Determination of “Separate” Boundary Line Issue Not A Final Judgment

The trial court “bifurcated” and decided one issue in a property line dispute, but reserved other issues for later decision. This did not constitute a final judgment from which an appeal would lie. The defendants’ attempt to gain review of the partial order was dismissed. Day v. Davis, No. 2060787 (Ala. Civ. App. Feb. 15, 2008).

Day is a boundary dispute between neighbors. In addition to the question of where the boundary fell between the neighbors’ properties, the case also involved claims of trespass, adverse possession, conversion, as well as attendant requests for damages.

The circuit court “bifurcated” the proceeding “to first address only the issue of the location of the boundary line.” It held a hearing on this question and entered an order determining the boundary. The court expressly “reserve[d] ruling on all other issues.” Despite the incompleteness of this order, the defendants filed a motion challenging it under Rule 59(e) — what would normally be a post-judgment motion to alter, amend, or vacate. The trial court denied this motion and the defendants appealed.

The Court of Civil Appeals ruled that the partial order was not a final judgment that would support an appeal. Although neither party had raised this issue, the finality of an appealed order implicates the reviewing court’s jurisdiction; and “issues of jurisdiction are of such importance that courts may take notice of them” on their own motion.

Here, the Court of Civil Appeals explained, the separate determination of the property line was not a “final” judgment. “[W]hen separate trials are ordered, a ruling on fewer than all the pending issues is not sufficiently final to support an appeal.” In this vein, the court described the difference between merely “separate” trials under Rule 42(b) and a “true severance” under Rule 21. “[A]fter a true severance a judgment on the first action to come to trial is final and appealable.” When issues are merely “separated” or “bifurcated” under Rule 42(b), however, as they were in Day, a judgment on the first trial, on only some of the separated issues, is not “final.” Such decisions can be certified as final in appropriate cases under Rule 54(b) — but the Day court had made no such certification.

The Court of Civil Appeals thus lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The appealed order had decided one issue “bifurcated” from the rest; but on those remaining questions the trial court had expressly reserved its ruling. Moreover, the circuit court had not indicated “whether [it] . . . considered a Rule 54(b) certification of finality to be appropriate under the facts of this case.” The challenged order thus “was not sufficiently final” and the appeal from that order was dismissed.