Too Late At The District Court Is Still Too Late At The Appellate Court

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Corley v. Long-Lewis, Inc., 2020 WL 4006602 (11th Cir. July 16, 2020), delivered by Judge William Pryor, primarily concerned questions of appellate jurisdiction, all of which were resolved in favor of hearing the appeal.

The multi-faceted procedural history set the stage for the issues of appellate jurisdiction: A case that had been transferred from the Northern District of Alabama to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where a motion to reconsider partial summary judgment was denied, was transferred back to the Northern District of Alabama, where a motion for voluntary dismissal without prejudice was granted. Then, the appellants sought review of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s denial. So the questions before the Eleventh Circuit began: Is granting a voluntary dismissal without prejudice a final order? Is there territorial jurisdiction to review the order from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (which had been transferred back to the confines of the Eleventh Circuit)? Is there standing to review a voluntary dismissal (ultimately challenging an adverse summary judgment decision)? The Eleventh Circuit answered yes to all three.

The plaintiffs claiming their malignant mesothelioma was caused by asbestos-laden products sued dozens of companies. After the district court dismissed their claims on statute of limitations grounds, the plaintiffs moved for reconsideration, asking the court for the first time to apply maritime law. Too late for that argument, the district court responded. This was the ultimate question for which the plaintiff-appellants sought review, but the Eleventh Circuit first had to take up the appellate jurisdiction issues.

On the first issue of appellate jurisdiction, the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged its own splintered precedent on whether voluntary dismissals without prejudice are final. Unable to harmonize its previous decisions, the court applied the earliest-precedent rule, holding that an order granting a motion to voluntarily dismiss the remainder of a complaint qualifies as a final judgment for purposes of appeal.

The parties’ disagreement over whether the Eleventh Circuit had territorial jurisdiction over the motion for reconsideration tracked a circuit split over the application of 28 U.S.C. § 1294 to interlocutory orders that precede an inter-circuit transfer. On the question, the Eleventh Circuit sided with the majority of circuits, and held that because a partial dismissal is not reviewable until it can be appealed, the court conferring territorial jurisdiction is the one where the partial dismissal merged into a final appealable judgment.

The Eleventh Circuit addressed the issue of standing sua sponte. The appellant must be adverse to the final judgment in order to appeal it. The question was made “murkier” because this was an appeal from a voluntary dismissal to challenge the adverse interlocutory order. Though the court did not have clear precedent to guide this question of first impression, it looked to the broader principle that a party is “aggrieved” and ordinarily can appeal a decision that grants in part and denies in part the remedy requested. Even though the plaintiffs were not adverse to the order of voluntary dismissal, they were adverse to the decision that denied their motion to reconsider summary judgment against them.

At that point, all that was left was review of a denial of a motion for reconsideration, reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. The court echoed the reasoning of the district court, holding that it was well within its discretion to refuse to consider an argument made for the first time in the motion for reconsideration. The argument made for the first time after an unfavorable ruling that maritime law should apply was a feeble attempt to take “a second bite at the apple.”

Posted by Keith Emanuel.

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