Severance or Rule 54(b) Certification Would Have Yielded Appellate Jurisdiction

The Alabama Supreme Court chose not to dismiss an appeal as taken from a non-final judgment, where other claims against other defendants remained pending below, instead remanding the case for a possible certification under Rule 54(b). ArvinMeritor, Inc.v . Handley, No. 2050951 (Ala. Civ. App. Nov. 16, 2007). The state’s high court also explained that, had the appealed claim been severed and recreated as its own civil action, it would have been correctly before the reviewing court.

Handley, so far as is relevant, is a workers’ compensation suit charging toxic jobsite exposure. The plaintiff (Handley) joined hundreds of other plaintiffs to sue his employer, several managers, and dozens of corporate defendants. The circuit court tried Handley’s claim separately under Rule 42 and awarded Handley disability benefits. Though “other claims remain[ed] pending against other corporate defendants,” the employer appealed the judgment in favor of Handley.

The Supreme Court of Alabama first explained that the judgment was not final. The decision below had resolved Handley’s claim, but “did not dispose of the remaining claims asserted by the hundreds of other plaintiffs against the employer and the other corporate defendants.” Non-final judgments, the court reminded the parties, are interlocutory and “will not support an appeal.” This presented a jurisdictional question that the Court was required to treat even on its own motion.

The court described two routes by which the judgment for Handley would have been final and appealable. First, under procedural Rule 21, the trial court could have “severed Handley’s claim from the remaining claims and assigned that claim a separate civil action number.” Merely trying the individual claim separately under Rule 42 “did not effectuate a severance.” Second, the trial court could have certified its partial judgment as final under Rule 54(b).

“Ordinarily,” the court wrote, “we would dismiss this appeal as being from a nonfinal judgment; however, we elect to exercise our discretion to remand the case for 28 days so that the trial court may certify the judgment as final pursuant to Rule 54(b), if appropriate, so as to allow for the exercise of our appellate jurisdiction.”

The court finished by noting that, on remand, the burden of showing “why it is necessary that appellate review of the judgment be conducted before termination of the entire case” would rest on the employer as the party seeking immediate review. The case was thus remanded.