Britt v. DeJoy

Decision Date17 August 2022
Docket Number20-1620
Citation45 F.4th 790 (Mem)
Parties Joann D. BRITT, Plaintiff – Appellant, v. Louis DEJOY, Postmaster General, Defendant – Appellee. University of Virginia Appellate Litigation Clinic, Amicus Curiae.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Daniel Lewis Cox, THE COX LAW CENTER, LLC, Emmitsburg, Maryland, for Appellant. Rebecca Ann Koch, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. Elizabeth Adler, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Amicus Curiae. ON BRIEF: Robert K. Hur, United States Attorney, Erek L. Barron, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. J. Scott Ballenger, Ian Hurst, Third Year Law Student, Appellate Litigation Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Amicus Appellate Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, WILKINSON, NIEMEYER, MOTZ, KING, AGEE, WYNN, DIAZ, THACKER, HARRIS, RICHARDSON, QUATTLEBAUM, RUSHING, and HEYTENS, Circuit Judges.

Jurisdiction retained for consideration of the merits by published order. Chief Judge Gregory directed entry of the order with concurrences of Judges Wilkinson, Niemeyer, Motz, King, Agee, Wynn, Diaz, Thacker, Harris, Richardson, Quattlebaum, Rushing, and Heytens.

ON REHEARING EN BANC

ORDER

GREGORY, Chief Judge:

Appellant Joann D. Britt, a former employee of the United States Postal Service ("Postal Service," "USPS," or the "Agency"), appeals the district court's dismissal of her employment discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims. But rather than decide the merits of Britt's claims, we begin and end our en banc role by assessing this Court's jurisdiction. In so doing, we take the opportunity to summarize our guidance regarding our appellate jurisdiction under § 1291, examine the inconsistency that flows from a case-by-case determination of finality when a complaint is dismissed without prejudice, and—ultimately—establish a new rule governing our decision making in such cases: When a district court dismisses a complaint or all claims without granting leave to amend, its order is final and appealable. Our opinion seeks to ensure predictable outcomes when determining finality, while reminding district courts that they are the masters of their dockets and cautioning litigants that they have a strong incentive to clarify the finality of an order before they knock on this Court's door.

I.

Britt was a 15-year employee of the Postal Service at the Emmitsburg, Maryland post office when she was terminated following an alleged physical altercation with a co-worker. At the time of her separation, Britt had received a workman's compensation modified, limited duty assignment from the U.S. Department of Labor that limited physical performance of her duties due to an on-the-job injury. She alleges that she was subjected to harassment, discrimination, and retaliation when she returned to work after shoulder surgery; that her supervisors denied her breaks and assigned her duties beyond the specified limitations of her modified work assignment; and that both supervisors and co-workers expressed resentment towards her and disdain for her need for disability accommodations, creating an embarrassing, demeaning, hostile, and discriminatory working environment.

On April 14, 2017, the Postal Service suspended Britt without pay following an encounter with her co-worker, maintaining that her conduct violated workplace policies prohibiting "violence or threats of violence" and "harassment, intimidation, threats, or bullying by anyone at any level" at the Postal Service. J.A. 89. The Postal Service subsequently terminated Britt from her position. In response, 45-year-old Britt filed an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") discrimination complaint alleging age and disability discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. After Britt waived her right to an administrative hearing, the Postal Service issued its Final Agency Decision, concluding that she had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

Britt subsequently filed a complaint, later amended, in the district court, alleging she was unlawfully discriminated against because of her disability in violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. , and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehabilitation Act"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 701 et seq. , and because of her age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. Britt also claims that she was retaliated against and subjected to a hostile work environment because of her disability, age, and for engaging in a protected activity—filing an EEO discrimination complaint.

The Postal Service moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. In its April 8, 2020, memorandum opinion, the district court treated the Postal Service's motion as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6) and entered an order granting the motion for failure to state a plausible claim for relief. The court dismissed all of Britt's claims with prejudice except for her retaliation claim, finding that she had not pled any prima facie claims of unlawful discrimination. The court then dismissed Britt's retaliation claim based on the Amended Complaint's failure to "sufficiently allege a causal link between" her "protected activity and an adverse employment action." J.A. 121. Specifically, the district court found that the Amended Complaint failed to identify when Britt filed her EEO complaint, when her supervisors had notice of her EEO filing, or other "plausible additional facts that could assert a causal nexus between her protected activity and her termination." J.A. 122. But the district court dismissed the retaliation claim without prejudice—and without granting leave to amend—concluding that "[s]uch deficiencies are not fatal to Britt's retaliation claim." Id. Yet in the court's accompanying order, it directed the Clerk of Court to "close the case." J.A. 124.

Britt appealed the dismissal of her Amended Complaint to this Court. Following oral argument before a panel of this Court on September 22, 2021, and a sua sponte poll of the Court, we decided to rehear this case en banc "on the issue of when a dismissal without prejudice is final, and thus appealable." Order, ECF No. 34. The parties have submitted supplemental briefs on that issue. Id. For the reasons discussed below, we conclude we have jurisdiction.

II.

This Court has jurisdiction "from all final decisions of the district courts" in our circuit. 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The Supreme Court long-ago clarified that "[a] ‘final decision’ generally is one which ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment." Catlin v. United States , 324 U.S. 229, 233, 65 S.Ct. 631, 89 L.Ed. 911 (1945) (citing St. Louis, I.M. & S. Ry. Co. v. S. Express Co. , 108 U.S. 24, 28, 2 S.Ct. 6, 27 L.Ed. 638 (1883) ); see also Hixson v. Moran , 1 F.4th 297, 301 (4th Cir. 2021) (same). Stated differently, "[a] final decision is one by which a district court disassociates itself from a case." Gelboim v. Bank of Am. Corp. , 574 U.S. 405, 408, 135 S.Ct. 897, 190 L.Ed.2d 789 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Swint v. Chambers Cnty. Comm'n , 514 U.S. 35, 42, 115 S.Ct. 1203, 131 L.Ed.2d 60 (1995). The Supreme Court has also explained that "[a]ppeal gives [courts of appeal] power of review, not one of intervention" meaning that "[s]o long as the matter remains open, unfinished or inconclusive, there may be no intrusion by appeal." Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp. , 337 U.S. 541, 546, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949).

Ensuring the finality of lower court proceedings before appellate review is critical for "preserv[ing] the proper balance between trial and appellate courts," by minimizing piecemeal appeals, and for promoting "efficient administration of justice." Microsoft Corp. v. Baker , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S. Ct. 1702, 1712, 198 L.Ed.2d 132 (2017). Finality is so important that "[w]e routinely require litigants to wait until after final judgment to vindicate valuable rights, including rights central to our adversarial system." Mohawk Indus., Inc. v. Carpenter , 558 U.S. 100, 108–09, 130 S.Ct. 599, 175 L.Ed.2d 458 (2009).

"Ordinarily, a district court order is not ‘final’ until it has resolved all claims as to all parties." Porter v. Zook , 803 F.3d 694, 696 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Fox v. Balt. City Police Dep't , 201 F.3d 526, 530 (4th Cir. 2000) ). Thus, an order that dismisses a complaint with leave to amend is not a final decision because it means that the district court is not finished with the case. See Jung v. K. & D. Min. Co. , 356 U.S. 335, 336–37, 78 S.Ct. 764, 2 L.Ed.2d 806 (1958). In such cases, if a plaintiff fails to amend (or amend timely) or elects to "stand on the complaint," the district court must still issue an order that constitutes a final decision. Id. at 337, 78 S.Ct. 764 (stating that "another order of absolute dismissal" is required). To be sure, a plaintiff may only amend her complaint following a judgment if they file a motion to reopen or to vacate the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) or Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b). Laber v. Harvey , 438 F.3d 404, 427 (4th Cir. 2006) (en banc); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e) ; Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).

After issuing a memorandum opinion intended to fully dispose of the action or complaint, district courts are expected to comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58 which requires, with limited exceptions,1 that "[e]very judgment and amended judgment must be set out in a separate document." Fed. R. Civ. P. 58.2 This "separate-document requirement was [ ] intended to avoid the inequities [ ]...

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