A 54(b) HICCUP

May 2, 2012 § 4 Comments

MRCP 54(b) provides that, when a case involves multiple claims for relief, or multiple parties, the court may enter a final, appealable judgment as to fewer than all of the issues, or as to only certain parties, upon a determination that there is no just reason for delay, and at the trial court’s expressed direction for entry of the judgment. We have referred to it here as “Rule 54(b) certification.” Without such certification, the court’s ruling is not appealable, does not terminate the action, and is subject to revision at any time before entry of a final judgment disposing of all claims against all parties. It’s a subject we’ve dealt with here repeatedly: here, here, here, here and here.

In Wilton Acquisitions Corp. v. First Methodist Church of Biloxi, decided by the COA April 3, 2012, the chancellor dismissed Wilton’s pleadings for discovery violations and took under advisement the plaintiff’s claim for attorney’s fees in the case ” … until the Defendant submits sufficient information on which the Court can base its decision …” The judgment also recited “Ordered and Adjudged that this is a final judgment under Rule 54(b) as to all matters addressed herein.” The judge went on to explain that the court needed further information upon which to base its decision on attorney’s fees, and that ” … there is no just reason for delay and that judgment shall be final pursuant to [Rule] 54(b) as to all claims in the matter with the exception of the amount of expenses and attorney’s fees to be awarded, if any.”

Wilton appealed, complaining about the merits of the dismissal.

The COA, however, sidestepped the merits, finding that the chancellor had abused his discretion in ruling that the judgment was final and appealable under MRCP 54(b). The court noted at ¶8 that 54(b) judgments are reviewed under an abuse-of-discretion standard.

Citing Myatt v. Peco Foods, 22 So.3d 334, 340 (Miss. App. 2009), the court pointed out that Rule 54(b) is an attempt to strike a balance between the undesirability of piecemeal appeals and “the need to review a case at a time that best serves the needs of the parties.”

At ¶13, the opinion states that “We find the record unclear as to why the chancellor certified this judgment as final under Rule 54(b) when an item of requested relief, First Methodist’s request for attorney’s fees, was still pending. We find no apparent reason, from the record to review a partial judgment; therefore, we must dismiss this appeal.” [Emphasis added] Thus, the COA concluded that the chancellor had abused his discretion in certifying the case as a final, appealable judgment.

What you need to take away from this case is that if you want the partial judgment to be properly certified under 54(b), make sure that it includes the reasons why a review of the case on appeal before disposition of fewer than all of the issues will best serve the needs of the parties. In this particular case, perhaps an immediate review was necessary in order to prevent prejudice in related litigation, or a statute of limitations is ticking perilously away on a claim that might arise out of the outcome of the case. We really have no idea because the judge did not tell us. The COA is telling us that it is not sufficient merely to quote the language of the rule that “there is no just reason for delay;” you have to be sure that the judgment recites why, and why the best interest of the parties will be served thereby.

As a practice matter, if you intend to appeal, make sure you get that 54(b) judgment to recite what it needs to recite to pass muster under Wilton. If you are not allowed to draft the judgment yourself, or to have input into its language, file a timely MRCP 59 motion and ask the judge to add the specific wording you need. Otherwise, you may have the unpalatable choice of filing that appeal just in case, with full knowledge that it may well be a wasted effort.

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