Ueckert v. Guerra

Decision Date27 June 2022
Docket Number22-40263
Citation38 F.4th 446
Parties William F. UECKERT, Jr., Plaintiff—Appellee, v. Juan G. GUERRA, Defendant—Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Katie P. Klein, William Daniel Mount, Jr., Dale & Klein, L.L.P., McAllen, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Robert Lee Drinkard, Ricardo Jimenez Navarro, Esq., Denton, Navarro, Rocha, Bernal & Zech, P.C., Harlingen, TX, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before Smith, Higginson, and Willett, Circuit Judges.

Don R. Willett, Circuit Judge:

There is at least one exception to the maxim "no news is good news." When a lawyer has an outstanding motion but hasn't heard from the court for a long time, prudence would advise double-checking to make sure the motion is still pending. No news may mean that the court already ruled on the motion, and the time to appeal is ticking away.

Unfortunately, that is not what Appellant Juan G. Guerra did. During a hearing the court ruled from the bench, denying Guerra's motion for summary judgment. Two days later the court issued a minute entry memorializing its ruling. Guerra seems to have believed that this was not the court's last word, and that a written order was forthcoming. But it wasn't. The court's bench ruling was its final decision on the motion. The rules of civil procedure give would-be appellants a generous 180-day window to appeal judgments that were not set forth on a "separate document." But Guerra blew past that deadline, filing his notice of appeal 412 days after the order was entered on the docket. Because this appeal is untimely, we grant Appellee's motion to dismiss this appeal.

I

William F. Ueckert, Jr. was an engineer for the City of Pharr, Texas. He alleges that his superiors asked him to sign a document certifying that all rights-of-way for a project had been properly acquired by the city. But Ueckert believed this wasn't true and repeatedly refused to sign the document. One day his superiors called him into a meeting and "chastised" him for not signing. He again refused and was fired that same day. Ueckert sued the City and two of his superiors, Juan Guerra and Ed Wyle. He alleges that the defendants violated his First Amendment rights when they fired him for refusing to sign the document.

Guerra moved for summary judgment, arguing that the case against him should be dismissed because he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court held a hearing on the motion on March 2, 2021. During that hearing, Judge Hinojosa denied Guerra's motion from the bench. A minute entry memorializing the district court's oral order was entered on the docket on March 4, 2021, but no written order or other document was attached.

On March 28, 2022, the district court notified the parties that jury selection would occur on June 21, 2022. Guerra filed a notice of appeal on April 20, 2022—412 days after the district court's order was entered on the docket.

II

Ueckhart contends we lack jurisdiction because this appeal is untimely. The district court ruled on Guerra's motion for summary judgment on March 2, 2021, so Ueckhart reasons that Guerra had 30 days from that date to file a notice of appeal. Guerra responds that the district court's oral ruling was not appealable, and that he is only appealing now because the case is about to go to trial. He says he is appealing not the district court's March 2, 2021 order from the bench, but the district court's refusal to rule. As Guerra correctly notes, we held in Helton v. Clements that defendants may immediately appeal a district court's refusal to rule on a qualified-immunity defense under the collateral order doctrine.1

Guerra's brief makes three separate arguments. First, he asserts that the district court never ruled on his motion at all because it only ruled orally, which can never constitute an appealable "final order." Second, he argues that any appeal would have been premature because the district court's judgment did not comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58's "separate document requirement."2 Third, he says the timeline for appeal never started because the clerk did not comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 79(a).

Guerra is wrong on all counts. A bench ruling can be effective without a written order and does trigger appeal deadlines if it is final—which this ruling was. While Guerra is right that the district court's bench ruling did not comply with Rule 58's "separate document" requirement, that neither prevented him from appealing nor gave him infinite time to appeal. Finally, Guerra is wrong that the clerk failed to comply with Rule 79(a).

A

We start with Guerra's apparent belief that only written orders, and not bench orders, have legal significance. While courts today generally rule through written orders and judgments, they may choose to rule from the bench.3 In England, ruling from the bench "ex tempore," or right after oral arguments, was the primary way courts conducted business.4 That remains common practice in England to this day.5 We inherited our system from England, and in the colonies, courts likewise delivered their opinions orally.6 Starting in the 17th century, some states required judges to write down at least the more important opinions.7 Written opinions have become the norm even in courts where they are not required,8 but federal courts at least have not lost their power to rule from the bench.9 That is what the district court did here.10

Nor is it impossible to appeal from a bench ruling. Our court has allowed interlocutory appeals from oral rulings,11 and so have other circuits.12 Two of those cases dealt with almost the exact issue here: an appeal from an oral ruling denying a qualified-immunity defense.13 The form of the ruling is immaterial.14 What matters for § 1291 purposes is whether the court's ruling was a "final judgment."15

The test for finality is whether the district court intended that its order be "effective immediately."16 Said another way, a court's ruling is only "final" if the judge "intends to have nothing further to do"—with the motion (if an interlocutory appeal) or the case (if a conventional appeal).17 To understand whether an order is final, we look chiefly to the language the district court used. For example, we noted in Logue that a district court's memorandum saying that " [a] preliminary injunction will be issued’ ... did not reflect the district court's intent that the opinion act as an operable judgment."18 In contrast, a minute entry saying "Prel. Injunction is now permanent under rule 65 of FRCP" was immediately appealable because it "reflect[ed] the District Court's intent that the order act as an operable judgment."19

Here, the district court regarded its oral ruling as final. The parties both characterize the court's oral statement as having ruled on Guerra's motion from the bench, not merely a prediction about how the court would rule sometime in the future. The minute entry memorializing the court's oral ruling used similarly definite language: It "denied ... Defendant Juan G. Guerra['s] Motion for Summary Judgment as stated on the record." And the fact that the court never issued a written memorandum or opinion erased any doubt that it intended its first word to be its last.

Guerra believes that our decision in Jones v. Celotex Corp. says that neither a court's bench ruling nor a minute entry on the docket is an appealable order.20 But Guerra's reading of Jones is only partially right. He is right that we said minute entries are not orders and cannot be appealed. "Even prior to the added requirement of Rule 58, [a] minute entry alone could not stand as a final judgment of the district court. Courts render judgment; clerks only enter them on court records.’ "21 But we did not reach the question of whether bench rulings can be final for purposes of § 1291.22 And in the decades since it was decided, no decision has read Jones the way Guerra does. To the contrary, we have repeatedly affirmed that bench ruling can be final provided the district court intends that it be effective immediately.23 Here, the district court treated its bench ruling as final, so it is final.

B

Guerra's next argument is that even if the district court's ruling were final, any appeal would have been dismissed as premature because the ruling did not comply with Rule 58. He is right that the district court's oral ruling did not comply with Rule 58's requirement that every "judgment" be set out in a separate order.24 While most people think of a judgment as the order that marks the effective conclusion of a case, Rule 54 defines "judgment" as "any order from which an appeal lies."25 As a result, Rule 58 also applies to interlocutory orders appealable under the collateral order doctrine.26

But Guerra is wrong that noncompliance would have barred his appeal. Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4 states that "[a] failure to set forth a judgment or order on a separate document when required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58(a) does not affect the validity of an appeal from that judgment or order."27 This change codified and extended the Supreme Court's earlier holding in Mallis , which held that parties could waive the separate document requirement.28 While Mallis partially sandpapered Rule 58's sharp edges, the rule could still make it harder for appellants to appeal—rather than easier, as the rule was created to do. Some courts read Mallis to mean that both parties had to agree to waiver, while others held that the right to have the judgment set forth in a separate document belonged to the appellant alone.29 If an appellee could refuse to waive the separate document requirement, they could force appellants to return to the trial court and observe the formality of asking the district court to set forth the judgment on a separate document.30 But the 2002 amendments to Rule 4 fixed that problem. "The amendments [to Rule 4 ] clarify that the decision to waive the entry of a separate document is for the appellant alone so that...

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2 cases
  • Morrow v. Baker
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit
    • February 15, 2023
    ...Along that line, a decision "is only final if the judge intends to have nothing further to do . . . [with] the case". Ueckert v. Guerra, 38 F.4th 446, 450 (5th Cir. 2022); see also Vaughn, 891 F.2d at 1197 ("[W]e are inclined to fasten finality upon a judgment that reflects the intention of......
  • Mieco LLC v. Pioneer Nat. Res. U.S.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Texas
    • May 4, 2023
    ... ... 2018). “The test for finality ... is whether the district court intended that its order be ... ‘effective immediately.'” Ueckert v ... Guerra, 38 F.4th 446, 450 (5th Cir. 2022) ...          The ... Rule 54(b) standard is “more flexible” than the ... ...

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