COA Clarifies Requirements for Final Judgments

by Law Week Contributor

Shannon Wells Stevenson and Kyle Brenton

Davis Graham & Stubbs 

A crucial first question in any potential appeal is whether the trial court has entered a final judgment — if there is no final judgment, the appellate court has no jurisdiction and the appeal will be dismissed. A final judgment “disposes of the entire litigation on its merits, leaving nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.” To protect judicial resources, the courts discourage “piecemeal appeals,” or appeals of discrete, interlocutory orders of a trial court. But determining whether a particular decision from the trial court is a “final judgment” is not always simple, as two recent Court of Appeals opinions demonstrate.

RULE 54(B) CERTIFICATIONMUST POINT TO HARDSHIP TO JUSTIFY APPEAL

Under C.R.C.P. 54(b), “(w)hen more than one claim for relief is presented in an action … or multiple parties are involved, the court may direct the entry of a final judgment as to one or more but fewer than all of the claims or parties only upon an express determination that there is no just reason for delay(.)” A judgment certified under Rule 54(b) is final and immediately appealable.

In Allison v. Engel, 2017 COA 43, the Court of Appeals added a new requirement to the “no just reason for delay” element. Allison involved a dispute between neighboring landowners. Both parties asserted real property claims, but the defendant also filed a counterclaim for unjust enrichment. After plaintiffs did not respond to the unjust enrichment claim, the court granted a default judgment but certified that judgment for immediate appeal under Rule 54(b), stating that an interlocutory appeal would “avoid duplicative efforts” and would obtain “a clear sense of direction in terms of the issues to be considered at trial.”

The Court of Appeals rejected this certification, holding that neither of those reasons sufficed to establish that there was “no just reason for delay.” The court observed that trial courts “shouldn’t make Rule 54(b) determinations routinely,” and should not certify issues “as an accommodation to counsel.” Instead, courts should limit certification to those cases in which “a party will suffer some hardship or injustice that can be alleviated only by an immediate appeal.” “It’s simply not a proper function of Rule 54(b) certification to assuage a district court’s doubts about its decision or to provide ‘guidance’ in the resolution of claims.”

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the June 5, 2017 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.