September 30, 2013 Articles

Determining Finality of a Judgment Awarding Damages

Where a judgment entails an award of damages, it does not always have to contain the actual sum to be final.

By Victoria Dorfman

There are a few truisms that every appellate practitioner knows: Federal courts of appeals have limited jurisdiction, reviewing (with some minor exceptions) final judgments only, and parties cannot agree to or create jurisdiction where it is otherwise absent. As usual, however, in the appellate-litigation world, how these principles play out in specific circumstances is complicated and subject to various considerations. Where a judgment entails an award of damages, it does not always have to contain the actual sum to be final. It is therefore essential for appellate practitioners to be aware of the rules applicable to damages awards and related procedural matters of entering a judgment on the docket and its effect on finality for purposes of appeal.

As courts of appeals have emphasized, “every federal appellate court has a special obligation to satisfy itself . . . of its own jurisdiction” because “[f]ederal courts are not courts of general jurisdiction; they have only the power that is authorized by Article III of the Constitution and the statutes enacted by Congress pursuant thereto.” Pause Tech. LLC v. Tivo Inc., 401 F.3d 1290, 1292 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (quoting Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 (1986)). Thus, before turning to the merits, courts of appeals consider whether there is a final judgment of the district court under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 or 28 U.S.C. § 1295 (in the case of the Federal Circuit) or a basis for jurisdiction over an interlocutory order under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(c).

Under section 1291, “[t]he courts of appeals (other than the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit) shall have jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Under section 1295, the Federal Circuit has jurisdiction to review “a final decision of the United States Court of Federal Claims.” 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(3). Per the Supreme Court’s decision in Catlin v. United States, a final judgment is a decision by the district court that “ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.” Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 233 (1945). Quoting Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord, the Federal Circuit explained several functions of the final-judgment rule. First, it “emphasizes the deference that appellate courts owe to the trial judge as the individual initially called upon to decide the many questions of law and fact that occur in the course of a trial.” Pause Tech., 401 F.3d at 1293 (quoting Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord, 449 U.S. 368, 374 (1981)). Piecemeal appeals “undermine the independence of the district judge, as well as the special role that individual plays in our judicial system.” Second, “the rule is in accordance with the sensible policy of avoiding the obstruction to just claims that would come from permitting the harassment and cost of a succession of separate appeals from the various rulings to which a litigation may give rise, from its initiation to entry of judgment.” Finally, it “promot[es] efficient judicial administration.” See also Franklin v. District of Columbia, 163 F.3d 625, 629 (D.C. Cir. 1999) (expressing preference for a single appeal rather than piecemeal litigation, especially where it would force a court of appeal “to master the same record twice[] and render two opinions instead of one” and observing that a later decision may obviate a need for appeal or lead to a settlement).

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