By Jarrad Wright
Failing to notice an appeal in time is a classic pitfall that has led to numerous malpractice claims. One key problem plaguing counsel is determining whether or not an order qualifies as a final order for appellate purposes. As a general rule, a trial court decision becomes final for appellate purposes only after the entire case is finished and when there is nothing more for the trial court to do but execute a judgment. While simple in concept, practical application of this general rule can become complicated, especially when there are different types of claims and parties involved. Indeed, in the bankruptcy context, the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ritzen Group, Inc. v. Jackson Masonry, LLC held that the finality requirement for filing an appeal requires creditors to file an appeal of denials of motions to lift the automatic stay within fourteen days, which is often long before the value of the underlying claim would be decided let alone a bankruptcy would be concluded. This understanding of finality could initially seem counterintuitive but, as Justice Ginsburg explained when writing for a unanimous Court, the “ordinary understanding of “final decision” is not attuned to the distinctive character of bankruptcy litigation.”
When a company or individual files for bankruptcy an automatic stay stops all pending and future civil litigation and attempts by creditors to collect on debts. Creditors wishing to proceed with these efforts outside of bankruptcy court are required to file a motion to lift the automatic stay with the bankruptcy court. Using a variety of factors, the bankruptcy court then decides whether to allow the creditor to proceed independently in another forum or whether the matter should be decided as part of the overall bankruptcy case. In the Ritzen case, the creditor waited until after his claim had been adjudicated and the plan of reorganization had been confirmed, to appeal the denial of the motion to lift the automatic stay. However, the Supreme Court held that “the adjudication of a motion for relief from the automatic stay forms a discrete procedural unit within the embracive bankruptcy case.” The upshot of the Ritzen case is that parties involved in a lift stay proceeding must be ready to file an appeal within the fourteen-day period of the bankruptcy court’s determination.
The Court’s reasoning is that moving to lift the automatic stay is a separate issue from the determination of the creditors’ claim itself and the Court explained that “[i]mmediate appeal, if successful, will permit creditors to establish their rights expeditiously outside the bankruptcy process, affecting the relief sought and awarded later in the bankruptcy case.” Moreover, the Court explained that it does not matter whether the bankruptcy court’s decision on lifting the stay implicates other issues to be decided later in the bankruptcy case as long as it “conclusively resolves the movant’s entitlement to the requested relief.” Therefore, in the narrow context of a motion to lift the automatic stay, a bankruptcy court’s determination to grant or deny lifting the automatic stay is a “final” order in which a litigator should quickly move to notice an appeal in order to avoid waiving such an appeal.
However, litigators should be wary of applying Ritzen outside of this narrow context. Routinely in non-bankruptcy cases a pre-judgment decision can have a significant impact on the course of litigation and can affect the relief sought and to be awarded later, yet the decision may not be final for purposes of appeal. In other instances such as a decision dismissing a party for lack of personal jurisdiction may be appealable immediately. Ultimately, careful consideration of the circumstances and type of order involved remains necessary to avoid the classic pitfall.