Never Put Off ‘Till Tomorrow: The Seventh Circuit Reminds Us of a Little Known Rule 54(b) Trap

February 24, 2017 12:27 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Jonathan B. Amarilio 
Partner, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP

Trial and appellate practitioners are often reminded that the failure of a losing party to immediately appeal once a federal district court enters a Rule 54(b) order can be fatal. The entry of a partial final judgment and order in those circumstances starts the appeal clock running. It is a “use it or lose it” scenario. Less well known is a rule in the Seventh Circuit requiring parties to timely request a Rule 54(b) order from the district court where a partial final judgment has been entered.

In Kingv. Newbold, 845 F.3d 866, the Seventh Circuit recently reminded us of this rule. In this case, Raymond King, an Illinois prisoner, sued a number of defendants claiming the medical treatment he received in prison was an Eighth Amendment violation. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which was granted in part, and later one defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings, which was also granted in part. The combined effect of the orders was to narrow the claims such that only two doctors remained in the suit. More than 30 days after the order granting judgment on the pleadings was entered, and more than a year after partial summary judgment was granted, King moved for entry of a Rule 54(b) judgment. The district court granted the motion and the matter went up on appeal.

Examining its own jurisdiction to consider the matter, the Seventh Circuit stated that “[l]ong ago we added a timeliness requirement as a hedge against dilatory Rule 54(b) motions,” further explaining that “as a general rule it is an abuse of discretion for a district judge to grant a motion for a Rule 54(b) order when the motion is filed more than thirty days after the entry of the adjudication to which it relates.” The court explained that there may be cases of “extreme hardship where dilatoriness is not occasioned by neglect or carelessness in which application of this general rule might be abrogated in the interest of justice,” but it said those instances are “extremely rare,” and found those circumstances lacking here.

King is a cautionary tale reminding us all of a simple and important lesson: If a district court enters partial final judgment excusing defendants from a lawsuit, file a Rule 54(b) motion immediately or you will risk losing the right to take such an appeal.

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