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Applying the “embattled doctrine” of pendent appellate jurisdiction

August 23, 2014 by in General

This decision was issued by a motions panel of the court of appeals. The plaintiffs, eleven former employees of an Indiana city, sued the mayor and the city under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the mayor violated their First Amendment rights by firing them because of their political affiliations. The district judge granted summary judgment in favor of the mayor with respect to nine of the plaintiffs on the ground that the mayor was entitled to qualified immunity, and denied summary judgment with respect to the other two plaintiffs. The judge also refused to stay the proceedings pending the mayor’s appeal. The motions panel held that the district court should have stayed the case against the mayor pending resolution of the appeal on the merits because he could properly pursue an interlocutory appeal from a denial of qualified immunity and a stay of proceedings against him was required while the reviewing court determined whether he was entitled to qualified immunity.

The key aspect of the decision, however, was the motion panel’s treatment of the city’s separate motion to stay proceedings against it until the mayor’s appeal was decided. The district court denied the city’s motion for summary judgment, in which the city argued that the plaintiffs’ rights were not violated. The city could not invoke qualified immunity and the district court did not issue any order from which the city could immediately appeal. Nevertheless, the city asked the court of appeals to stay all proceedings in the district court and invoked the doctrine of “pendent appellate jurisdiction” as the jurisdictional basis for the court to do so.

Pendent appellate jurisdiction is, Judge Posner observed in writing for the motions panel, an “embattled doctrine” that allows “only a small class of interlocutory appeals.” Cases that may fall within its scope are those in which an appeal from one ruling in a district court proceeding creates a “compelling practical reason” to allow an appeal from another ruling in that proceeding even though there is no independent jurisdictional basis for the second appeal.

The motions panel found that this case qualifies. Here, if the merits panel eventually concludes that the mayor did not violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights (his principal contention), then the suit against the city will collapse because there is no violation for which it may be accountable. If the panel concludes that, although the mayor may have violated those rights they were not sufficiently well established when he did so to defeat his immunity, then the plaintiffs’ claims against the city will survive the mayor’s (successful) appeal.

The practical problem with allowing the suit against the city to proceed while the mayor’s case is on appeal is that, depending upon the outcome of the appeal, two trials involving the same facts and witnesses may be necessary. On the other hand, if the district court proceedings against the city are stayed and the merits panel decides that the mayor did not violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, then there will be no trial. If (with the stays granted) the merits panel decides that the mayor did violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights but is entitled to qualified immunity, there will be one trial, against the city. If the merits panel rejects the mayor’s appeal, the plaintiffs can try their claims against both the mayor and the city in a single proceeding. Each of those outcomes would be preferable to allowing the proceedings in the district court against the city to continue during the pendency of the mayor’s appeal.

Thus, the court found that the city’s status as a party to the mayor’s appeal was indeed pendent because of its interdependence with his appeal. The court emphasized the “exceedingly narrow” scope of its jurisdiction under the circumstances. The city could be treated as a party “only for the purpose of being able to ask us to reverse the district court’s denial of a stay of the proceedings against it in that court.” The reviewing court would have no jurisdiction to review any other decisions with respect to the city at this stage.

The motions panel stayed district court proceedings against both the mayor and the city pending the outcome of the mayor’s appeal on the merits.

Allman v. Smith, 2014 WL 4073113 (7th Cir. Aug. 19, 2014).

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