No Rule 54(b) Certification Where Adjudicated and Pending Claims Are “Intertwined”

 In two separate cases, the Court of Civil Appeals dismissed Rule 54(b) appeals from partial summary judgments. Certification under Rule 54(b) was improper in both cases because the appealed claims were too closely “intertwined” with claims that remained pending. Holman v. Sims, No. 2080809 (Ala. Civ. App. Jul. 16, 2010); Marshall Auto Painting & Collision, Inc. v. Peach Auto Painting & Collision, Inc., No. 2090090 (Ala. Civ. App. Jul. 16, 2010).

 1

Holman involves contract and tort (mainly fraud) claims related to a real-estate purchase loan. The lenders claimed that the borrowers had failed to repay the loan or deed the lenders the property as agreed. The trial court granted the lenders summary judgment on their contract claim. This judgment did not, “even impliedly,” address the tort claims. Loosely using the language of Rule 54(b), the trial court found “no reason for delay” and declared its partial judgment “final.” The borrowers appealed.

The Court of Civil Appeals found the Rule 54(b) certification improper. It explained that

a Rule 54(b) certification should not be entered if the issues in the claim being certified and a claim that will remain pending in the trial court “are so closely intertwined that separate adjudication would pose an unreasonable risk of inconsistent results.”

(Quoting cases) (emphasis added). The appellate court found just such intertwining in the case before it:

Because the resolution of each of the [tort] claims remaining before the trial court depend[s], in part, on whether the [borrowers] failed to keep their promise to repay the loan or to deed the Alabama property to the [lenders], we conclude that those claims are so closely intertwined with the breach-of-contract claim that the trial court’s attempt to certify the summary judgment as final was invalid.

Because the judgment appealed from was not final, the appellate court had “no jurisdiction” and had to dismiss the appeal.

2

The Court of Civil Appeals reached much the same decision in Marshall Auto, though it made a point here of emphasizing the “exceptional” nature of Rule 54(b) certification.

Marshall Auto was born of a vibrant dispute between local business competitors. The resulting lawsuit included claims and counterclaims for tortious interference, assault and battery, and malicious prosecution, to name only a few. The trial court granted a summary judgment dismissing all claims asserted against some of the parties, and certified this judgment as final under Rule 54(b). The aggrieved party appealed.

The appellate court ruled that the trial court had “exceeded its discretion” by entering a Rule 54(b) certification. Noting that Rule 54(b) certifications are viewed with “some disfavor,” the court explained:

     If a trial court exceeds its discretion in certifying an order as a final judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b), the order is not a final, appealable judgment. . . .

[C]ertifications under Rule 54(b) should be entered only in exceptional cases and should not be entered routinely. Appellate review in a piecemeal fashion is not favored.

(Quotations and citations omitted) (emphasis removed). The court then repeated the “intertwining” restriction that it had discussed in Holman, supra. It again found that the adjudicated claims (those that had been appealed under Rule 54(b)) were too enmeshed with claims that remained pending to justify the partial appeal. Of equal interest, the court continued:

Moreover, although some of the claims adjudicated by the trial court do not have issues intertwined with those that remain pending, “this case does not represent the kind of ‘exceptional case[]’ that warrants immediate appellate review under Rule 54(b).” Therefore, the trial court exceeded its discretion in certifying its . . . order as a final judgment pursuant to Rule 54(b).

(Quoting North Alabama Elec. Coop. v. New HopeCoop., 7 So. 3d 342, 345 (Ala. 2008)) (citations omitted). Because a “nonfinal judgment will not support an appeal,” the court dismissed the appeal.