Seventh Circuit Explains When an Award of Attorney’s Fees Is Final for Purposes of an Appeal

27 February 2018 Wisconsin Appellate Law Blog
Authors: Eric G. Pearson

The law clerks of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit might be excused for thinking of the court’s recent decision in Cooke v. Jackson National Life Insurance Co., No. 17-2080 (7th Cir. Feb. 9, 2018), as the one that got away. So pervasive and fundamental were the case’s jurisdictional issues on appeal that the court, in an opinion written by Judge Frank Easterbrook, toyed with “order[ing] both sides to pay a penalty,” with the “law clerks’ holiday-party fund” as the beneficiary. Unfortunately for the law clerks, the court concluded that there was “no such appellate power.”

The issue that drew the court’s ire began with the district court’s ill-considered attempt to enter a final judgment in an insurance dispute. The district court’s original order read as follows:

Enter Memorandum Opinion and Order. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment [47] is granted and Defendant’s motion for summary judgment [42] is denied. The Court awards attorney fees to Plaintiff for cost of preparing and responding to these motions. This case is hereby dismissed with prejudice.

The first problem, as the Seventh Circuit pointed out, is that order was “self-contradictory.” Cooke, the plaintiff, could not be entitled to summary judgment and attorney’s fees and have her case dismissed. Dismissals, insofar as most plaintiffs are concerned, are for the losers, not winners, like Cooke.

The second and more considerable problem with the district court’s order is that it ran afoul of the rule that “a judgment must provide relief to which the prevailing party is entitled.” Slip op. 2. It is insufficient, the court explained, for a judgment to state that “one motion has been granted, another denied, and an award made” but not to say “who is entitled to what.” Id.

To her credit, Cooke recognized this problem below, which is why she filed a motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e) asking the district court “to specify how much money Jackson must pay.” But the district court corrected the problem only as to the substantive award and not for the attorney’s fees. When the appellant, Jackson Life, appealed only the award of attorney’s fees, neither party mentioned in their appellate briefs that the “unquantified award” of attorney’s fees wasn’t final. The Seventh Circuit was left to raise the issue on its own at oral argument, before it decided to dismiss the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction. As the court explained, “allow[ing] an appeal before quantification would set the stage for multiple appeals from a single award,” and that is a result that “the final-decision rule of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 is designed to prevent.” Id. at 4.

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