Cunningham v. Hamilton County, 527 U.S. 198 (1999)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 98-727. Argued April 19, 1999—Decided June 14, 1999

When petitioner, an attorney representing a plaintiff, failed to comply with certain discovery orders, the Magistrate Judge granted the respondent's motion for sanctions against petitioner under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(4). The District Court affirmed the sanctions order and also disqualified petitioner as counsel. Although the District Court proceedings were ongoing, petitioner immediately appealed the order affirming the sanctions award. Because federal appellate court jurisdiction is ordinarily limited to appeals from "final decisions of the district courts," 28 U. S. C. 1291, the Sixth Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. It 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, but only when they are conclusive, resolve important questions separate from the merits, and are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action, e. g., Swint v. Chambers County Comm'n, 514 U. S. 35, 42. The court found these conditions unsatisfied because the issues involved in petitioner's appeal were not completely separate from the merits. Regarding petitioner's disqualification, the court held that a nonparticipating attorney, like a participating attorney, ordinarily must await final disposition of the underlying case before filing an appeal. It avoided deciding whether the order was effectively unreviewable absent an immediate appeal, but saw no reason why, after final judgment in the underlying case, a sanctioned attorney should be unable to appeal a sanctions order.

Held: An order imposing sanctions on an attorney pursuant to Rule

37(a)(4) is not a "final decision" under 1291, even where the attorney no longer represents a party in the case. Although the Rule 37 sanction imposed on petitioner would not ordinarily be considered a "final decision" because it neither ended the litigation nor left the court only to execute its judgment, see, e. g., Midland Asphalt Corp. v. United States, 489 U. S. 794, 798, this Court has interpreted 1291 to permit jurisdiction over appeals that meet the conditions of the collateral order doctrine. Respondent conceded that the sanctions order was conclusive, so at least one of those conditions is presumed to have been satisfied.

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