187 F.3d 703 (7th Cir. 1999), 98-3241, Health Cost Controls Il. v. Washington

Docket Nº:98-3241
Citation:187 F.3d 703
Party Name:Health Cost Controls of Illinois, Inc., Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Valerie Washington, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:August 10, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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187 F.3d 703 (7th Cir. 1999)

Health Cost Controls of Illinois, Inc., Plaintiff-Appellee,


Valerie Washington, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 98-3241

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 10, 1999

Argued April 8, 1999

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 95 C 3806--David H. Coar, Judge.

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Before Posner, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Manion, Circuit Judges.

Posner, Chief Judge.

Health Cost Controls brought suit against Valerie Washington, a participant in an employee welfare plan sponsored by her employer but administered in relevant part first by Michael Reese Health Plan, Inc. and later, when Humana bought Michael Reese, by Humana Health Plan, Inc. The suit sought reimbursement of certain benefits that the plan had paid her. The plan assigned its claim to Health Cost, which is why Health Cost is the plaintiff, rather than the plan. The case has a tangled history that raises jurisdictional issues. Ten years ago Washington was injured in an auto accident with an uninsured motorist. The plan paid her medical expenses. She obtained another $60,000--including $10,580.15 for medical expenses--from an automobile insurance policy that provided uninsured-motorist benefits. The insurance company's check for the medical expenses, rather than being made out just to her, was made out to her and Health Cost jointly, because of the latter's claim to be entitled to this money to reimburse it for having paid Washington's medical bills. Washington's lawyers deposited the check in an interest-bearing escrow account (where it remains to this day) pending a determination of which of the payees was entitled to it. Health Cost took the position that the terms of the plan entitled it to this money as subrogee. Washington disagreed and brought suit in an Illinois state court against Health Cost and the plan for a declaration that she was entitled to keep the money. Health Cost removed the suit to federal district court, basing federal jurisdiction on ERISA. See 29 U.S.C. sec. 1132(a); Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 66 (1987); Speciale v. Seybold, 147 F.3d 612, 615 (7th Cir. 1998). The district judge, disagreeing that it was an ERISA suit, remanded the case to the state court. Washington v. Humana Health Plan, Inc., 883 F.Supp. 264 (N.D. Ill. 1995). Two months later, Health Cost brought the present suit, which seeks primarily a declaration that the money in the escrow account belongs to it, and obtained summary judgment, precipitating this appeal. The state court recently dismissed Washington's suit, without prejudice, because of the pendency of Health Cost's parallel federal case.

There is, to begin with, a question of our appellate jurisdiction. The judgment order entered by the district court merely states that the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted and that "this case is closed." The grant of summary judgment is not, however, the entry of a judgment, despite the name, Massey Ferguson Division v. Gurley of Varity Corp., 51 F.3d 102, 104 (7th Cir. 1995); Abbs v. Sullivan, 963 F.2d 918, 923 (7th Cir. 1992); Landry v. G.B.A., 762 F.2d 462 (5th Cir. 1985) (per curiam), and despite the misleading statement in the Wright and Miller treatise that "a summary judgment completely disposing of all claims among all parties is final, just as any other such judgment." 15B Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure sec. 3914.28, p. 203 (2d ed. 1992) (emphasis added). A judgment in favor of a plaintiff is a statement of the relief being ordered; if in favor of the defendant, it is ordinarily a statement that the plaintiff's suit is dismissed; in either case the judgment is the bottom line. Grun v. Pneumo Abex Corp., 163 F.3d 411, 422 n. 8 (7th Cir. 1998); Massey Ferguson Division v. Gurley of Varity Corp., supra, 51 F.3d at 104; United States v. Menendez, 48 F.3d 1401, 1408-09 (5th Cir. 1995) (per curiam). Summary judgment is not relief. It is merely a procedural premise for relief. The relief is whatever the party moving for summary judgment was seeking and the court agrees the party is entitled to.

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There are two specific ways in which the grant of a motion for summary judgment will often fail to satisfy the criteria for an appealable order. The first is lack of finality, and the second lack of definiteness. United States v. Allen, 155 F.3d 35, 39 (2d Cir. 1998); 15B Wright, Miller & Cooper, supra, sec. 3914.28, pp. 204-06. Summary judgment, we repeat, is not a judgment; but if the judge indicates, as he seems to have done here when he said "this case is closed," that the grant of summary judgment is the last order he plans to enter--that he has finished with the case--then the grant becomes the final order in the case and objections based on lack of finality fall away. E.g., Massey Ferguson Division v. Gurley of Varity Corp., supra, 51 F.3d at 105; Abbs v. Sullivan, supra, 963 F.2d at 923. Such a summary judgment order may also be sufficiently definite to be appealable. The clearest case would be where the judge granted summary judgment to the defendant and accompanied the grant with a statement that the case was closed. It would be clear both that the order was final and that it amounted to a dismissal of the suit. E.g., Minnesota v. Kalman W. Abrams Metals, Inc., 155 F.3d 1019, 1023 (8th Cir. 1998). The absence of a formal judgment order (see Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 58) would not affect our jurisdiction. E.g., Shalala v. Schaefer, 509 U.S. 292, 303 (1993); Richmond v. Chater, 94 F.3d 263, 266 (7th Cir. 1996); Massey Ferguson Division v. Gurley of Varity Corp., supra, 51 F.3d at 105.

When, however, the grant of summary judgment is in favor of a plaintiff who is seeking a money judgment, then failure to enter an order directing the defendant to pay a specified sum may indeed be an event of jurisdictional significance. For it may leave unclear just what the judge has decided. It did here. The judge may have thought the amount of Health Cost's entitlement too obvious to warrant writing down the number of dollars that Valerie Washington must pay. He was wrong. What a plaintiff asks for in his complaint and what he is entitled to by way of judgment need not be the same number even if he wins the case, if only because a plaintiff often is entitled to prejudgment interest, Uphoff v. Elegant Bath, Ltd., 176 F.3d 399, 410 (7th Cir. 1999); Gorenstein Enterprises, Inc. v. Quality Care-USA, Inc., 874 F.2d 431, 436 (7th Cir. 1989); Motion Picture Ass'n of America, Inc. v. Oman, 969 F.2d 1154, 1157 (D.C. Cir. 1992), the amount of which cannot be determined until the judgment is entered. If a request for prejudgment interest is made in the district court we do not have appellate jurisdiction over a judgment in favor of the plaintiff until the district court acts on the request, Osterneck v. Ernst & Whinney, 489 U.S. 169 (1989), unless, possibly, only a mechanical calculation is required, that is, there is no issue concerning entitlement or amount. E.g., Production & Maintenance Employees' Local 504 v. Roadmaster Corp., 954 F.2d 1397, 1401-02 (7th Cir. 1992); Pratt v. Petroleum Production Management, Inc. Employee Savings Plan & Trust, 920 F.2d 651, 656 (10th Cir. 1990).

Maybe the judge was confused by the fact that Health Cost asked for a declaratory judgment rather than an order to pay. Rather than trying to collect money directly from Washington, who for all we know doesn't have any and who in any event might not be suable for damages under ERISA (a question we need not decide, however), Health Cost wants to get its paws on the money in the escrow account, which Washington does not control. It wants a declaration that it can take to the escrow agent as proof that the agent should turn over the money to it. But all this means is that instead of ordering the defendant to pay a specified sum of money to the plaintiff, the judge should have declared the plaintiff's right to a specified sum of money, or, alternatively and equivalently, to the balance in the escrow account.

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A declaratory judgment declares the rights of the parties; it does not "declare" merely that one of the parties has obtained summary judgment.

The requirement that the judgment make clear what the plaintiff is or is not entitled to is not a niggling, petty technicality; it is not a technicality at all. When there is uncertainty as to what the plaintiff is entitled to, the seeds of piecemeal appealing are sown; an appeal from an order entered during the postjudgment collection phase of a lawsuit is likely if the amount to be collected remains in dispute after the judgment has been affirmed. As bad as multiple appeals in the same case is uncertainty when and whether an appeal is possible. When a defective judgment is entered, the parties' lawyers have a duty, not here fulfilled, as officers of the court to advise the judge of the need to enter a proper, amended judgment. Cf. Richmond v. Chater, supra, 94 F.3d at 267.

But when it is clear both that the district court has resolved the parties' legal dispute and what the terms of that resolution are, that resolution is appealable as a final decision within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. sec. 1291 even if there is no simple, concise statement of just what the judgment is. E.g., Metzl v. Leininger, 57 F.3d 618, 619-20 (7th Cir. 1995); Abbs v. Sullivan, supra, 963 F.2d at 923; Vona v. County of Niagara, 119 F.3d 201, 206 (2d Cir. 1997). That's the case here. It may have been unclear when the district court entered "judgment" just how much interest Health Cost would be entitled to (if we affirmed) on the $10,580.15 that had been sitting...

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