If there's one thing that keeps appellate lawyers up at night, it's jurisdictional questions. Too late and you're toast: failing to appeal within the short appellate time frames are usually fatal to your case. Although there's usually no overall harm in an early filing, it can be awkward when you've teed up a case only to have the court of appeals find some problems and dismiss. It's embarrassing and when it happens when you are well underway with briefing, wasteful.
Hawaii appellate practitioners know the latter problem as the "Jenkins" or "Cades" issue, after the seminal case reminding us that the sine qua non of civil appellate jurisdiction in most cases is the entry of a final judgment by the trial court disposing of all claims against all parties. See Jenkins v. Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright, 76 Haw. 115, 869 P.2d 1334 (1994). By "final judgment" the Supreme Court means a separate piece of paper that contains magic words.
More than a few lawyers have been caught up by this when they -- and the trial court -- think there's been a final, appealable judgment entered, but something still remains or they don't get the magic words right. Even after a case is fully briefed and awaiting argument in the appellate court, the court can always review its jurisdiction, even for technicalities.
So those of us who haunt the halls of Aliiolani Hale appreciate anything that makes the rules about when you can appeal -- and when you must appeal -- clearer. So we're glad the Hawaii Supreme Court has added its latest, Bailey v. Duvauchelle, No. SCWC-14-0000883 (June 29, 2015) to the Hawaii Reports.
The case was a dispute over who owned land on Molokai. There's a lot of detail in the opinion, but let's try to keep it simple.
Bailey claimed he owned the property and sought a declaration to that effect along with a bunch of related claims. He sued Duvauchelle (who he said was trespassing), and Dorcy (the guy who conveyed the property to Bailey). Eventually, the trial court agreed and issued a declaratory judgment that Bailey owned the land. Duvauchelle appealed to the Intermediate Court of Appeals (interlocutory appeal, we presume), but that court affirmed. Returning to the trial court, Bailey first asked Duvauchelle to agree to voluntarily dismiss Bailey's remaining claims, but when Duvauchelle refused, Bailey obtained a court order dismissing them. The court purported to enter final judgment in favor of Bailey, and the judgment seemed to invoke the magic words. Duvauchelle appealed to the ICA.
But the judgment wasn't final because it didn't resolve or dismiss all claims against all parties, and did not address Bailey's claim against Dorcy at all (read the slip opinion at pages 6-7 for the full text of the judgment). The ICA dismissed the appeal.
Duvauchelle claimed that he found new evidence, and raised a Rule 60 motion to alter or amend the judgment in the trial court. The court denied the motion, and Duvauchelle again appealed to the ICA. Generally speaking, a post-judgment ruling on things like Rule 60 motions need not be reduced to a separate judgment to be appealable. But the ICA dismissed anyway, because the defect in the earlier (purported) final judgment was never fixed, and after the ICA dismissed that appeal, the circuit court again took jurisdiction.
The Hawaii Supreme Court granted discretionary review of the ICA's second dismissal, framing the issue this way:
The question before us is whether an order deciding a motion that was purportedly filed pursuant to HRCP Rule 60(b) is appealable, where the underlying ruling from which the party sought Rule 60(b) relief was not appealable.
Slip op. at 14.
Short answer: no, it's not appealable; you can't bootstrap appealability by appealing from post-judgment motion when the underlying judgment hasn't been finalized.
The opinion sets out the reasons why, and we'll let you read them yourself if you are interested. But your takeaway is this: the Hawaii appellate courts take appellate jurisdiction and the finality requirement seriously; appellate practitioners (and trial lawyers who insist on doing this themselves) take note. Review the complaint(s) and all of the trial court's orders. Make sure that what you think is a final judgment is truly final and disposes of all claims against all parties, and that your judgment says the right words. The hard part about this is that it is often prevailing trial counsel who prepares the judgment papers, but it is the losing party who has the real stake in perfecting appellate jurisdiction, so sometimes things slip through the cracks.
If trial counsel and the trial judge are not careful, they shouldn't be surprised if the appellate courts toss the appeal. And no one benefits when that happens.