SCOTUS Holds that Cases Consolidated Under FRCP 42(a) Are Independent for Purposes of Finality and Appealability

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On March 27, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Hall v. Hall, Case No. 16-1150, holding that cases consolidated under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(a) remain independent for purposes of determining whether a judgment is final and appealable.

The case arose from a familial dispute over the management of Ethlyn Hall’s real estate holdings in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ethlyn’s son Samuel served as his mother’s caretaker and attorney. Ethlyn and Samuel had a disagreement over Samuel’s management of the property, and with the help of her daughter Elsa, Ethlyn established a trust and transferred all of her property into the trust. Ethlyn made Elsa her successor trustee.

Ethlyn, on behalf of the trust and in her individual capacity, sued Samuel and his law firm over the handling of her affairs. While that lawsuit was pending, Ethlyn died, and Elsa stepped into her shoes as the plaintiff acting on behalf of the trust. Samuel filed counterclaims against Elsa in both her individual and representative capacities, but because Elsa was not a plaintiff in the original lawsuit in her individual capacity, Samuel could not assert his claims against her as counterclaims. Samuel therefore commenced a separate lawsuit against Elsa in her individual capacity, asserting the same claims he had attempted to assert as counterclaims in the original lawsuit.

Although the two cases initially proceeded separately, the district court consolidated the cases under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(a). The consolidated cases were tried together to a jury. In the original case, the jury returned a verdict against the trust, and the clerk entered judgment dismissing the trust’s claims. The jury also returned a verdict for Samuel against Elsa, awarding him $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The clerk entered judgment on Samuel’s claims, but the district court granted Elsa’s motion for a new trial.

Elsa appealed the judgment against the trust to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Samuel moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the judgment against the trust was not final and appealable because Samuel’s claims against Elsa remained pending in the district court. The Third Circuit dismissed the appeal, reasoning that an appeal could not be taken until all claims were resolved in the district court. 679 F. App’x 142 (3d. Cir. 2017).

The Supreme Court reversed. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts first addressed the meaning of “consolidate” in the context of Rule 42(a) and concluded that the plain meaning of the term does not require a conclusion that consolidated cases are merged in every respect. To the contrary, the Court explained that its decisions interpreting the consolidation statute that preceded Rule 42(a) recognized that “constituent cases remained independent when it came to judgments and appeals.” Slip op. at 6. Because nothing about the adoption of Rule 42(a) indicates an intent to transform the existing understanding of consolidation, the Court concluded that “when one of several consolidated cases is finally decided, a disappointed litigant is free to seek review of that decision in the court of appeals.” Slip op. at 18.

In light of this decision, practitioners dealing with consolidated cases should bear in mind that they must appeal any judgment disposing of one of the cases immediately, rather than waiting for the district court to dispose of all of the consolidated cases. A lawyer who attempts to appeal a previously concluded case after judgment is entered in the last consolidated case may find that the time to appeal has expired.

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