Interlocutory Appeals and Judicial Efficiency

In a recent blog post, I explored the application of the final judgment rule to appeals from preliminary injunction orders in state court.  As I noted, the Law Court has recently applied the “death knell” exception to that rule to hear an interlocutory appeal regarding a preliminary injunction.  In two other recent cases, the Law Court has taken up and considered the “judicial economy” exception to the final judgment rule.  These cases help delineate the scope of that exception.

The first case is Cutting v. Down East Orthopedic Associates, P.A.  In that case, a plaintiff brought separate cases in federal court asserting a discrimination claim and a medical malpractice claim against a physician.  The district court granted summary judgment against the plaintiff in the discrimination case, and dismissed the second case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The plaintiff then filed a malpractice claim in state court, which the defendant moved to dismiss on claim preclusion grounds.  The Superior Court denied the motion to dismiss and the defendant appealed, arguing that the judicial economy exception to the final judgment rule applied.

As the Law Court stated in Cutting, this exception

May be invoked in those rare cases in which appellate review of a non-final order can establish a final, or practically final, disposition of the entire litigation and the interests of justice require that an immediate review be undertaken.

(cleaned up).  The Court noted that it may invoke the judicial economy exception “when there are particularly unique circumstances in the history of a case such as exceedingly long litigation, multiple pending proceedings involving the same party, or litigation subject to inordinate delay.”  Thus, the Law Court will reach the merits in an interlocutory appeal “when a decision could end the litigation and there is some additional reason to accept the appeal.”

The Law Court declined to apply the judicial economy exception in Cutting, observing that the application of the claim preclusion issues were far from clear.  Notably, the defendant did not make out any unusual burden that would result from denying the interlocutory appeal.

The second case, issued this month, is Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corp. v. Town of Jonesport.  That case involved consolidated appeals.  One was a Rule 80B appeal regarding three years of tax assessments by the Town of Jonesport; in that case, the Superior Court issued an order finding that the taxes were excessive and remanding to the Board of Appeals for further proceedings.  The other was a separate Rule 80C appeal relating to the Town’s assessment for a different tax year; there, the Superior Court issued an order directing the town to grant the taxpayer’s abatement request.  The latter order was a final judgment, while the first order was not.  Nevertheless, citing Cutting, the Court reached the merits of the Rule 80B appeal under the judicial economy exception because the two appeals involved the same parties and property and because a decision could end the litigation immediately.

These cases demonstrate that the Court will apply the judicial economy exception when there is a potentially dispositive issue and unusual circumstances.  In Cutting, there were no unusual circumstances and Court declined to take the case; Roque Island, however, did present such circumstances given the multiple parallel proceedings pending in state court.  In Roque Island, moreover, the Court took up the appeal even though it did not end the litigation but instead resulted in a remand.  Together, these cases reaffirm that there must be the possibility of a final resolution (Liberty v. Bennett), combined with unusual circumstances – something more than the mere cost of completing litigation to final judgment (Quirion v. Veilleux).

One interesting application of the judicial economy doctrine involves orders issued in Rule 80C appeals that threaten judicial interference with an executive agency’s powers.  In a series of cases, including Fox Island Wind Neighbors v. Dep’t of Environmental Protection and Forest Ecology Network v. Land Use Regulatory Comm’n, the Law Court has made it clear that separation of powers concerns justify entertaining an interlocutory appeal.

The judicial economy exception to the final judgment rule has real teeth when the interlocutory appeal addresses a potentially dispositive issue and the interests of justice support immediate review.

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