State National Insurance v. County of Camden — civil — dismissal — Fisher
A divided Third Circuit panel today held that it lacked jurisdiction to hear an appeal because the appeal was untimely. It’s an interesting case both factually and legally.
The appeal was brought from dismissal of a legal malpractice suit. The legal malpractice suit, in turn, arose from a civil suit. A person injured in a car crash sued Camden County alleging negligent maintenance. The county had an insurance policy with a $10 million limit. The lawyer who represented the county allegedly told the insurance company (belatedly) that the case was meritless and she valued it at $50,000. But after a trial the jury awarded the victim $31 million, later remitted to $19 million. Four days later, the insurer sued the county and the attorney. (Actually, the former attorney — her Linkedin page states that she took “a very early retirement,” moved to another state, and became a realtor.)
Now here’s where things get tangled procedurally. The insurer’s original complaint against the lawyer — one of the 2 defendants — was dismissed in 2010. The insurer filed a motion to reconsider that ruling under Rule 59(e), and also a motion to certify an immediate appeal under Rule 54(b), both of which were denied. For the next four years, the insurer litigated its claims against the other defendant, the county. The district court eventually denied the insurer’s motion for summary judgment. The insurer believed that this denial undermined the basis for the earlier dismissal of the claims against the lawyer, so it sought to reinstate those claims under Rule 60(b)(6), and the court ordered briefing on the motion. While motion to reinstate the claims against the lawyer was pending, the insurer and the county settled the claims against the county, The joint stipulation of dismissal between the insurer and the county recited that the insurer wanted to renew its claims against the lawyer. The district court then denied the motion to reinstate the claims against the lawyer, and 15 days later the insurer filed a notice of appeal from the denial of the motion to reinstate the claims against the lawyer. FRAP 4 provides 30 days to file a notice of appeal after entry of judgment or the order appealed from.
The appeal turned on whether the insurer’s appeal involving its claims against the lawyer was timely, and the panel split. The majority (Fisher joined by Chagares) held that the appeal was untimely. Rule 60(b)(6) gives district courts authority to undo final judgments, it explained, and at the time when the insurer filed its 60(b)(6) motion the judgment was not final because the claims against the county remained pending. Thus Rule 60(b)(6) “was not a proper avenue by which to challenge” dismissal of the claims against the lawyer, and as a result the majority treated it as a nullity. And, while district courts also have inherent power to reconsider prior interlocutory orders, that power ends when the court loses jurisdiction, which the majority held happened when it entered a voluntary stipulation of dismissal of the claims against the county, even though no entry of judgment resulted from that. And because the 60(b)(6) motion was “not a proper Rule 60(b) motion,” the majority ruled that it could not toll the appeal-filing deadline under FRAP 4(a)(4)(A). The majority acknowledged that its ruling was “strict.”
Judge Jordan dissented, beginning:
The Majority acknowledges that its interpretation of the operative rules of procedure is “strict.” But the interpretation goes beyond strict: with all respect, it is wrong.
As the Majority would have it, State National could only maintain its appeal rights by choosing between two bad alternatives: it could abandon its settlement of its separate claim against the County, or it could appeal the dismissal of the claims against Whiteside even as the District Court was actively reconsidering that dismissal. The federal rules of civil procedure and of appellate procedure are meant to permit the “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding,” Fed. R. Civ. P. 1, and to allow district courts to fully resolve all issues in the first instance so that appellate review is not “piecemeal,” Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 170 (1974). It would therefore be strange if the rules really did put State National in that bind.
In Jordan’s view, the insurer’s Rule 60 motion to reinstate the claims against the lawyer kept those claims open until the court ruled on the motion. He disagreed that the district court lost its power to reinstate the claims against the lawyer when the claims against the county were voluntarily dismissed, and also disagreed that the Rule 60(b) motion was a nullity because it was filed before the voluntary dismissal. In a footnote, he noted that the majority “are abolishing Rule 60(b) relief for parties in [the insurer’s] position” because any motion would be too early, too late, or, as here, both.
I’m betting the farm that the insurer will seek rehearing en banc, and rare though en banc rehearing is, I think such a motion has a realistic chance of being granted here. On first reading, I find the dissent’s analysis more persuasive. It’s one of the strongest Third Circuit dissents I’ve seen in recent years.
As noted, Fisher was joined by Chagares and Jordan dissented. Arguing counsel were Walter Andrews of Hunton & Williams for the insurer and Michael Canning and Matthew Fiorovanti of Giordano Halleran for the appellee.