The Supreme Court recently held that civil actions consolidated under Rule 42(a) retain their separate identities, so that a final decision in one action is immediately appealable by the losing party, even if other actions in the consolidated proceeding remain.
Consumer litigation often lends itself to consolidation under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42 because defendants tend to see multiple lawsuits – often filed by the same opposing counsel – on the same issue. Although it didn’t arise from a consumer lawsuit, Hall v. Hall addresses an important issue regarding finality and appeal of consolidated civil actions in federal court.
The case arises from a family dispute that found its way into the courts. Although the facts are interesting, the procedural posture of underlying case is at issue. At bottom, two cases involving a family dispute were consolidated in the United States District Court of the Virgin Islands. One of the consolidated cases reached final judgment while the other was still going through post-trial motions. The losing party immediately filed an appeal after the first final judgment order only to have the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit immediately dismiss the appeal under the theory that the court lacked jurisdiction while the other case was still pending.
On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous court, began with the premise that had the actions not been consolidated, there would be no question that the plaintiff could have appealed the ruling, which ended the litigation and triggered the entry of judgment. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the question was whether the consolidation of the cases merged them into a single case, so that the judgment in one case was interlocutory because work remained to be done in the other case. Rejecting this notion, the Court held that consolidated cases retain their separate identities, so that a final decision in one action is immediately appealable by the losing party, even if other actions in the consolidated proceeding remain.
The court did allow that a district court could consolidate cases for “all purposes” in appropriate circumstances. However, all-purpose consolidation likely does not create a unified action, at least as it relates to a losing party being able to immediately appeal an adverse judgment.