review hearing. Mr Diacos was not called for cross- examination. The QBCC submits that it has insufficient information about the matters underpinning his opinion to agree with his conclusion.
  2. [30]
    The principal area of dispute between the QBCC and the applicant is whether related party loans are collectable. The applicant relying on the evidence of its accountant, Mr Diacos, submits that they are collectable. The QBCC holds to the position that on the evidence before it the related party loans are not current assets of the applicant, because they are not collectable.
  3. [31]
    During cross-examination, Ms Dennis-Weller agreed that if the accountant’s view that the loans are collectable is preferred, then the ratio would be met.
  4. [32]
    Upon reference to the balance sheet for the Family Group, Ms Dennis-Weller agreed with the net asset position but not that assets described were current assets. For example, her evidence is that a home is not a current asset unless it is on the market. It was  put to Ms Dennis-Weller that the house  of one Director is on  the market.  Ms Dennis-Weller was unaware if that was the case but said if it was the case then the home would be a current asset.
  5. [33]
    By reference to another item on the balance sheet – ‘Other Assets’ – of $120,000, Ms Dennis-Weller said she was not aware what those assets comprised. She could not say without knowing what the assets were, whether they might be current or non- current.
  6. [34]
    Ms Dennis-Weller agreed that wherever she had no evidence as to the status of an asset as current or non-current, it was excluded from her calculations and treated as non-current.
  7. [35]
    Ms Dennis-Weller agreed that if further enquiries were made she may be satisfied that the Minimum Financial Requirements had been met. Given this evidence, it behoves the applicant to provide the QBCC with all further information thought relevant by the QBCC. I intend to make Orders in this regard.

Submissions by the decision-maker including as to the public interest

  1. [36]
    The QBCC submits that the grant of a stay is exercised only in very exceptional circumstances and that cases involving a stay of laws designed to protect the public are in a different class from those involving no more than the suspension of the operation of orders affecting private litigants.[4]The QBCC also relied on to the decision of Justice Thomas in Deputy Commissioner Stewart v Kennedy referred to earlier in this decision.
  2. [37]
    The QBCC opposes the grant of a stay for the following reasons:
  1. (a)
    the applicant has no prospects of success in establishing that it meets the requirements of the MFR policy;
  2. (b)
    it is not in the interests of the public for the applicant to hold a licence if it is in contravention of the MFR policy; and
  3. (c)
    the last three months demonstrate that the applicant’s financial position has worsened in that trade creditors have increased, the ATO debt has increased and related entity loans have increased.
  1. [38]
    The QBCC submits that there is limited evidence of payment of the applicant’s debts.
  2. [39]
    It is submitted that the QBCC repeatedly requested material which was not provided despite the grant of extensions.
  3. [40]
    Further, the payment of debts would appear to be outside industry trading terms. The QBCC does not have evidence of terms agreed between debtors to extend time. A substantial amount of the debts are not paid in the ordinary trading terms.
  4. [41]
    The QBCC is concerned by the fact that balance sheets submitted by the accountant are in conflict.
  5. [42]
    The QBCC said that none of the directors nor the accountant were present at the hearing to be cross-examined. The information in the affidavits is not tested.
  6. [43]
    The QBCC submitted that the affidavit of the Director was self-serving and that the tribunal must weigh the harm to contractors and subcontractors in the event that the applicant does not have sufficient financial means to trade.
  7. [44]
    The QBCC submitted that earlier financial statements included intangible assets; there has been little evidence about collectability of related entity loans; and no evidence that one of the homes owned by the Director was for sale.
  8. [45]
    In relation to the undertakings offered by the Directors, the QBCC asked how creditors might be in a better position because of the undertakings currently given and proposed to be continued upon the grant of a stay, that they jointly and severally will pay within 30 days of demand any debt of the applicant incurred between the making of the order and the hearing date that remains unpaid by the applicant if and when it is liquidated.

Reply to the QBCC’s submissions

  1. [46]
    The applicant submits that the undertaking to pay creditors was proffered by the Directors where they did not have any obligation to make such a payment. I accept that submission and agree that it is of value and offers a degree of comfort in the circumstances.
  2. [47]
    It was submitted that the QBCC’s own material reveals its knowledge that one of the Directors’ homes is on the market. I note that is the case and upon Ms Dennis-Weller’s evidence brings the home into play as a current asset. That has the effect of supporting the applicant’s contention in relation to collectability of related entity loans.
  3. [48]
    The applicant submits that none of the discrepancies in the accounts are matters of any gravity. The important matter is the current financial position of the company. I accept that the current financial position is the most relevant information.
  1. [49]
    The applicant submits that one cannot conclude that the applicant’s position is worsening. Reasons for an increase in liabilities are that ATO obligations are payable quarterly and an increase in the purchase of goods for work will increase GST and trade creditors. In relation to the increase in the Directors’ loans, they represent drawings recorded as loans until profit is declared and set off against the loans at the end of the year. The applicant submits that the facts referred to do not give rise to an inference of a worsening financial position and that absent evidence to that effect, one cannot draw the inference. I accept that submission.
  2. [50]
    In relation to the failure to produce witnesses for cross-examination, the point was made that no request was made for witnesses to be available for cross-examination at the hearing. In circumstances where I cannot finally determine issues between the parties but where I am merely obliged to consider whether there is an arguable case made by the applicant, I do not consider the failure to call the Directors and the accountant enables any adverse conclusions to be drawn.
  3. [51]
    Apart from the submissions as to payment of the ATO and trading terms for trade creditors, addressed earlier in this decision, I accept the submission that there is no dispute on the evidence as to the matters deposed to by the Director and the accountant.
  4. [52]
    In relation to risk to the public, the applicant says that there is a difference in views between Mr Diacos, the Certified Practicing Accountant, and the QBCC which cannot be determined until the hearing of the review application. It is said that because a Certified Practicing Accountant has given a certificate and the directors have given undertakings supported by their capacity set out in their balance sheet, there is no apparent danger to the public.
  5. [53]
    The applicant submits that any risk to the public needs to be weighed against detriment to the company and its employees and the jobs the applicant is contracted to perform.
  6. [54]
    The role of the tribunal is to determine whether it is ‘desirable’ to grant the stay having regard to whether there is an arguable case and the balance of convenience.
  7. [55]
    It is submitted that it is not necessary to determine the prospects of the case other than that there is a serious question to be tried.
  8. [56]
    It is submitted that the balance of convenience favours the granting of a stay, especially where the directors’ undertaking has been given and there is no evidence from the QBCC as to the balance of convenience.

Consideration

  1. [57]
    I have considered the submissions made to the tribunal by the QBCC as the decision- maker for the reviewable decision. I do not consider that the applicant has no prospects of success. I find that the applicant has an arguable case by reference to the certificate of the Certified Practicing Accountant, Mr Diacos, the evidence of cash at bank, the net asset position of the Family Group, and the fact that a Director’s home is for sale bringing it into play as a current asset. I am unable on the state of the evidence to infer that the applicant’s position is worsening and that it is not taking steps to attend to payment of its debts.
  1. [58]
    I have accepted the evidence of the Director given in his affidavit that debts to the ATO and trade creditors are being met.
  2. [59]
    In relation to the public interest, I do not take the QBCC’s submissions lightly. Plainly, the public has a strong interest in only financially viable entities engaging in construction work. The test I am to apply is whether it is desirable to grant a stay, by reference to the factors set out in s 22(4) of the QCAT Act. Although the bar is high, I do not think that exceptional circumstances need be demonstrated as submitted by the QBCC. I am not satisfied that there is an imminent risk to the public if a stay of the suspension of licence is granted.
  3. [60]
    In relation to the interests of the applicant, its employees, contractors and parties to whom it is engaged for the provision of work, the failure to stay the suspension of the applicant’s licence would be very damaging and would have almost immediate effect. I refer to my findings made on the basis of the evidence of the Director.
  4. [61]
    Weighing the competing interests of the applicant and the probability of risk to the public, I find that the interests of the applicant prevail in this case.
  5. [62]
    I note the continuing obligations of the applicant to monitor its financial position by reference to the MFR policy and to make disclosure to the QBCC. Those obligations are unaffected by these proceedings. I note the entitlement of the QBCC under the MFR Policy to assess a licensee’s financial information in its discretion. If circumstances change such that further risk emerges, it will be open to the commission to apply to the tribunal for variation or withdrawal of the stay.
  6. [63]
    Neither party made submissions to me in relation to regular reporting of the Licensee’s financial position to the QBCC.
  7. [64]
    I am also influenced by the consideration that a hearing date is able to be set for 20 and 21 May 2019. Accordingly, a determination upon the review application can be made within a relatively short period of time.

Order

  1. [65]
    Upon the Directors of the applicant, by their Counsel, undertaking to the tribunal as follows:

The Directors, jointly and severally, will pay, within 30 days of demand, any debt of the applicant incurred between the making of this order and the below hearing date, that remains unpaid by the applicant if and when it is liquidated,

the tribunal orders that:

  1. (a)
    The decision of the respondent dated 8 January 2019 to suspend the applicant’s licence (decision) be stayed until such time as the application to review a decision filed 14 January 2019 (review application) is determined, further order or agreement in writing of the parties.
  2. (b)
    The respondent is to write to the applicant and inform it whether it will:
    1. (i)
      consent to an order setting aside the decision; or
    2. (ii)
      oppose the review application setting out the grounds relied on, including such information which is relevant to compliance with the Minimum Financial Requirements policy of the respondent, not currently provided by the applicant, with particular reference to the 31 December 2018 balance sheet for the Family Group and the conclusions reached in paragraph 22 of the affidavit of Natasha Dennis-Weller filed 1 February 2019,

by 8 February 2019;

  1. (iii)
    Conditional upon the respondent writing to the applicant pursuant to Order 2(b):
    1. The applicant file and serve such further material as they intend relying on in relation to the review application,

by 1 March 2019;

  1. The respondent file and serve any material in reply that it intends relying on in relation to the review application; further advising which witnesses it requires for cross-examination,

by 22 March 2019;

  1. The applicant file and serve any further material in reply and further advise which witnesses it requires for cross-examination,

by 5 April 2019;

  1. The review application be listed for hearing on 20 and 21 May 2019.
  1. (c)
    Other than to the parties to the proceeding, publication is prohibited of information which may identify the applicant company and its directors, any subsidiary or related companies of the applicant or any of the applicant’s current construction projects, until further order of the tribunal. This order does not affect the public register maintained by the respondent.
  2. (d)
    The costs of the application to stay a decision filed 14 January 2019 and the review application are reserved.

Footnotes

[1] Deputy Commissioner Stewart v Kennedy [2011] QCATA 254, [15] – [18]. See also Ethranage v Medical Board of Australia [2016] QCAT 418, [23].

[2] Uysal v Queensland Building and Construction Commission [2016] QCAT 367, [7], which discusses a similar stay provision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 (Cth), s 41.

[3] QBCC Act, s 48, s 49.

[4] Bryant v Commonwealth Bank of Australia [1996] HCA 3, [5], [6] (Kirby J).

Close

Editorial Notes

  • Published Case Name:

    The Licensee v Queensland Building and Construction Commission

  • Shortened Case Name:

    The Licensee v Queensland Building and Construction Commission

  • MNC:

    [2019] QCAT 31

  • Court:

    QCAT

  • Judge(s):

    Member A Fitzpatrick

  • Date:

    07 Feb 2019

Appeal Status

Please note, appeal data is presently unavailable for this judgment. This judgment may have been the subject of an appeal.

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