Cunningham v. Hamilton County

PETITIONER: Cunningham
RESPONDENT: Hamilton County
LOCATION: Knowles' Car

DOCKET NO.: 98-727
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 527 US 198 (1999)
ARGUED: Apr 19, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 14, 1999

ADVOCATES:
John J. Arnold - Cincinnati, Ohio, argued the cause for the respondent
Thomas C. Goldstein - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Teresa L. Cunningham, an attorney representing a plaintiff, was served with a request for interrogatories and documents with responses due within 30 days after service. Cunningham failed to comply with those discovery orders, and a Magistrate Judge granted Hamilton County's motion for sanctions against her under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(4). The District Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge's order for sanctions. The court also disqualified Cunningham as counsel. Although the District Court proceedings were ongoing, Cunningham immediately appealed the order affirming the sanctions award. The Court of Appeals dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction because federal appellate court jurisdiction is ordinarily limited to appeals from "final decisions of the district courts." The court also held that the sanctions order was not immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine, which provides that certain orders may be appealed, notwithstanding the absence of final judgment, because Cunningham's appeal was not completely separate from the merits of the case.

Question

Is an order imposing sanctions on an attorney, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(4), a final decision and, thus, immediately appealable?

Media for Cunningham v. Hamilton County

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 19, 1999 in Cunningham v. Hamilton County

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 14, 1999 in Cunningham v. Hamilton County

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 98-727, Cunningham versus Hamilton County, Ohio will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Involves a question, what happens to when an attorney is sanctioned from his conduct doing discovery, can that attorney appeal that even though the case continuous on?

Petitioner is an attorney who initially represented a plaintiff and sued against respondent and others.

After petitioner failed to obey certain pretrial discovery orders, a Magistrate judge directed her to pay monetary sanctions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a).

A District Court affirmed the sanctions order and also disqualified petitioner as plaintiff's counsel.

While the suit went forward as I indicated petitioner immediately appealed the sanctions order.

The Court of Appeals dismissed her appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

It held that the Rule 37(a) sanctions order did not fall within a narrow category of orders known as collateral orders, which maybe appealed prior to the entry of judgment.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm.

28 U.S.C. Section 1291 gives federal appellate courts with the jurisdiction over appeals from final decisions of the District Courts.

We have interpreted this provision to mean that an appeal ordinarily will not lie until the District Court has entered final judgment unless the order being appealed is a collateral order.

A collateral order is conclusive, resolves an important question completely separate from the merits and is effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment.

We hold today that a Rule 37(a) sanctions order does not qualify as a collateral order, and thus is not the final decision under Section 1291.

Review of sanctions orders often will be an inextricably intertwined with the merits of the case.

Moreover, an attorney suffers no undue hardship from deferring appellate consideration of a Rule 37(a) sanction which unlike a contempt finding is not designed to compel immediate compliance with an order of the court.

Our conclusion that a Rule 37(a) sanctions order is not a final decision, applies even where as here the attorney no longer participates in the case.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.

Justice Kennedy has filed a concurring opinion.