When Can You Appeal a Partial Judgment or Order in Federal Court
Frequently in litigation, because a lawsuit often involves multiple claims alleged on different bases for relief, claims in the lawsuit can get dismissed as it progresses. Specifically, there are multiple points during the course of a lawsuit where a party can move to dismiss claims in the lawsuit or move for judgment on those claims before trial. Accordingly, claims in a lawsuit may get dismissed or otherwise resolved during the progression of a lawsuit while other claims are allowed to continue.
Examples of procedural points in the lawsuit where parties may move to dismiss or otherwise resolve claims at issue in the lawsuit include at the very beginning where parties may move to dismiss claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Fed. R. Civ. P.”) 12(b) before an Answer is due. Similarly, after an Answer is filed and the lawsuit proceeds into the discovery stage, parties may move for judgment on the pleadings under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). And, after parties have had a chance to conduct discovery and where discovery determines that there are no issues of material fact, a party may move for summary judgment to be entered on those claims under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56.
Moreover, in addition to procedural mechanisms that allow for parties to have claims dismissed or judgment entered before trial, there are also federal abstention doctrines whereby the presiding federal court may have to stay certain claims until other courts, typically state courts, have a chance to hear related claims or interpreted related statutes.
All in all, this leaves a scenario where claims in a lawsuit can be split up whereby certain claims may be dismissed, stayed, or judgment entered on them while other claims are allowed to proceed to trial. Accordingly, if a party believes a claim was wrongly dismissed or a judgment wrongly entered while other claims are still pending, this can create an issue as to whether the party needs to appeal the trial court’s order before waiting for the resolution of the remaining claims, which could be months or even years down the road.
The immediate appeal of rulings during the progression of the case are called “interlocutory appeals” and are typically disfavored by courts. Due to courts not wanting to bifurcate legal proceedings, interlocutory appeals are rarely granted.
When a Decision is Considered “Final” and Appealable in Federal Court
While interlocutory appeals are possible, in general parties must wait for a “final decision” of the trial court before appealing. This final decision is a ruling or judgment entered in the trial court that resolves all of the claims in the action such that there is nothing left “for the court to do but execute the judgment.” See 28 U.S.C. § 1291; Cunningham v. Hamilton Cnty., Ohio, 527 U.S. 198, 204 (1999); Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 233 (1945).
Fed. R. Civ. P. 54 specifically provides the circumstances under which a decision is considered “final” and appealable and, additionally, how parties may go about requesting certification of a non-final decision for interlocutory review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b) provides:
(b) Judgment on Multiple Claims or Involving Multiple Parties. When an action presents more than one claim for relief—whether as a claim, counterclaim, crossclaim, or third-party claim—or when multiple parties are involved, the court may direct entry of a final judgment as to one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties only if the court expressly determines that there is no just reason for delay. Otherwise, any order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties and may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties’ rights and liabilities.
Accordingly, under the rule, a decision that does not adjudicate all of the claims, right, or liabilities of all the parties in the action is not considered “final” and therefore not appealable. Thus, in circumstances where the trial court dismisses or enters judgment on some of the claims but other claims remain pending, the trial court’s decision is not considered a final judgment for appeal and, thus, cannot be immediately appealed.
Instead, parties will have to wait until all of the claims are litigated before appealing unless the dismissal or judgment is exceptional enough to qualify it for interlocutory review. See Williams v. Alabama Department Industrial Relations, 4:13-cv-1825-KOB (N.D. Ala., Middle Division, Nov. 13, 2014) (discussing the general policy of trial courts disfavor piecemeal litigation in the form of interlocutory appeals).
Interlocutory Appeals in Federal Court
While interlocutory appeals are generally disfavored, they are allowed under circumstances where the court’s order or decision will significantly prejudice the parties in moving forward. Specifically, the Supreme Court has determined that interlocutory appeals are permissible in a small category of cases where the decision being sought for appellate review:
– (1) Conclusively determined the disputed question;
– (2) Resolved an important questions separate from the merits of the action; and
– (3) The decision is effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action.
See Hallock v. Bonner, 387 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2004).This test is called the collateral order doctrine and, at its simplest, requires that the dismissed claims or judgment entered must be separate from the remaining claims in order to qualify for interlocutory appeal.
Additionally, since the allowance of an interlocutory appeal is purely discretionary, parties may request that the trial court certify a decision as final under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b) such that the decision may be immediately be appealed. In requesting whether a partial final judgment may properly be certified under the rule, a two-part test is applied:
– First, the trial court must determine that its judgment is, in fact, both final and a judgment; and
– Second, determine that there is no just reason for delay in certifying the judgment as final and immediately appealable.
See Williams v. Alabama Department Industrial Relations, 4:13-cv-1825-KOB (N.D. Ala., Middle Division, Nov. 13, 2014). In making the determination of whether to certify a judgment as final under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b), the trial court should exercise discretion and consider strongly the judicial and policy interests in avoiding piecemeal litigation.
Lastly, 28 U.S.C. § 1291(b) statutorily provides for an interlocutory appeal of a trial court’s order or judgment that involves a controlling question of law. Specifically, 28 U.S.C. § 1291(b) provides:
When a district judge, in making in a civil action an order not otherwise appealable under this section, shall be of the opinion that such order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation, he shall so state in writing in such order. The Court of Appeals which would have jurisdiction of an appeal of such action may thereupon, in its discretion, permit an appeal to be taken from such order, if application is made to it within ten days after the entry of the order: Provided, however, That application for an appeal hereunder shall not stay proceedings in the district court unless the district judge or the Court of Appeals or a judge thereof shall so order.
Accordingly, under the statute, where a trial court makes a ruling with respect to a controlling question of law, and there is room for disagreement as to application of the law and the ruling can affect how the lawsuit proceeds, then parties to the action may file an application for appeal within 10 days of the ruling. The appellate will then have discretion as to whether it will hear the appeal. Additionally, a stay in the action may be issued by either the trial court or appellate court until resolution of the interlocutory appeal. See Tony Weigand, Discretionary Interlocutory Appeals Under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b): A First Circuit Survey and Review, Roger Williams U. L. Rev. Vol. 19:183 (2014).
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