Williams v. Seidenbach, No. 18-31159

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Parties Tarsia WILLIAMS; Breck Williams, Plaintiffs-Appellants v. Taylor SEIDENBACH, Incorporated, Defendant-Appellee Tarsia Williams; Breck Williams, Plaintiffs-Appellants v. McCarty Corporation, Defendant-Appellee
Decision Date04 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-31159,C/w 18-31161

958 F.3d 341

Tarsia WILLIAMS; Breck Williams, Plaintiffs-Appellants
v.
Taylor SEIDENBACH, Incorporated, Defendant-Appellee

Tarsia Williams; Breck Williams, Plaintiffs-Appellants
v.
McCarty Corporation, Defendant-Appellee

No. 18-31159
C/w 18-31161

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

FILED May 4, 2020


Caleb Didriksen, Attorney, Erin Bruce Saucier, Didriksen, Saucier & Woods, P.L.C., New Orleans, LA, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Christopher Kelly Lightfoot, Esq., Edward Lassus, Jr., Esq., Hailey, McNamara, Hall, Larmann & Papale, L.L.P., Metairie, LA, for Defendant-Appellee Taylor Seidenbach, Incorporated.

Susan Beth Kohn, Daniel J. Caruso, Susan Marie Caruso, Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn, L.L.P., New Orleans, LA, for Defendant-Appellee McCarty Corporation.

David Kirk Groome, Jr., Esq., Deutsch Kerrigan, L.L.P., New Orleans, LA, Brian Thomas Clark, Glazier, Yee, L.L.P., San Francisco, CA, for Amicus Curiae.

Before OWEN, Chief Judge, JONES, SMITH, STEWART, DENNIS, ELROD, SOUTHWICK, HAYNES, GRAVES, HIGGINSON, COSTA, WILLETT, HO, DUNCAN, ENGELHARDT, and OLDHAM, Circuit Judges.

JAMES C. HO, Circuit Judge, joined by OWEN, Chief Judge, and JONES, STEWART, DENNIS, ELROD, HAYNES, GRAVES, HIGGINSON, and ENGELHARDT, Circuit Judges:

When a plaintiff sues multiple defendants, counsel may need to take certain steps to ensure the plaintiff's right to appeal. That is because courts of appeals have jurisdiction to review only certain types of district court decisions.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, courts of appeals may review only "final decisions" of the district courts. Under our precedents, there is no final decision if a plaintiff voluntarily dismisses a defendant without prejudice, because the plaintiff "is entitled to bring a later suit on the same cause of action." Ryan v. Occidental Petroleum Corp. , 577 F.2d 298, 302 (5th Cir. 1978). And in a suit against multiple defendants, there is no final decision as to one defendant until there is a final decision as to all defendants. See FED. R. CIV. P. 54(b) (absent an order to the contrary, "any order or other decision, however designated, that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties does not end the action as to any of the claims or parties").

A potential complication arises when a case implicates both of those principles—that is, when a plaintiff sues two defendants, and then voluntarily dismisses one defendant without prejudice, while litigating against the other to conclusion. Some have expressed concern that the plaintiff may fall into a "finality trap"—unable to obtain an appealable final decision, despite having lost to the second defendant. See Terry W. Shackmann & Barry L. Pickens, The Finality Trap: Accidentally Losing Your Right to Appeal (Part I) , 58 J. MO. B. 78, 78 (2002).

958 F.3d 344

But established rules of civil procedure provide many tools to avoid that alleged "trap." They include amendment of the complaint to remove claims or parties under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) ; severance of parties under Rule 21; and entry of a partial final judgment under Rule 54(b).1 A plaintiff can also voluntarily dismiss a defendant with prejudice.

In this case, Plaintiffs chose Rule 54(b). As a result, there is no need to address the other finality issues raised by the parties. Because we conclude that the district court properly entered partial final judgment under Rule 54(b), we have jurisdiction to hear these appeals and accordingly return them to the panel for a ruling on the merits.

I.

Plaintiffs Tarsia and Breck Williams sued twenty-four defendants after their father died from mesothelioma. After protracted litigation before a multi-district litigation court, several defendants, including Taylor Seidenbach, Inc., and McCarty Corp., obtained summary judgment.

The Williamses subsequently moved to dismiss the remaining defendants, including CSR, Ltd., Environmental Abatement Services, Inc., and The Gottfried Corp., pursuant to Rule 41(a). The district court granted the Rule 41(a) dismissal motions, but it did not specify whether the dismissals were with or without prejudice. The Williamses then appealed as to the several defendants who had previously obtained summary judgment, including Taylor Seidenbach and McCarty.

On appeal, this court held that CSR, Environmental Abatement Services, and Gottfried were dismissed without prejudice. Accordingly, we dismissed the appeal for want of a "final decision" under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Williams v. Taylor-Seidenbach, Inc. (Williams I) , 748 F. App'x 584, 587–88 (5th Cir. 2018).

In response, the Williamses sought and obtained partial final judgment under Rule 54(b) as to various defendants, including Taylor Seidenbach and McCarty, and then appealed again. A panel of this court held that the district court lacked the power to enter partial final judgment under Rule 54(b), and therefore dismissed the appeal once again for want of a final decision. Williams v. Taylor Seidenbach, Inc. (Williams II) , 935 F.3d 358, 360 (5th Cir. 2019), vacated on rehearing en banc , 941 F.3d 1183 (5th Cir. 2019).

We subsequently granted rehearing en banc. We now conclude that Rule 54(b) authorized the district court to enter partial final judgment following the dismissal of the remaining defendants under Rule 41(a), and that this appeal may therefore proceed.

II.

This case involves the intersection of two different Federal Rules of Civil Procedure— Rules 41(a) and 54(b). Accordingly, we address Rule 41(a) briefly, before turning to Rule 54(b).

Rule 41(a) allows plaintiffs to voluntarily dismiss "an action." One could—as the dissent does—plausibly construe "action" under Rule 41(a) to refer only to the entire case and not to individual defendants. See

958 F.3d 345

Harvey Aluminum, Inc. v. Am. Cyanamid Co. , 203 F.2d 105, 108 (2nd Cir. 1953). But our circuit precedents interpret "action" to cover individual defendants—thus allowing plaintiffs, like the Williamses, to use Rule 41(a) to dismiss individual defendants. See Nat'l City Golf Fin. v. Scott , 899 F.3d 412, 415 n.3 (5th Cir. 2018) (" Rule 41(a) permits a plaintiff to dismiss just one defendant, ‘even though the action against another defendant would remain pending.’ ") (quoting Plains Growers, Inc. ex rel. Florists' Mut. Ins. Co. v. Ickes-Braun Glasshouses, Inc. , 474 F.2d 250, 253 (5th Cir. 1973) ); Exxon Corp. v. Md. Cas. Co. , 599 F.2d 659, 662–63 (5th Cir. 1979) (distinguishing between impermissible Rule 41(a) dismissals of individual claims and permissible Rule 41(a) dismissals of individual defendants).

In this en banc proceeding, the parties do not challenge the validity of our circuit precedents permitting the Williamses to voluntarily dismiss individual defendants under Rule 41(a). That is unsurprising. For even if we were to reconsider our precedent and to construe Rule 41(a) to permit voluntary dismissal only of an entire case, and not of individual defendants, we would still conclude that there is appellate jurisdiction over this appeal.

To see why, assume that Rule 41(a) only allows dismissals of the entire case. Then the Williamses' Rule 41(a) dismissal, which sought to dismiss only some of the defendants, was invalid, and an invalid Rule 41(a) dismissal is a nullity. So the claims against the purportedly dismissed defendants would still be "pending in district court," as circuit precedents confirm. Exxon , 599 F.2d at 663. See also Perry v. Schumacher Grp. of La. , 891 F.3d 954, 958–59 (11th Cir. 2018) ("[T]he [ Rule 41(a)(1)(A) ] Stipulation, which purported to dismiss ‘Count III of the Fourth Amended Complaint ... without prejudice,’ was invalid. By stroke of sheer good fortune for Dr. Perry, the Stipulation did not divest the District Court of its jurisdiction.").

The upshot is this: If we accept the dissent's reading of Rule 41(a), then the claims against the purportedly dismissed defendants were in fact never dismissed, but instead were indisputably pending before the district court at the time it entered partial final judgment under Rule 54(b). It therefore follows that the partial final judgments under Rule 54(b) were valid—even under the dissent's understanding of Rules 41(a) and 54(b) —and that we therefore have jurisdiction over this appeal.

But as we shall explain, we can also reach that same result without upsetting circuit precedent. And because that is so, we have no occasion to reconsider our precedent. See United States v. Castillo-Rivera , 853 F.3d 218, 221 n.1 (5th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (refusing to revisit circuit precedent where it was "not necessary to our disposition of [the] case").

III.

We turn now to the validity—and appealability—of the partial final judgments entered by the district court here under Rule 54(b).

The courts of appeals are courts of limited jurisdiction, "possess[ing] only that power authorized by Constitution and statute." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am. , 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 128 L.Ed.2d 391 (1994). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, courts of appeals have jurisdiction to review "final decisions" of the district courts.

Congress has ...

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46 practice notes
  • Williams v. Homeland Ins. Co. of N.Y., 20-30196
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • November 30, 2021
    ...that remand was appropriate, something the law of the case doctrine prohibits. [1] See also, e.g., Williams v. Taylor-Seidenbach, Inc., 958 F.3d 341, 350 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Ho, J., concurring) (judges should follow legal texts "to the maximum extent that Supreme Court precedent perm......
  • Corley v. Long-Lewis, Inc., No. 18-10474
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • July 16, 2020
    ...finality doctrine on Rule 41(a) to a Jackson Pollock painting, we might have also called it an "egregious mess," Williams v. Seidenbach , 958 F.3d 341, 355 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Willett, J., concurring in the judgment) (internal quotation marks omitted), or lamented that "[i]t would be......
  • Williams v. Homeland Ins. Co. of N.Y., 20-30196
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • November 30, 2021
    ...that remand was appropriate, something the law of the case doctrine prohibits.1 See also, e.g., Williams v. Taylor Seidenbach, Inc. , 958 F.3d 341, 350 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Ho, J., concurring) (judges should follow legal texts "to the maximum extent that Supreme Court precedent permit......
  • FDRLST Media, LLC v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 20-3434
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • May 20, 2022
    ...decisions that fight, not follow, the best reading of the text, our obligation is clear. See Williams v. Taylor Seidenbach, Inc. , 958 F.3d 341, 350 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Ho, J., concurring) (judges should follow legal texts "to the maximum extent that Supreme Court precedent permits")......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
46 cases
  • Williams v. Homeland Ins. Co. of N.Y., 20-30196
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • November 30, 2021
    ...that remand was appropriate, something the law of the case doctrine prohibits. [1] See also, e.g., Williams v. Taylor-Seidenbach, Inc., 958 F.3d 341, 350 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Ho, J., concurring) (judges should follow legal texts "to the maximum extent that Supreme Court precedent perm......
  • Corley v. Long-Lewis, Inc., No. 18-10474
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
    • July 16, 2020
    ...finality doctrine on Rule 41(a) to a Jackson Pollock painting, we might have also called it an "egregious mess," Williams v. Seidenbach , 958 F.3d 341, 355 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Willett, J., concurring in the judgment) (internal quotation marks omitted), or lamented that "[i]t would be......
  • Williams v. Homeland Ins. Co. of N.Y., 20-30196
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • November 30, 2021
    ...that remand was appropriate, something the law of the case doctrine prohibits.1 See also, e.g., Williams v. Taylor Seidenbach, Inc. , 958 F.3d 341, 350 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Ho, J., concurring) (judges should follow legal texts "to the maximum extent that Supreme Court precedent permit......
  • FDRLST Media, LLC v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 20-3434
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • May 20, 2022
    ...decisions that fight, not follow, the best reading of the text, our obligation is clear. See Williams v. Taylor Seidenbach, Inc. , 958 F.3d 341, 350 (5th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Ho, J., concurring) (judges should follow legal texts "to the maximum extent that Supreme Court precedent permits")......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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