In Bell v. Taylor, No. 14-3099 (7th Cir. June 29, 2015), the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit admonished litigants that, rather than embarking on a lengthy appellate process and risking dismissal for lack of appellate jurisdiction, they should bring inadvertent errors in district courts’ final judgment orders first to the attention of a district court judge, so that the errors may be promptly corrected. In Bell, the Seventh Circuit dismissed for lack of appellate jurisdiction an appeal in a copyright infringement case, where the district court’s purported final judgment order failed to address the copyright owner’s outstanding request for declaratory and injunctive relief. Id. at 7-8.
In Bell, a copyright owner brought an action against three Indiana businesses for the unauthorized use of his photograph, featuring a daytime Indianapolis skyline, on their websites. Id. at 2-3. While recognizing the plaintiff’s legitimate ownership of copyright in the image, the district court nonetheless dismissed, on summary judgment, all claims against the defendants and entered final judgment against the plaintiff. See Bell v. Taylor, No. 13-cv-798, 2014 WL 4250110 (S.D. Ind. Aug. 26, 2014). The court ruled that, with respect to a computer repair company’s website, the plaintiff failed to state a cause of action under Rule 12(b)(6) because he attached the wrong photograph to his complaint, that is, the website used an image of a nighttime Indianapolis skyline, not the daytime skyline. Id. at *3. With respect to an insurance agent’s website, the court ruled that the plaintiff could not establish damages because the website generated no traffic and was swiftly shut down. Id. at *4. Even though the real estate agent’s website displayed the copyrighted image, without permission, between 2009 and 2011, the court ruled that the plaintiff could not establish a causal link between the agent’s gross revenues and the unauthorized use of the image, and thus could not show damages. Id. at *5. The district court then entered a purported “final judgment” order, which Bell appealed to the Seventh Circuit under 28 U.S.C. §1291 governing appeals from all final decisions of the district courts.
In a unanimous decision, the Seventh Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction and remanded to the district court. Bell v. Taylor, No. 14-3099 (7th Cir. June 29, 2015). The Seventh Circuit ruled that the district court’s ruling on summary judgment was not final because it did not resolve Bell’s claim for injunctive relief. Id. at 5. The Court pointed out that, because defendants sought summary judgment only on the issue of damages, the district court did not have a chance to decide whether Bell’s claim warranted injunctive relief. Id. Accordingly, Bell’s copyright claim “was still alive” and there was no final judgment for purposes of 28 U.S.C. §1291. Id. at 6.
Defendants argued that the issue of injunctive relief was moot because they had already removed Bell’s photos from their websites. Id.at 8 fn. 1. The Seventh Circuit, however, declined to address the mootness issue in the absence of a final judgment from the district court. Id.
The Seventh Circuit pointed out that the case did not have to go through a lengthy appeal process, which lasted almost nine months, to correct the district court’s error. Id. at 7. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 60(a) and 60(b) were available to the plaintiff to bring the error to the district court’s attention, as they authorize district courts to correct orders entered by “oversights,” “mistake,” and “inadvertence.” But Bell neglected to bring the error to the district court’s attention, instead opting to address it before the Seventh Circuit. Id.
Alternatively (and even though not mentioned by the Seventh Circuit), Rule 54(b) was available to the plaintiff to pursue an appeal from a final judgment as to one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties, upon the district court’s express finding that there was no just reason to delay the appeal. Instead of utilizing various procedural vehicles to either correct the error below or to pursue an appeal from a part of the final judgment order, the plaintiff chose to press with an appeal from a defective order, which resulted in a waste of the parties’ and judicial resources.
Recommended Citation: Irina Y. Dmitrieva, Court Warns Litigants to Address Errors in District Court Final Orders Below, The Brief (July **, 2015), http://applawyers-thebrief.blogspot.com.