Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What happens when plaintiff untimely asks the court to reinstate a case that did not settle?

This is for civil procedures junkies, only. The Court of Appeals untangles what to do when the parties have reached a preliminary settlement but the settlement falls through and the plaintiff waits too long to have the case restored to the docket. In the litigator's world, deadlines are deadlines, and we live and die by them. In this case, the Court of Appeals gives the plaintiff a break.

The case is Hoefer v. Board of Education of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, decided on April 14. In this free speech case, where the plaintiff claims he was kicked out of a public meeting for speaking his mind, the district court granted summary judgment to some defendants, dismissing the claims against them. Plaintiff then reached a tentative settlement with the remaining defendant, Eastwood. The court discontinued the case but said it could be restored to the calendar if the parties did not settle within 60 days.The 60 days came and went. Along the way, the case did not settle and the plaintiff did not timely ask the court to reinstate the case. So the district court dismissed the case. On appeal, plaintiff challenges the earlier summary judgment ruling and the later order dismissing the case.

The Court of Appeals (Sack and Stanceu, [visiting judge] with Droney dissenting) says it has no jurisdiction to review the earlier summary judgment ruling, as that was an interlocutory decision that could not be appealed until the entire case was resolved, as per federal practice. I would think that the district court's second order, dismissing the case in its entirety for failure to timely reinstate the case that did not settle, would be a final order that allows you to appeal all prior rulings. But that is not the  case. The final order, "rather than entering partial summary judgment on the merits to adjudicate the false arrest claim against Eastwood, dismissed that claim for failure to seek timely reinstatement. That was the only final decision the district court reached with respect to the false arrest (and other) claims, and, therefore, the only decision over which we may exercise appellate jurisdiction." In other words, the earlier summary judgment ruling did not merge with the later dismissal order allowing plaintiff to appeal, as it never ripened into a judgment and had no effect on the outcome of the case. This is a very complicated issue that few of us will be able wrap our hands around. My guess is that the time to appeal the earlier summary judgment order arrives when all issues in the case are resolved on the merits, which will likely happen since the claim against Eastwood is revived, as set forth below. But I could be wrong. It is possible that no one knows the answer to this question.

However, the dismissal order for failure to timely reinstate the case that did not settle was an abuse of discretion, and that case returns to the district court. Yes, plaintiff was 69 days late in telling the court that the case did not settle. "Although it may well have been prudent for Hoefer to have acted sooner, we conclude that the passage of 69 days, standing alone, does not justify the extreme sanction of involuntary dismissal." Moreover, there was no prejudice to defendants resulting from plaintiff's delay, and they did not even object when plaintiff sought reinstatement.

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