April 19, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Certification of One Claim in Multiple Claim Suit was Abuse of Discretion

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Allison v. Engel on Thursday, April 6, 2017.

Landowners—Default Judgment—Finality—C.R.C.P. 54(b) —Jurisdiction—Certification.

The parties own adjacent parcels of property and for a number of years have had disagreements about the precise boundaries of their neighboring parcels. The Allisons filed a complaint asserting two trespass claims and a claim for declaratory relief. The Engels filed various counterclaims. Numerous motions were filed, and the district court ultimately certified a default judgment on the counterclaim for unjust enrichment as final under C.R.C.P. 54(b). The Colorado Court of Appeals ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs as to whether the unjust enrichment counterclaim is a separate claim for purposes of C.R.C.P. 54(b) and whether there is no just reason for delay of an appeal pertaining solely to that counterclaim.

Generally speaking, the court of appeals has jurisdiction only over appeals from final judgments. Thus, jurisdiction over an appeal from an order the district court has certified as final under Rule 54(b) depends on the correctness of that certification. Here, the district court gave two reasons for concluding that there was no just reason for delay: (1) “avoid[ing] duplicative efforts” and (2) obtaining “a clear sense of direction in terms of the issues to be considered” at trial. The first reason is plainly insufficient to justify certification because the same could be said about any case involving multiple claims or parties as to which a dispositive ruling is entered on one claim, or as to one party, before trial. The second reason is also insufficient to justify certification because it is 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. The district court’s reasons do not show that any party will suffer hardship or injustice unless an immediate appeal of the default judgment on the single counterclaim is allowed. The district court abused its discretion, and the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction.

The appeal and cross-appeal were dismissed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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