Monday, February 8, 2016

Another exciting case under the Collateral Order Doctrine

This case arose when a lawyer working for the State Attorney General's office brought a lawsuit over her termination, which she claimed violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her former employer argued that her case did not belong in federal court under an obscure law that says certain policymakers can only litigate their claims in the EEOC. The case then gets more and more technical and some readers will probably lose interest along the way, but it stands for an important point: some appeals are premature and have to wait until the case is over.

The case is Fischer v. New York State Department of Law, decided on February 5. Plaintiff worked in the Office of Appeals and Opinions writing briefs and taking on other legal analysis duties. She was fired after the defendant appeared to revoke a reasonable accommodation under the ADA because of her disability. Plaintiff then sued in federal court, and the state argued that the district court had no jurisdiction because state law says that policymakers can only have their discrimination claims adjudicated in administrative agencies like the EEOC. Concluding that plaintiff was not a policymaker, the district court disagreed and the state appealed that ruling.

Here is what you need to know. First, rulings like this are not immediately appealable. In the federal system, cases do not get appealed until the case is over, with few exceptions recognized under the Collateral Order Doctrine. Under that Doctrine, adverse rulings can be appealed right away if the order conclusively determines the disputed question, resolves an important issue completely separate from the merits of the case and be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. This doctrine is so narrow you wouldn't believe it if it slapped you in the face. The most well-known application of this doctrine is that qualified immunity rulings can be appealed right away, because under that immunity, the defendant is immune from suit and the law wants the courts to decide immunity questions right away.

The case does not fall under the Collateral Order Doctrine. While the state argues that this case cannot be filed in federal court, the Court of Appeals (Kearse, Livingston and Pooler) says that "the collateral order doctrine has been held not applicable to permit immediate appeal of decisions denying motions to dismiss on the ground that plaintiffs' claims should be adjudicated in a different forum." In  the end, "the order rejecting [defendants'] contention -- that Fischer's claim can be pursued only by commencement of an administrative proceeding -- can be effectively reviewed on appeal from a final judgment."

The Second Circuit ruling does not get into the nitty-gritty of plaintiff's case and how exactly her former employer violated her rights. You will probably have to review the motion papers or the district court ruling for that. I also see that the Attorney General's office is defending this case. I wonder if plaintiff's former close colleagues are working on the case against her. The Second Circuit ruling is actually a motion decision that explores in detail the defendants' arguments for immediate appeal. The AG's office really does not want this case to proceed to trial. But proceed it will, under the settled rule that nearly all federal trial court rulings are not immediately appealable.

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