Maldonado-Denis v. Castillo-Rodriguez

Citation23 F.3d 576
Decision Date08 March 1994
PartiesManuel, et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. Reinaldo, et al., Defendants, Appellees. . Heard
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)

Demetrio Fernandez, Rio Piedras, PR, with whom Melva A. Quintana, Hato Rey, PR, was on brief, for plaintiffs, appellants.

John F. Nevares, with whom Ilsa Y. Figueroa-Arus and Smith & Nevares, Santurce, PR, were on brief, for defendant, appellee Carlos J. Lopez-Feliciano.

Carlos Lugo-Fiol, Deputy Sol. Gen., with whom Pedro A. Delgado-Hernandez, Sol. Gen., and Mabel Ramon Milian, Miramar PR, were on brief, for defendant, appellee Ismael Betancourt-Lebron.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge, and STAHL, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises out of an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1988). In it, appellants strive to convince us that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of defendants Ismael Betancourt-Lebron (sometimes referred to as Ismael Betancourt y Lebron) and Carlos J. Lopez-Feliciano. Although we are troubled by the district court's action expediting the appeal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b), we affirm the entry of summary judgment.

I. Statement of the Case

In the early morning hours of February 15, 1991, a police officer, Jose M. Colon-Burgos, allegedly shot and killed a young man, Manuel E. Maldonado-Irizarry, in the line of duty. The decedent's family members, appellants here, brought a section 1983 suit in which they claimed, inter alia, that Colon-Burgos used excessive force; that the homicide constituted a wrongful deprivation of the decedent's civil rights; and that other law enforcement officers conspired to hide the truth.

In mounting this offensive, appellants cut a wide swath; they sued Colon-Burgos, several of his confreres, and certain high-ranking officials who had no direct connection to the shooting or its aftermath. Betancourt-Lebron, who was the superintendent of police when the incident occurred, and Lopez-Feliciano, the former superintendent, fell into this latter group. 1 Appellants alleged in substance that Betancourt-Lebron did not adequately supervise officers under his command, and thereby exhibited deliberate indifference to the proper discharge of his duties. Lopez-Feliciano, appellants said, exhibited similar indifference during his tenure as superintendent, and, in addition, failed properly to train members of the police force.

On February 22, 1993, Betancourt-Lebron moved for summary judgment on appellants' third amended complaint. Appellants requested, and received, several extensions of time. Eventually, they tendered an opposition. On June 25, Lopez-Feliciano moved for summary judgment. Appellants did not serve an opposition, but, instead, requested a further extension of time within which to respond. On July 13, the district court denied the motion for more time, and, eight days later, granted both Rule 56 motions. 2 This appeal followed.

II. Appellate Jurisdiction

Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b) permits the entry of final judgment as to fewer than all the parties or claims in a multi-party action, thus clearing the way for earlier-than-usual appeals, "upon an express determination that there is no just reason for delay" in entering judgment. 3 In this case, the district court made the requisite finding and directed entry of judgment notwithstanding that the action remained unadjudicated as to numerous other parties.

The court focused on the existence of a special circumstance: one of the defendants, Reinaldo Castillo-Rodriguez (Castillo), had declared bankruptcy, triggering the automatic stay, 11 U.S.C. Sec. 362; the case, the court felt, would likely "be dormant for a number of months pending the disposition of [the] bankruptcy matter"; and, therefore, it would "save time" to permit the appeal to go forward "while the issue of the bankruptcy stay was addressed before the bankruptcy court." Because this determination implicates the existence vel non of appellate jurisdiction, we must satisfy ourselves concerning its correctness even though the parties have acquiesced in it. See Spiegel v. Trustees of Tufts College, 843 F.2d 38, 43 (1st Cir.1988); United States General, Inc. v. Albert, 792 F.2d 678, 680 (7th Cir.1986).

This court has used a two-step approach in connection with Rule 54(b) determinations. See Geiselman v. United States, 961 F.2d 1, 3-5 (1st Cir.) (per curiam), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 261, 121 L.Ed.2d 191 (1992); Feinstein v. Resolution Trust Corp., 942 F.2d 34, 44 (1st Cir.1991); Spiegel, 843 F.2d at 42-43. First, the ruling underlying the proposed judgment must itself be final in the sense that it disposes completely either of all claims against a given defendant or of some discrete substantive claim or set of claims against the defendants generally. See Spiegel, 843 F.2d at 43. That requirement plainly is satisfied here; the orders granting brevis disposition terminated appellants' claims against Betancourt-Lebron and Lopez-Feliciano in their entirety.

The second step of the Spiegel pavane is harder to master. It requires tracing the interrelationship between, on one hand, the legal and factual basis of the claims undergirding the proposed judgment (i.e., the jettisoned claims), and on the other hand, the legal and factual basis of the claims remaining in the case. See id. Once the court of appeals has prepared the necessary schematic, it must then ponder the balance struck by the district court between the desirability of immediate review and the undesirability of promoting piecemeal appeals. See Kersey v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 3 F.3d 482, 486 (1st Cir.1993); Morrison-Knudsen Co. v. Archer, 655 F.2d 962, 965 (9th Cir.1981) (Kennedy, J.).

Here, the second half of the Spiegel paradigm presents a borderline question. Appellants sued Betancourt-Lebron and Lopez-Feliciano for improperly discharging supervisory responsibilities in ways that led to the decedent's death. But adjudicating those claims necessitates an exploration of the facts concerning the shooting and alleged coverup. See, e.g., Voutour v. Vitale, 761 F.2d 812, 820-21 (1st Cir.1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1100, 106 S.Ct. 879, 88 L.Ed.2d 916 (1986). Thus, there is a significant imbrication between the jettisoned claims and the remaining claims. District courts should go very slowly in employing Rule 54(b) when, as in this instance, the factual underpinnings of the adjudicated and unadjudicated claims are intertwined. See Spiegel, 843 F.2d at 45.

We think, too, that the Rule 54(b) determination rests on shaky ground for other reasons. In the first place, whether the record is scanned from the standpoint of the plaintiffs, the defendants, or the court, it discloses no urgent need for immediate review. In the second place, trial of the remaining claims has the potential of mooting the issue of supervisory liability and rendering further appellate review of the summary judgment order superfluous. Given these circumstances, and given the "long-settled and prudential policy against scattershot [appeals]," id. at 42, the rush to enter an immediate judgment strikes us as problematic.

To be sure, the scales are not entirely out of balance. The judgment did dispose fully of all claims against a group of parties--appellees and Velez--and those claims raised a set of unique issues. And, moreover, the district court had an arguably plausible reason--the enforced stay of litigation on the district court level--for resorting to Rule 54(b). These factors tend to balance out, to some extent, the factors that counsel in favor of a more deliberate approach.

While we, if writing on a pristine page, would have accorded greater weight to considerations of judicial economy and the importance of discouraging broadly piecemeal appeals, three things persuade us to allow the Rule 54(b) determination to stand: first, the special circumstance presented by the stay; second, the differences, both legal and factual, that distinguish the claims against appellees from the claims against the other defendants; and third, the deference owed to the trial court's determinations under Rule 54(b), see Spiegel, 843 F.2d at 42. Although the call is excruciatingly close, we are not prepared to say that the court below overstepped the bounds of its discretion here. 4

III. The Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is permissible when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, see Quaker State Oil Refining Corp. v. Garrity Oil Co., 884 F.2d 1510, 1513 (1st Cir.1989), scrutinizing the entire record in the light most flattering to the nonmovant and indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Brennan v. Hendrigan, 888 F.2d 189, 191 (1st Cir.1989); Mack v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 871 F.2d 179, 181 (1st Cir.1989).

Summary judgment practice has a rhythm of its own. We have described that rhythm in the following way:

The movant must put the ball in play, averring "an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." The burden then shifts to the nonmovant to establish the existence of at least one fact issue which is both "genuine" and "material." A "genuine" issue is one "that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because [it] may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Put another way, a "genuine" issue exists if there is "sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute" to require a choice between "the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." A "material" issue is one that "affect[s] the outcome of the suit," that is, an issue which, perforce, "need[s] to be resolved before the related legal issues can be decided."

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