527 U.S. 198 (1999), 98-727, Cunningham v. Hamilton County

Docket Nº:Case No. 98-727
Citation:527 U.S. 198, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184, 67 U.S.L.W. 3683, 67 U.S.L.W. 4458
Party Name:CUNNINGHAM v. HAMILTON COUNTY, OHIO
Case Date:June 14, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 198

527 U.S. 198 (1999)

119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184, 67 U.S.L.W. 3683, 67 U.S.L.W. 4458

CUNNINGHAM

v.

HAMILTON COUNTY, OHIO

Case No. 98-727

United States Supreme Court

June 14, 1999

Argued April 19, 1999

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

When petitioner, an attorney representing a plaintiff, failed to comply with certain discovery orders, the Magistrate Judge granted the respondent's motion for sanctions against petitioner under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(4). The District Court affirmed the sanctions order and also disqualified petitioner as counsel. Although the District Court proceedings were ongoing, petitioner immediately appealed the order affirming the sanctions award. Because federal appellate court jurisdiction is ordinarily limited to appeals from "final decisions of the district courts," 28 U.S.C. § 1291, the Sixth Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. It held that the sanctions order was not immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine, which provides that certain orders may be appealed, notwithstanding the absence of final judgment, but only when they are conclusive, resolve important questions separate from the merits, and are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action, e. g., Swint v. Chambers County Comm'n, 514 U.S. 35, 42. The court found these conditions unsatisfied because the issues involved in petitioner's appeal were not completely separate from the merits. Regarding petitioner's disqualification, the court held that a nonparticipating attorney, like a participating attorney, ordinarily must await final disposition of the underlying case before filing an appeal. It avoided deciding whether the order was effectively unreviewable absent an immediate appeal, but saw no reason why, after final judgment in the underlying case, a sanctioned attorney should be unable to appeal a sanctions order.

Held:

An order imposing sanctions on an attorney pursuant to Rule 37(a)(4) is not a "final decision" under §1291, even where the attorney no longer represents a party in the case. Although the Rule 37 sanction imposed on petitioner would not ordinarily be considered a "final decision" because it neither ended the litigation nor left the court only to execute its judgment, see, e. g., Midland Asphalt Corp. v. United States, 489 U.S. 794, 798, this Court has interpreted § 1291 to permit jurisdiction over appeals that meet the conditions of the collateral order doctrine. Respondent conceded that the sanctions order was conclusive, so at least one of those conditions is presumed to have been satisfied.

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Appellate review of a Rule 37(a) sanctions order, however, cannot remain completely separate from the merits. See, e. g., Van Cauwenberghe v. Biard, 486 U.S. 517, 521-522. Here, some of the sanctions were based on the fact that petitioner provided partial responses and objections to some of the defendants' discovery requests. To evaluate whether those sanctions were appropriate, an appellate court would have to assess the completeness of her responses. Such an inquiry would differ only marginally from an inquiry into the merits. Petitioner's argument that a sanctions order is effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment suffers from at least two flaws. First, it ignores the identity of interests between the attorney and client. The effective congruence of those interests counsels against treating attorneys like other nonparties, since attorneys assume an ethical obligation to serve their clients' interests even where they might have a personal interest in seeking vindication from the sanctions order. See Richardson-Merrell Inc. v. Koller, 472 U.S. 424, 434-435. Second, unlike a contempt order, a Rule 37(a) sanctions order lacks any prospective effect and is not designed to compel compliance. To permit an immediate appeal would undermine the very purposes of Rule 37(a), which was designed to protect courts and opposing parties from delaying or harassing tactics during discovery, and would undermine trial judges' discretion to structure a sanction in the most effective manner. Finally, a Rule 37 sanction's appealability should not turn on an attorney's continued participation, as such a rule could not be easily administered and may be subject to abuse. Although a sanctions order may sometimes impose hardship on an attorney, solutions other than an expansive interpretation of § 1291's "final decision" requirement remain available. Pp. 203-210.

144 F.3d 418, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 210.

Thomas C. Goldstein argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Jonathan D. Schiller and Teresa L. Cunningham.

John J. Arnold argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Carl J. Stich and Shannon M. Reynolds.

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Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

Federal courts of appeals ordinarily have jurisdiction over appeals from "final decisions of the district courts." 28 U.S.C. § 1291. This case presents the question whether an order imposing sanctions on an attorney pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(4) is a final decision. We hold that it is not, even where, as here, the attorney no longer represents a party in the case.

I

Petitioner, an attorney, represented Darwin Lee Starcher in a federal civil rights suit filed against respondent and other defendants. Starcher brought the suit after his son, Casey, committed suicide while an inmate at the Hamilton County Justice Center.[1] The theory of the original complaint was that the defendants willfully ignored their duty to care for Casey despite his known history of suicide attempts.

A Magistrate Judge oversaw discovery. On May 29, 1996, petitioner was served with a request for interrogatories and documents; responses were due within 30 days after service. See Fed. Rules Civ. Proc. 33(b)(3), 34(b). This deadline, however, passed without compliance. The Magistrate Judge ordered the plaintiff "by 4:00 p.m. on July 12, 1996 to make full and complete responses" to defendants' requests for interrogatories and documents and further ordered that four witnesses—Rex Smith, Roxanne Dieffenbach, and two individual defendants—be deposed on July 25, 1996. Starcher v. Correctional Medical Systems, Inc., No. C1-95-815 (SD Ohio, July 11, 1996), p. 2.

Petitioner failed to heed the Magistrate Judge's commands. She did not produce the requested documents, gave incomplete responses to several of the interrogatories, and objected to several others. Flouting the Magistrate Judge's

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order, she noticed the deposition of Rex Smith on July 22, 1996, not July 25, and then refused to withdraw this notice despite reminders from defendants' counsel. And even though the Magistrate Judge had specified that the individual defendants were to be deposed only if plaintiff had complied with his order to produce "full and complete" responses, she filed a motion to compel their appearance. Respondent and other defendants then filed motions for sanctions against petitioner.

At a July 19 hearing, the Magistrate Judge granted the defendants' motions for sanctions. In a subsequent order, he found that petitioner had violated the discovery order and described her conduct as "egregious." App. to Pet. for Cert. 9a. Relying on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(4), the Magistrate Judge ordered petitioner to pay the Hamilton County treasurer $1,494, representing costs and fees incurred by the Hamilton County prosecuting attorney as counsel for respondent and one individual defendant.[2] He took care to specify, however, that he had not held a contempt hearing and that petitioner was never found to be in contempt of court.

The District Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge's sanctions order. The court noted that the matter "ha[d] already consumed an inordinate amount of the Court's time" and described the Magistrate's job of overseeing discovery as a "task assum[ing] the qualities of a full time occupation." App. to Pet. for Cert. 10a. It found that "[t]he Magistrate Judge did not err in concluding that sanctions were appropriate" and that "the amount of the Magistrate Judge's award was not contrary to law." Id., at 11a. The District Court also granted several defendants' motions to disqualify petitioner as counsel for plaintiff due to the fact that she was a material witness in the case.

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Although proceedings in the District Court were ongoing, petitioner immediately appealed the District Court's order affirming the Magistrate Judge's sanctions award to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Court of Appeals, over a dissent, dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Starcher v. Correctional Medical Systems, Inc., 144 F.3d 418 (1998). It considered whether the sanctions order was immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine, which provides that certain orders may be appealed, notwithstanding the absence of final judgment, but only when they "are conclusive, . . . resolve important questions separate from the merits, and . . . are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action." Swint v. Chambers County Comm'n, 514 U.S. 35, 42 (1995) (citing Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546 (1949)). In the Sixth Circuit's view, these conditions were not satisfied because the issues involved in petitioner's appeal were not "completely separate" from the merits. 144 F.3d, at 424. As for the fact that petitioner had been disqualified as counsel, the court held that "a non-participating attorney, like a participating attorney, ordinarily must wait until final disposition of the underlying case before filing an appeal." Id., at 425. It...

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