Ramaekers v. Creighton Univ.

Decision Date12 August 2022
Docket NumberS-21-848
Citation312 Neb. 248
PartiesLauren Ramaekers et al., appellants, v. Creighton University, a Nebraska nonprofit corporation, appellee.
CourtNebraska Supreme Court

1. Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. A jurisdictional question that does not involve a factual dispute is determined by an appellate court as a matter of law.

2. Judgments. The meaning of the judgment is a question of law.

3. Judgments: Appeal and Error. When reviewing questions of law, an appellate court resolves the questions independently of the lower court's conclusions.

4. Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. Before reaching the legal issues presented for review, it is the duty of an appellate court to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the matter before it.

5. Jurisdiction: Final Orders: Appeal and Error. For an appellate court to acquire jurisdiction of an appeal, the party must be appealing from a final order or a judgment.

6. Injunction: Final Orders. While it is well established that orders relating to temporary injunctions and restraining orders are not final orders, it is equally well established that orders entering or denying permanent injunctions, which leave no issues remaining to be determined by the trial court, are final orders within the meaning of Neb. Rev. Stat. § 25-1902 (Cum. Supp. 2020).

7. Judgments. A judgment's meaning is determined, as a matter of law, by the contents of the judgment in question.

8. ___. Unless the language used in a judgment is ambiguous, the effect of the judgment must be declared in the light of the literal meaning of the language used.

9. Judgments: Words and Phrases. Ambiguity in a judgment exists when a word, phrase, or provision therein has, or is susceptible of, at least two reasonable but conflicting interpretations or meanings.

10. Judgments. If the language of a judgment is ambiguous, there is room for construction. 11. _ .In ascertaining the meaning of an ambiguous judgment resort may be had to the entire record. 12. Judgments: Intent. Doubtful or ambiguous judgments are to have a reasonable intendment to do justice and avoid wrong.

13. Injunction. Generally, the purpose of a temporary injunction is to protect the subject matter of litigation and preserve the status quo of the parties until a determination of the case on the merits.

14. Injunction: Judgments: Moot Question. Where there is a final judgment against the party enjoined, the temporary injunction merges into the judgment and any questions concerning the propriety of the issuance of the temporary injunction become moot.

15. Pleadings. The issues in a case are framed by the pleadings. 16. _ . In an answer, the defending party shall state in short and plain terms the party's defenses to each claim asserted and shall admit or deny the averments upon which the adverse party relies.

17. Injunction. There are significant procedural differences between temporary and permanent injunctions.

18. Injunction: Judgments. Generally, a district court should not order a judgment on the merits at the temporary injunction stage of proceedings.

Appeal from the District Court for Douglas County: Marlon A. Polk Judge. Appeal dismissed.

Robert M. Sullivan, of Sullivan Law, P.C., L.L.O., for appellants.

William F. Hargens, Abigail M. Moland, and Britni A. Summers of McGrath, North, Mullin & Kratz, P.C., L.L.O., for appellee.

Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg, JJ.

CASSEL, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Ten students at Creighton University (Creighton) appeal from a district court's order denying injunctive relief. The threshold jurisdictional question is whether the order denied only a temporary injunction, and thus was neither final nor appealable, or whether it denied a permanent injunction. Because we find ambiguity within the order's four corners, we examine the record, which shows that only temporary relief was sought and denied. We therefore lack jurisdiction and dismiss the appeal.

II. BACKGROUND

Because we decide this appeal on jurisdiction, we provide only a brief background section. Other facts will be set forth in our analysis section below.

1. Vaccine Mandate

In luly 2021, Creighton mandated that its students must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to register for classes. Creighton offered students an exemption from the mandate "due to the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) status of the [COVID-19] vaccines." But to obtain this waiver, students had to agree in writing to be vaccinated after "the [COVID-19] vaccines [were] granted full approval by the [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration." On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved certain COVID-19 vaccines.

Accordingly, Creighton mandated that students who had obtained the waiver must receive their first dose of a fully approved COVID-19 vaccine by September 7, 2021, at 4:30 p.m. Students who failed to do so would be "administratively withdrawn from [Creighton] and unable to attend classes or be on campus" after September 10.

2. Complaint for Injunctive Relief

Only 97 minutes before the 4:30 p.m. deadline, four students filed a complaint, styled as a "Petition for Injunction & Praecipe." They sought to enjoin Creighton from administratively withdrawing students who did not comply with its COVID-19 vaccine policy.

The next day, Creighton's attorneys filed a "Notice of Appearance," but Creighton did not, at that time, file either a motion to dismiss or an answer. On that same day, the four students amended their complaint and filed a "Motion for Expedited Ex Parte Hearing." The amended complaint did not change the factual allegations but inserted an additional request in their prayer for relief. The motion sought "an order restoring [them] as students of [Creighton], pending further Order of the Court." The motion did not explicitly request a temporary restraining order or temporary injunction.

The court "granted" the motion and set an expedited hearing date. But before the hearing, a second amended complaint added and deleted plaintiffs without otherwise altering the body of the complaint.

3. September 14, 2021, Hearing

The court heard the motion on September 14, 2021. Counsel for all parties attended and participated. To the extent the proceedings are relevant to the jurisdictional issue, we summarize them at the appropriate point in the analysis section below. At the hearing's end, the court took the motion under advisement.

Before the court issued any ruling, third and fourth amended complaints were filed adding additional plaintiffs and Creighton filed a motion to strike two of the amended complaints. Because the amended complaints never changed the factual allegations stated in their original complaint, we do not distinguish between the complaints throughout the remainder of this opinion. Ultimately, through these amended complaints, 10 students, Lauren Ramaekers, Patrice Quadrel, Sarah Sinsel, Sydney Case, Anne Clare Culpepper, Emma Carlson, Elliot Prusa, Avery Gillett, Nikokije Kozic, and Alecsandar Kozic (collectively Students), pursued the action.

4. September 17, 2021, Hearing

The court held a hearing on Creighton's motion to strike on September 17, 2021. Counsel for all parties attended and participated. For reasons not pertinent here, the court overruled Creighton's motion.

But at this hearing, the court also announced its decision on Students' motion. To the extent the court's announcement and its colloquy with counsel relate to the jurisdictional question, we summarize them in the analysis section below.

5. September 22, 2021, Order

On September 22, 2021, the court issued a written order (the order). After recounting the September 14 appearances of counsel, affidavits received, and procedural history, as well as summarizing the September 17 appearances and procedural history, the order stated in relevant part:

1. [Ruling on Creighton's motion to strike.]
2. The court then took up the matter of [Students'] requests for injunctive relief in [their complaint],
3. Based on arguments of counsel for [Students], the Court concludes that [Students'] request for injunctive relief is based on a breach of contract theory. However, to the extent that there was a contract between [Students] and [Creighton], and without finding that such a contract existed, the Court finds that [Students'] agreement to receive a COVID-19 vaccine once the [Food and Drug Administration] fully approved a COVID-19 vaccine became part of that contract.
4. The Court further finds that [Students] have failed to show irreparable harm.
5. The Court further finds that [Students] have failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits.
6. For the reasons set forth above, and for the reasons stated by the Court on the record during the September 17 . . . hearing, including the Court's reliance upon the legal analysis in [a Seventh Circuit opinion], the Court hereby denies [Students'] requests for injunctive relief as set forth in [Students' complaint] and, to the extent [the complaint] and/or their Motion for an Expedited Ex Parte Hearing could be construed as [m]otions for a [temporary [Restraining [o]rder or [temporary [injunction pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 25-1063 and/or 25-1064 [(Reissue 2016)], those motions are hereby denied.

Students filed a timely appeal. We moved the appeal to our docket.[1]

III. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

Students set forth eight assignments of error, all of which, in various ways, attack the district court's refusal to grant injunctive relief.

Creighton's brief, prior to discussing the merits of the court's order, asserts that we lack jurisdiction of the appeal. It contends that the order denied only Students' request for temporary injunctive relief and that, therefore, the order...

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