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When does final judgment mean final?

Can I appeal this?

By Michael Goodwin

Subject to some narrow exceptions, an appeal in a civil case may not be brought until after final judgment. In both federal court and Minnesota state court, a judgment is final when it “ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the trial court to do but execute the judgment.” As the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently noted, the final judgment rule “avoids the disruption, delay, and expense of pre-trial appeals; avoids placing unnecessary burdens on appellate courts; and allows district court judges to supervise pre-trial and trial proceedings without interference by appellate courts.” But applying the final judgment rule is “often far from clear,” as illustrated by a recent decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Ruppert v. Principal Life Ins. Co., the court decided that it lacked jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s appeal of the district court’s denial of class certification, even though the other party did not challenge jurisdiction. Ordinarily, the denial of a motion for class certification is not appealable. In Ruppert, after the district court refused to certify the class, the plaintiff settled his individual claims, but reserved the right to appeal, and, if successful, to petition the court for further relief.  The court held that the district court’s consent judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claims was not final because it allowed plaintiff’s claims to “spring back to life” in the event of a successful appeal. Alternatively, if the decision was final, the court held that the plaintiff’s settlement agreement rendered the case moot because plaintiff did not have a “sufficient personal stake” in the litigation to maintain a live case or controversy.

Ruppert also underscores the well-established rule that jurisdictional issues can be raised by the court at any time, even if not raised by a party. Thus, it is important to have a good working knowledge of appellate jurisdiction, and to be prepared at oral argument to identify the specific rule or statute that is the basis of the court’s jurisdiction (many courts require a jurisdictional statement to be included in the brief as well).

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