The circuit courts of appeals have limited appellate jurisdiction. In two important cases, the Fourth Circuit recently dismissed appeals because the court did not have jurisdiction. These opinions provide an important reminder for those involved in the appellate process: before proceeding to the merits of the appeal, think through (and brief!) the question of whether the court has jurisdiction.
In Dickens v. Aetna Life Insurance Co., an employee brought an ERISA action against Aetna when his long-term disability benefits were terminated. The district court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment and remanded back to Aetna for additional information. Aetna appealed. Neither party addressed the question of appellate jurisdiction until the Fourth Circuit raised the issue at oral argument. The court ultimately found that the collateral order doctrine did not apply and dismissed the appeal.
Notably, the lower court’s decision was not a “final judgment” because of the remand back to Aetna for additional information. The Fourth Circuit recognized a split among the circuits but held that a district court’s remand to an ERISA claims administrator does not constitute a final decision. The district court retained jurisdiction over the matter, and therefore the action could not be considered “effectively unreviewable.”
The en banc court reached a similar conclusion in Al Shimari v. CACI International, Inc. A number of Iraqis brought suit against two companies that allegedly participated in torture in an Iraqi prison. The suits arose from different district courts and were eventually consolidated. A panel of the Fourth Circuit found that it had appellate jurisdiction, but the en banc court disagreed after receiving numerous amici and supplemental briefs.
The defendants argued that the court could analyze the political question doctrine if there was jurisdiction over another issue. Judge King, writing for the majority, found that even if there were a political question, the court had no other basis to provide pendent jurisdiction. After a lengthy analysis, Judge King concluded that neither the law-of-war defense nor preemption nor immunity gave “the jurisdictional green light for [the court] to proceed.” Thus, the majority dismissed the appeals.
Judge Wynn wrote a separate concurring opinion “to underscore the prudence of the majority’s restraint.” Judge Wynn felt “compelled to reiterate the majority’s holding that our limited appellate role leaves us without jurisdiction at this stage of the litigation to consider the underlying merits of these appeals.”
Judge Wilkinson dissented and began his opinion with this scathing commentary: “The majority in this case tries to present its view as some sort of innocuous jurisdictional disposition. But the jurisdictional ruling is wrong, and the decision is anything but innocuous.” Similarly, Judge Niemeyer described the majority’s reasoning as “regrettably threadbare.” Both dissenting judges argued that the court did have appellate jurisdiction but that the claims should have been dismissed.
These cases represent another wrinkle in the appellate fabric. Whether you are the appellant or the appellee, remember the issue of appellate jurisdiction, which can be raised at any time, by anyone.