Cunningham v. Hamilton County Ohio, 98727

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtThomas
Citation119 S.Ct. 1915,527 U.S. 198,144 L.Ed.2d 184
Parties CUNNINGHAM v. HAMILTON COUNTY, OHIOSUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Decision Date14 June 1999
Docket Number98727

527 U.S. 198
119 S.Ct. 1915
144 L.Ed.2d 184

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

CUNNINGHAM
v.
HAMILTON COUNTY, OHIO

No. 98-727.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Argued April 19, 1999

Decided June 14, 1999

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. 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&nbhyph;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. 4-12.

144 F.3d 418, affirmed.

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

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

Opinion of the Court

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.(FN1) 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...

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333 practice notes
  • Mohawk Indus., Inc. v. Carpenter, No. 08–678.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • December 8, 2009
    ...resolution [558 U.S. 102] of district court litigation and needlessly burdening the courts of appeals, cf. Cunningham v. Hamilton County, 527 U.S. 198, 209, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184. Pp. 606 – 609. (c) The admonition that the class of collaterally appealable orders must remain “narro......
  • Kurstin v. Rosenthal, No. 2445, September Term, 2008 (Md. App. 3/1/2010), No. 2445, September Term, 2008.
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • March 1, 2010
    ...Swint v. Chambers County Commission, 514 U.S. 35, 41-43, 115 S. Ct. 1203, 131 L. Ed. 2d 60 (1995); Cunningham Page 17 v. Hamilton County, 527 U.S. 198, 203-10, 119 S. Ct. 1915, 144 L. Ed. 2d 184 (1999); Will v. Hallock, 546 U.S. 345, 349-55, 126 S. Ct. 952, 163 L. Ed. 2d 836 (2006); Achcrof......
  • United States v. Wright, No. 17-1972
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • January 17, 2019
    ...Wells Contamination Litig ., 120 F.3d 368, 384 n.14 (3d Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by Cunningham v. Hamilton County, Ohio , 527 U.S. 198, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184 (1999).27 In Eash , we noted that "[t]he conceptual and definitional problems regarding inherent power ... ha......
  • Co-Steel Raritan v. Intern. Trade, No. 03-1006.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
    • January 26, 2004
    ...that "ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute judgment." Cunningham v. Hamilton County, Ohio, 527 U.S. 198, 204, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184 (1999) (quoting Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 233, 65 S.Ct. 631, 89 L.Ed. 911 (1945)). The d......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
334 cases
  • Mohawk Indus., Inc. v. Carpenter, No. 08–678.
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • December 8, 2009
    ...resolution [558 U.S. 102] of district court litigation and needlessly burdening the courts of appeals, cf. Cunningham v. Hamilton County, 527 U.S. 198, 209, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184. Pp. 606 – 609. (c) The admonition that the class of collaterally appealable orders must remain “narro......
  • Kurstin v. Rosenthal, No. 2445, September Term, 2008 (Md. App. 3/1/2010), No. 2445, September Term, 2008.
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • March 1, 2010
    ...Swint v. Chambers County Commission, 514 U.S. 35, 41-43, 115 S. Ct. 1203, 131 L. Ed. 2d 60 (1995); Cunningham Page 17 v. Hamilton County, 527 U.S. 198, 203-10, 119 S. Ct. 1915, 144 L. Ed. 2d 184 (1999); Will v. Hallock, 546 U.S. 345, 349-55, 126 S. Ct. 952, 163 L. Ed. 2d 836 (2006); Achcrof......
  • United States v. Wright, No. 17-1972
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • January 17, 2019
    ...Wells Contamination Litig ., 120 F.3d 368, 384 n.14 (3d Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by Cunningham v. Hamilton County, Ohio , 527 U.S. 198, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184 (1999).27 In Eash , we noted that "[t]he conceptual and definitional problems regarding inherent power ... ha......
  • Co-Steel Raritan v. Intern. Trade, No. 03-1006.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
    • January 26, 2004
    ...that "ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute judgment." Cunningham v. Hamilton County, Ohio, 527 U.S. 198, 204, 119 S.Ct. 1915, 144 L.Ed.2d 184 (1999) (quoting Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 233, 65 S.Ct. 631, 89 L.Ed. 911 (1945)). The d......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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