Fields v. Oates (CA1 9/11/12)

We’ve noted before that the Court of Appeals has people that look at its jurisdiction. Sometimes they seem to miss things. But other times – as in this case – they look very closely.

This was a quiet-title case. Defendant won summary judgment and submitted an order and a motion for fees. The order did not contain Rule 54(b) language. The court signed it. The plaintiff appealed from it. Then the court granted defendant’s fees. Later it dismissed the appeal because Plaintiff hadn’t filed a supersedeas bond and also repeated its fee award. Plaintiff then appealed the original rulings, the order dismissing his appeal, and the repeat fee award.

The Defendant did not challenge appeal jurisdiction until the Court of Appeals asked the parties to brief it. The court dismisses the appeal.

The original appeal was premature since the judgment wasn’t final – no Rule 54(b) language and the fee motion was still pending. (If there is 54(b) language then you can appeal and the fee issue is treated as separate, though the court shouldn’t normally enter judgment until fees are decided.) A premature notice is a nullity when, as here, the trial court has more to rule on. The opinion says that since Craig our courts no longer recognize a premature notice simply because a truly final judgment was entered later.

The original judgment became appealable when the trial court ruled on the fee motion. That order “completed the resolution of all issues in the litigation.” Plaintiff filed his second appeal more than thirty days after the fee ruling, so he couldn’t appeal from the original judgment at all.

But what about the repeat fee award? The court holds that it was not an amended judgment. Citing cases from other jurisdictions, the court holds that when a subsequent judgment is “neither a material change of the earlier judgment nor a new exercise in discretion” the appeal time runs from the first judgment.

As a last resort the plaintiff argued equity but that is not an answer to jurisdiction.

A footnote points out that the trial court has no authority to strike a Notice of Appeal; this issue is moot since the appeal was no good anyway.

This is an interesting situation. The trial court should have held the substantive order until it ruled on fees. Not doing so created problems for everyone. Should Defendant have included 54(b) language in the original order? Not really, given the pendency of the fee issue, but she could have – though in retrospect here that would have preserved the appeal, not limited it. Plaintiff should have known that he needn’t appeal the original order (and of course he should have filed his bond) but filing the notice of appeal after the fee ruling, and not needing to file it after the repeat order, are things that even experienced counsel couldn’t be sure of before this opinion. Now you know why, in this sort of situation, some people file a notice every time the court acts on anything

(link to opinion)