338 U.S. 507 (1950), 150, Dickinson v. Petroleum Conversion Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 150
Citation:338 U.S. 507, 70 S.Ct. 322, 94 L.Ed. 299
Party Name:Dickinson v. Petroleum Conversion Corp.
Case Date:January 16, 1950
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 507

338 U.S. 507 (1950)

70 S.Ct. 322, 94 L.Ed. 299



Petroleum Conversion Corp.

No. 150

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 16, 1950

Argued December 5, 1949




1. In April, 1947, the District Court, after hearing, entered a decree in a civil proceeding in which the respondent corporation and others had been allowed to intervene. The decree granted part of the relief prayed by the corporation, but dismissed its other claims. The court reserved jurisdiction as to matters which were of concern to other intervenors but which could not possibly affect the corporation. In August, 1948, a "final decree" was entered which did not in any way change the 1947 decree as to the corporation.

Held: as to the corporation, the 1947 decree was an appealable final decree; its failure to appeal therefrom forfeited its right of review, and appeal from the 1948 decree was ineffective, and should be dismissed. Pp. 508-516.

2. Rule 54(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure not having been in effect at the time of the 1947 decree, this Court does not determine its effect on cases of this kind. P. 512.

173 F.2d 738 reversed.

A motion to dismiss an appeal by a corporation from a decree of the District Court, on the ground that, as to the corporation, an earlier decree was final and appealable, was denied by the Court of Appeals. 173 F.2d 738. This Court granted a limited certiorari. 338 U.S. 811. Reversed, p. 516.

Page 508

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The only issue presented by this case turns on the finality of a judgment for purposes of appeal, a subject on which the volume of judicial writing already is formidable. The Court of Appeals resolved against finality of the decree in question, saying, however, that it did so against the unanimous conviction of the court as constituted, but in deference to a precedent established by a differently constituted court of the same Circuit. 173 F.2d 738. Because of this intra-circuit conflict, we made a limited grant of certiorari. 338 U.S. 811. That we cannot devise a form of words that will settle this recurrent problem seems certain, but, in this case, we agree with the convictions of the court below, and reverse its judgment.

[70 S.Ct. 323] Something over a decade ago, Dickinson sued Lloyd, with whom he had been associated in promoting the Petroleum Conversion Corporation, along with others, to impress an equitable lien upon certain of the Corporation's shares then in Lloyd's name and possession. The District Court dismissed the complaint, but the Court of Appeals reversed and directed a new trial. Dickinson v. Rinke, 132 F.2d. 805. Before retrial, Burnham and Vaughan, on behalf of themselves and such other stockholders as subscribed to a fund to aid the company or its predecessor in its embarrassment, were allowed to intervene. They set up a claim against both plaintiff Dickinson and defendant Lloyd that the stock involved in the controversy between them had been fraudulently issued, and demanded that this stock be canceled. They

Page 509

also sought recovery of $87,310.28 from them as unlawful profits secretly realized by breach of their fiduciary duty. Petroleum Conversion Corporation also intervened, making the same general allegations and demands for relief. The Corporation and the class of subscribers thus joined forces to get for one or the other substantially the same remedy against both Dickinson and Lloyd.

This triangular controversy was tried, and a decree dated April 10, 1947, was entered. The issue here turns on the character of that decree. It recites twenty-three days of trial, the filing of a decision, opinion, findings of fact, and conclusions of law, and it "ordered, adjudged and decreed" that all of the plaintiff Dickinson's claims be dismissed on the merits; that all of the defendant Lloyd's claims there pressed by his administrator be dismissed on the merits; that the class intervenors have judgment of $174,620.56 against both Dickinson and Lloyd's administrator, and that a concourse of all these subscribers be provided by which their several claims could be liquidated and the share of each in the recovery fixed; that Petroleum Conversion Corporation receive 8,200 shares of its stock in the hands of Lloyd's administrator, but that its claim to 12,596 additional such shares and its claim to over 244,000 of its shares in possession of the court be dismissed, and Petroleum Conversion Corporation was directed to issue new shares to stockholders of another corporation provided that, if any shares were not distributed for any reason, they be redeposited with the court subject to its further order, with jurisdiction retained by the court to supervise the distribution of such shares. It dismissed all other claims of Petroleum Conversion Corporation.

From this decree, Petroleum took no appeal. The District Court went ahead with hearings to determine claims of over seventy members of the class to share in the aggregate recovery against Dickinson and Lloyd's administrator.

Page 510

On August 3, 1948, the court signed a "final decree" which apportioned the recovery as between those claimants. It recited that

the issues reserved in the decree herein dated the 10th day of April, 1947, having been determined by the Court . . . the said decree is hereby made final.

It made no decision as to any issue involving Petroleum, and in no way changed the 1947 decree as to it. It also awarded costs which had not been settled in the earlier decree, but made no award against Petroleum.

Thereupon Petroleum's receiver in bankruptcy appealed from so much of this 1948 decree as dismissed the claims of Petroleum.1 On motion to dismiss the appeal, the chief question, and the only one we granted review, was whether the Corporation could have appealed from the 1947 decree, or whether it could only appeal from the 1948 decree.2 In deciding this motion, the court said:

[70 S.Ct. 324]

In the view of all members of the court as it is now constituted, this should make no difference, for the whole counterclaim of the Petroleum Conversion Corporation had been finally disposed of an April tenth, 1947, and, as to it, the action was at an end as much as though it had been denied the right to intervene at all; indeed, the judgment was more final, so to say, because, unlike the denial of a petition to intervene, it was a bar to any effort to relitigate the claims determined.

173 F.2d at 740. But, because it could find no basis for distinguishing Clark v. Taylor, 163 F.2d 940, in which a differently composed

Page 511

court in the same Circuit had sustained what appears to be a contrary position, it held the earlier order not appealable, and hence no bar to the present appeal. 173 F.2d at 740-741.

Half a century ago, this Court lamented,

Probably no question of equity practice has been the subject of more frequent discussion in this court than the finality of decrees. . . . The cases, it must be conceded, are not altogether harmonious.

McGourkey v. Toledo & Ohio Central R. Co., 146 U.S. 536, 544-545. This lamentation is equally fitting to describe the intervening struggle of the courts sometimes to devise a formula that will encompass all situations, and at other times to take hardship cases out from under the rigidity of previous declarations; sometimes choosing one and sometimes another of the considerations that always compete in the question of appealability, the most important of which are the inconvenience and costs of piecemeal review, on the one hand, and the danger of denying justice by delay, on the other.3

The liberalization of our practice to allow more issues and parties to be joined in one action and to expand the privilege of intervention by those not originally parties has increased the danger of hardship and denial of justice through delay if each issue must await the determination of all issues as to all parties before a final judgment can be had. In recognition of this difficulty, present Rule

Page 512

54(b), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, was promulgated. It provides:

When more than one claim for relief is presented in an action, whether as a claim, counterclaim, cross-claim, or third-party claim, the court may direct the entry of a final judgment upon one or more but less than all of the claims only upon an express determination that there is no just reason for delay and upon an express direction for the entry of judgment. In the absence of such determination and direction, any order or other form of decision, however designated, which adjudicates less than all the claims shall not terminate the action as to any of the claims, and the order or other form of decision is subject to revision at any time before the entry of judgment adjudicating all the claim.

The obvious purpose of this section, as indicated by the notes of the advisory committee, is to reduce as far as possible the uncertainty and the hazard assumed by a litigant who either does or does not appeal from a judgment of the character we have here.4 It provides an opportunity for litigants to obtain from the District Court a clear statement of what that court is intending with reference to finality, and if such a direction is denied, the litigant can at least protect himself accordingly.

But this new rule -- which became effective on March 19, 1948 -- was not in effect at the time of the 1947 decree in this case, and it would not be appropriate to attempt to determine its effect on cases of this kind beyond observing that it may do much to prevent them from coming here. We will not, therefore, try to lay down rules to embrace any case but...

To continue reading